2010s, Drama, Erotic, French cinema

Blue Is the Warmest Colour (2013)

La Vie d’Adèle, Chapitre 1 et 2
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Director/Screenwriter: Abdellatif Kechiche

By Roderick Heath

French-Tunisian filmmaker Abdellatif Kechiche specialises in long, leisurely, encompassing behavioral studies of individual humans standing at various crossroads. They are often tilted towards Kechiche’s own understanding of cross-cultural neutral zones and the immigrant experience, whilst also often fluently examining the peculiar rituals and experiences that mark youth’s coming of age. Kechiche’s superlative 2007 epic The Secret of the Grain (aka Couscous), his third film and one of the best of the early millennium, depicted an extended and volatile family working to remake its fortunes by starting a small business. Blue Is the Warmest Colour, his latest, gained a Palme d’Or this year and international fame and notoriety along with it. It clearly extends Kechiche’s oeuvre in encompassing niches of the modern human experience, locating both what’s peculiar and universal about them.
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Based on a graphic novel by Julie Maroh, Blue is the Warmest Colour charts young love, from individual yearning to electric attraction to coupling to break-up, as experienced by and between two young women. Maroh’s book told a familiar variety of queer love narrative with the expected beats of the genre (variably accepting parents, schoolyard angst, etc.) but in a dynamically expressive and highly emotional fashion. Kechiche’s approach is superficially cooler and more exacting, but ultimately travels into the tactile and emotional envelope that forms around its central couple, picking up manifold nuances and peculiarities.
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Kechiche’s narrative replicates both the essence and specific moments from Maroh’s book, whilst revising many elements in a filmmaking process that often seems to have followed its own logic. The film loses the melodramatic bookending narrative and changes the main character’s name from Clementine to Adèle, partly, it seems, to clear a space of independence and to foster lead actress Adèle Exarchopoulos’ stake in the characterisation, and also to justify some shifts in attitude. Kechiche’s style has more than a hint of the neorealist hue revised and updated by filmmakers like the Dardennes brothers and Ken Loach in contemporary European film, except that Kechiche’s touch is more spacious, colourful, and carefully rhythmic, with an almost musical quality (musical performance is usually an important aspect of his work). His stories are less case studies than biographies, a lens that gives the film’s French title its justification, a title that also calls out to the film’s many references to classic French literature.
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Much of Maroh’s book was rendered in a near-monochrome with only striking blues elucidated, reflecting the impact the woolly mane of dyed hair Clementine’s lady love Emma sports in an otherwise drab and petty environment. Kechiche avoids this flourish, painting rather in crisp but painterly colours and sunny hues, with the only suggestion of blue right at the end. But the relationship of film to other art forms, like literature, art, and music, is evoked with a nudging constancy, almost echoing the central relationship in its simultaneous rich accord and subtle disparity. Kechiche emphasises the hidden artifice of dramatic shaping in a manner reminiscent of some other French films, like Philippe Claudel’s I’ve Loved You So Long (2008), including virtually self-deconstructing, essayistic-flavoured passages.
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Such reflexes are readily on display in long scenes in which bored teens in a class read and discuss Marivaux and Sophocles, failing to comprehend the urgency of the relationship between the experiences recorded in art and their oncoming plunge into life, or a later scene in which a middle-aged aesthete may stand in for Kechiche himself in meditating on the overwhelming urge recorded in art history of men trying to comprehend female sexuality. Kechiche calls out to his earlier work in this manner, like his second film, Games of Love and Chance (2003), which was built around rude and rugged high schoolers acting out Marivaux, explicitly testing the relationship of the young products of shifting cultural paradigms with the French canon, finding both alienation and connection through it. Adèle and Emma, whose studies necessarily entail comprehension of technique and representation, are glimpsed at one point exploring an art museum’s sculpture collection. Its rooms filled with roiling nude female forms coaxed into dazzling life from crude ore is an act that Emma—and through her Kechiche—can surely thrill to, whilst for Adèle it’s a way of familiarising herself with the form that very shortly she’ll be exploring more immediately. Young Adèle is a fairly “normal” high schooler who begins to feel the elusive tension between her personal emotions and the pack life that dominates at that age as her friends call her attention to Thomas (Jérémie Laheurte), who’s taken with her, in the school cafeteria. Adèle dates Thomas and has sex with him, but is haunted by the vision of Emma (Léa Seydoux), an older art student she catches sight of with an arm around another woman, the image of her invading her nightly masturbatory fantasies.
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Adèle’s intimation of an almost predestined link to Emma seems borne out when she and gay pal Valentin (Sandor Funtek) venture into gay bars, and Adèle, after having several women hit on her, is rescued by Emma’s charming attentions, setting the scene for a quickly combusting relationship. Adèle and Emma form a bond initially through extended conversations, where attraction and developing mutual confidence grow amidst the thrust and parry of conversation of two smart but callow lasses seeking to justify and express their tastes. Kechiche all but bends over backwards trying to situate his narrative in the great French romantic tradition, with all its references—Les Liaisons Dangereuses is also shouted out to at one point, evoking its rakish delight in bedroom matters and foreboding a later turn in the plot—and his film’s evident echoes. Adèle and Emma’s long, garrulous conversations laced with probing intimations of character and perspective echo the famous bedroom scene of Breathless (1960) and the chatty works of Eric Rohmer and Jean Eustache, whose The Mother and the Whore (1973) anticipates Blue particularly in length and scope. Like those films, and many in the French cinematic pantheon, the degree of cultural literacy on display is surprisingly high, perhaps to an extent that seems artificial (does the average French teen really enjoy talking about De Laclos?). Some of these conceits have specific overtones: when Emma prods Adèle about her knowledge of art, she answers that she’s only really aware of Picasso, who, of course, had his blue period. Kechiche’s work here, however, is in active dialogue with both cultural context and personal experience, whilst negotiating its own evolving disparities as an adaptation.
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Kechiche dials back much of Maroh’s familiar angst, particularly in contending with homophobia as inward retardant on personal acceptance, avoiding clanger lines like one a parent emits in the novel, “Gay pride again? How much longer are they going to be doing this nonsense?” Not that it’s a bright, rosy, postgender world here: Adèle contends with her school friends who, at the first hint of her homosexuality, roundly turn on her. Whereas in the book Clementine runs away and hides to deal with her shame, the more forthright Adèle gets angry and tries to wallop someone. The way people come out, and the world they come out to, has changed, Kechiche notes. More faithfully reproduced from the novel is a moment in which Adèle has her first real same-sex snog, with the bohemian-styled school pal Béatrice (Alma Jodorowsky), who then resists Adèle’s desire for more: such are the pitfalls of curiosity when it grazes against real and urgent need. Kechiche makes long movies because, like the late Theo Angelopoulos and Nuri Bilge Ceylan, he’s a maximalist who specialises in redistributing the way cinema time is absorbed, with a flow of epiphanies that coalesce into a special brand of storytelling, creating an echoing space around the key drama. Unlike them, however, he’s less a poet than a blend of Victorian realist novelist and sociologist. The Secret of the Grain is still his best film because of the fashion in which it justified its heft in building to a brilliant conclusion, one that managed to express simultaneously an urge towards a climactic revelry associated with Shakespearean comedy whilst also counterpointing a tragedy laced with microcosmic import.
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Blue is the Warmest Colour, by contrast, has little story and tones down sociological pressure on its heroines. Kechiche concentrates on the transitory beauties and pitfalls of a relationship that’s based more on a preternatural sexual chemistry than genuine accord of personality, and traces the urges that first brings them together, as Emma helps to ease Adèle through the pains of accepting herself, and then tears them apart, as they grow into distinctively different adults. Emma’s outlook is intimately bound up with her ambitions as an artist, whilst Adèle becomes a teacher of young children. A pair of well-contrasted scenes depicts each girl meeting the other’s family and comprehending the subtle but daunting differences in outlook they face. Emma’s mother and stepfather, casually accepting of her, are haute bourgeois, complete with a fancy art collection started by Emma’s father. In perhaps the film’s most obvious thematic joke, the stepfather, an expert gourmand, serves up live oysters to the girls. The poetic conceit of conflating eating oysters with cunnilingus is not at all new, calling back to, amongst others, Radley Metzger’s film of Violette Leduc’s signal lesbian erotica novel Thérèse and Isabelle (1967), and also suggesting the infamous “snails and oysters” scene restored to Spartacus (1960), whose director, Stanley Kubrick, Adèle loves. Dinner with Adèle’s petit bourgeois family, by contrast, eats spaghetti bolognaise and careful evasion of Adèle’s sexuality; Emma scarcely bats an eye at posing as Adèle’s friend and tutor in philosophy, whilst Adèle’s father (Aurélien Recoing) gruffly grills Emma about her job prospects as an art student, all familiar reflexes of a more working class mindset.
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The quiet disparities outlined in these paired scenes include the first time in the film that both Emma and Adèle state what they want to be. Emma is forced to lie doubly not only about what she is, but also that she fully intends to be an artist, whilst Adèle is honest, but sets the scene for her later frustrations. Adèle remains closeted in some peculiar ways, neither coming out to her parents, or at least not on screen, nor to any colleagues when she becomes a teacher, to protect her brittle sense of security as much as out of concern of what might happen to her. Blue is the Warmest Colour is at its best when charting Adèle and Emma’s coming together, a process that climaxes in the already legendary and notorious central sex scene that sees the couple conjoin in feverishly energetic, invasively corporeal manner. Kechiche counterpoints the convulsive intimacy of the moment with one of public display, as Adèle joins Emma in a gay pride march where the ecstasy of being young and in love loses all bindings for a moment, a scene that mirrors another earlier in the film in which Adèle marches with students. One peculiarity of gay sex scenes in modern film is that they’re just about the only ones where anyone’s allowed to look like they’re actually enjoying themselves (straight sex scenes now, by contrast, are generally required to be hideous). Kechiche mimics Maroh’s approach to Adèle and Emma’s first bedroom encounter, using jump cuts like comic panel boundaries to fragment the girls’ roundelay of positions into an explosive succession of erotic images.
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Kechiche’s approach here is quite clearly unitary with his general fascination for detail and descriptive comprehension, gazing calmly at intense sexual activity as he does at other behavioural traits. But to a certain extent, it also unbalances the film’s emphasis on interpersonal passion and distorts the impression we should be getting, of a young and inexpert girl’s first bedroom romp with a more experienced lover: the necessary sense of exploration is missing. It looks and feels more like an extremely hot one-night stand for two well-practiced sexual athletes, as they whip between positions and smack each other’s asses in search of ever-sharper corporeal registers. The aspect of clinical display is emphasised by the flat lighting and diorama-like bed, carefully charting possible positions and forms, coming close at points to resembling a yoga instruction sheet or “baby’s first pop-up book” of sapphic sex. Other points, however, strike notes of extraordinary beauty, as when the two lie together in symmetrical post-coital calm, as close to a unified creature with two minds as humans can get, the linchpin of both their affair and the film’s aesthetics.
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When gay-themed works like Beginners and The Kids are All Right (both 2010) are so cosily mainstream and sentimental in their reflexes that it’s not too hard to imagine classic Hollywood actors playing roles in them, Kechiche’s gambit to wield an unblinking directness in his sex scenes gives the film a radical edge it wouldn’t have otherwise because he is working with two of the most pleasing possible avatars for lesbian love conceivable. In spite of Emma’s jokes about bull dykes and Adèle’s classmates branding Emma as an obvious lesbian, it’s hard to imagine just about anyone not falling for Emma, whose tousled tomboyishness and anime hair in no way violates rules of attractiveness; ironically, only later, when Emma is older and no longer dyes her hair, does Seydoux seem more genuinely androgynous.
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In terms of the film’s intrinsic personality, two subsequent sex scenes are more impressive. One sees Emma trying to keep Adèle from crying out as they secretly make love in her parents’ house. The other depicts the two lovers, locked in a scissoring tussle, reach out for each other to grip hands, in part for greater traction and pleasure, but as much in that blindly desperate joy of trying to bridge the gap of mere flesh even as it seems they might literally meld. Perhaps indeed the most profound and universal note the film strikes is implicit here, the intensity some relationships can reach on the sexual level, to extent that when other circumstances intrude upon them, it can feel like being cut off from a part of one’s own flesh. Blue Is the Warmest Colour’s second “chapter” deals exactly with this notion as it skips forward a number of years. Now Emma and Adèle live together. Adèle has fulfilled her desire to teach young children, whilst Emma is poised frustratingly close to major success, a success Adèle helps to foster by posing for a lushly semi-abstract nude, exciting the attention of a major gallery manager, Joachim (Stéphane Mercoyrol), who comes to a party Adèle helps to throw. Adèle impresses and charms many present, including Joachim and Samir (Salim Kechiouche), a mildly successful actor who wryly comments on his moment of success, playing an Arab terrorist in an American movie. But Adèle still quietly chafes in their company, especially as Emma tries to talk up Adèle’s diary writing as an accomplishment, an attempt to paper over Adèle’s inferiority in their relationship.
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Adèle is also perturbed by Emma’s friendliness with Joachim’s very pregnant artist friend Lise (Mona Walravens), and as Emma and Lise begin working on a project together, Adèle’s increasing alienation leads her to commence an affair with co-worker Antoine (Benjamin Siksou). Most of this is synthesised from the scant material in Maroh’s book, and begins to smack of a lack of inspiration on Kechiche’s part, as the once-powerful relationship cracks up over such clichéd tensions, with Adèle stuck playing the wife to the mercurial artist in a very familiar kind of domestic drama. The early shout-out to Picasso can be read as a warning that like old Pablo, Emma paints mistresses and moves on. Perhaps this was the point, to show their relationship is prone to the same weaknesses as any other union, but the price Kechiche pays for normalising that relationship is to also make his own narrative more banal, recalling Gus Van Sant’s Milk (2008), which for the sake of mainstream recognition, turned Harvey Milk’s lover into a regulation politician’s stymied wife. Without the force of a strong story behind the film, like The Secret of the Grain possessed, this film’s unwieldy length starts to wear thin.
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Tellingly, the film’s intellectual discursions feel far too academic and potted, relating only to the film’s own telling but without real penetration. Unlike, say, Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore, which is as much about the sociopolitical milieu that formed it as it is about its central ménage à trois, Kechiche deletes most of Maroh’s emphasis on the experience of her couple as products of the early ’90s, when gay visibility was on the rise in a still-reactionary society, and thus of the schism of personality the women experience in the way their sexuality links them to the world. Neither Emma nor Adèle are granted much self-awareness in this regard, in part possibly because in altering the setting to be more contemporary, the relatively laggard sensibility of a more liberated generation is evoked. Whereas Metzger’s Thérèse and Isabelle was intimately layered to both build to the climactic sexual consummation whilst also mediating it through flashbacks to make it both immediate and nostalgic, cinematic and literary, Kechiche’s touch is often much more prosaic.
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Which is not to say he doesn’t wield some marvellous cinematic prose, like that aforementioned image of the entwined lovers and an early sequence in which his camera glides ahead of Adèle after she’s brushed off by Béatrice, her hurt all too vivid even as she maintains a stoic mask and ignores the world whirling about her. Kechiche determinedly avoids melodrama: only the calamitous spat between the couple that breaks them apart resembles a traditional climax, and he skirts several key scenes of the novel, especially the slip-up that sees Adèle ejected from her home and previous life. Moreover, for a film that expends so much time on merely detailing the characters in a love affair, the inner life of both women remains a little vague—in the case of Emma, more than a little. She’s a cagey creature who holds Adèle at a slight remove that Adèle eventually tries to shatter, but this element remains frustratingly opaque. In Maroh’s book, the relationship commences under a pall as Emma already has a girlfriend, which lends a hypocritical edge to Emma’s explosive rage when she throws Adèle out after learning of her affair. Here, however, it seems at once more righteous and also more peculiar in its contextless vehemency. Adèle, for her part, becomes a Lady of Shalott figure, doomed to grieve over her ejection perhaps all her days.
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Kechiche pulls off two excellent scenes as he skips forward again in time: Emma now lives with Lise and her young son as a family, but Adèle, having suffered for a long time, tries hopelessly to entice Emma back when they meet at last for an amicable drink. Adèle’s efforts to seduce Emma reveal once more the powerful spark of physical attraction between them, but can’t break Emma’s new commitment. It’s a somewhat gruelling scene of humiliation for Adèle, reminiscent to my mind of Bob Dylan’s angry heartbreak under surface goodwill in “If You See Her, Say Hello”. The subsequent, ultimate scene, is equally strong, as Adèle attends a gallery showing being given by Antoine signalling Emma’s success, with Adèle finding her portrait hanging with the others, a white-hot and life-changing affair now a mere incident in Emma’s life. Emma and Lise canoodle in the moment of triumph whilst Adèle roams in disquiet. Her intent is all too painfully obvious, as she’s dressed in blue, evidently trying to sway Emma’s eye or at least memorialise their connection. Where for the artist, alchemic creation is the act, for the average person the self is the canvas, and Adèle cannot channel but only telegraph her own bleeding emotion. Adèle meets Samir again, who’s now quit acting for a life in real estate. He searches for her when she quietly absents herself, dashing in a different direction whilst she walks away, a blotch of forlorn blue burning in a grey city street. If the use of the artistic milieu elsewhere feels hoary, here Kechiche uses it to concisely reflect Adèle’s exile: it’s a world of insiders and outsiders, and Adèle is just another outsider now.

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2010s, Biopic

Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

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Director: Jean-Marc Valée

By Roderick Heath

As someone who was a child in the 1980s, the menace of the AIDS epidemic is engraved on my formative years. The spectre of the disease’s infiltration into world consciousness and the widespread confusion it created was like an insidious flipside to the decade’s pervasive nuclear angst, like a choice of destruction from without or within. As an Australian, I readily recall the infamous “grim reaper” ad designed to foster alarm and caution in the general populace. The effect of this campaign was to midly traumatise kids my age, but it hit the mark in instantly making everyone aware of the nature of the problem, as part of effective government programme of action.

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Dallas Buyers Club harkens back to those tumultuous, scary days with a different reference point: the film revolves around a straight character’s battle with the disease in the context of the Reagan era in the U.S., where, in marked contrast to the swift and effective reaction by the Australian authorities, many felt that viewing AIDS as a specifically gay problem was being propagated by the attitude of a conservative government—the anger of the time still smoulders in the American LGBT community. Dallas Buyers Club recounts the fascinating true story of Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), a self-stereotyped Texan he-man with a love of rodeo riding, sex, and intoxicating substances. Introduced at the outset having a threesome with a pair of rodeo groupies in a bull holding cage whilst waiting for a different kind of ride, Ron is a professional electrician. He consumes sensations with ravening hunger, a Falstaffian figure, albeit one who, far from being garrulously corpulent, has mysteriously been worn to a stalk instead.

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Ron is diagnosed with full-blown AIDS when he lands in hospital after getting electrocuted on the job, and is given 30 days to live, with the suggestion that he go home and put his affairs in order. Ron rejects the diagnosis in disbelief, but when he learns it’s entirely possible to have contracted it through unprotected sex and intravenous drug use, he puts himself in the hands of Drs. Sevard (Denis O’Hare) and Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner). He’s made furious when he learns he’s going to be included in a research study of the effects of the experimental drug AZT, but won’t know if he’s receiving the drug or a placebo. Instead, he starts paying bribes to a hospital orderly to smuggle him doses of the drug. As his 30 days run out and his supply is suddenly cut off by tightening security, he contemplates suicide, but instead follows the orderly’s suggestion to go south of the border in search of a banished gringo doctor named Vass (Griffin Dunne).

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Vass introduces him to other drugs and supplements he believes are less corrosive than AZT. Ron, seeing not just hope for himself but also a major opportunity, fills the trunk of his car with this contraband, bluffing his way past border cops by posing as a cancer-stricken priest who is bringing a stash in for his own use. He sets up a business he dubs the Dallas Buyers Club, a technical subversion of FDA regulations that allows him to give foreign, unapproved drugs to members who pay a $400 monthly fee as club members. Aiding him in the business is a would-be trans woman, Rayon (Jared Leto), whom Ron met in hospital as a fellow AZT trial recipient. In spite of Ron’s brusque homophobia, he and Rayon form a working relationship as Rayon knows many potential members for the club.

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Ron, used to being a good old boy at the dead centre of macho Texan culture, is suddenly faced with cruel ostracism by friends, neighbours, and his landlord: finding himself locked out of his trailer home, Ron blasts off the lock, removes his money and a painting done by his mother, and struts away with his signature rejoinder: “Y’all go fuck yerselves.” This experience primes Ron, however reluctantly, to form a bond with Rayon and other sufferers, and get over himself enough to venture into a gay bar on the hunt for new customers. Humiliated by an encounter with a gang of his pals, Ron takes revenge when, in the company of Rayon, he meets one former friend, T.J. (Kevin Rankin), and compels T.J. to shake Rayon’s hand. The only one of Ron’s old buddies who sticks by him is Dallas beat cop Tucker (Steve Zahn), one of that variety of character often found in films who turn up when required to by the plot.

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Ron is the sort of character any actor might consider donating organs to get their hands on, and McConaughey brings him roaring to impudent, individual life. McConaughey’s severe weight loss, dropping all the buffness he showed off in Magic Mike (2012) to facilitate his performance, is a fairly familiar act of actor masochism in the hunt for gold statuary. But it’s backed up here with an expert sense of physical performance, as McConaughey nails the gait of a man not used to his current weight because he’s lost so much of it in a short time, as well as the many fluctuations of Ron’s mental and physical condition, from outrageous drunkenness to fiery combativeness. McConaughey cunningly doesn’t play Ron as cool as Ron thinks he is, presenting a scrappy survivor, glimpsed early on running from guys who want to beat him up, who might once have been a golden boy like McConaughey’s own younger self, but who now gets along on raw nerve and charm. This is some fine film acting, using the body as malleable canvas, but not neglecting other gifts: a great deal of the entertainment value of the film is sourced in Woodroof’s dexterity and inspiration in getting around the rules and his mysteriously protean abilities, able to demolish stereotypes by using them to his own ends.

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Dallas Buyers Club, as a film, is by far at its best in the first half when concentrating on Ron’s dizzied journey from the centre to the fringe of his culture, and the confrontation with mortality by such a rudely sensual man, who deals with imminent death in the same way he deals with everything else, with fuck-you attitude, wheeler-dealer conceit, and spidery wit. He prays at one point for a chance to catch his breath when faced with scarcely a month of life ahead of him, but then hits the ground running and finds this keeps him alive. His unpleasant side, bound up with his culturally enabled (and indeed culturally dictated) dislike of queers, is eventually found to stem from the same source as his best quality, his gleeful skill and pith in a fight. He’s a guy who loves contention and defining himself in combative situations, so there’s no real change involved in his move from aiming nasty, gay-baiting barbs at Rayon to suddenly defending his honour. He soon finds that side of his nature more than occupied by his ongoing combat with experts and official gatekeepers like Sevard and FDA honcho Richard Barkley (Michael O’Neill), who try to shut down the club for reasons Ron and, eventually, Eve come to believe are bound up in the cosy relationship the American medical establishment and bureaucracy have with Big Pharma. Warned by Vass that AZT is highly toxic, Ron upbraids Sevard and others for continuing to use it. Faced with having his stock impounded and government audits, Ron refuses to stop propagating his own regimen, flying around the world in search of new supplies and treatments, and expanding his variety of guises to bring them back.

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Despite its qualities as a character portrait and actor’s showcase in its early phases, Dallas Buyers Club proves a much less compelling experience than it initially promises to be. The director is Jean-Marc Valée, who last took a tilt at prestige cinema with The Young Victoria (2009), a very ordinary costume biopic jazzed up with some showy, but pointless directorial technique. Valée tackles this subject more aptly with that energy, trying to shape the film via arty visual and aural flourishes designed give the audience the same slightly woozy, breathless, simultaneously spacy and intense mental landscape Ron has. Valée, who also edited the film, uses Godardian jump cuts, hazy and semi-abstract point-of-view shots, and manipulated sound similar to an effect used many times on the TV show Breaking Bad where someone zones out with a faint whistling sound that deadens everything else. The opening scene with Ron’s sexual escapade in the bullpen is a strong example, as Valée suggests intensely corporeal erotic action in hyper-contrast to the bullriding beyond the grating, conjoining the sexual act and the rider’s fall, a miniature portrait of the life cycle itself. It’s a great start, one with a purposeful technique and artfulness Valée can’t sustain in part because both the uneasy relationship of the messiness of life and the programmatic script forestall it. Valée’s directing gives a veneer of edginess to a film that’s actually deeply conventional.

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The film’s second half begins to devolve into a series of loosely connected scenes, particularly in making room for Ron’s relationship with Eve. McConaughey and Garner, in other circumstances, could be a great onscreen couple, but the necessarily platonic stuff here doesn’t feel anything but fake, especially considering that Eve is present in the painfully clichéd role of the company girl charmed by the ragged but loveable rogue who slowly changes allegiances. This climaxes, embarrassingly, when Eve stomps out of a meeting with hospital chiefs who try to make her resign, tossing Ron’s vulgar preferred farewell over her shoulder. Ha ha, she’s a goody-goody doctor, and she just swore like a redneck, ha ha.

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Rayon is a character by now as clichéd as Eve, the fabulous, spunky, doomed queen sidekick: he’s practically interchangeable with figures like Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Lola in Kinky Boots (2005) whilst also recalling the Blanche Dubois school of transgender tragic. Rayon’s relationship with his boyfriend (Bradford Cox) isn’t given any study, nor is said boyfriend even given a name: you just see the two constantly frolicking together. Leto’s smug and artificial performance doesn’t help bring any new depth to this character, though there is one good touch to it, insofar as that early in the film Leto offers an androgynously beautiful façade that gets seedier as the film goes along. This accords with perhaps the film’s slyest joke, albeit one that’s not that well developed, as Ron becomes the more stereotypically gay member of their partnership. Ron offers a nurturing influence, dictating a healthy lifestyle and giving Rayon a hard time for his increasing drug use as Rayon copes with existential dread with mood-altering substances, whilst Ron deals with his in his combative labours.

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Meanwhile, Valée and writers Melisa Wallack and Craig Borten try to wring the material for pathos whilst dancing around the painful business at the centre of the tale. In offering Woodroof as an antihero, Dallas Buyers Club seeks to shake up our perception of virtue, joining an increasing body of prestige pics like Charlie Wilson’s War (2007) in which the protagonists are figures of unruly sexual and sensatory appetites. At the same time, the film falls back on some very old tricks of the crusader biopic, offering convenient representatives of official villainy as arch as those found in examples of the genre from the 1930s, like The House of Rothschild (1934) and The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936)—which is, I admit, one of the more fun things about those movies, but not necessarily a good reason why that sort of thing is needed in a serious-minded movie now. Dallas Buyers Club plays its politics with fascinatingly equivocal precision, presenting a rootin’-tootin’ good old boy as the messiah of the gays whilst taking on the big boys in a film that plays equally on liberal dislike of corporate-influenced governance and Tea Party loathing of federal institutions, in spite of the apparently much more complex history behind this tale, and generally ignoring the wider picture of the AIDS epidemic (I do like that the news broadcasts used to give background information seem to be real, as fake news bulletins and newsreels used for exposition are one of my singular pet peeves). Not that there’s anything new about distorting history for the sake of a good story, but that’s just the problem: there’s nothing new here, an interesting true story reprocessed into a stock star vehicle, vague and platitudinous in its actual social perspective.

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If Dallas Buyers Club doesn’t sink to the level of dread offered by the likes of The Help (2011) in jerking off the audience for sharing the right opinion about period social injustices, it’s because Valée and his cast sustain their ornery energy. The film offers seemingly casual, but sharply realised moments of interaction and odd-couple humour, as Ron and Rayon’s relationship finds spiky, fraternal stability, for example, Rayon teasing Ron by sticking up pictures of his own favoured love object, Marc Bolan, amongst Ron’s girly pics. There’s tang to the film’s evocation of life in the byways of Dallas, particularly the motel the becomes the base of operations for the club, which Ron unapologetically runs as both public good and capitalist enterprise to rows of needy, would-be club members queued up outside. One neat sequence of Ron’s misadventures depicts him going to Japan, engaging in difficult and costly deal-making, returning unscathed into the U.S. by pretending to be a physician raving on a huge ’80s mobile phone, but then being done in by the very drug he’s just brought back when he tries it to relieve his symptoms in the airport bathroom and gives himself a heart attack.

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The film avoids realistic depiction of death by AIDS to a weird and discomforting degree. Everyone goes along fine until Rayon suddenly keels over, and Ron experiences that whistling zone-out a few times, including once at an intersection as cars zip dangerously close to him. Apart from these episodes, Valée is pretty coy about the gruelling nature of the film’s motivating subject, believing perhaps that audiences are turned off by carcinoma far more readily than the sight of slim, pretty Leto snorting cocaine. Rayon does die, giving Ron and the film an appropriate emotional wallop, but it happens off-screen and comes practically out of nowhere. This lack, this avoidance of actually confronting the tenuousness of mortality and the tragedy that underlies even Ron’s punchy sense of purpose, robs Dallas Buyers Club of its natural conclusion, and also its character. Because sooner or later, this is tragedy, the tragedy of an era and a still-present reality the film tries to avoid admitting. So determined is it to send the audience out of the theatre with a positive vibe that even though Ron loses his climactic challenge in the courts to keep his business going, we still get the regulation scene of him being greeted on return by a clapping crowd of friends and supporters. Still, Valée returns to his opening for the very last image, with Ron preparing for a bull ride, spied between two slatted bars, caught in a freeze-frame atop the beast as Valée closes the loop of Ron’s life.

Standard
1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, Experimental, Short Films

Kenneth Anger: Films from the Magic Lantern Cycle, 1947-1981

Fireworks (1947) / Puce Moment (1949) / Rabbit’s Moon (1950) / Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954) / Scorpio Rising (1964) / Kustom Kar Kommandos (1965) / Invocation of My Demon Brother (1969) / Lucifer Rising (1971-81)

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By Roderick Heath

The first context in which I ever heard of Kenneth Anger was probably the same as most people, if they know him at all: as the author of the two Hollywood Babylon books that digest the gossip Anger heard growing up in the fringes of the film world, to expose the mythology and seamy underbelly of Old Hollywood. But Anger’s true metier was making a steady stream of experimental, surrealistic movies, commencing in his teens in the early 1940s, struggling through the ’50s, and finally finding an audience in the adventurous-minded ’60s. When Anger screened his breakthrough work Scorpio Rising (1964), it was the subject of much litigation. But it proved a potent inspiration for young filmmakers and brought Anger a squad of famous fans and collaborators in the counterculture era. Anger, assertively homosexual when it was far from kosher and willing to tackle the matter in his films through allusive, but unmistakable terms, counts as one of the inventors of modern queer aesthetics, as well as a vital contributor to cinema culture in general. Anger’s films represent different levels of realised ambition.

With their often perverse, always striking cavalcades of associate images, Anger’s films come across as, and were certainly designed to be, broadcasts from the outer precincts of American society and the modern psyche, looking back to an unattainable pagan past and detecting the codified ways in which primal instincts infuse and distort the contemporary world. Anger, born Kenneth William Anglemyer in 1927, began his involvement with cinema as a child, so his own personal legend has it, appearing (so he says) as one of the nymphs in Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935), a film that had an effect on Anger’s later cinematic style and interests. He started making films as a kid, but considered his career to have started with Who Has Been Rocking My Dreamboat (1941), featuring several touches, like sped-up footage and dubbed-over pop music, that would become signature traits.

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His first really defining work is considered to be Fireworks (1947), a striking homoerotic parable that reveals the depths of Anger’s early debts to Luis Buñuel, to whom he pays explicit tribute by recreating his cigarette-smoking pose in Un Chien Andalou (1929), and to Jean Cocteau, from whom he borrowed an interest in totems and transformations. But there’s also a violently, vividly original aspect to Fireworks, which commences with a single young man (Anger) lolling in his room, fingering a photograph of himself being carried by a hulking sailor, with a sculpture of a hand with smashed fingers sitting on his table. Phallic jokes recur: at one point, the young man seems to have an erection under his sheet, but he brushes away the cloth and finds to his disappointment it’s just a statuette; later the sailor unbuttons his fly to reveal a sparking rocket. The young man ventures out into the night, obviously hoping for a pick-up, but instead he encounters a formidable gang of sailors, including the sailor from the photo, armed with rude weapons found on the street.

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Anger cleverly obfuscates exactly what happens to his hero except for impressions of something dreadfully violent yet also searingly erotic, in offering visions of his twisted, assaulted body from obtuse angles in a visually brutal experience. His eye are gouged, his upside-down mouth yaws wide in screams; white fluid, which many have thought to be metaphorical semen, pouring on his body, and, most incredibly, a hand holding a broken bottle neck, grazing the shattered edge over his belly, before Anger cuts to hideous shot of flesh being peeled open by determined hands, only to find a wavering compass within the carrion. The images are charged with carnal viciousness, but also communicate via extreme and evocative metaphor the discovery of inner nature through acts on the body both pleasurable and aggressive. The young man, seemingly torn to pieces, is then returned to his room, with the sailor from the photo appearing amusingly with a tacky Christmas tree on his head and a candle on a stick that sets fire to the young man’s masturbatory collection of photos: the Christ myth reinterpreted as heroic gay romance mediated by chintzy, five-and-dime-store religious paraphernalia. The final image of the two men lying together and the fingers returned to the statue is an emblem of phallic restoration. Coming from the time it does, Fireworks pulses not just with obvious gay interest, but also a psychic awareness of a strange new age—the compass within the flesh has a science-fiction quality to it in its fusion of man and machine, as well as body-horror, and the bleak, otherworldly visions of the outside world have a post-apocalyptic aspect. If it’s one of Anger’s most easily decoded works, it’s also one that possesses eerie, transformative, memorable power. It also got Anger prosecuted for the first time, but the Supreme Court of California finally judged the film to be art.

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Anger spent most of his young life in Los Angeles, surrounded by movie industry people, listening to the gossip of the city’s gay community and communing with the ghosts of the already distant days of the great silent stars and the ideals of glamour that had fostered the city’s prosperity. And yet that age had been suppressed in a welter of shame for its outsized, amoral grandiosity, in pointed contrast to the grubby, castrated contemporary scene Anger had tried to portray in Fireworks. Whilst Anger gained the material for Hollywood Babylon from this background, he also absorbed something more mutable, an evanescent mystique he tried to articulate in a film he never finished. The film intended to capture the ghosts of the departed inhabitants of the colossal movie mansions littering Hollywood (Billy Wilder would, of course, get around to his more literal treatment of this subject in 1951’s Sunset Blvd.). Anger did, however, complete one scene, which he finally turned into the short Puce Moment. As it stands, it’s a study in trying on nostalgic glamour, as a vampy young flapper sorts through her dresses and lounges amidst fragments of upscale bohemian décor, in seething shadows and colour that imbue the images with a flavour in slight tension with the stylization. One part animated ’20s Vogue photo spread, one part hazy nostalgia dream, this fillip sees Anger embracing a familiar camp-informed fondness for celebrating the apparel of haute couture femininity, albeit charged with a sense of mystery altogether rarer.

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Anger left the U.S. in 1950, moving to Paris, to live with some blacklisted friends, partly at the behest of Jean Cocteau, who liked Fireworks. Anger repeatedly began and had to abandon films in the ’50s, including one that was supposed to be a fantasia on the life of the occultist and pansexual deviant Cardinal d’Este, of which, again, only one scene was completed, later shown as Eaux d’Artifice. Another unfinished project, which eventually the saw the light as Rabbit’s Moon, retold a Japanese myth of a man who falls in love with the moon, where a magical rabbit lives, and was enacted by members of the Commedia del’Arte, André Soubeyran, Nadine Valence, and Claude Revenant in the traditional guises of Pierrot, Pierrette, and Harlequin. Harlequin distracts Pierrot from his pure worship of the moon, to which he repeatedly stretches his arms, pulsating in repetitious shots with secretive energy, by dangling Pierrette before him. But Harlequin then snatches her away, leaving Pierrot to be ministered to by two nymphs (shades of A Midsummer Night’s Dream) with the consolations of music and a mirror, and then is pointed to the path to join his rabbit love. In the last image, the rabbit sits in the midst of the forest, and Pierrot plummets to the earth, having presumably tried, and failed, to climb to the moon. Puce Moment and Rabbit’s Moon form fragments of colourful, but frustrating and opaque ambition from Anger.

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Anger had begun to cordon off his own area in the avant garde, however, in his fascination with cultural detritus and iconography—a form of fetishism which, both overt and subtle, throbs beneath such retro imagery. He struggled through the ’50s and early ’60s to make more movies, with only one inarguably completed, signal film to show for it: Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome. This film was inspired by a party given by some friends for which the theme was “come as your madness.” Anger, impressed with the results, decided to make a movie of the event transformed into a mystical spectacle. Here Anger expanded upon another interest important to his art: his life-long fascination with Aleister Crowley and pagan religion, especially Crowley’s personal creed, Thelema. (Anger subsequently made a documentary film with his friend Alfred Kinsey that looked into Crowley’s Abbey of Thélème in Palermo.) Built around the theme of a celebratory pageant in a lustrous palace from Coleridge’s “Kublai Khan,” Pleasure Dome depicts a number of pagan gods gathering together in the palace of a multitudinous titan, alternately garbed as Shiva, Osiris, and Nero, initially glimpsed swallowing jewels,and played by former silent film actor and dancer Samson De Brier. His guests include a pantheon of fascinating counterculture figures.

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The writer Anaïs Nin appears as Astarte, wearing a bird cage around her face. Anger’s friend and fellow pioneer in alternative cinema, Curtis Harrington, plays a servant based on Cesare from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919). Margaret Cameron, the wife of a Crowley acolyte who would later play the mysterious Greek witch in Harrington’s Night Tide (1961), appears as Kali, rendered as a fiery-crowned über-femme. Pan turns up, accepting the gift of fire Kali gives him so that she can light her cigarette from his palm, before he conjures Aphrodite (Joan Whitney) from the flames. As with many of Anger’s, images in the film seem wrung out of some collective unconscious, and also strike like the dark inverse of ’50s religious and historical epics with all their themes turned inside out, celebrating victorious, fertile paganism and anarchic antimoralism. Anger wildly superimposes the gods’ faces against cabalistic emblems, including the Eye of Horus, a constantly recurring motif in Anger’s later films, as is shots from silent movies, here with visions of Babylonian worship and calamity out of an Italian peplum film from 1911: glimpses of the god as Osiris, with Isis (Katy Kadell) suppliant before him, clearly evoke a silent film style with sepia tint, make-up, and gesture-acting. It’s all scored to Leos Janacek’s “Gagliotic Mass.”

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Characters, religions, genders all merge into each other, masks within masks revealed, but the film has a faintly visible narrative, as a beautiful young man amongst the guests is clawed by an orgiastic crowd like Orpheus assaulted by the Bacchantes. This sacrifice to the perpetuation of natural rhythms and archaic ritual also evokes the assault in Fireworks, as the imagery proliferates in an ecstatic fury. The whole thing, on one level, is a camp tribute to a kind of vanished heyday of high-society decadence, as well as the ambition of Crowley to turn Judeo-Christian European society’s mores and myth-history inside out. Anger perhaps succeeds better with images than any cant could accomplish: his pictures tear the fabric of reality, religion, mythology, sexuality, and character to pieces, and then glue them back together in any form he sees fit. In doing so, Anger created one of the founding documents of psychedelic and camp aesthetics.

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Anger struggled for quite a few years after this, writing Hollywood Babylon and publishing it in France chiefly to raise funds, and attempting to shoot a film version of Pauline Reage’s The Story of O. But it wasn’t until he made Scorpio Rising that he made a proper comeback. He moved away from the historic artifice of his ‘50s works to explore a more contemporary fetish, celebrating the paraphernalia of motorcyclists, overlaid with pop music. In doing so, Anger discovered aspects of popular culture that practically no one else had recognised before, discerning the latent fetishism and delirious eroticism in the music, the homoeroticism in the macho excess of the leather-clad motorcyclists—the gone-wrong sons of the queer-bashing sailors of Fireworks.

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Divided into several acts, Scorpio Rising commences with languorous sequences of young men obsessively repairing, tending, and reconstructing motorcycles, the mechanisms of the machines explicitly defined as love objects by the songs playing. One young cyclist lounges in bed reading comics before finally, indolently, piecing together his biker uniform and venturing out into the night.

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By now familiar Anger motifs recur, but in a newly confrontational style, as wayside denizens, bohemian effuse, and gay corsairs congregate to party whilst his iconic biker Scorpio (Bruce Byron) is conflated with Jesus, glimpsed in excerpts from an old silent film, and Hitler, waving a Nazi flag like a barbarian priest summoning armies of the night to orgy and rampage. Anger described the film as “Thanatos in chrome, black leather, and bursting jeans,” his letter bomb to contemporary American culture. Amongst other things, the film perhaps proved Anger the most original and intelligent user of associative montage since Eisenstein, synthesising a series of connections between religion, sex, subcultural obsession, mechanics, and politics.

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Anger’s unfinished, ill-fated follow-up, Kustom Kar Kommandos, indicates with its title his ongoing thesis. A capped, cigarette-smoking, blonde-haired death’s head winks at the audience repeatedly in Scorpio Rising, evoking old VD posters as well as medieval folk-myth, having pushed the sex-death association to a limit. His method of reconstructing inanimate objects as eroticised things through careful lighting and dreamy photography segues into shots of bared chests fringed by leather, signalling Anger’s developing refusal to approach gay imagery so obliquely, leading to swiftly glimpsed sadomasochistic abuse, like a whip-scarred ass and a man being held down, again evoking Fireworks, with fluid being poured on his buttocks. The sexuality and fury of Scorpio Rising is encoded in its structure, rising from the languorous sensuality and indulgent observations of the early scenes into a hyperkinetic montage driving towards a deadly pile-up, with the red revolving lamp of an ambulance the inevitable last image.

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Scorpio Rising courted controversy, and got it in spades, finally being banned by an all-female jury. The ban was later overturned, and Anger became a counterculture hero. He started hanging out with famous freaks like Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull, who would both make substantial contributions to two of his most important later works, Jagger composing a score for Invocation of My Demon Brother and Faithfull appearing in Lucifer Rising. Much the same as Anger’s early works had looked back with some nostalgia to an earlier period of subcultural revolt associated with Crowley, so, too, his own films are fascinating records in image and idea of another era. Anger’s adoption by the age he helped to create, ironically, brought him into close contact with some of the forces he’d been attacking in his films.

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With Invocation of My Demon Brother, he returned to familiar structural motifs, commencing as he had done with Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome and would again in Lucifer Rising, with a figure who seems to possess powers of magic or, at least, prophetic talent awakening. In this case it’s a white-haired man with a demonic aspect, looking about a room full of naked male houris and conjuring visions where they grapple, conjoin, meld into beasts of many backs. Freaky youths smoke a joint from a skull-shaped holder, and Anger himself plays a ranting priest of Thelema waving the Nazi flag and stalking around his psychedelic temple performing rites, as footage of U.S. soldiers in Vietnam swerves into the burning of a dead black cat in a funeral, footage of Satanic Church founder Anton LaVey.

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As a kind of grace note, hippies perform a gentler rite that concludes with a charred figure holding a sign that reads: “Zap – you’re pregnant – that’s witchcraft.” That closing message literalises the sensibility that runs through Anger’s films, the inextricability in his eyes of mysticism from corporeal sensation and the cycles of creation and death. Bodies writhe with symbols projected on them, including a swastika seemingly reclaimed for its original mystical roots. As such, the final few moments of Invocation suggest an antistrophe from the malefic swirl of much of the film, the most frenetic and evil-feeling of Anger’s works, with its bolder homoeroticism shading into a portrait of a world of disintegrating substance.

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Anger had tapped into something dark within the period that would be acted out by a true-life, ranting, Nazi-flag-idolising priest of destruction, Charles Manson. And, indeed, one man who appears in the film, Bobby Beausoleil, went on to be convicted and now sits in prison, as one of Manson’s clan of killers. Anger had chosen Beausoleil a few years earlier to appear in his project Lucifer Rising, but by the time of Invocation, which was culled from footage originally intended for the Lucifer Rising project, Beausoleil and Anger had ceased to be friends. Beausoleil instead drifted close to Manson and killed Gary Hinman for Manson. Such a tragic, disturbing subsequent chain of events solidifies the impression of Invocation being Anger’s most acutely tuned reportage from the cultural fringe. Eventually, in spite of Beausoleil’s incarceration, Anger made peace with him. He commissioned Beausoleil to write the impressive score for Lucifer Rising, which Anger pieced together over the next few years, after tossing out a score written by Jimmy Page, who appears in the film briefly, after a row.

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Fittingly, Lucifer Rising, in spite of its name, betrays creativity on Anger’s part that’s generally more positive-feeling, more spiritually searching, if no more literal or free of menace. Beausoleil later reported that Anger’s idea was indeed to construct an antithesis to the death-worship of Scorpio Rising. Anger even builds a visual joke out of that contrast, countering how Scorpio Rising’s title was spelt out as metal sequins on a leather jacket, with “Lucifer Rising” appearing as colourful letters on the back of Lucifer’s robe. A Von Danikenesque idea caps off the film that links Anger’s primal, mythical figures with glowing flying saucers. But the film commences with shots of volcanic lava and protoplasmic creation, before a bare-breasted Isis (Myriam Gibril) overseas the birth and growth of crocodiles and salutes the arrival of Osiris (filmmaker Donald Cammell) at the Temple of Karnak, the pair stirring up storms. This is the pair whose “Aeons” are supposed to have passed, according to Thelemic lore, and they’re waiting for the time of Horus. Meanwhile, Lucifer (Leslie Huggins), whom Anger had insisted be played by a young rebellious type, awakens in a mysterious palace, seats himself upon a throne, and claims a blood sacrifice, spearing from on high a young woman. Drenched in blood, he has to bathe. Faithfull appears as a woman, identified as Lilith, the rebellious female demon from Kabbalah lore, who rises from a hollowed, stone resting place by the light of the moon and travels to perform invocations to her male counterpart, Lucifer, in front of the Sphinx and pyramids. Seemingly rejuvenated, or possibly in an earlier time, she follows the path of torch-carrying worshippers to the Externsteine in Germany, naturally-formed stone pillars that have long been a site of pagan and then Christian religious rituals. Lilith seems to penetrate the magic abode of Lucifer.

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Here the images lose all intelligibility as magi seem to congregate, and visions zip past with urgency and threat. Swooping tracking shots describe mysterious vignettes, like people with covered faces shuffling cards, Page reading an ancient tablet and regarding a photo of Crowley, and images of slow-motion explosion evoking the finale of Zabriskie Point (1970) in celebrating disintegration fantasy. Anger reappears ostensibly as the same Magus appearing in Invocation of My Demon Brother, performing rites in showers of sparks and stirring the seas to rise. Lucifer concocts apocalyptic magic and gets a birthday cake. Lilith seems anguished by having smashed a table, cries into a blood-stained scarf, and crushes a dried flower she seems to have meant to present to Lucifer. But they’re reunited at Karnak, and this time, a living lotus passes on to Isis, as she and Osiris watch spaceships arrive. In spite of the arcane symbolism and trippy pseudo-myth, it’s hard to escape the feeling that Anger was making films about the act of creativity itself, his whirling incantations resembling the feverish labour that must have gone into these films. In any event, they form awesome, ludicrous, brilliant sprawls of imagery. Anger’s DNA flows like an underground river through much contemporary American cinema, including the films of John Waters, Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, and Gus Van Sant, and virtually every pseudo-surreal music-video director, like Tarsem Singh, from the late ’80s on.

Standard
1970s, British cinema, Erotic, Religious

Sebastiane (1976)

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Directors: Paul Humfress, Derek Jarman

By Roderick Heath

Before his sad death at age 52 from AIDS in the early ’90s Derek Jarman, had established himself as one of British cinema’s true enfants terrible. He helped define gay cinema, maintained an aesthetic guerrilla war against the Thatcher government of the ’80s, and claimed a corner of demanding, semi-abstract narrative filmmaking that took up challenges laid down by the likes of Ken Russell, Nicholas Roeg, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and Pier Paolo Pasolini, but dragged them off in his own direction. Sebastiane, his first film, codirected with Paul Humfress, ventured into new realms of lucid, unveiled, homoerotic image-making, conflated with an effervescent intellectual blend of classicist humour and spiritual seriousness.

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Unlike the odious Peter Greenaway, with whom Jarman shared dominance of the British arthouse scene in the ’80s, Jarman’s cinema was urgent and personal in its provocations and learned references, angrily ransacking the massed detritus of the European cultural tradition for forms and voices through with to articulate his peculiar aesthetic: following Sebastiane, his subjects included Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Marlowe’s Edward II, Caravaggio, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Based around the life and martyrdom of St. Sebastian, Humfress’ and Jarman’s film aggressively appropriates the barely veiled rendering of the saint as a sadomasochistic erotic object in Renaissance painting for their own ends, reconstructing him as a gay icon. Sebastiane has a claim to a certain distinction for being the first film made entirely in Latin, even going so far as to have a translator render patches of the dialogue in the vulgar form for deeper authenticity. As such, it stands as an influence—or at least prefiguration—of a film like Mel Gibson’s similarly antiquarian, S&M-hued religious work The Passion of the Christ (2003), a film motivated by polar opposite moral and philosophical urges.

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Sebastiane actually follows a very familiar narrative line for religious epics, depicting the attempt of a pagan Roman to browbeat his rapturous Christian love object into surrendering his or her body and thus, implicitly, his or her ideals; in the likes of The Sign of the Cross (1932) and Quo Vadis? (1951), the love object was female. Here the love object is Sebastian (Leonardo Treviglio), and the film is closer to the eroticised beefcake-suffering of Charlton Heston in Ben-Hur (1959). In spite of the feeling of authenticity in the photography and the use of Latin dialogue, strict realism is a long way from Jarman’s mind, and this is soon apparent in the anachronistic touches that dot the film.

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Sebastian is a favourite of Emperor Diocletian (Robert Medley) and captain of his personal guard. The opening sequence depicts Diocletian’s court celebrating the birth of the sun in the time of his jubilee in a scene of Felliniesque excess. Male dancers sporting huge fake genitals tied to their groins dance around a man painted as a caricature of femininity, who is spread-eagle on the floor and mock group-raped, fake jism squirting on him, in a droll parody of Roman phallocratic sexuality and politics. It’s a stylised representation of what follows. Roman high society sprawls in decadence, suggested through a punkish mix of historically accurate tropes and glam rock pizzazz that includes the reigning whore supreme Mammea Morgana (played by punk emblem Jordan). Diocletian loses his temper with one of his toy-boys who is weeping for a man sentenced to death for one of the conflagrations started by Christian insurgents in Rome: the Emperor has the boy strangled. When Sebastian tries to intercede, Diocletian strips him of his rank and exiles him. The rest of the film takes place in Sardinian locations, standing in for the unnamed desert outpost to which Sebastian is exiled. Maximus (Neil Kennedy), also present in at the festivities, is posted to the same locale, and reports this directly to the audience.

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In that hot, dry, unpopulated part of the Empire, Sebastian makes it clear that he’s become a Christian, and won’t train for fighting anymore with the other men. The commandant Severus (Barney James) abuses and humiliates him, a regimen that worsens when Sebastian won’t let Severus screw him, to demonstrate his contempt for browbeating power. The introductory scene has already made clear that this refusal to submit, to allow access to the body and, more importantly, to the private conscience, infuriates the representative of the dying regime. This theme, of the powerful figure that forces obedience and conformity, runs side by side with the religious and sexual themes; those three basic concepts—sex, power, spirit—constantly shade into each other but occasionally are shocked into polarisation.

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Amidst the small band of soldiers, the leading personality is Maximus, a dirty-minded git with a false nose strapped to his face and a false penis sometimes strapped to his groin. He has a relentless hunger for amusement and dirty by-play, whilst the other bored, horny soldiers turn to each other for gratification after looking at dirty pictures. One of the soldiers, Justin (Richard Warwick), empathises with Sebastian’s plight and tries to understand his strange idealism, which, as Sebastian meditates on his own, seems partly composed of narcissism—making his prayers whilst gazing at himself in the water—and lust, as he wishes to be embraced by Jesus. Sebastian communes with his rugged landscape and prays, conflating the sun god Phoebus Apollo, whom Sebastian used to worship, with his version of Jesus. So the searing touch of the sun, of which Sebastian gets plenty when Severus has him staked to the ground as a punishment, is only more ecstatic bliss for him.

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Like many beginner filmmakers with artistic ambition as well as an urgent intellectual position to articulate, Jarman—and it’s hard to doubt Jarman was the driving cinematic force here—gives into the tendency to indulge longeurs and pound select ideas into the ground. Early in the film, Jarman presents a beauteous sequence in which Sebastian awakens early in the morning and washes himself down in the morning sun, enjoying and idolising the physical sensations which are part and parcel with his spiritual understanding. Severus watches him with a predatory intent and fascination with a species of man beyond his experience. Jarman shoots the male body like he’s the first person to discover it, and in a manner of speaking, he is: he doesn’t just eroticise it, but also renders it as a universe unto itself.

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But on occasion, Sebastiane starts to resemble a motion picture edition of a Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, except with sporty young guys frolicking and wrestling in the water rather than girls, lounging about in the sand, and cleaning their sweaty bodies in a Roman bath. The actors are barely clothed through much of the film, as Jarman said they didn’t have enough money for costumes. A lengthy sequence with two of the soldiers in an initially romantic clinch that gives way to them wrestling in the water, goes on forever, and though it clearly had political heft in 1976—Sebastiane pissed off people exactly as it was supposed to, though there are no literal sex acts in the film—it seems like soft-core self-indulgence now. And yet the evident erotic enjoyment is imbued with a hint of the alien, anticipating Claire Denis and David Cronenberg, as Jarman communicates a sense of the body as a thing of mystery and beauty in his languorous, slow-motion scenes of muscles flowing under skin with ineluctable beauty.

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The body is a war zone throughout the film, strong and lustrous, yet also disturbingly vulnerable, easily damaged, abused, and controlled; the only riposte is the untouchable and inviolable soul, which is why Sebastian crushingly rejects Severus late in the film when he tells him he can have his body but never have his true, inner self. The scene in Diocletian’s court establishes the atmosphere of physical ferocity, where murder is casual and the entertainment a plain parable for rape and exploitation. Jarman jams his camera in the gruesomely made-up face of the “female” dancer writhing under faux-ejaculate, and the bloodied mouths of slaves as one strangles the other in a dizzying image of animalistic humanity. The Emperor’s exile of Sebastian is the necessary gambit to his assassination, and yet the remote location and the vagueness of their mission causes the men to feel the weight of whatever angst they suffer, from Maximus’s basic desire to get back to Rome and hole up with a prostitute, through to Severus’ inability to obtain his obsession, whilst Sebastian finds the path to his destiny through unimaginable cruelty. Jarman sets up dichotomies—abusive strength, religious fervour, Roman decadence—but doesn’t easily separate them. The basic joke is easy enough to grasp: the Christian in this context is the outcast, aberrant, abused figure, mocked for effeminacy and arrogance, not the homosexual. Jarman seems to be trying to depict a moment in time in which humanity evolved from a purely physical creature into something deeper and better, but also less coherent and natural.

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Jarman doesn’t make the assailed Christian emblematic of a desexualised, denaturalised ideal about to supplant the free and easy paganism, however. Sebastian’s idealisation shares a certain homoerotic tone with John Donne’s Fourteenth Holy Sonnet (“Except you enthrall me, never shall be free/Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.”), envisioning God as an invasive, beauteous, erotic force. Brian Eno’s eerie, electronic score pulsates throughout with spacey beauty, underscoring scenes alternately banal, bizarre, and violent, constantly suggesting weird, transformative potential. The images seem engaged in a perpetual search for signs of transcendence only to be found in a surrender to the utterly physical, a loss of distinction between world and self. Throughout the film flows a brand of humour blending poles of donnish esoterica and Carry On-style scatology, particularly when the soldiers stage death battles between beetles they name Messalina, Boadacea, Sappho, and Dido, imagining them in a mass lesbian rape, and those passages of vulgar Latin proliferate in the soldiers’ excited sexual language. At one point Sebastian demonstrates for Justin a dance he used to do for the sun god in Rome, which Maximus sees and satirised feverishly before the other soldiers as he pretends to make love to a pig. Kennedy’s earthy performance dominates the film, playing Maximus as a human being with no high ideals, violently contrasting Sebastian’s elevated aspirations, and appointing himself the chief persecutor of the Christian until Severus orders him to stop.

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As its story unfolds, Sebastiane displays surprising similarities to the likes of Platoon (1986): amongst its many aspects, one that emerges strongly is its portraiture of the volatility of soldiers, beset with rampant sensual hunger while trapped in an existentially ambiguous exile in distant territory. Perhaps the likeness isn’t coincidental, as Jarman surely had the Vietnam War and the soldiers who fought it on his mind, as well as any regimen of forced social normalisation. As the film entwines sexual, political, and spiritual anxiety, cranking up on virtually subliminal levels, the casual sex that some of the soldiers indulge contrasts Severus’ building hysteria in his need to dominate Sebastian and force his surrender. He has Maximus and the others snatch and beat Justin to a pulp, and Sebastian dragged to Severus’s cell where he plans to rape him.

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Instead, Severus only reaps his own humiliation, and so, as in many a horror movie, erotic unease is deflected into physical destruction, as this finally makes Severus decide to have Sebastian killed. In the glare of day on a rocky plain, Sebastian is tied to a pole, where the soldiers, several stark naked, riddle him with arrows. Even the bloodied and barely conscious Justin is manipulated into firing a bolt. Sebastian’s martyrdom sees the ironic fulfilment of his desire to physical communion with his god and of Severus’ desire to penetrate him in a welter of blood. In a point-of-view shot from Sebastian on his pole, the world is suddenly rendered in the distortions of a fish-eye lens, inverting space and changing the devastated plain and his torturers into a permeably false reality. It’s one of the most grotesquely beautiful scenes ever shot, and galvanises Sebastiane’s final haunting effect.

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1980s, Drama, Spanish cinema

Dark Habits (1984) / Law of Desire (1986)

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Director/Screenwriter: Pedro Almodovar

By Roderick Heath

After the high-wire act of All About My Mother (1999), Pedro Almodovar seems have been attempting a return to the artist he was before Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1987) established him as everyone’s favourite cuddly genre-and-gender-warping Spaniard. Truth of the matter is, Pedro’s always been a hit-and-miss filmmaker, and the distance between his best and worst movies seems less a matter of the ingredients he puts in—which are more or less consistent—and more of the confidence with which he attacks them. This confidence can make his wildest fancies seem organic rather than contrived to keep ahead of expectations. Thus, Bad Education and Volver finished up as occasionally interesting, but finally rambling, clumsy concoctions, the work of an artist trying to feel his way out of his usual affectations but only chasing them around like a dog after its own tail. His efforts to emulate Hitchcock are painful to me.

Likewise, Dark Habits, his fourth feature-length film, and Law of Desire, his seventh and the one that gained him some international repute, are both looking older than they actually are. Part of that’s obviously because of their low budgets, but it’s also because Almodovar the filmmaker wasn’t yet up to pace with Almodovar the ideas man. Both films are provocative in a playful, dated fashion and disappointingly slack in the pacing and lack of zesty design that make films like Women on the Verge or Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990) seem to float like silk in the wind. Nonetheless, although they never quite catch fire, they’re both intriguing and absorbing in their own right, and reveal glimmerings of Almodovar’s best instincts.

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Dark Habits follows a Yolanda Bel (Cristina Sánchez Pascual), nightclub singer, junkie, and former teacher who runs from the police after her sometime boyfriend Jorge (Will More) dies from injecting a bad batch of heroin she bought. She finds in her purse a card given to her by the Mother Superior of a skid row mission who is a fan of hers, so she decides to head to the mission and hide out there. The mission itself has fallen on times as hard as her own: once a shelter for the desperate demimonde, now no self-respecting junkie or prostitute will come there, and the money promised by a wealthy, fascist Marquess to sustain their operation has dried up because his widow, the Marquesa (Mary Carrillo), glad to be free of her asshole husband, doesn’t want to pay up. The Abbess, Julia (Julieta Serrano), has given her nuns absurdly penitent names: the irascible Sister Rat of the Sewer (Chus Lampreave) writes trashy but widely beloved novels based on the lives of the women who used to come to the mission. She publishes these through her sister, who happily keeps all the money and acclaim. Sister Damned (Carmen Maura) raises a pet tiger. LSD-dropping Sister Manure (Marisa Paredes) is a murderess for whom the Mother Superior lied on the stand to protect, causing the guilty sister to feel bound in everlasting repentance to her. Sister Snake (Lina Canalejas) is in love with a priest (Manuel Zarzo), who’s a musical fan.

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Abbess Julia herself is the film’s dominant character: a drug-abusing, conniving, closeted lesbian, she’s as lovable and intriguing as she is two-faced and occasionally cruel. In love with Yolanda, she’s haunted by two other women. One is Merche (Cecilia Roth), a former nun who returns to the Mission briefly, on the run from the cops, and is taken away the next day. The other, Virginia, was the Marquesa’s daughter, a wayward girl who became a nun herself, and ran away to Africa and was thought to have been eaten by cannibals. The obvious joke—that these ladies of mercy and religion are variously crazed and depraved—is leavened by Almodovar’s genuine interest in them as people, and his delight in the hazy boundaries between sin and sanctity, a purgatory where Julia is the queen. This dialogue of impulses is a key to Almodovar’s whole oeuvre. His inability to hate anyone sees the initially Habits%202.jpgobnoxious Marquesa become a figure of sympathy, and Yolanda, to aid her, must finally outwit Julia, who, desperate to keep her mission going, tries to blackmail the Marquesa into coughing up funds in return for information about Virginia’s fate: yes, she’s dead, but her son has been brought up, Tarzan-like, by apes.

In much the same way, neither Almodovar nor the main protagonist of Law of Desire, Pablo Quintero (Eusebio Poncela), can bring himself to hate Antonio Benítez (Antonio Banderas), who kills Pablo’s former lover Juan Bermúdez (Miguel Molina) in a crazed effort to secure Pablo’s ardour. As the title indicates, Pedro feels that desire has its own laws, and adherence to such laws will occasionally have such a result. Pablo is a writer and director, and his transsexual sister Tina (Carmen Maura) often acts in his erotic movies and stage plays. Juan, Pablo’s long-time lover, is flirting with girls, feeling uneasy with the uncommitted Pablo and finally moving away to reconsider his life. Pablo, as an artist, struggles to assert control over the strange gaps and absences in his life by inventing personae on the page, and dictating for Juan the perfect kind of letter he’d like to get from him. Enter Antonio, a shadowing, shadowy momma’s boy who claims to be largely straight, but aggressively seduces Pablo. Right at the point when Pablo finally realises he really loves Juan, Antonio get onto his motorcycle one night, and travels out to the coastal bar where Juan is working. Their confrontation concludes with Antonio pushing Juan off a cliff into the sea.

A constant motif of Almodovar’s is the act of writing, of creativity, and its intricate relationship to sexuality, fellowship, and coping with life. So many of his protagonists are scribbling out sketches for stories that invoke the past and set a template for the future, often scrabbling to rewrite basic matters of identity and history. Just as often, these creations take on a life and velocity of their own. Simultaneously, the commonly accepted boundaries between real-life individuals become as porous as in the imagination. Families are composed on the spot, sexuality reaches an ecstatic flux, and biology comes in a constant second to love. Pablo’s on-the-page character, whom he adopts as a pseudonym for writing letters to Antonio to fool his mother, is mistaken for a real person by the police investigating Juan’s death, and they believe she may have killed him.

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Pablo finally is so horrified by the way his fantasies and life become intertwined and result in two deaths that he hurls his typewriter from the window of his apartment, and the infernal device explodes in flames. On the other hand, Julia berates Sister Rat for stealing the lives of their mission’s former charges for fiction, and yet Rat’s books simply reflect how Julia and all her kind are people who withdraw from life and rely on other, engaged, passionate people to supply them with a purpose. The characters in Almodovar’s films rewrite their lives with perpetual energy. A major subplot in Law of Desire is Pablo’s relationship with Tina, whose teenage affair with her own father before her sex-change has left a gaping hole in hers and Pablo’s lives, a yearning that Pablo expresses through his plays and films. Antonio becomes almost an aggressive personification of the emotional mines that keep detonating under Pablo’s life.

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Law is fondly recalled as a landmark of both gay cinema and the early cult of Antonio Banderas. Banderas, dripping charisma and other bodily fluids, tackles his part with a raw gusto, bringing to his character a boyish enthusiasm that counteracts his noxious acts. The comparison with the prissiness of his relationship with Tom Hanks in Philadelphia (1993) isn’t complimentary. Almodovar’s highly un-Moral Majority outlook is delightfully realised in scenes such as when Tina’s adopted daughter Ada, (Manuela Velasco), left in her charge after her mother, who had an affair with Tina and then left the country, finds Pablo’s gay porn and dismisses it as a comic book. Law’s unabashed homoeroticism and nuanced feel for gay relationships is still amazingly rare on the mainstream screen. Even Almodovar hasn’t really pulled it off in his later works, hiding to a certain extent in the loopy Sirkian colours and comedy. But Law is never quite as tight or tense as it wants to be, and the attempt to build Hitchockian dread anticipating when things will turn sour doesn’t come off. One scene in Law anticipates his later, troubled Bad Education (2003)—when Tina encounters a priest who had an affair with her when she was still a teenager—confirms that the relative inertia that afflicts both films is founded in an anxious appraisal of some vividly personal themes.

Both films are loaded with Almodovar’s expertly weird supporting characters, like the two cops who investigate Juan’s death, one of whom is a prissy young homophobe and the other an older, grizzled, laissez-faire dude. There are also the nearly inevitable moments of cabaret-mime: in Dark Habits, Yolanda lip-synchs a saucy ditty, with several of the nuns pretending to back her up, for Julia’s entertainment at her climactic birthday party (“It was so obscene!” Julia congratulates Yolanda gratefully), and in Law, Tina and Ada do the same in a staging of Cocteau’s The Human Voice. These are amongst the flourishes that make Almodovar seem like the almost caricatured paragon of queer aesthetics. Law’s funniest moment is its opening sequence in which a young man on a bed is directed by an unseen voice to undress and act as if masturbating, and then the camera finally cuts to the two actors who are actually post-dubbing this scene, pretending to be in the throes of passion. It’s a seemingly irrelevant, but funny moment that Denys Arcand stole for his Jesus of Montreal (1989), but it neatly introduces an ironic dialogue that conflates watcher and watched, artist and subject, film and audience, top and bottom.

Law of Desire is by far the most interesting and well-realised of the two films. Dark Habits never quite focuses its narrative, remaining a bunch of amusing ideas in search of a story. Almodovar’s distrust of story would crystallise into something far richer, and Law of Desire’s hesitancy seems in part informed by how unsure he is to play the material—as psychodrama or black comedy? Carmen Maura is present in both films, and though she doesn’t get much to do in Habits, she hits the screen with authority as the quick-witted, two-fisted Tina in Law, where her self-determining spunk contrasts Pablo’s more passive self-indulgence. Other members of Almodovar’s stock troupe who appear in small roles include Cecilia Roth and Marisa Paredes in Habits and Rossy de Palma in Law. The major weakness of Law is Poncela, who’s a drippy and uncharismatic presence. It’s hard to believe all this bother revolves around him, really.

Standard
2000s, Drama

Paranoid Park (2007) / Milk (2008)

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Director: Gus Van Sant

By Roderick Heath

My admiration for Gus Van Sant’s films made since he retreated to the edge of mainstream film after the shameful Psycho (1998) and Finding Forrester (2000) has been tempered by a major concession. Skilled artist of mood and texture that he is, films like Elephant (2003) or Last Days (2005) conjure a psychic atmosphere that’s cut adrift from cause and effect, from analysis, and thus from intellect. They are, fundamentally, explorations of sensual existence, implicitly expelling the world of the mind and, more intently, the moral and emotional didacticism of so much popular culture. They verge on being exemplars of a philosophy of “shit happens,” which is why they’re all about young people, teenagers mostly, beings that tend to exist in private cocoons of existential development. Van Sant wants to restore mystery to existence. The violent acts that punctuate his recent films, be they killing sprees, suicides, or accidental deaths, remain products of a suggested tension that lies eternally under the surface of the lives the characters lead. Van Sant’s explorations of what could be called antidrama, where the film’s soul is defined as much by what is not present as it is by what is, appears almost offhand, but requires tremendous technical discipline to realise.

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Paranoid Park and Milk, his two most recent films, appear disparate in cinematic narrative method but are linked through their variably telegraphed sense of danger and transcendence: the omnipresent threat and frustrated escapism latent under the nondeclarative surfaces of Gerry (2002), Elephant, Last Days and Paranoid Park are literalised in the figure of Harvey Milk. Paranoid Park is distinct from its immediate predecessors in that the young protagonist Alex (Gabe Nevins) is not doomed. Rather, he is fated to live with a harsh knowledge inside himself—that he is born as a moral being far earlier than he’s equipped to be one. The film’s fractured storytelling, reflecting Alex’s dithering attempts to make account of what’s happened to him, bounces back and forth like an echo before reaching that central trauma, its grotesque result, and its immediate effect on Alex. Scenes shown earlier in the film only find context in repetition to restore the sense of cause and effect. When Alex ventures out to Paranoid Park, his actions communicate his desire to find a community; his interactions with those he meets, however, are filled with anxiety over what codes, behaviours, and status are required to enter the community.

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Alex is middle class but rootless, the result of his father leaving a home that now has a provisional feel and is empty a lot of the time. He’s liked in school, chiefly for being passive. His girlfriend Jennifer (Taylor Momsen) would seem the adolescent boy’s fantasy; she’s, like, totally a cheerleader, but she’s also thick and a bit of a bully. He pines to belong to the faintly feral commune of masterful skateboarders who gather at the eponymous stadium, built illegally under an overpass in Portland, Oregon. The kids and young adults who hang out there are often homeless, perhaps damaged, but fired by their communal experience; they become weightless Seraphim, cavorting in harmonies essayed in loving slow motion. It’s a vision of transcendence that can’t last. Alex briefly pals about with Jared (Jake Miller), an older boy, and when they goof about jumping onto freight train cars, a railyard cop tries to swat Alex from his perch. Alex strikes back, and the guard falls under a train. In one key moment, he’s just a goofy, doe-eyed kid singing along to the radio: in the next, a haunted, weathered soul.

Detective Lu (Daniel Liu) is on the right track as he prods Alex and his schoolmates about the incident, no proof of wrongdoing turns up. Alex’s main struggle is with his own shapeless sense of responsibility. His attempts to compose an account of his situation obeys the advice of Macy (Lauren McKinney), the rather more intelligent girl he gravitates towards after he’s lost his virginity in a moment of nonpassion with Jennifer. Alex passes through experiences with an alienated glaze.

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Where Van Sant’s previous trilogy eddied around everyday happenings before reaching a grim terminus, the end of Paranoid Park is known well before the climax. Van Sant portrays Alex and the skaters with the beatific arousal Renaissance painters found in their subjects: his sequences rejoicing in the physical transcendence of the skaters are the most compelling in the film. Van Sant’s overall aesthetic maintains a challenge to the American cinematic tradition of narrative flow, that illusion of relentless progress and resolution. He yearns for artistic traditions that distilled concept and feeling into figures and representations. The mop hairdos and retro-tone affectations of the kids reflect that of much current youth fashion, ironically aiding one of the film’s more telling reflexes, where domestic tension reflects a deeper dread as Macy attempts to stoke a sense of awareness in Alex over the Iraq War. This could as easily be a moment from 1972 as from 2007.

Van Sant has said he’s finished with this type of filmmaking, and Paranoid Park does indeed confirm its limitations as much as its potency. Van Sant has often wrestled with questions of articulation and how it conflicts with raw experience. His third film, My Own Private Idaho (1991), appropriated a Shakespearean narrative, whilst his visuals shattered individual scenes into tableaux: the clash between the image and the word, the experience and the response, resulted in a film whose sense of social relations and cultural form was turned inside out. Blake Nelson’s source novel for Paranoid Park owes its concept to Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, but Dostoyevsky could interrogate the psyche with implacable force. With cinematic technique that stays relentlessly outside the psyche, Van Sant can’t really say much about the nature of the guilt and reveal much of Alex’s thought processes, and so he, and the film, move to the most nonplussed of conclusions. The mostly nonprofessional cast further limits any sense of personal depth.

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What Paranoid Park does, and in purely cinematic terms, is deal precisely with the consciousness that can refuse to look at itself, absorb without critiquing, and work up the moral courage to confront the horrible. Alex moves in a vacuum of ethics, which does not mean he wants someone to tell him what to think and feel. There is no adult and really no friend, except possibly for Macy, in whom he can confide without an assumption of some sort of judgmental, frame-forcing lens being placed on his experience. To this extent, Van Sant and Alex’s agendas coincide: understanding as opposed to judging is their chosen path out of a quandary.

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Milk places Van Sant’s impeccable technique at the service of a biopic with a populist purpose. Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) initially is another Van Sant wandering dreamer, packing in his closeted life for some hippie adventuring, soaking up the world with his camera arbitrating between himself and experience. Unlike most Van Sant heroes, Milk grows swiftly into an undaunted, conquering force. He escapes from a dreadful stasis that afflicts most Van Sant protagonists. The head-on gay and outsider themes in Milk dispel the mystery in Van Sant’s best films precisely for making them apparent: the angst is over the difficulty of gaining a culturally resonant voice when none is allowed and the fear of violent repression. Although Milk confirms that fear on one level, it also memorializes a war against it. Van Sant took on the project as a commission, but the film is a far more honorable way to tackle his mainstream urges than Good Will Hunting (1997). Before Milk, the only halfway major film I can think of about landmark gay rights scenes was the severely disappointing Stonewall (1995).

Milk is interesting not merely as a man of force and conviction, but also as a magnet for sharply delineated, but subordinate personalities that become a community—people like his younger boyfriend Scott (James Franco), who energizes him to take a leap into the world; Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsh), a teenaged street hustler who spouts clichés and spirals until Milk gives him a sense of purpose; Jack Lira (Diego Luna), a recovering addict and hysterical near-ruin who brings out the nurturer in Harvey, but also defines his limitations; Anne Kronenberg (Alison Pill), a “tough dyke” organizer who ruffles feathers in Milk’s boy’s club but soon has a powerful effect on his campaign; and, later, gruffly agreeable Mayor George Moscone (Victor Garber). The urge to form community, to find a place in a milieu that is accepting and insulating, which haunts and hurts Alex of Paranoid Park, is Milk’s singular dream, too.

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Most ambiguous and dangerous of the people Harvey draws into his gravitational field is fellow Supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin), the whitest of white bread—Irish, cop, and fireman—whose ruggedly charming façade obscures a faint awkwardness and a slow-simmering frustration. He and Milk seem bound from the outset into a kind of pas de deux, where understanding and contempt shade imperceptibly into each other. Milk thinks White’s closeted, and White thinks Milk is a bit of a showman—both might have a point.

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Van Sant the realist is most apparent in Milk in its dedication to observing process—watching Harvey and his fellow organizers develop a political strategy, identify voting blocks and core messages, and forge alliances—making Milk is one of the most coherent films about political organization around. Milk’s skill and pragmatism, and even his temptation to throw his weight around, aren’t elided. His ability to zero in on the concept of the gay individual as a taxpaying citizen whose needs are not being met, stands in contrast to the radical-chic bull of hippie youths. Milk turns his square experiences into a new queer philosophy. He’ll get things done simply by tackling a rock-bottom issue of practical concern: cleaning up dog droppings. Yet he also stands a distance from conservative-minded gays, harnessing the new force of a movement that wants acceptance but no longer is willing to mollify.

The film’s most sustained dramatic movement details Milk and friends’ campaign to hold ground against the Anita Bryant campaign of reversing gay rights legislation. The climax is, of course, Milk’s and Moscone’s assassination by White. Van Sant adopts techniques of the docudrama in a rather more fluent fashion than that usually suggests as he captures the scene of DIY counterculture as thoroughly as he did grunge-era bohemianism in Last Days—a small child of the period and milieu like me might feel flung back into preverbal memory of a world of rolling political arguments between people crowded into small kitchenettes and provisionally furnished apartments smelling of patchouli. Although Van Sant is absorbed in telling a story in Milk, his filmmaking is at its most deft, for example, how he can instantly summarize the disdain for Bryant’s opportunism by showing a series of her orange juice commercials or use split-screen shots to explain a very simple organizational process. A pair of shots of White seated in his underwear, peeking out through his blinds, and then clad in his suit, but in the same place, communicates his potentially violent tension as effectively as the entirety of Elephant.

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Not that the film is perfect: one ill-judged moment of foreshadowing has Milk watching a performance of Tosca in which Scarpia, the villain who drives Tosca to her death, looks a bit like Brolin. Although the scene is in line with Idaho’s Shakespeare-quoting and Van Sant’s culturally omnivorous bent, it’s still tacky, clumsily introducing an element of the overcharged, symbolic emotion that Milk says he loves in opera that contradicts the film’s otherwise determinedly naturalistic style. And Van Sant might have reined in screenwriter Dustin Lance Black’s Hollywood reflexes in reducing Scott to the role of resentful politician’s wife and during the finale, when Scott and Anne bear awed witness to a streaming crowd of candle-bearing mourners, which, with its wait-for-it triumphalism and hopeful stares into middle-distance, walk the line of cornball.

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But Milk mostly combines passion with a graceful touch, and will stand deservedly as an important work about the gay rights era, which is only just beginning to gain the same aura of nostalgia and perspective of plentiful films about other such movements. It’s the palpable sense of community that finally makes Milk feel like the cheeriest of homecomings for Van Sant. I saw Milk with an audience at least half composed of lesbian couples who cheered the “tough dykes” line. It made a nice change from sitting through a blockbuster with a bunch of glowering nerds.

Standard
2000s, Drama, Western

Brokeback Mountain (2005) / The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005)

Directors: Ang Lee; Tommy Lee Jones

By Roderick Heath

The Modern Western has racked up enough films to be considered a defined and important genre. There have always been Westerns set in contemporary times, such as George Stevens’ Giant (1956), but this genre truly arrived—with its themes of man against society, of nature and humanity intermingling or failing to, of deromanticising a mythic scene—in the early ‘60s, with a small cannonade of pictures. These films included John Huston and Arthur Miller’s The Misfits, David Miller and Dalton Trumbo’s Lonely Are The Brave, and Martin Ritt’s Hud, based not too coincidentally on Brokeback Mountain scriptwriter Larry McMurtry’s novel Horseman, Pass By. The Modern Western is a dusty, disillusioned genre about men and, occasionally, women, who survive on the myths of the past and who often would make excellent heroes for those tales, but find themselves eternally alienated and often destroyed by the tawdriness of modern life. There is no longer the sheer nobility and almost religious awe that attended the commencement of the cattle drive in Red River in the lives of men like Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar. Today they’re spotty, hopeless young men stuck with the stink of sheep-shit and toxoplasmosis, hardly able to scrape together a living unless they get lucky enough to marry the boss’ daughter. In truth, of course, that was what life was like for the pioneer cowboys, too, but that’s neither here nor there, when John Wayne is more potent a force than any real westerner.

Brokeback Mountain and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada are the two latest examples of the form, the appeal of which includes the inordinate amount of grit allowed in paying attention to the lives of working-class people while giving passing nods to the gods of cinema legend. Both films are driven by an intense male bond—in one case, a bond that has bloomed into a proper love affair—and observe the moral and emotional consequences of that bond. Another theme of the Modern Western, inevitably, is culture shift. In Modern Westerns, the heroes are tugged at and tempted by the pull of changing cultural winds even whilst they try their best to preserve themselves in an old cultural skin. Both films essentially exist within the same environment, where nature is predominant rather than repressed, where civilization has petered out in shabbily built buildings through which the wind whistles, and society is almost sparse enough for people to get away with living by their own rules. Almost.

As in another recent Modern Western, Billy Bob Thornton’s underrated All The Pretty Horses, Three Burials is about the divide between the United States and Mexico, of the temptation of outsider gringos to find their identities in the romantic poverty of Mexico. Tommy Lee Jones’ aging cowboy Pete Perkins takes it upon himself, like a true western hero, to fulfill an unanswered plea for justice. The method he uses is not a varmint shooting, but a primal process of penitence inflicted on the callow, foolish, violent border guard Mike Norton (Barry Pepper), who has killed accidentally Pete’s amigo, the illegal immigrant baquero Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cadillo).

These characters inhabit a sterile, impermanent Texas town where Mike and his wife Lou Ann (January Jones) have moved from Cleveland and where they were a popular, pretty couple. In the film’s first half, the various characters are explored in layered, time-hopping style. Without the distracting buzz of suburban life, Mike’s emotional vacuity and gross sexuality are thrown into high contrast. Mike takes out his frustration on the illegals he captures. Lou Ann, increasingly alienated and excruciatingly bored, is pulled into friendship with waitress Rachel (Melissa Leo), who lives a cheerfully your-cheatin’-heart lifestyle, having affairs with Pete and local sheriff Belmont (Dwight Yoakam) under the nose of her diner-owner husband. Lou Ann ends up spending mot of her time with Melquiades, and it is a pure coincidence that Pete guns down Melquiades whilst on patrol.

The first “burial” is the shallow grave Pete gives Melquiades on a mountain. The second is the one the authorities give him when his body is disinterred by coyotes. With only rumours as to what happened spread by the border guards, and Belmont’s insistence that Melquiades was “only a wetback,” Pete abandons his reticence in favour of kidnapping Mike, forcing him to dig up Melquiades’ corpse, and then proceeding, with the border guards in hot pursuit (and Belmont’s comic disinterest), to cross the border to give Melquiades—and maybe Mike—a proper burial.

Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) is as classic a westerner as Pete Perkins. Tall, rangy, stiff-mouthed, painfully reserved, the redeeming aspects of his life are his one true love, Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhall), and, much later, his daughter Alma Jr. (Kate Mara). In between are an eternity of pain caused by confused and gut-wrenching relationships with the one man and several women in his life. Ennis, orphaned in his adolescence, finds his identity crystallised during the months he and fellow teenaged ranch-hand Jack tended sheep on the eponymous slab of wind-washed granite. When both are prematurely exiled from the existence that seems redolent of a Greek mythic idyll, they accept their surface identities within the strict machismo order of modern Midwest America.

Jack tries to live up to the macho reputation of his bullrider father, then marries dashing horse girl Lureen Newsome (Anne Hathaway) and does his best to wriggle his way up the social pole. Ennis marries Alma de Beers (Michelle Williams) and has kids by her, but can never give up either his desire for the simple freedom of range work or for the adolescent warmth of his love for Jack. Their snatched interludes together on fishing trips, tolerated to a certain extent by their wives, offer fleeting and ultimately dissatisfying tranquility. Both men are transfigured by their sexuality, but where for Ennis it is a vital emotion he seeks, for Jack it’s both more complex and also more typical; carefully compartmentalising, he sleeps with Mexican male hookers and keeps on the lookout for another partner who will adapt to his part-time vision of love. Ennis lives in justified fear of frontier morality, which eventually claims Jack.

Both films are remarkably rich tapestries that extend well beyond the specifics of their plot to take in an almost epic, yet expressively minimalist vision of whole cultures in a state of flux, and the people within them in a state of crisis. Although Pete and Melquiades are not homosexual—though it’s easy to imagine Pete as Ennis, 20 years after the end of Brokeback—their bond, as well as Jack and Ennis’, demand almost mystical commitment to notions beyond the visible, or even factual. For Ennis, it is to accept permanent emotional exile: our last vision of him, a reverse of the end of The Searchers, is gazing out on an eternal plain whilst living with dreams and memories in his shabby trailer. For Pete, it is to reject his country, his livelihood, even his sanity, to give Melquiades a true resting place, and extract from a man with no terms of reference beyond bad daytime soaps and suburban plasticity a true contrition.

It’s ironic, perhaps, that Brokeback Mountain, concentrating as it does on a gay romance, offers its most biting and memorable moments in observing the men’s heterosexual lives—the kitchen confrontation where Alma, having left Ennis, lets slip her simmering loathing of him and Jack sets Ennis off like Krakatoa, is one of the most convincing moments of marital spite ever filmed. Similarly, when Ennis spurns vibrant barmaid Cassie (Linda Cardellini) and apologises, “Sorry, I can’t have been too much fun,” she responds in anguish, “Dammit, Ennis, girls don’t fall in love with fun,” I suspect a lot more men than the bisexual cowboys of this world might recognise themselves. The film follows Annie Proulx’s majestic novella very closely, ironically weakening when it adds some potentially nifty ideas of its own, especially Lureen. Lureen’s status as a gender-crosser in her own right, a champion rodeo rider who boldly seduces and screws Jack, demanded more depth and time and strikes sparks off the film’s later portrait of her as an icy homestead princess. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is a messier, less compressed tale, and overdoes its early portrayal of Mike Norton’s baseness, but then Three Burials has an edge of wryly surreal comedy and deliberate morality tale at its heart, not the lightly poetic realism and heart-dulling tragedy of Brokeback Mountain.

Ang Lee is a great filmmaker, but has yet to make a genuinely great film. His work on Brokeback is as meticulous and measured as always, almost too much so. It is often so over-posed in its desolate beauty as to look like the world’s first animated Andrew Wyeth painting, and his feeling for the West is never quite convincingly raw. Since the warm inclusiveness of his early films, a frost has gilded Lee’s heart, and he finally seems to mistake emotional stinginess for detachment. This attitude accounts for my lingering dissatisfaction with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Ride with the Devil, The Ice Storm, and his work on Brokeback Mountain, which is finally a triumph more for the actors and screenwriters (McMurtry and Diana Ossana), than of Lee’s Oscar-winning turn.

In comparison, Tommy Lee Jones’ work on Three Burials is much less refined and skilled, particularly some clumsy scene interchanges where music starts blaring without reason and static camera set-ups. Yet Jones knows his subject more truly, and at his best, he captures with almost surreal intensity his locale and characters, particularly when he gets to the Mexican side of the border, and Pete lounges drunkenly in a cantina that’s ancient but with modern appliances. Guillermo Arriaga’s screenplay is as humane and fine-threaded as his work for Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, and retains two of his singular qualities: his love of moral fable and his tendency to go on too long.

A part of me wanted to see—unlikely as it was—Sam Peckinpah make Brokeback Mountain, and Three Burials gives hints of what that might have looked like. For Peckinpah, that blood and dust and hot leather would have reeked with urgency, whilst Brokeback smells only of far-off snow. But Brokeback Mountain is still a remarkably haunting and intense experience. Three Burials is a less fine but more pleasurable experience, its moments of urgent humanity and its jolts of wry humour sit happily in the memory. Both films are spotted with great performances up front and in the background from Pepper, Leo, and Levon Helm in Three Burials, and from Ledger, down to Williams, Hathaway, Cardellini, even a small shot of cheer from scene-stealer Anna Faris, in Brokeback. Beyond this, Three Burials confirms the beauty of human beings, where Brokeback, for all the pseudo-political arguments the mass-media and commentators tried to extrapolate from its tale, actually states a thesis that living is agony, no matter your caste and character. l

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