Sunday, January 7, 2024

All of Us Strangers (dir. Andrew Haigh, 2023)

Because I’ve already written at length here about my three favorite films of 2023 (Aristotle & Dante Discover the Secrets of the UniverseScrapper, and The Unknown Country), it makes sense to begin 2024 with a post about the film that I’d been anticipating the most this past year, but that I couldn’t see until it was released here in Boston in the new year at the end of the first week of January: Andrew Haigh’s latest gay cinematic exploration All of Us Strangers. While the movie wouldn’t quite have made my year-end Top 3 list anyway, I was still affected by the film, especially the earlier three-quarters of it. In loosely adapting his screenplay from the 1987 Japanese novel Strangers by the late Taichi Yamada, Haigh takes wide liberties to make the story serve his own narrative’s purposes. The result bends and expands conventional boundaries of gay-themed storytelling for the most part, a unique mixture of romantic fantasy and bleak realism that’s lingered with me even while not entirely convincing me of its aesthetic fortitude.

Andrew Scott and Paul Mescal star as two gay men living in a nearly abandoned high-rise tower block in London, and the two gradually become involved as they realize there’s not really anybody else around to lift their feelings of loneliness, a commentary both on contemporary urban malaise and the solitude of being a single gay man living in a sprawling cityscape. The movie’s tone and tactics operate on several levels as a form of magical realism; it’s a love story in which the passage of time slips backward and forward, as well as a ghost story in which the dead can fairly freely commingle with the living. The net of that device gets cast suddenly wider as the film moves toward its sad and gentle finale, after plumbing the depths of a serious childhood trauma that Andrew Scott’s character Adam, a writer who’s struggling to mine that exact material for a new screenplay, has endured for years but never fully outgrown.

Early in the movie, Haigh uses a clever device to draw us into Adam’s closer inspection of the tragic loss he faced at age 12. After he takes a train to the outskirts of London, a seeming cruising encounter on a suburban heath with a handsome man who beckons to him from the trees turns out soon after to be his own deceased father, at the same age as when he would have died, coaxing Adam through a kind of time portal to come back to his childhood home. Adam’s father and mother were lost in a fatal car accident, so he’s able through the intervention of these ghosts to re-examine his past wounds and converse with his parents about what his life has become since their death: as a creative artist and as a single gay man who at age 46 has just begun a tentative relationship with Paul Mescal’s younger and somewhat less conflicted character Harry. Jamie Bell and Claire Foy are excellent as Adam’s parents, stuck in time yet earnestly reaching across decades to try to comprehend how the world has changed since they exited it during the worst years of the AIDS epidemic, in a time before being a gay man in the United Kingdom had become a more mainstream phenomenon.

Andrew Haigh orchestrates the maneuvers of his central ensemble quite admirably throughout, directing the film with a delicate grace that maintains just the right amount of distance, giving Andrew Scott especially the space that his carefully calibrated performance requires to go where it needs to go. Scott keeps us intimately by his side as audience members, with the camera often gazing closely at his face, which makes the more emotional scenes work overall. It’s worth pointing out that the “flashback” scenes between Adam and his parents were filmed in the same Croydon house that Andrew Haigh himself had grown up in, so there’s an authenticity to how the three characters begin to re-connect and discover their tensions, empathies, and occasional disconnections from one another. Throughout all of it, Adam is returning to Harry at their empty tower block in London, until a ketamine-fueled scene with the two together out at a nightclub goes careening off the rails due to Adam’s pain and grief over preparing to lose his parents for a second time, as the return-to-childhood fantasy proceeds toward its inevitable end and begins to overwhelm him, along with threatening his newfound relationship with Harry.

It's an interesting experience, to say the least, to sit in a cinema and realize while looking at the people sitting around you that you’re the closest person in the audience to the film’s protagonist, and nearly an exact match for him: a writer, a gay man around 50 who came of age in the 1980s, and also one who hasn’t had a family at all since his teenage years. (I totally felt the precision of Haigh’s ’80s UK pop song choices for the movie’s soundtrack, from Fine Young Cannibals’ “Johnny Come Home” to Pet Shop Boys’ “Always on My Mind,” and especially The Housemartins’ “Build.”) Having been disowned at age 16 myself in part for being gay, I probably related a bit too closely to Adam’s predicament, even though his character’s loss happened in such a different way from my own. His disowning was accidental while mine was more intentional, though I think the effect is probably much the same. What does the idea of being disowned mean to most people, if they can even relate to it at all? It’s the experience of being cut adrift, which at once liberates you from the past while also binding you to it permanently since all of us must live connected somehow to ourselves as children and then as teenagers. Perhaps that’s one reason why I just sat there still and silent during the big emotional climax between Adam and his parents before their final departure, accompanied by scattered sniffles from around the audience. I’d already felt that myself long ago as a much younger person and had to steel myself against it back then, in order to survive what I’ve since survived.

There’s a muted quality to many of the movie’s scenes that I think serves the actors more than it serves the narrative or the audience, and maybe that’s part of why the last quarter of the film underwhelmed me in its final act. Though it cohered overall, both with the earlier parts of the film and within the final stretch, I’m not certain if it really aligned. The alignment might be with the source material itself, with which I’m unfamiliar, and the film ultimately didn’t inspire me to familiarize myself more with the source material either. I also noticed how clearly the movie’s closing image, as the camera slowly ascends into the dark night sky far above Adam and Harry embracing each other in bed, gives a hard visual nod not only to the opening of the music video for Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “The Power of Love,” the song selection that closes the movie, but also to the same final image in Gregg Araki’s 2005 film Mysterious Skin, in which two characters embrace and comfort each other alone together in the wake of re-connecting over their own deep and shared childhood traumas. Some viewers, of course, will find the ending somewhat bleak in our current era. (I’ve avoided tossing in the big spoiler.) I found it fitting, even if I wasn’t as markedly moved by it as I’d expected I would be.

Wednesday, November 1, 2023

9th Annual GlobeDocs Film Festival (October 25th - 29th, 2023)

The two films selected for the opening nights of this year’s GlobeDocs film festival could not have been programmed any better by the festival’s director Lisa Viola, and it’s rare that a couple of documentaries could be paired as well as these two films were. The festival hosted the world premiere of Isara Krieger’s excellent exploration of educational equity and opportunity, The Highest Standard, which takes an in-depth look at the daily struggles and lofty aspirations of a diverse group of 8th grade students at Beacon Academy here in Boston, all of whom are taking a year to prepare for applying to high-caliber, private preparatory high schools. The equally superb documentary American Symphony, in its New England premiere at the festival, covers a year or so in the life of the jazz/classical/R&B musician Jon Batiste, who was on the road to winning five Grammy Awards at the same time that his wife Suleika Jaouad was hospitalized to receive a bone marrow transplant and extensive treatments for cancer. The emotional wallop of watching both films back-to-back over two nights at Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline proved to be both intense and invigorating at once.

The Highest Standard is set mostly back in 2017 and focuses on three students in particular, Makai, Meleah, and Exavion, as they attend Beacon Academy day school and bounce between their school’s demands and support systems to their families’ ongoing tribulations and expectations. Given that their entire class of students is spirited and distinguished, I felt that these three individual students were well-selected by the filmmakers. Their stories complement each other and intertwine in deep and often surprising ways. We get glimpses early in the film of their “present day” statuses; Makai attended the post-screening Q&A and said that he was now ready to graduate as a Philosophy major at Tufts University (after having completed high school at St. George’s School in Rhode Island), for instance, while Meleah is an undecided major at Brown University and Exavion is attending a larger public university down south.

Meleah is an especially charming and lively subject throughout the film. She’s down-to-earth and honest about her reasons for being so interested in applying to attend Concord Academy back when she was finishing her middle school years. As someone who focuses on her academics and schoolwork (much to her father’s woe since he thinks it’s stressing her out too much), while still maintaining a social life and her offbeat sense of humor, she had a feeling that she would be teased or bullied if she had attended a public high school in Boston instead. It’s a special moment later in the documentary when her application to Concord Academy proves to be successful, and our glimpses into her life there as a resident assistant in her dorm later in the film are gratifying since we can see the maturity and sense of responsibility that she’s grown into, along with a clear upswing in her feeling of self-confidence, as well as her poise and direction.

Exavion (who goes by Zay once he starts high school) attended a private high school in New Hampshire, and he’s very open about the difficulties that he faced after the death of his grandmother, who champions his directions early in the film as the person who raised him as his guardian, due to his mother’s lengthy struggles with drug addiction. He’s also quite honest about the kinds of quietly racist attitudes that he encountered when he was attending high school in the countryside of New Hampshire, where he felt that white people on his campus were open to addressing racial issues but only in ways that suited or benefitted them. He emphasizes that really addressing the issues more openly at the school and dealing with the messy parts of what still makes something like race a mostly unaddressed issue at such a place needs to change now, so that the lives of all people on his high school’s campus could then be altered for the better.

Overall, however, all three students and their classmates at Beacon Academy are able to see how far they’ve come over time, and how much their lives were able to change in light of the many opportunities that were presented to them. We see them attending a museum field trip and analyzing paintings there side-by-side, and a whole world of ideas (in both the playful and serious senses of that phrase) just kind of opens up visibly for them right before our eyes on screen. Their teachers and administrators must also be commended for keeping them on a tight track to success since these particular students’ life circumstances often threw tremendous hurdles in their way. I was reminded a lot of the students whom I’ve advised and taught for nearly a decade now at UMass Boston, the vast majority of whom had graduated from Boston Public Schools and faced the same kinds of issues that students in The Highest Standard also faced themselves.

I can imagine that those students might also aspire to the sort of widespread success and acclaim that musician Jon Batiste has now experienced. He’s been nominated for fourteen Grammy Awards and won five statuettes, and he’s performed everywhere from Carnegie Hall to the nightly bandstand on Stephen Colbert’s popular television talk show. His music is a strong yet delicate and frequently astounding fusion of sounds, bridging his New Orleans jazz roots to the worlds of pop and soul (on stage, he’s the lovechild of James Brown, Little Richard, and Janelle Monae in a way), alongside a slice of contemporary classical compositions. The close-up look at his artistry in Matthew Heineman’s intensive documentary examination American Symphony is a very unique treat, one that digs beneath the surface of a true artist’s technique, in order to unearth the source of both his aesthetics and his humanity.

My favorite aspect of the documentary is just how real it gets at times. Batiste obviously gave very wide access to the cameras and Heineman’s crew. We have not only a front-row seat at his super-intimate wedding to his wife Suleika, but we also get to crawl right into bed beside him as he tosses and turns while speaking with his psychotherapist on the phone in their marathon remote therapy sessions. At one of his lowest points, he’s been awake for three days straight, deeply depressed about his wife’s physical condition in the midst of trying to prepare for his big Carnegie Hall show. Then right in the middle of that lifetime-highlight show, the electricity on stage goes out. To watch Batiste pause at his piano and plow right into the most incredible improvisational detour around that sudden and unexpected technological snafu is not only incredibly awe-inspiring, but it’s also a ground-level lesson about how we can face and overcome the most unanticipated types of adversity to transform them into being part of what drives our creativity.

I also enjoyed the more artful spins in Heineman’s film craft-wise, such as the framing that finds Batiste alone in natural settings. The movie opens in a freezing cold landscape of breath-clouds and marshes, which Batiste is traversing by himself with an instrument, an early potent metaphor for what he’ll be facing throughout the rest of the film. At the height of Suleika’s illness, we also see him wading out into the ocean when he’s at a stop on tour in Florida, wading out into the waves and crashing tides, again alone, to feel the force of nature push against him and sweep over his body. By the end of the documentary, I felt more respect for him as both a person and an artist than I’ve felt after watching any other documentary about a musical artist, perhaps, and that’s as someone who was mostly unfamiliar with Batiste’s music going into the documentary.

Batiste’s wife Suleika is nearly an equal focus in the movie, someone who’s not just there to cheer her husband on and bask in the Grammy-fueled glory of his musical adventures and successes, but also to closely collaborate with him as well, as a partner and as an artist herself. During her cancer treatments when her vision starts to blur, she turns from words and writing to paintings instead, creations that she shares with Batiste from her hospital bed, visual works from which he clearly draws inspiration and artistic fire when he’s working on his own musical compositions and interpretations. When Suleika is finally released from the hospital and is rolled along in her wheelchair, still in a very fragile state, down a hallway crowded with applauding hospital workers who let her cut a string draped across the exit doors to make her way back out into the world, it’s pretty much impossible for anybody watching the documentary not to be moved to tears.

Thanks to the awesome and generous staff at the Coolidge Corner Theatre, I was also fortunate that they let me just remain in my seat in Moviehouse 2 at the theatre to review Pedro Almodóvar’s bold new short film Strange Way of Life, starring Ethan Hawke and Pedro Pascal, which screened with his previous short film The Human Voice, starring Tilda Swinton. (Both short films feature stunning costumes since Yves Saint Laurent’s house of fashion funded the making of these short films.) I loved how unabashedly gay Strange Way of Life is because I still find in 2023 that gay cinema gets shunted off to the side and under-watched, especially if open physicality between male actors is involved. Let’s just be totally honest: the straight world simply does not get it most of the time, even when they think they do. But Pedro Almodóvar does entirely get it, and he lets Hawke and Pascal do ample work as a closeted western sheriff and his long-ago boyfriend, respectively, who weather a reunion night in bed together and a hardcore shoot-out (yes, the kind with guns). The Human Voice, as much as I adore Tilda Swinton, cohered a little bit less for me, more verve and style than substance, with Swinton swooping around swanky interiors swinging a shiny hatchet in the tizzy of a fraught monologue (inspired by Jean Cocteau and microtheatre) and the aftermath of a lost lover. I did appreciate the interview with Almodóvar that’s included with these shorts, in which he admits that while his fellow film directors feel that their future is in episodic television, he’ll just stick to making short films instead. I think that’s because he’s an actual artist and not just a commercial one. I could listen to (or read) him talking about absolutely anything. He’s that intelligent, and that unashamedly gay; it’s never a boring time with Pedro Almodóvar, and neither are these two distinctive shorts, which feel to me like a culmination and a distillation of his whole body of cinematic work at once.

Sunday, September 24, 2023

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (dir. Aitch Alberto, 2023)

Over the past couple of weeks, I watched Aitch Alberto’s film Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe a total of six times in cinemas, and I cried my eyes out three of those times. Between viewings when I wasn’t watching the movie, I was thinking about the movie. The movie never left my mind, and my heart remained right in the zone of the movie, too. The movie showed at only one cinema here in Boston, at AMC Boston Common, so that’s where I saw all of my screenings except for one last Sunday, which I watched from way at the top of the balcony of the gorgeous Art Deco cinema up in Brattleboro, Vermont called the Latchis Theatre, where I thanked the manager through my tears after the movie for showing it on the big beautiful screen in the historic main moviehouse. And now, before I say what I have to say about the film (which is quite a lot), I’ll make one really big statement: for me this movie is even better than Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, which is a movie that I still adore today, and as much as I totally and unendingly love Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in that film, the two young actors in this new movie, Max Pelayo (as Aristotle Mendoza) and Reese Gonzales (as Dante Quintana), give performances that are even deeper and more significant than those in Brokeback Mountain.

The film is adapted from Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s popular and groundbreaking 2012 young adult novel of the same title, which I read several years ago at the online suggestion of the gay novelist Garth Greenwell, who really championed its importance. The movie’s screenwriter and director Aitch Alberto, a Latina transwoman, has perfectly distilled what’s necessary to retain from the novel on every single level and translated it to film exactly in all of the right ways, stylistically and otherwise, and I honestly don’t think that the book could have been adapted any better than it is in this film. Apparently, there’s a much longer director’s cut, and although I could feel a few of the missing parts that trimmed the movie down from nearly three hours to about 90 minutes, I still felt that it all fit together admirably despite the standard commercial compromises that producers and studios often force upon directors. Aitch Alberto’s director’s cut will make its way to us someday, I’m fairly certain of that. What’s clear is that this director poured her entire heart and soul into making this movie, and into walking the slim tightrope to craft it in ways that will not only move a wide array of audiences internationally for decades to come, but will also actually help to save and reconfigure the lives of young LGBTQ+ viewers. Yes, this movie is that important.

At the film’s delicate center is Max Pelayo’s Ari Mendoza, a conflicted yet still hopeful young Mexican-American guy in high school in El Paso, Texas in 1987. He meets Reese Gonzales’ more outwardly cheerful and (semi) well-adjusted Dante Quintana that summer at a local swimming pool, where Dante teaches Ari how to swim since he’d never learned. The tenderness of those opening scenes, leading up to and including the film’s opening title card, could not be more flawlessly balanced and conceived. The year 1987 happens to be my favorite year in pop culture, and I was whisked right back to my own youth as a struggling soon-to-be-gay kid in Cincinnati, Ohio by the film’s details and specificities. All of this is done in a very gentle way, so that we’re immediately invested in the complicated interplay between these two characters. Pelayo and Gonzales expertly (especially as younger actors) set up their dichotomy, and what’s fascinating is how the relationship of the two boys in the film develops gradually and intimately but not necessarily along the definitive lines of sexuality itself, though that does eventually arise as the two boys come of age via a series of letters that they write back and forth to one another when Dante’s English professor father Sam (Kevin Alejandro, an adorable dad if ever there was one) takes his family away from El Paso to Chicago due to a university teaching gig for a year.

By that point in the narrative, Ari and Dante have already cemented their intense friendship. Dante shares with Ari some poetry and art to try to open him up. Ari’s heart has mostly clamped shut because his parents’ hearts have also closed somewhat, for tragic reasons that are revealed to us later in the film regarding Ari’s older brother Bernardo, who’s in prison. I wish that the amazing Latinx cast of older actors who portray the parents and guardians of Ari and Dante, actors who are all so excellent in finely calibrated roles — from the wonderful Eva Longoria as Dante’s caring mom, to the remarkable Eugenio Derbez as Ari’s distant yet loving father, to the touching Valerie Falcón as Ari’s deeply supportive mother, to the luminous Marlene Forte as Ari’s doting lesbian aunt, Tia Ophelia — would receive the kind of attention they so fully deserve for their performances (such as a Screen Actors Guild Award for Best Ensemble, to be honest).

What’s subtle and tucked away in the corners of the film is equally as powerful as those actors who are front and center; for instance, the smartly timed reappearances of a pair of birds high above in flight that Dante remarks look “so free” when he first sees them overhead during a scene with Ari early in the movie. Several other intelligent stylistic details it took me all six viewings to finally notice, such as the subtlety with which some Christmastime scenes are framed. Unlike most mainstream movies that make a big to-do about Christmas scenes, mainly for releases later in the year, here we get only a brief “Merry Christmas” in a letter from Dante to Ari, along with a magical faint blue glow at the very edge of the screen during a scene inside Ari’s home, which I finally realized were Christmas tree lights around a silver (and intentionally slightly out-of-focus) ornament nestled in its branches. Some of the El Paso landscapes and multicolor sunsets were clearly influenced by Robby Müller’s seminal cinematography in Wim Wenders’ now-legendary 1984 film Paris, Texas, a great visual touchstone for Aitch Alberto and the talented cinematographer Akis Konstantakopoulos to refer back to.

There’s also a short but pivotal scene in which Ari, who’s sixteen, finds a way to get himself a six-pack of beer by having an older guy buy it for him at a local convenience store. The older guy (precisely portrayed by Marcelo Olivas), who’s clearly gay and playfully says that he’s 45 when Ari asks, has a few moments of interaction with the teenager that reveal more about the deep complexities of intergenerational issues in the gay male community than just about any other scene that I’ve ever seen on screen. The important aspect is that this is accomplished in part through great acting and minimal dialogue, but it’s conveyed even more through mood, as well as through some small yet knowing glances and tiny gestures, something that felt vividly real to me (while bordering on a kind of magical realism) each time I watched that scene again. The subtle intensity of that brief exchange between the two characters captures something that many, many other films have tried to achieve before and never quite accomplished. This scene, in its backlit sense of mystery, as seen from Ari’s younger point-of-view, totally does.

Of course, since Ari and Dante are high schoolers, we get a good serving of nostalgic details that align with mid-’80s John Hughes classics: upturned shirt collars, constant teasing about who fits in and who doesn’t, neon-toned clothing and bangles, plus a beautiful Latina leather-clad goth girl temptress (Luna Blaise’s sweetly realized Elena Tellez) to lure Ari just a bit while Dante is away with his family in Chicago. I will mention only vaguely two more abrupt and violent scenes later in the film, on which the entire narrative depends, and on which its grounding in harsher realities and truths about our world firmly rests. We would not be able to arrive at the film’s cathartic conclusion in a desert landscape outside of Ari’s old 1957 pick-up truck without those more difficult scenes, so it’s important that audiences of all ages endure those two scenes, in order to understand their key purpose in the film.

I haven’t seen a more gorgeous or moving ending to any film in several years now. Though it’s culturally complex in a number of ways, I’ll try to explain why. After Ari kisses and briefly rejects Dante until a tragic turn sends him back into Dante’s hands, the two young men are then forced to confront what their relationship to one another actually is, and with the loving support of both of their families, what it might mean to their futures. Ari Mendoza is the film’s protagonist, tortured and shifting from his closeted adolescence into his more liberated adulthood. To hear him finally express, in so many words, that he was afraid of being gay himself (and therefore also afraid of Dante), and that he won’t be afraid to love Dante Quintana, is a transcendent moment that also cuts two ways, not because it isn’t earnest since it clearly is, but because I think, in the real world outside of transformational fiction, it’s probably incredibly rare, especially between two young men. I’d like to see a mainstream film in which the protagonist is the more openly gay and more outwardly effeminate Dante. Where is his story? And why is this essentially Ari’s story instead? I think it’s because the people who really need to see this film and benefit from watching it are the young guys like Ari all over in the greater world, though of course, they’ll be the ones least likely to watch it in a cinema. Every audience of the six I viewed the film with were nearly all teenage girls, or young women who’d recently been teenage girls when they’d read the book that the film was based on. The guys like Ari out there in the world may be more likely to find and watch the movie a bit more privately when it's streaming online, or at least that's my hope. Our world will change if they see this film and its core message reaches them.

Masculinity and its inherent social expectations entrap both Ari and Dante, along with entrapping the other young men in the film. The movie’s open-hearted, climactic finale (as well as its cosmically beautiful denouement) gives a solid and loving push towards toppling those unfair, damaging, and compulsory gendered expectations. While I have no doubt that there are young gay male romantic couples out there like Ari and Dante, some of whom actually do commit to one another and make it happen together, I’m not convinced that it’s at all widespread amongst the gay male population, though I’d also like to believe that it’s more than just a mere fantasy. Those young men out there who do find any kind of love like Ari and Dante should count themselves very lucky.

Sunday, September 3, 2023

The Unknown Country (dir. Morrisa Maltz, 2023)

This past week, I drove north to Rockland, Maine, and then also took the ferry out to Provincetown on Cape Cod to watch Morrisa Maltz’s film The Unknown Country on the only two screens on which it was showing in all of New England. The film stars Lily Gladstone as Tana, a young Native American woman who, in the wake of her grandmother’s death, takes a long road trip to return to the reservation on which she grew up, from Minnesota to South Dakota, reconnecting with people and places from her past along the way. After finding a photo album of her late grandmother’s own road trip off the reservation when she was a young woman herself, Tana decides to trace her grandmother’s footsteps and visits the places in her photographs, extending her travels south to Dallas, Texas, and the desert wilderness in the surrounding landscape there. Not only is The Unknown Country my favorite film this year, but I think it’s also, after my two close viewings of the film, one of the most important movies to be released in the past decade.

Most of the figures whom Tana encounters on her picaresque journey aren’t actors but real people portraying themselves in the film, so it’s a smart fusion of fictional framework with a documentary heart. Tana attends the wedding of her cousin Lainey Bearkiller Shangreaux to her husband Devin in a moving scene during which the couple exchange their heartfelt personal vows because of how their family had tried to keep the two of them apart when they were younger. Their solution was to “get pregnant” in order to have even more of a reason to stay together. Tana also crosses paths with a man who runs a motel, a woman who owns a local dancehall, and a group of like-minded young adults during a freewheeling night of fun out in the city. These side stories throughout the narrative become the film’s focus in the same way that Alma Har’el’s film Bombay Beach did with the longtime denizens who live around the Salton Sea in California. Through hearing about the lives of these diverse individuals, we’re given an authentic collective snapshot of America, our sprawling country that’s otherwise nearly impossible to succinctly summarize or explain to those from outside of our culture.

That The Unknown Country is a Native American woman’s story goes a long way towards redeeming a particular strand of American life that often gets completely ignored. Lily Gladstone’s performance in the film is for me among the finest in cinematic history, to be honest. Her consummately expressive face gives her an ideal opportunity to show her complete emotional range throughout the movie’s 86 minutes. The power of her performance is the exact opposite of most powerhouse performances in that there’s no trumpeting of any kind, just pure raw honesty. Yet the film’s tactics and parameters are also poetic and elliptical. We’re not given details about Tana’s journey and her past in any outright ways, but rather through subtle implications and shadings of emotion. In two separate scenes, we can sense that something violent may have happened to Tana in her relationships with men, given her look of fear and potential panic when a few men linger near her in menacing ways during those two scenes. The film doesn’t rest on those moments, however, but rather incorporates them into the flow of the rest of the movie.

Accompanying Tana’s journey on the film’s soundtrack are stunning songs by Neil Halstead of the shoegaze band Slowdive, as well as intermittent radio broadcasts with carefully selected and edited commentaries from across the American divide on various talk shows. Through our hearing and being reminded of those divisions, the film builds deeper connections to the history of genocide of indigenous people in this country, the still-open wound that we should all be more aware of living with on a daily basis in our capitalist country that’s built entirely on stolen land. An older woman from Tana’s tribe tells her how the land itself will heal her, advice that echoes vastly across the film’s mesmerizing and engrossing landscapes, thanks to Andrew Hajek’s brilliant cinematography. We as a culture will never be able to move beyond that wound of our ignored, shared history unless we can fully acknowledge the effects of that violent past on our present and future lives. The current trend of making “land acknowledgments” is only the very tip of the iceberg in that regard.

The film excavates this most effectively through its main thematic focus on individual and communal grief, past and present. As Tana carries her grandmother’s memory across the countryside, we witness her grief up close, sometimes in quick downward glances, and at other times in fully exposed ways when she breaks down in tears in bed late one night. I think the film asks some important questions. What exactly is grief? How do we navigate it, both by ourselves and as a culture? What effect does grief have on us over time? Does it permanently change us? Many widescreen shots in the film show Tana threading her way through snow-covered fields and roadways in an older car that kind of resembles a white hearse, so in that sense, I felt like Lily Gladstone’s character is carrying the collective grief for all of us.

When Tana visits her grandmother’s brother, Grandpa August (beautifully portrayed by Richard Ray Whitman), he gives her a small blue suitcase packed with some of her grandmother’s belongings, including a vintage white cotton dress with a simple print. At the film’s quietly climactic finale, Tana ascends to a windy mountaintop vista wearing that dress, recreating a photograph of her grandmother’s as she stood in the exact same place. That moment and image flawlessly open up the floodgates of the past, connecting Tana not only to her grandmother, but also to the deep well of time itself. She’s now the fountain through which that healing and empowering tributary can flow. The Unknown Country is that rarest of things: a perfect and seamless film.

Sunday, August 13, 2023

A Brief Treatise on Moviegoing

I turn fifty-years-old next month, and one of the only places where I still feel comfortable in public anymore at this point in my life is in a cinema during the screening of a film. Preferably, the cinema is empty except for me. I want total silence, I want total darkness, and I want absolutely zero distractions. Fortunately, this does actually happen for me sometimes at cinemas in remote locations up in the awesome state of Maine, as it did just last weekend when I went to see a matinee of the new movie Dreamin’ Wild, a beautiful little film that I'm quite certain almost nobody else out there will see. The very next day at the same matinee showtime, I watched that same movie again at the exact same totally empty cinema, in order to experience that same feeling of solitude and isolation yet again as my mind unspooled into the anticipated parameters of the film, parameters that I already knew and remembered from just the day before.

The world is erratic and chaotic for someone whose neurological disposition, like mine, depends on clear-cut routines. That’s how I get through daily life. Movies at cinemas begin on schedule, and barring any unforeseen technical issues (which rarely ever arise these days with automated digital projection booths), they also end on schedule. What unfolds in between those bookends both suspends the chaos outside and also lifts me out of it. I can just relax, something I can’t do when I walk back outside the cinema’s doors. Other people in the general public today are just too unpredictable, too unreliable, and as mean as it may sound, too disappointing in my five decades on this planet.

I prefer to interact with other people through the things that they create. Moviegoing as an experience is an immersion in that relationship. Going to a concert or to a live theatrical performance is also great but never quite the same. I prefer to plane out the element of spontaneity. I want the mechanical exposition of the narrative, a worthwhile narrative, one that can deepen with repeated viewings and lodge itself deeper into me, and in a way that can’t be rewound or fast-forwarded through. I simply want to see what I’m seeing, feel what I’m feeling, think what I’m thinking, and then contemplate it critically alone in my own head afterwards.

Now let me take a kind of inverted but intentional detour. For the past thirty years, I’ve lived in and around the city of Boston. I’m gay, and during those three decades, I’ve had various kinds of physical encounters with about 2,000 other gay men (plus a handful of straight and bisexual ones, obviously), which equates to an average of roughly one guy per week. (If that sounds like a lot to you, then perhaps you can find some reassurance in knowing that it’s less than half of the number of such encounters experienced by the gay Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas as he notes in his memoir Before Night Falls; furthermore, Arenas died of AIDS-related complications in New York City at the age of only 47, so his pace was way faster than mine.) Like the great gay Greek poet C.P. Cavafy, I now live with my vividly cinematic memories of those encounters since after age forty, it’s been mostly crickets for me in that regard, especially once those encounters ceased to be fulfilling for me because I felt like I was never being seen as a whole person by the guys with whom I met up.

Hence the unreliability and resulting disappointment in other people that I mentioned previously. I could go into the reasons why I think that’s the case (both for me and for the other gay men whom I’ve met), but I think I’ll just avoid psychologizing it and let it rest as a hard fact: the overwhelmingly vast majority of gay men don’t treat each other very well as a general rule (and why would we when society-at-large doesn’t treat us very well either?), and in many cases I’m certain that gay men don’t even care if other gay men whom they meet on the fly even survive or not. Hey, it’s a big world and a big ocean. One with lots of other fish swimming around in it.

So yeah, I’ll take my artful entertainment (at least when I get lucky by purchasing the right ticket at the box office) that begins on time, ends on time, keeps me company in between for about two hours in a comfortable air-conditioned space, and doesn’t make me feel the kinds of things about my own existence that I’d rather not feel. I’ll take a screen full of perfect male faces and bodies like those in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Outsiders, some cheap and finely positioned objects of beauty that I can admire and love, and not care that they won’t admire and love me back.

Monday, June 19, 2023

25th Annual Provincetown International Film Festival (June 14th - 18th, 2023)

I went into this year’s Provincetown International Film Festival looking forward to seeing one face in particular: Harris Dickinson’s in his latest movie Scrapper. I first saw him on screen at this same film festival several years ago in Eliza Hittman’s mesmerizing film Beach Rats, and I remain just as captivated by him now as I was then. No other actor of his generation possesses such an intense, seductive stare. As the character Jason in Charlotte Regan’s feature film debut Scrapper, a heartfelt if scrappy father-daughter reunion tale set in the UK, Harris is in a certain peroxide-blond mode inherited from Daniel Day Lewis’s Johnny in My Beautiful Laundrette, a punky streetwise British drifter on the boyish side of 30 in more ways than one. After ditching his fatherly responsibilities at age 18 to carouse around the European continent following the birth of his daughter Georgie (Lola Campbell, who’s pitch-perfect), he’s hesitantly beckoned to return home in the wake of her mother’s death. The film opens with 12-year-old Georgie fearlessly fending for herself in their council estate flat, with the help of a few friends and neighbors, until Jason turns up at her doorstep, not a re-appearance that she welcomes at first.

It's interesting that Scrapper follows so closely on the heels of Charlotte Wells’ Oscar-nominated film Aftersun, a movie that I wasn’t particularly fond of, even if I understood all of the supposed reasons why many critics praised it. I didn’t buy the elliptical quality of Aftersun because it leaned too heavily on what remains unsaid and indeterminate, narratively. Art is often more valuable when it’s less impressionistic and more decisive, and Scrapper gradually and gently cracks open its deeper emotions by following that path instead. There’s still a lot of playfulness involved in how the otherwise irreverent and less-than-dependable Jason coaxes Georgie to warm up to him slowly after her initial blunt resistance to his presence. Many of the scenes in which the two dance or invent unusual little games for themselves seem partly improvised and are definitely intriguing to watch due to their sense of spontaneity. Because of the childlike ways in which he tries to teach himself how to care for his daughter, we’re willing to forgive Jason’s directionlessness (the two make money by stealing and hustling bicycles), at least until he temporarily knocks himself off-track again. When he discovers Georgie’s imaginary plan to construct and move to her own little tower made entirely from random pieces of salvaged scrap metal, he questions whether he’s equipped to have any place in her life. The scene that follows, in which Georgie listens to the voicemail that her mother had sent to Jason to convince him to return home and take care of his daughter, features the most moving and hardest-earned single tear that I’ve ever seen from a child actor.

Angus MacLachlan’s new film A Little Prayer is another movie that I was looking forward to in this year’s festival because Junebug, for which he wrote the screenplay, is still somewhere in my Top 20 movies of all time nearly two decades later. A Little Prayer is cut from a similar cloth, a family domestic drama that takes place mostly inside the household amongst the same southern milieu. The majority of the dramatic scenes, several of which are top-notch in every way, also focus on a father’s relationship with his daughter-in-law. One of them late in the film on a woodland bench mirrors a nearly identical scene near the end of Junebug, along with echoing the emotional scenes at the end of two of Kenneth Lonergan’s films, You Can Count on Me and Manchester by the Sea. When I asked Angus MacLachlan about it following the screening that I attended, he said, “I love being compared to Kenny Lonergan,” as well he should.

The father this time around is played by the great David Strathairn in a flawless turn as Bill, who’s forced through a series of revelations to scrutinize his family in ways that he wasn’t prepared to do, and much of the movie’s dramatic engine is powered by intergenerational conflicts, in the sense that the older generation doesn’t quite comprehend why the younger generation flounders as much as it does. Celia Weston as the hilariously quippy (verging on critical) matriarch Venida matches David Strathairn scene for scene, and it’s gratifying to watch these two actors work together that way at the very peak of their craft. The dialogue is often deceptively realistic; it seems simple but isn’t at all easy to write or capture as finely as MacLachlan does. After the film’s biggest plot twist is revealed, Bill asks Venida, “Am I just supposed to play dumb?” to which she replies without missing a beat, “Yes, you’re good at that.” He takes the opposite approach and watches the house of cards come tumbling down around him.

It's hard to convey the rest of the plot without giving things away, so it’s probably best to say that opioid addiction and alcoholism both arise, as do marital infidelity and abortion. The younger actors navigate this little onslaught of issues expertly throughout the movie, especially Will Pullen as Bill’s son David, a military veteran who also works at his father’s place of business, and Jane Levy as Tammy, Will’s wife who’s stuck around for longer than she’d planned. Levy has a couple of extraordinary scenes that could do for her career what Junebug did for Amy Adams. A scene of Levy’s at a medical clinic is carefully filmed in a 360-degree close-up shot, so that we can witness her character experience an entire range of feelings in a single short monologue. And in her later scene with Bill on the woodland bench, her words “Nobody has ever paid as much attention to me as you,” delivered in such an unadorned manner, will linger for a very long time with anybody who hears them.

It's Only Life After All, Alexandria Bombach’s documentary about the popular lesbian folk duo Indigo Girls, hits the requisite notes and runs out of fuel about halfway through the film, though I enjoyed the first half of it, having been a longtime fan of Indigo Girls’ songs over the years, especially those on their first four albums. More focus on the lyrical content and the albums themselves would have been nice, yet it’s clear why the documentary would swerve more into the lives and perspectives of Amy Ray and Emily Saliers instead. Following the pair from their initial friendship as schoolmates in Georgia to their current time-tested musical partnership, the film is most successful when it gives Ray and Saliers a chance to contextualize their music and explain what it arose from. An interviewer asks them in some vintage footage what they hope their audience will get out of their music. Amy replies, “Self-esteem,” while Emily responds, “Shared experience.” As reasons for creating any kind of music in the pop/rock realm, those are about as open-hearted as it gets.

I also appreciated how much LGBTQ-related material made it into the film. Ray and Saliers both movingly discuss the homophobia they faced while growing up in Georgia, and the ways in which internalized homophobia by extension affected each of them. I wasn’t formerly aware of John Blizzard, a gay man who’d helped jumpstart their career at his Little 5 Points pub in Atlanta before succumbing to AIDS in the 1990s. There’s also a biting and important segment of the documentary during which Amy and Emily take turns reading and mocking passages from a New York Times review of their music by rock critic Jon Pareles; they point out the various kinds of latent or blatant and long-standing sexism that often lurks behind the criticism lobbed at them. Regardless, I still spent a good part of the film singing along with my favorites from their catalog.

A totally different brand of documentary that really blew me away was Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music, a massive and totally meticulous undertaking that had the entire audience at Provincetown’s Town Hall on its feet by the finale of the movie. I first heard Taylor Mac perform in Provincetown about fifteen years ago as an act in Ryan Landry’s weekly Showgirls showcase, so seeing the documentary about Mac’s biggest concert undertaking really brought things full-circle for me. The film powerfully captures the communal experience of Mac’s 24-hour performance piece, which Mac performed only once in its entirety back in October of 2016 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The show features 239 songs spanning the 24 decades from 1776 to 2016 as a way to comment on the glittering Dumpster fire of United States history. That also makes the show nearly impossible to synopsize, which is clearly among its many intentions.

Mac mentions early in the film that the idea for the performance piece arose from the AIDS epidemic and the tragic amount of loss that it caused. In each successive hour of the show, one member of the company leaves the stage, and by the time Mac’s amazing costume designer Machine Dazzle departs late in the show, Mac remarks directly on the parallel to losing so many talented young gay men during the height of the AIDS epidemic. All of the songs that Mac carefully researched and chose to incorporate in the show work to staggering effect, but the most memorable ones are those that lodge a potent message in an unexpected way, like Mac’s brave rendering and reclamation of Ted Nugent’s overtly effeminophobic lyrics in his song “Snakeskin Cowboys.” Audience involvement is key throughout the concert; for instance, at one point Mac instructs the audience members to find another concertgoer who shares their gender for a romantic slow-dance amongst strangers. The cumulative impact of these scenes is deeply moving because Mac demonstrates just how separate we’ve become from each other, while also providing a communal, artistic remedy for that widespread cultural problem.

Austin Bunn’s Campfire won this year’s festival award for Best Queer Short Film, an accolade that it totally deserves. I’m an admirer of Bunn’s two excellent previous shorts, important LGBTQ historical pieces titled Lavender Hill and In the Hollow, and his latest short film rounds out his trilogy with both strength and tenderness. The film takes place at Hillside Campgrounds in New Milford, Pennsylvania, which has provided a natural refuge for gay men since its founding in the mid-1980s. Bunn includes documentary interviews in which longtime campers mention how they could finally be themselves once they entered Hillside’s big green gates. That footage is supplemented by a fictionalized narrative about an outwardly straight middle-aged man named Carl (Mark Rowe), who visits Hillside in search of a man whom it’s suggested he was romantically or sexually involved with long ago, Marty (Carlos Cardona), a hot guy that appears in a series of hazy, sunlit, beautifully shot flashbacks.

Campfire is a fantasy tale on multiple levels. Not only is Carl hoping to find Marty again many years later; he’s also making something of an attempt to come out later in life, a change he resists in the course of the film and then opens up to more as he grows comfortable with the men at the campground, most of whom are nonchalantly cheerful bears who are undisturbed by his presence. I’ll leave the subplot with Marty unexplained for those who want to watch the short, and I’ll just say instead that the narrative culminates in an emotional resolution that I hadn’t been anticipating, one that reminded me of a Radical Faeries camp that I’ve visited several times up in Vermont over the years. During the festival this weekend, it was fun to catch up with Austin (whom I’d initially met in Provincetown back in 2015) and meet the actor who plays George in the short, George Hoxworth, an easygoing guy who welcomes Carl to the campground and sweetly urges him toward what he seems to be looking for.

I’ve always loved the photography of George Platt Lynes, whose work I first encountered just after I came out as gay at age 18. He’s best known for his classically inspired male nude portraiture, though he also worked in commercial fashion photography and was the principal photographer for the New York City Ballet for thirty years. Hidden Master: The Legacy of George Platt Lynes, a superb documentary directed by Sam Shahid, gives the artist long-overdue exposure through close examination of his life and work, a collection of photography that’s been somewhat neglected by art historians, in part due to the bold and unflinchingly sensual quality of his images, and also perhaps in part because of his own sexuality. His photographs seem born out of shamelessness, an early sense of pride, and a touch of youthful vanity, yet there’s also a consistent seriousness to George Platt Lynes’ photographs, which aspire to an aesthetic achievement beyond all of those qualities.

Platt Lynes and his ever-shifting body of male models formed a sexual identity-based community at a very specific point in gay history, prior to Stonewall and the gay liberation movement, a community that one historian in the film argues wasn’t really all that closeted for its time period, thereby debunking claims that gay men couldn’t be fully out in that earlier era as simply untrue. The years during which George Platt Lynes made his art in the 1930s and 1940s may have been less hospitable to gay men in a wider public sense, but in their semi-secluded circles, those men were able to socialize and meet friends and lovers in a way that was actually quite contemporary.

George was involved in a longtime threesome with the writer Glenway Wescott and his partner Monroe Wheeler, the latter of whom George took very intimate and sometimes explicit photographs with, and then left them behind in an envelope marked “Private.” Platt Lynes was also linked to other well-known figures in his lifetime, including the famed sex researcher Alfred Kinsey, and the Kinsey Institute houses a number of Platt Lynes’ photos. Despite his artistic successes, George Platt Lynes’ career gradually ended in a kind of slow-motion ruin that left him penniless and somewhat obscure by the time he died of cancer in 1955. His lack of more widespread and longterm acclaim is largely due to the cultural anxieties surrounding his unashamed images of male nudity, but this new documentary goes a long way towards attempting to revive George Platt Lynes and his photographs back into broader recognition and historical relevance.