Sunday, September 25, 2022

David Blair, True Figures: Selected Shorter Poems and Prose Poems, 1998-2021 (MadHat Press, 2022)

Somebody (Williams Carlos Williams? Billy Collins? who even knows at this point) once said that a poem is a contraption that’s designed to produce the same emotional response in any reader. In the twenty-five years that I’ve known the poet David Blair (we taught together at a college in Boston for a little over half of that time), his poems have always swerved well out of the way of such a tidy and self-assured description. In large part that swerving, not unlike the filmmaker David Lynch’s, seeks to find new and heretofore undiscovered pathways for human logic, embodying (though his poems’ bodies are more fluid than our limited understandings of bodies usually are) a kind of presence of attention that invites every aspect of the poet’s wide-ranging interests into his poems, including every kind of reader, potentially. Neruda (or a character based on him in a biopic) democratically remarked that all one needs to understand poetry is a nature open enough to understanding it. Indeed.

And so to counteract these poems’ effects, I will take a more strictly logical approach to writing this review. I’ll comment on my thirteen favorite poems in the book in some depth, in the order in which they appear in his excellent and consummate new collection, True Figures: Selected Shorter Poems and Prose Poems, 1998-2021.

Thirteen Ways of Looking at David Blair

“Sonnet for Robert Reich”: Here in Boston and its surrounding suburbs, where David Blair and I have both lived for nearly three decades now, people know this dude, Robert Reich, a politician and thinker who remains lucid and outspoken on political issues, in spite of his not winning his run for governor of Massachusetts a number of years ago. Anybody should be so lucky to have an artist like David Blair take such an omniscient portrait of you: “Mr. Peanut on his cane, tilting his urbane body skull / at all the ungovernableness.” And because Mr. Reich is small in stature, despite his admirably capacious and judicious mind, Blair encourages all of us to “lift him up in a light / that melts stubborn icicles,” perhaps the best metaphor around for Reich’s opponents, the Republicans. I think Reich would be happy to read this sonnet, and hopefully he will someday, if he hasn’t already.

“Sound Solution (‘Die Spinnerin’)”: Because “a young person around me with a jetpack” is probably a great analogy for parenting (I don’t know for certain since I don’t have any kids of my own). Then we get a trio of things that only Blair would know how to hinge together, with slight nods to James Tate and John Ashbery before him: “I missed my ping-pong paddle, all of my hair, / and the entire cut of the record. Rueful.” This is what I meant before by “presence of attention.” Blair’s strategy is not pure surrealism. Look at how tangibly rudimentary that little sequence of objects is, and yet as pure surrealism aims to do, Blair’s goal I think is perhaps to evoke specific maybe unknown feelings through his unique combinations of language and imagery. His poems decidedly do not go where others’ poems go.

“Election of the Saints”: By choice as a pacifist anarchist, I have never registered to vote and never will, a truth that I recently revealed to David Blair in an email, and it’s possible that he may never forgive me for it or see me the same way again. Yet “Election of the Saints” I’d say captures why I refuse to vote quite well, and gives an imagistic sort of exit from the problem by its deft close. The poem begins, “Traveling through the landscape / of election signs, / did you ask, Who is he? / and Who is he? / and Who is he? of names / held aloft at intersections / on fresh pine stakes / in yards?” We never really know who politicians are. History will also treat them as merely names (ask any student in any kind of history class about that), unless they happened to get shot (I think we know that by now). And then the poem pivots so intelligently into our predicament: “When you tell / me how your mother ran / out of gas on purpose, / so the two of you would / walk along the lavender / medians and across/ the margins of pine / along the road.” Politics ran out of gas on purpose long ago. This country has run out of gas. So Blair concludes, “I imagine / loving a person in his faults / or hers: allowing the car / to run out of gas, gladly, / to stop driving and walk.” What other choice do we have? That’s where we are now.

“Vinyl Raingear”: This one you just kind of have to read. It’s an awesome description of Cambridge near where we live at entirely its own pace. It’s a weird and special place. I hate it and love it equally every day. And I hate it and love it intensely. David’s poem captures the people there (in motion through rainswept wind verging on winter), who are both gross and gorgeous. (Usually more gross, but hey, that’s me.) “In the middle there is light-splashed tang / of the street with the bus not there yet.” Yeah, after thirty fucking years, I get really tired of waiting for it, too. But at least we have the light, while it lasts.

“At Park Street Station”: I was actually there just yesterday, on my way to the cinema as usual. Park Street Station is the hub of our transportation system in Boston. In fact, it’s why Boston is often referred to as “the Hub,” and you might already know that that station has the oldest stretch of streetcar tracks in the United States: “the subway on one level, / slim streetcars up here, // walls, ceilings, tunnels / sprayed with fire repellant, // against fire, but not mud, / catacombs, a Venetian future.” Is that global warming, since the ocean is just a few blocks away across the financial district? Will our subway tracks soon be submerged in canals? Probably. Blair’s ironic closing stance is both cheerful and not. “Isn’t it romantic, / and won’t it be? // Yes, and yes.”

“Primitive”: Here’s another one that you’d just have to read rather than watch me quoting every word. Our mutual friend, the poet Tanya Larkin, makes an appearance here, in her grandfather’s yard in (I think) New Jersey, and a little shrine he built there “around his Virgin Mary statue, / lawnchairs pointed at it, a stone in each chair.” Walt Whitman swims in from Camden like a great gray ghost, too, “like a long-horned sheep in a meadow / wedged as a paper stopper for elderberry wine,” that very vinegary elderberry wine that Oscar Wilde himself once drank.

“Mothership Prose”: The college where David and Tanya and I all taught together is gone now. It got closed down, basically, because it was a for-profit school run by well-paid big-wigs who ran the school like a car dealership. (Google New England Institute of Art and Department of Justice if you’re curious, but why would you be?) David opens the poem by asking, “Where is the boss? Maybe Vermont.” Those of us teaching couldn’t really afford to go there, or not for very long. “As for the boss under that boss, I give up on Fridays in July.” Don’t we all. Then we get spoiled by Blair luxuriating us out of all that mess, via a cruise ship journey through “depopulated summer” in an education mecca like Boston: “I am about to step into the golden assistance of late afternoon where the bicycles with training wheels and lacrosse sticks will be out on quiet streets.” The streets of our city in the wavering heat of July, an escape from “these tubes of fluorescent light” overhead inside the cool of air conditioning and office cubicles and menace.

“The Adorable Couple”: Now give me a dialogue-based scene, with half of it in ALL CAPS. As a gay man, I kind of hate heterosexual romance, but guess what, you have to deal regardless, and so I learned to love it anyway from John Hughes’ movies in the 1980s. I still love those films and the characters. These are not those characters. A music therapist who works in palliative care and a hospice physician. Clearly, they were meant for each other, as they shout across the din in some local dive bar. Good luck to them.

“Doris Duke in Newport”: Have you ever been to Newport, Rhode Island? I’ve been there once, maybe twice. Once for the famous folk festival there, and maybe once because I was dating some guy. I didn’t do the walk along the ocean by the mansions (“the big Bellevue eyesores,” which only David Blair would think to call them) because I can’t stand ocean-walk shit like that. It’s all over New England and you just can’t avoid it, so you start to hate it after a while. Yet David finds an estate that’s a true winner: “at Rough Point, mansion / museum of Doris Duke, / keeper of pet camels, / friend of Martha Graham, / Malcolm Forbes, / jazz musicians, / Imelda Marcos.” And of course David goes from that particular shoehorned historical figure to “the footbridge… / down at the front of her mansion’s / seaside backyard / for the Cliff Walk, / you see a cave full of ocean.”

“Vagrant Song—Boston Players”: Now we’re downtown, on Boylston Street in Boston, beside the entrance to the Lord & Taylor department store where “the modern wing of the library had driven aground / its white hull into pedestrian space,” along the roadways and sidewalks spread out far below “the Morse code of the antennae / on top of the buildings,” “basic and beautiful buildings.” Boston is provincial in the best sense of the word, and therefore, it’s both basic and beautiful. A vagrant’s song, of course, disturbs the proceedings, or augments them, outside of the 7-11 by Symphony Hall. The orchestra’s players go out with a splash: “Backstage, oboists were cranking / salsa and hip-hop, playing grab-ass, snapping jocks and ties.”

“Beach Blanket”: All the random things we do while sea level continues to rise by gradual increments: “shell beans,” “drink gimlets,” “slice tomatoes,” “pull weeds,” venture to outer space. “That way, we not only prepare for global catastrophe but can get over shocking boredom.” Ha. Isn’t it always so.

“Sonnet, Viking Funeral for a Workweek”: Shove it the fuck off, for real: “After work, I put my foot on the edge of the weekdays / and give them a shove back out into the harbor.” I mean, you have to remember where we worked. We basically taught ourselves to death, so each weekend was like a funeral, a funeral for us. “I salute you as you disappear, lazy porpoises, dear students, / with all of your pigtails, your tattooed faces, your sloppy hearts.” It’s a poem about not death but love. And survival.

“The Armies of Being Here”: Finally, a poem in which the legendary gay matinee idol and movie star Montgomery Clift teaches with us, the “half-employed” (oh, were we ever). We deserve that kind of dignity. So did Monty. Thank you, David.

Monday, June 20, 2022

24th Annual Provincetown International Film Festival (June 15th - 19th, 2022)

As the world gradually rebounds to a state of relative normalcy in the wake of the global pandemic, the wonderful annual film festival in Provincetown began to do the same this past week, after holding virtual and hybrid festivals over the past two years. For this year’s festival, full slates of narrative features, documentary screenings, and short film programs were hosted in person at venues all across the town, with audiences and filmmakers enthusiastically attending events throughout the five days of the festival. I was excited to see many familiar faces around P’town and also meet some new ones, and the movies that I saw were excellent as always, with top-notch programming that consistently makes the Provincetown International Film Festival one of the very best fests of its kind in the world. As I did with last year’s festival, I’m focusing my post about this year’s fest on the gay-themed movies that I enjoyed seeing the most over these past several days, full of superb writing and performances, and even some fun surprises.

The film that affected me the most at this year’s festival, Bretten Hannam’s Wildhood, is a movie that I missed during the Wicked Queer film festival in Boston back in the spring, so I was grateful to have a chance to watch the film in Provincetown. A winning, picaresque road buddy movie set along the east coast of Canada, the film follows an entertaining trio of young upstarts: sweet but troubled peroxide blond Link (Philip Lewitski), his feisty tag-along younger half-brother Travis (Avery Winters-Anthony), and an alluring drifter named Pasmay (Joshua Odjick), who introduces some gay and two-spirit vibes that he senses are running not too far beneath the surface for Link as well. The young men are Mi’kmaq, though Pasmay is more familiar with the indigenous tribal customs, so he begins to teach Link a bit of their native language and some pow wow dances. Link’s the darker personality of these central figures, and he’s also the one who recently fled with Travis from their abusive father, after Link discovered that their father had cruelly lied to him for years by telling him that his mother had died, when in fact she’d run away from their family.

On the young men’s journey from Cape Breton across the wilds of eastern Canada to find Link’s estranged mother Sarah (Savonna Spracklin), they’re informed by a mystical drag queen in a gay bar that Sarah now lives in her birthplace, an indigenous Nova Scotia community called Blanket Hill. Pasmay and Link gradually grow closer and form a tight bond as they travel onward, a relationship that’s consummated in a beautifully filmed, evocative nighttime sex scene under a waterfall. Of course, that sounds like a typical cinematic approach to youthful physical exploration, but the film and the actors bravely and sensitively elevate it to a totally different level. Hannam’s direction also makes some distinctive visual nods to previous gay classics, such as a scene when the three young guys run to bathe in a lake that recalls the mood of a very similar scenario in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, as well as a scene in which Link takes a shower and the water slowly streams from his hair, a mirror image of an identical moment for the central character in Gus Van Sant’s under-appreciated 2007 gay skater drama Paranoid Park. (There’s also a cool echo of Ryan Gosling’s little-seen directorial debut Lost River early in Wildhood when Link and Travis abscond with some copper pipes from an abandoned building site and get chased down afterwards, just as the cute protagonist of Gosling’s movie does.)

When Wildhood shifted into its gently moving final act, I wasn’t at all prepared to be as emotionally blindsided by the movie’s gentle, remarkable resolution as I was. Mother/son reunions are certainly not new to cinema or coming-of-age narratives in general, but how Wildhood handles that particular subject is such a refreshing departure, one that’s totally subdued and undramatic, which only further deepens the emotional impact of the film’s finale and its closing scenes. As we learn during the young men’s journey to locate Sarah, she’d long ago struggled with addiction issues and a feeling that she didn’t belong in her community, both reasons for her estrangement from her son Link. His sudden reappearance in her life, which she welcomes in a naturally understated manner while the two gather herbs and wildflowers together in the forest, brought to mind my own long-ago memories of my mother, whom I haven’t seen at all for over 30 years now. By the time the end credits had finished rolling, I was still sitting stunned in my seat unable to stop crying. When the auditorium was empty and the lights came on, I finally forced myself to stand up and made my way to the exit door. Outside, a woman who’d been in the theater watching the same film saw me wiping away tears as they streamed down my face and asked me very kindly if she could give me a hug. That sort of uncontrollable crying had only happened to me past the end credits of one other movie, Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia, when I watched it at the cinema with my then-boyfriend way back in December of 1993.

My favorite surprise of the festival was attending a secret screening, the first time that it’s ever been done at the fest to my knowledge. I was thrilled to find out that I’d even correctly predicted which movie it would be: the great gay French director François Ozon’s latest film Peter von Kant, and this screening was actually the North American premiere, too. Ozon’s prolific cinematic output falls fairly neatly and evenly into two sets of styles. About half of his films are dramas exploring themes of sexuality and gender, and the other half are campy comedies that examine similar subjects in a lighter manner. Peter von Kant, Ozon’s free-wheeling adaptation of legendary gay German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s film The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, combines aspects of both of Ozon’s styles, though its dramatic elements are often so melodramatically over the top that it’s easier to categorize the film as one of his campy movies, and I’m happy to say that it’s also among the best of his campier films.

The movie is anchored by a magnetic and progressively unhinged performance by Denis Ménochet as Peter von Kant, an intense and semi-tortured film director and stand-in for Fassbinder himself. Ozon’s take on the original film is a masculine riff on themes of artistry and creativity as they relate to other forms of love and obsession. The object of Peter von Kant’s obsession throughout the movie (and his own movie within Ozon’s movie) is Amir (Khalil Ben Gharbia), a beguiling young aspiring actor who’s cunningly delivered to Peter by his former muse, an iconic actress and singer named Sidonie (Isabelle Adjani, irresistibly vamping it up); she's since moved on to her more illustrious, if artistically stalled career in Hollywood movies. Working away silently like clockwork at Peter’s every whim is his seemingly faithful assistant of three years, a slim wisp of a man named Karl (a hilarious and poignant Stefan Crepon). We as the audience are always aware just from his eyes that Karl knows everything about Peter’s unhealthy habits, despite that Karl doesn’t speak a single word of dialogue in the film, a wondrous aspect of Crepon’s portrayal of the character. Karl does, however, get to have the last word of sorts in the movie’s devastating penultimate scene.

Most of the barebones storyline traces how irreversibly, and how foolishly far, Peter falls for Amir, transforming his apartment into a shrine to Amir’s perfectly fit image, alongside the requisite queer iconography of St. Sebastian. Sidonie, of course, knew exactly how seriously Peter’s fixation on Amir would derail him, her way not only of turning Amir into a movie star through the vehicle of Peter’s films, but also a way to get her own kind of revenge for Peter’s ultimately condescending view of her. Peter’s unwavering and reckless passion for Amir is a standard plot device in gay cinema, to be sure, yet what marks Ozon’s film as truly special is the sharp and whipsmart screenwriting throughout nearly the entire film. The dialogue is far more clever and intricate than it seems on the surface, mainly because Ozon is mining many decades of gay male cultural tropes and their cinematic corollaries at once, a tightrope walk from which his footing rarely ever slips. Again, I think it’s one of the finest of his campier scripts, one in which he keeps winking playfully at the viewer because he knows that most of us are in on the joke. The film works, therefore, both as entertainment and as an artistic document of cultural value.

Craig Boreham’s Lonesome is a pensive and involving Australian film about a massively hot itinerant hustler named Casey, memorably played by gay actor Josh Lavery in a frequently unclothed and potentially star-making performance. (His Instagram handle, I feel compelled to report, is @twinkindecline.) After sleeping rough and roaming his way towards the urban metropolis of Sydney because he claims that he’s never seen the ocean, Casey’s able to wander into crowded late-night house parties to find some food and charge his phone. Gay dating apps like Grindr lead him to hookups and eventually to a steady boyfriend, Tib (Daniel Gabriel), whom he ends up living with for a slightly longer-term timeframe, at least by Casey’s less-than-commonplace standards.

Because both men are young, hot-headed, and horny, their idyllic situation doesn’t last for too long, yet Casey is earnestly attempting to find an authentic sense of peace and stability for himself. The character feels like a realistic creation, in spite of his omnipresent Joe Buck ornament, a ten-gallon cowboy hat, which lends him some credibility, as well as some cool shade from the blazing Australian sunshine. And even though Josh Lavery’s sweetness, tempered by some casual raunchiness, remains alluring throughout the duration of the movie, it never fully kicks into the higher gear of a riveting emotional performance like Félix Maritaud’s in the frenetic 2018 gay French hustler drama Sauvage. Lavery endows Casey with a tone that’s steady, nonchalant, and downbeat, perhaps somewhat too taciturn at times or maybe even too easygoing at others. He's both attractive and laidback enough to get away with that type of distant stance.

As bad luck would have it, Casey’s predicament turns more desperate as he’s left dangling in the winds of the circumstances that had initially set him adrift. Earlier in the film, he reveals to Tib that he’d been involved with a married closeted guy back in his small rural hometown, a situation that had unraveled and gotten unfairly blamed on Casey, tragically culminating in the married man’s death in a car accident. After Casey and Tib part ways abruptly due to a threesome hookup gone very wrong, the film’s storyline also turns swiftly in more uncomfortable directions as Casey again retreats to sleeping out on the streets. Provincetown audiences are almost always well-prepared for anything, and in the movie’s hardcore final stretch, including a difficult-to-watch BDSM sequence, I was reminded of when I first saw Gregg Araki’s masterpiece Mysterious Skin in this same film festival over 15 years ago now. Some in the audience couldn’t quite handle where that movie fearlessly went, but Lonesome seemed easier for the diverse audience to handle since the actors never fully ramped up the energy in the same way, as effectively filmed as Lonesome’s particularly graphic sequence is. Without giving away too many concluding details, let’s just say that the movie offers Casey a hopeful and redemptive finale, although one that leans a bit too neatly on wish fulfillment to provide a sudden and easy denouement.

The documentary that I’d most anticipated seeing in the festival was All Man: The International Male Story, directed by Bryan Darling and Jesse Finley Reed. The infamous International Male fashion catalog is otherwise known as an underwear magazine that launched a gazillion gay identities for guys who were going through their boyhood and adolescence back in the late ’80s and early ’90s. I was one of the lucky recipients of the catalog in those days, and I never even understood how I’d started receiving it. (I have a feeling it was my teenage subscription to the cinema magazine Premiere that set the ball in motion.) As commentators from Scissor Sisters’ Jake Shears to comedian Drew Droege vividly recall in the documentary, the images of the gym-bodied, underwear-clad models were the bridge to gayness for many young American men.

Anybody who’s ever seen the magazine knows that the fashion it showcased was mostly terrible, including pirate-style puffy shirts and bizarre dalmatian-print pajamas, so obviously all that really mattered about the publication were the reliable images of tan, ripped guys in their skivvies. The documentary covers the standard bullet points, from the business background of the diverse crew of gay men and straight women who founded and ran the catalog, to the culturally rich intersections of gay and straight masculinity, to how gay liberation had a harder time reaching very far inland from the American coasts in those years. Gay male employees who answered the phones to take orders recall how many of the calls were from gay and bisexual men who were seeking not just to buy some clothing but to make some kind of connection with someone because they lived in places too far away from the action. Several employees also recall how the AIDS epidemic ravaged the business and even the very office of the California-based company that they worked for, while also realizing that the catalog’s fashion spreads offered a kind of parallel world of fantasy where illness and the widespread loss of gay and bisexual men’s lives couldn’t disturb the picture of perfection.

Overall, the commentaries of the catalog’s models were most interesting and revealing because they were the ones whose carefully sculpted physiques were actually selling the clothes and the image of a certain kind of lifestyle that they represented. The documentary includes candid interviews with ubiquitous superstar models like Tony Ward and Brian Buzzini, who still remain handsome and recognizable today, as well as equally appealing models like David Knight, who’s gay himself and claims that he was one of only two gay International Male models he’d met in a sea of chiseled straight guys. It’s refreshing that they all approach their iconic status back in those days with a down-to-earth sense of humor, a levity that they also brought to their photo shoots given the ridiculousness of most of the clothes they had to model. As fate would have it, the International Male catalog was eventually bought out by big capitalism for $25 million by the Hanover mail-order conglomerate at the height of its public notoriety, and then it gradually sputtered out of relevance soon thereafter.

I was also very glad to watch some short film programs during the festival, the most interesting of which was a collection of experimental shorts called Dreamscapes. I was especially psyched to see Jonathan Caouette’s elliptical and quasi-political new short film  The Blazing (because I totally loved his previous groundbreaking full-length documentary Tarnation back in 2003), as well as Cam Archer’s imaginative, self-reflective, and offhand personal meditation His Image (since I loved his 2006 feature film Wild Tigers I Have Known). Both of their short films are fine demonstrations of the slippery process of image-making, evoking the sometimes daunting task of capturing moving images in their transitory act of shifting and evaporating, thereby shaping montages within the context of our current world of sensory overload. (Plus, Caouette’s short includes some sonic collaborations by Simon Raymonde of Cocteau Twins and the great gay musician John Grant, so that alone made Caouette's new short film worth watching.)

One true highlight of the festival for me was the chance to talk with energetic young artists and filmmakers at the various parties around town throughout the week. During Saturday’s press luncheon I had a fun conversation with the talented actor Antonio Marziale, who recently starred in the 2018 Netflix film Alex Strangelove, just a day after I’d watched his edgy new gay short film Starfuckers, which he also wrote and directed. His daring short shows a ton of promise by crafting an atmospheric Hollywood revenge tale that’s both innovative and distinctively rendered in a poetically compressed timeframe. Later at the filmmaker party on Saturday night, I also enjoyed talking with Fredgy Noël about her new short documentary The House of Labeija, which re-contextualizes some key members of that legendary drag-ball house, first introduced to the world in Jennie Livingston’s 1991 classic documentary Paris Is Burning. I’d been teaching my students in my summer course about Crystal Labeija, the house’s founder, only a week ago, so I look forward to seeing Fredgy’s short when it begins streaming at noon today on the festival’s website for viewers anywhere in the world to watch.

Provincetown has always been and still remains today a collectivity of inspired and spirited misfits, coming together at the edge of the world to advance our creativity and create social and artistic change. As a longtime resident of Boston, I’ve been a regular year-round visitor to Provincetown for nearly three decades now, and I’ve been attending and reviewing the annual film festival for almost two of those decades. (The festival will soon be celebrating its 25th year in 2023.) Witnessing the collaboration of everyone who organizes such a fantastic film festival every year has provided me with many real lessons in community-building, and what a unique community of people it continues to be. As this year’s Filmmaker on the Edge honoree Luca Guadagnino hilariously summed it up during his conversation with John Waters at Sunday’s awards ceremony, “The only two people here who aren’t perverted are you and me, John.”

Saturday, March 12, 2022

Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road (dir. Brent Wilson, 2021)

Although I was born just a decade after the release of The Beach Boys’ 1962 debut album Surfin’ Safari, their music always felt to me kind of like the playfully distant past, steeped as it is in a carefully cultivated sense of pop nostalgia. Nevertheless, the legendary story and career of Brian Wilson still retain a certain allure for me, and it’s clear why so many other longtime listeners are equally drawn in by his continued trajectory through pop music history. Brent Wilson’s recent documentary Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road presents perhaps the most personal view of Brian Wilson’s contributions to that history, a truly close-up portrait in terms of artistry, musicianship, and emotion, along with insightful analysis and commentary from the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, Don Was, Linda Perry, Jakob Dylan, and even Nick Jonas (whose own career was launched, just like Wilson’s, in a popular band with his two brothers). The result is a film that’s intimate, moving, and at times heartbreaking in its exploration of Wilson’s art and world.

Brian Wilson’s guide and sidekick throughout the documentary is Rolling Stone writer and editor Jason Fine, whose easygoing and gently calibrated interviewing style helps to relax Wilson’s nerves and allay his anxieties about participating in the film, a very particular sort of skill that Fine has developed since Brian Wilson has been his “beat” at Rolling Stone since 1995. The majority of the documentary shows the two hanging out over a series of interview lunches at the Beverly Glen Deli, and mostly just driving around the streets of Los Angeles with a dashboard camera to revisit key landmarks from Wilson’s past, while talking and listening to music together. The ultimate impression those conversations leave is that Wilson must be among the sweetest musicians on the planet, one whose persona and disposition have been characteristically misunderstood by some throughout his time in the music industry, while also being unrelentingly championed by others who could see and understand the full picture. In examining both Wilson’s music and prominent factors from his upbringing and family, Long Promised Road travels some significant mileage to provide many important details and subtly fill in those gaps.

The aspect of Wilson’s experience that moved me most is just how much he’s survived, and how much loss he’s faced. His brothers Dennis and Carl (his closest Beach Boys bandmates, alongside band members Al Jardine and Mike Love) had both died at relatively early ages, dual tragedies that still register painfully in his eyes when Fine asks about his brothers. Wilson remarks that he wants to hear Dennis’ only solo album released during his lifetime, 1977’s celebrated Pacific Ocean Blue, when they get back to his house because he says that he’s never listened to it before at all, astoundingly, perhaps a willful avoidance of the memories it might dredge up. He sits back and listens intently and excitedly, clearly impressed with the songs as Fine streams them for him on a laptop. Based on Fine’s praise, I went back after watching the film and listened to Dennis’ “River Song,” the album’s opening track, and it’s indeed a fantastic creation that obviously owes a debt to Brian Wilson’s orchestrations of The Beach Boys’ classics in the studio years before.

Similarly, the film’s commentaries by fellow musicians gave me a whole new appreciation for Brian Wilson’s craftsmanship on some of the best songs from The Beach Boys’ catalog: “Good Vibrations” (which I previously had no idea was recorded at four different studios from verse to chorus to verse, but I can definitely hear that element in the song now), “California Girls,” “Long Promised Road,” the endlessly haunting “In My Room,” “Sail On Sailor,” and especially the seminal numbers from 1966’s Pet Sounds like “God Only Knows,” which famed music producer Don Was breaks down into separate vocal and instrumental tracks to demonstrate how ingeniously they’re layered. Bruce Springsteen speaks precisely about how the songs gave Wilson access to “the joyfulness of an emotional life,” which he could then share with listeners. The great singer-songwriter and producer Linda Perry perceptively notes how Brian Wilson’s competitive spirit has kept him in the game all the way up to the present moment, a competition not just with The Beatles’ album Rubber Soul, but mainly with himself. She comments that when she watches Wilson perform today, she sees not age but “fucking history, and continuing to make history.”

That thought returns to the notion of survival. Wilson and Fine openly address Wilson’s history of mental illness and his eventual diagnosis with schizoaffective disorder. Wilson mentions that from his youth onward, he would hear voices in his head taunting him and criticizing him, which seems linked to how his father, who’d managed The Beach Boys early on in their career, would verbally abuse him and often took things too far. For a sensitive artist like Wilson, it’s as though his mind became entrenched in a form of post-traumatic stress in the wake of that intense early criticism that he’d internalized. Wilson was fortunate to meet and marry his second wife Melinda just as his mental health was hitting its lowest point, a relationship that’s consummately recreated by actors John Cusack and Elizabeth Banks in the 2014 Wilson biopic Love & Mercy. Melinda has remained a steadfast partner and loving guardian to Wilson ever since, and the couple have adopted and raised several children together. As Elton John remarks, Wilson deserves as much praise for the integrity of his personal life as he’s received for the brilliance of his music.

After I watched the documentary, I noticed how many film critics online mentioned in their reviews that they found Wilson’s seeming lack of responsiveness to Fine’s interview questions to be “frustrating” because Wilson often simply states (and re-states) plain facts rather than rationalizing. Yet that seems to miss the point of Fine’s intentionally delicate, intuitive approach to interviewing Wilson, an approach that wisely takes the issue of neurodiversity into account. I’d suggest that the important part isn’t just documenting what Wilson says when he responds during interviews with Fine, but rather showing how exactly Wilson responds. For instance, there’s a stunning moment when Fine tells Wilson that Jack Rieley, who’d managed The Beach Boys at one point and also helped to produce their 1973 album Holland, had recently died. Wilson lets it sink in, says he wasn’t aware, asks how Rieley died, and stares ahead blankly. Then we realize that he’s quickly wiping away tears. A minute or two later, he says to Fine that it broke his heart to learn of Jack Rieley’s death, and it’s clear that Wilson is someone whose mind just processes emotions differently, and therefore causes him to express his emotions differently. Earlier in the film, he also tells Fine that it’s been three years since he’s had a friend simply to sit and talk with, and then we know where the profound solitude, insularity, and loneliness at the heart of a song like “In My Room” arises from. I think it’s something that every wonderful musician who still performs with Brian Wilson on stage today seems perfectly aware of, and it’s something that the audiences who enthusiastically embrace his live performances at his concerts know as well. They’re amazed and grateful that he’s still here to create and perform for us despite the difficulties, and Brian Wilson is just as amazed and appreciative that he’s made it through everything, too.

Saturday, January 1, 2022

Three Favorite Films of 2021

With the pandemic continuing throughout 2021, it was another highly unusual year for cinema, as movie theaters here in New England faced lengthy (and often quite sudden) shutdowns and hesitant re-openings as public health parameters shifted locally and globally. Some cinemas and theater chains didn’t survive those changes and the subsequent loss of film audiences when more people retreated to streaming films online at home. Somehow, I was able to keep myself going to see movies in person at cinemas throughout nearly the entire year, though the rollout of worthwhile new films was slow and halting, as film companies carefully measured and re-calibrated what might be worth releasing and when. Release schedules continued to get jostled around as film releases were postponed and timed for when they might get the best kind of audience response at the box office. Therefore, as with my year-end post for 2020, just three movies lingered with me most throughout 2021, and in each case, I was drawn to them as much for their subtle emotional pull as for their narrative and visual craft. I felt like these movies spoke to my own levels of sadness at the ongoing state of the world and offered some consolation and distant yet intimate company via their artistry.

It’s fitting that Heidi Ewing’s moving and relatively little-seen gay Mexican immigrant romantic saga I Carry You with Me was my favorite movie in a year when Jane Campion’s much-lauded, quasi-gay Western tragic epic The Power of the Dog could win Best Picture (and Best Director) at the Oscars. While Campion’s novel-like film is certainly finely made, intricately deployed, and superbly acted, its mystifying effect on the mostly straight audience that I saw it with seemed to be its intended goal, whereas a gay male viewer like me could easily see the planted curveballs coming. I Carry You with Me has fewer tricks up its sleeve, perhaps because it wears its heart more openly there, which isn’t to say that it’s a simple story, nor one that’s simply conceived. Based on the actual relationship of two of Ewing’s gay friends, Iván (Armando Espitia) and Gerardo (Christian Vásquez), a chef and a teacher, respectively, the film follows the two young men from their initial meeting at a club in Puebla, Mexico in the ’80s through their struggles to immigrate to New York City, to nearly the present day and their celebration of their time together running a restaurant there. I was engrossed in their story and right with them every step of the way, and the immigration scenes especially were some of most powerful I’ve seen on film. Their romance is equally well-developed and sincere, at a time when more movies still need that sort of earnest depiction of gay male characters.

Drama and hardship aren’t left out of the picture, of course, since Iván is a closeted and married father of a young son when he and Gerardo first meet, and both face intense and overt familial homophobia during their youth and upbringings. Machismo and the masculine pressure to conform in erasing any form of effeminacy in boys runs rampant throughout the culture, one in which fathers like Gerardo’s and Iván’s are pressured to punish and cruelly abandon their own young sons for the boys’ inability to meet their society’s unfair masculine standards. For that reason, it’s also quite uplifting and reaffirming to watch a gay film in which the characters can all transcend those hardships and eventually overcome their obstacles to actualize their dreams. The moment when Iván’s chance at fulfilling his ambitions finally arrives by happenstance in the kitchen of a Manhattan restaurant was perhaps the most moved I felt at the cinema this past year.

The best innovation of the movie is the twist in its latter half, when we meet the characters in their older incarnations; rather than using actors, all of the characters are simply portrayed at that point in the film by the real-life people themselves. It’s the perfect way for Ewing to balance the often dreamlike tone of the film’s first half and to allow these two men to claim their own story, as well as giving the audience a true opportunity to get to know them. (Also, it makes sense that the director would shift into documentary mode since her best-known previous films were documentaries.) Despite the acclaim that I Carry You with Me received at the Sundance Film Festival and at a few other awards ceremonies, it’s dispiriting that the movie earned under $200,000 at the box office upon its official mid-year release, which had been delayed by several months. Cinemas across much of the country were still just beginning to open up again at that point, and audiences were still somewhat wary of going to see movies in person at a movie theater, so clearly those factors were part of why few people have found the film. In an ideal world that would surely not be the case because this is an artfully rendered and deeply human movie that deserves to be widely seen.

Robin Wright’s Land, her feature directorial debut, was actually one of the first films that I saw at a cinema up in Maine in 2021, way back in late February, just after a shutdown of several months had closed the cinemas there. I didn’t expect to be as emotionally affected by the movie as I was, probably due to a combination of the film’s subject matter, the circumstances in which I watched it by myself in the back row of an almost empty theater, and mainly seeing it at the time when I did, during the first winter of isolation and solitude at the worst point in the pandemic. Just as central to the movie’s power is Wright’s enduring performance as Edee, full of soul and gravity, which lasts for the entire length of the film. Even more impressive, perhaps, is how nearly all of the movie takes place at a single location, inside and around a small cabin high up in the wilderness of the Rocky Mountains in Wyoming (though the actual filming location was in Alberta, Canada).

Edee has retreated there from city life, determined to live in the mountains alone on her own terms, in spite of the difficult conditions and warnings from a local man who drives her up the mountain and hesitantly drops her off. Much to its advantage, the film doesn’t reveal the reason why Edee has fled her former life until almost the end of the film; she only mentions that she didn’t want to be around any other people. She experiences some peace in autumn and tries to grow more accustomed to living on the land. As the season turns brutal and her winter alone on the mountain takes serious hold, however, her situation indeed disintegrates rapidly from grim to desperate to catastrophic. On some level, we know that her plan for this to happen was semi-intentional, that she in fact no longer wanted to be alive, and yet she’s able to force herself to continue to survive by focusing on thoughts of her sister Emma, to whom she speaks early in the movie before going permanently off the grid.

Her character comes quite close to meeting a painfully gruesome and untimely end, and then she’s saved by a shy and kind-hearted local hunter named Miguel (played by the extraordinary Mexican actor Demián Bichir) and his caring but skeptical friend Alawa (Sarah Dawn Pledge), who’s a nurse in a nearby town. After Edee’s health gradually returns, Edee and Miguel become friendly over time and begin to open up to one another, with all the right notes of chemistry and trust between the actors, until Miguel eventually disappears from Edee’s life without notice or explanation. She soon persuades herself to try to track him down, once she’s feeling fortified enough to interact with other human beings again and face civilization. I typically resist movies that seem to pile on the heaviness, but where the film went next in briefly re-connecting Edee with Miguel made perfect sense to me, again an absolute testament to the strength of the acting. By the end, the movie becomes a study in grief and how we navigate it, share it, help each other survive it, and then if we’re lucky, how we attempt to emerge from the shadow of it and move on. Although the source of Edee’s grief is far more tragic than anything that I’ve ever lived through, I related instantly and intuitively to her feeling of being unable to persist anymore, and I felt inspired by how she finds a sense of resolve through her friendship with Miguel to gently push herself forward. Not many films have made me cry twice, but Land was one of them.

The Green Knight, based on the medieval English narrative poem about young Sir Gawain, is the latest film that I’ve loved by David Lowery, who’s among the best American filmmakers working today. As with his previous films A Ghost Story and The Old Man & the Gun, Lowery again constructs a picaresque adventure tale in a way that’s never really been presented before, handling the inherent slipperiness of time and the scope of humanity in relation to it with both inventiveness and a relaxed sensibility that embraces subtlety and abstraction. His relationship to the original tale of Sir Gawain is grounded enough for all the signposts of the legendary Arthurian romance to remain recognizable, yet he reimagines and expands on plenty of the details to place his own cinematic mark on the text. The casting of Dev Patel as Sir Gawain, certainly, puts a significant contemporary spin on Gawain’s journey to find the Green Chapel where the treelike and thick-trunked Green Knight (resonantly voiced by Ralph Ineson) lushly resides, after Gawain swiftly beheaded him as a challenge during a dinnertime tale-telling at his uncle King Arthur’s Christmas feast. The deal is that the Green Knight will then return the blow and strike Sir Gawain’s neck to behead him in exchange exactly one year later.

From the importance of honor to the enduring power of nature, the various literary meanings and interpretations linger as echoes throughout the movie, while Sir Gawain’s own legend spreads throughout the land and he becomes a kind of medieval celebrity whose quirky, youthful abandon makes him crush-worthy and enviable. Puppet shows pop up in towns across the countryside, where children crowd in to watch playful re-enactments of the Green Knight’s beheading and foreshadow the one that’s predicted to befall Sir Gawain in return. Along his winding quest to find the Green Chapel, Gawain encounters a skeleton at the crossroads swaying in a rusty iron cage, a band of punky thieves and swindlers who plunder his goods and leave him for dead, an ominous talking fox as his somewhat faithful guide and sidekick, naked giants who roam silently across the land, and a Gothic castle with a Lord (Joel Edgerton) and Lady (Alicia Vikander) who share a seductive interest in Sir Gawain that’s both platonic and sexual, prompting a rather special appearance of Gawain’s magical green cloth belt that gives him his trademark brand of mojo throughout the film. Vikander appears in two roles in the movie: as the mysterious Lady who heightens Sir Gawain’s erotic experiences on a new and more electric level, while having also portrayed his peasant lover Essel earlier in the film.

The style of the movie reminded me more authentically of the totally awesome ’80s adventure tales like Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal than any other movie I’ve seen since then, though scores of other films have attempted to approximate that winning formula and fallen short of achieving it. (Lowery has also professed to being a major fan of Ron Howard’s 1988 fantasy epic Willow.) But the detail-rich imagery and mesmerizing auras that Lowery evokes throughout The Green Knight are far more ambitious and maturely realized than any of its well-meaning predecessors. The payoff when Sir Gawain finally arrives to kneel before the Green Knight in the secluded oasis of his Green Chapel feels both knowingly subdued and grandly opulent. It’s a finale that takes its time with plenty of silence and a sense of dutiful purpose, before it segues in Sir Gawain’s momentary panic into one of the greatest “my life flashed before my eyes” sequences that’s ever been committed to film, as Gawain is plunged headlong into ruling his own kingdom and the ensuing waves of public chaos and familial tragedy and personal loss. How the movie allows Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to peacefully part ways and take their leave of one another aspires to a higher notion of storytelling. Rather than simply proclaiming Gawain’s honor for his courage and willingness to lay down his life as promised, the film’s ending also asks us what it means to let someone fulfill his own narrative mission, as well as what it means to have mercy on the brave and vulnerable who surround us.