Sunday, October 17, 2021

7th Annual GlobeDocs Film Festival (October 13th - 17th, 2021)

The return of the excellent GlobeDocs film festival here in Boston this past weekend found the Boston Globe’s annual documentary film festival in its seventh incarnation and its first “hybrid” year, with select films screening in person at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline and the Brattle in Harvard Square, as well as streaming virtually online, so that viewers could watch some additional films remotely at home. The three documentaries that I enjoyed most in this year’s festival are also the films that I’d most anticipated watching, and as always, the subject matter was rich and diverse: from tracing acclaimed pop singer/songwriter Alanis Morissette’s rise to stardom over 25 years ago in Jagged, to exploring the lives and works of celebrated LGBTQ comic book artists and graphic novelists in No Straight Lines: The Rise of Queer Comics, to movingly recreating via animation the turbulent immigrant journey of a young gay man from Afghanistan in the brilliant Flee.

I’d been curious to watch Alison Klayman’s Jagged ever since Alanis Morissette publicly denounced the film last month and somewhat distanced herself from its depiction of her life from her teenage years to the present, saying that she wouldn’t be appearing at any film festivals or release events in support of the documentary. Alanis is candidly interviewed in her home for a good portion of the movie, and I can imagine that such in-depth interviews do probably get fairly tiresome over time, especially when trying to articulate one’s personal views on such long-ago memories. Then when they’re shaped into a filmmaker’s own narrative, re-sequenced, and subjected to editing, often what the interview subject intended to convey can come across quite differently. Morissette mentioned that being interviewed during the pandemic after the birth of her third child also made it more difficult to feel emotionally steady throughout the filming.

This is especially true when the topic of Alanis’ early relationship experiences with older men who were involved in her career arises. She’s already handled that sensitive subject expertly in the lyrics of her own songs, both in one of her first runaway hits, “You Oughta Know,” and what I consider to be the finest song in her catalog, “Hands Clean.” While she makes a point of saying that she chose never to be vindictive in those songs or to publicly shame anyone in particular, she also looks back and realizes how vulnerable she was when she was still just a teenager. Those songs were intended as a clear warning to younger and underage women about the kinds of predatory dangers that seem to be dressed up in the guise of some romantic pursuits, and in a way, Morissette was a boldly prophetic figure of the #MeToo movement long before it existed as such. In part, this was an aspect of her music that helped shape her appeal to her core audience.

Jagged focuses mostly, however, on the album release and extensive worldwide tour for Jagged Little Pill back in the mid-’90s, and how exactly she became associated with her co-writer and producer Glen Ballard while landing a record deal with Madonna’s Maverick “boutique” label. We see plenty of archival footage of Alanis and the guys in her touring band back in those days. If there’s an aspect of her life that the documentary left me wanting to learn more about, it was her relationships, but for the reasons mentioned above, it’s also obvious why she would now be working diligently to keep those kinds of details about her life strictly private. The film does cover some of Morissette’s family life in her early years growing up in Canada, now perhaps juxtaposed with the shots of a savvy businesswoman speedily handwriting her way through boxes of special-edition autographed vinyl copies of Jagged Little Pill at her home before they’re shipped off to fans. Despite that distancing, the film does close with a very sweet rendition of her recent song “Ablaze” while she’s holding her young daughter and performing the song remotely for Jimmy Fallon’s late-night talk show. I was hoping to see more about that side of Alanis.

For its very different approach to a pop cultural rise into mainstream visibility, I found Vivian Kleiman’s No Straight Lines: The Rise of Queer Comics both informative and entertaining. I’ve always paid only peripheral attention to comics as an artistic medium, so the documentary was more of a learning experience for me at times. The film provides a consummate overview of the history of how LGBTQ comics gradually transformed from an underground, anti-censorship driven phenomenon in the wake of the Stonewall Riots into a widespread communal artistic enterprise in the ’80s and ’90s, and finally to gaining mainstream recognition through the event of a cultural touchstone like Alison’s Bechdel’s Fun Home (and its ensuing, Tony Award-winning musical stage adapation) over the past fifteen years or so. A wide array of cartoonists and graphic novelists are interviewed, both from a roster of older, more established comic book artists and a diverse line-up of younger emerging “next generation” LGBTQ figures as well.

I was particularly interested in seeing some of the inner processes of drawing and reproduction that go into making graphic novels, which the interviews with Alison Bechdel detail in fairly intricate fashion, showing elements of her hand-drawn style in close-ups while she’s working. Another figure who’s central to the documentary and whose work was fairly new to me was Howard Cruse. The founder and editor of the Gay Comix anthologies in the early ’80s, as well as his own well-known gay comics creation Wendel, he’s referred to in the documentary as “the godfather of gay comics” and sadly died quite recently near the end of 2019, when the documentary was in the process of being completed. He seemed to be an ongoing fixture in the LGBTQ comic book community that many of his contemporaries and younger artists sought out for advice about the business. We also see some moving domestic scenes of him and his longtime partner hanging out together at home in their older years, alongside corresponding images from a comic book that he created about older gay people who are often left out of the cultural LGBTQ discussion.

I’d heard wonderful things about Flee, Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s animated documentary about his friend Amin Nawabi, who grew up in Kabul as a boy, immigrated with his family to Russia to escape war-torn Afghanistan, and then eventually settled as an asylum-seeker in Denmark. Winner of the Documentary Jury Prize for World Cinema at Sundance, the film certainly lived up to all of its advance notice. In addition to rendering the director’s own extensive present-day retrospective interviews with Amin in a calm animated palette of (mostly) soft pastels, the movie reimagines Amin’s own earliest memories from 1984, when he’s running through the streets of Kabul with his Walkman and listening to the band A-ha’s notorious New Wave classic “Take on Me” in his earphones as a young child, up through roughly 1995, when he finally successfully flees from Moscow to Copenhagen as a teenager after a halting series of attempts to immigrate, harrowing setbacks in dark forests and on stormy oceans, and the various struggles and re-connections with his family. During his adolescence as he’s watching Jean-Claude van Damme action movies on television alongside his older brother, Amin also gradually begins to realize that he’s gay while gazing at the images of the muscular actor. Amin’s sexual identity is an important aspect of the film that underscores and highlights all of Amin’s other qualities and perceptions: his shyness, his melancholy, and his attentiveness, as he starts to grasp his own sense of outsiderdom on numerous levels.

Even in the context of animation, the documentary retains its sweeping narrative scope, yet we come to know Amin most closely through the moments of his smallest but most significant encounters and reminiscences. For instance, late in the film when he secretly flees toward Copenhagen as a refugee, he’s being covertly transported and smuggled in a vehicle with another young man, who’s slightly older than Amin, as his only fellow passenger. The two are talking quietly while lying down side-by-side on the floor of the truckbed so as not to be seen, and the other nameless youth notices that Amin is entranced by his gold necklace, which he then sweetly and generously gives to Amin as a gift just before they part ways to their two separate destinations at the airport. Amin laments that he never even found out the name of the other young man since Amin’s memory of him had such a profound and lasting effect on his life. Amin eventually goes to university, does post-doctoral work at Princeton, speaks at conferences about his experiences, and marries his husband Kasper in Denmark to settle down together in the countryside, when the animation on the screen briefly shifts to an actual shot of the trees and waterfront where they live. In the opening voiceover of the documentary, Amin equates home with safety, and it’s clear by the end of the film that he’s finally found both.

Sunday, August 8, 2021

Christina Pugh, Stardust Media (University of Massachusetts Press, 2020)

Christina Pugh’s fifth and latest collection of poetry, Stardust Media, is also for me her finest, though I could honestly say that about all of Pugh’s previous books, too, because fineness is the central quality that links her five volumes stylistically, at the level of attention, perception, and intelligence. Whenever I begin reading one of Christina’s books for the first time, I know that those properties are inherent from the start, so I never feel as if any grand proclamations about the work are even necessary since I know its character intuitively at the outset. I met Christina Pugh exactly twenty years ago now, when we taught a course together at Emerson College back in the spring of 2001, and I already admired Christina’s poetry at that point in time as well; therefore, I’m honored that we’ve remained close friends over the past two decades, through correspondence, phone conversations, and in-person reunions, mostly for dinners, poetry readings, and visits to the cinema. (I use the word “close” intentionally, in part because I consider Christina to be a true practitioner of the art of closeness. These days, that art is increasingly rare.) Our friendship has persisted across distances and weathered the changes and upheavals that we’ve witnessed both nationally and globally throughout that span of time. Only a few months after we taught our course together, the events of 9/11 transpired when Christina was living and teaching on Staten Island, and in a certain sense, it feels like that was the incipient moment of everything we’ve all endured culturally since then. As Christina writes at the end of “My Twenty-First Century,” the poem that opens Stardust Media, “When the towers blazed, / I’d stood on the shoreline, seared as I had ever / Been, and carefully watched that smoke cross the water.”

Awarded the prestigious Juniper Prize from the University of Massachusetts Press in Amherst, Stardust Media was released in April of 2020, right after the world had initially shut down for our ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. After living through the past year and a half of intermittent lockdowns and quarantines, vaccinations and their days of after-effects, continually exhausting news cycles, and widespread social interiority as we all retreated into our own private spaces, the deeply insightful poems in Stardust Media now make me feel like it’s a prophetic book. Thematically, Pugh’s focus throughout the collection fixates on our contemporary networks and technologies, the various forms of social and visual media that connect and separate us simultaneously. Her stance is equally one of openness and resistance to the types of sweeping changes that those technologies have brought to our culture and to the art that we create; the poems are both engaged critiques and participatory observations. Pugh does not exempt herself from our digital landscape, which would be the easy decision for a poet to make. Rather, she endorses and questions earnestly her own place within it, which doesn’t mean, of course, that her own position is always comfortable. When one of the poems in the book is titled “I Don’t Know How to Make a Website,” we know the sort of interrogative and self-reflective territory that we’re in.

That particular poem, actually, is one I’ve kept returning to, mainly for its direct association with Robert Frost’s brilliant sonnet “Design.” Pugh’s poem counterpoints “website” with “web-sight,” and a contemplation of spiders and the secret hazy cobwebs they spin opens the connection to the “dimpled spider, fat and white,” holding up a moth on a white heal-all in Frost’s poem, an image that encouraged Frost to wonder about the origins of its symbolism in one of his greatest questions: “What but design of darkness to appall? — / If design govern in a thing so small.” Pugh’s own response couldn’t be any richer: “An if around design, that / white heal-all, keeps haloing the web-sight.” It’s a perfect metaphor for Pugh’s poetry itself, a kind of literally intricate web-weaving, suspended up in a tucked away corner for those who seek it out, softening the angles of the room, gauzing our gaze as we sharpen our vision to see it more clearly, in order to match Pugh’s artful vision. She guides her readers to that point and trusts them from there.

Perhaps that’s why, a little bit later in the book, Pugh tells us straightforwardly that “Frost would have junked the telescope.” As much as she looks outward (at nature and art, at color and light, at shape and texture), she’s essentially an inward-looking writer, a poet of complex human nuances and details. “I love my life in a nautilus shell,” she writes in one poem, plainly and revealingly. That’s not to say I would ever situate her with the people of our current younger generation who’ve tunneled and burrowed so far inward via social media. Pugh’s book is titled Stardust Media for a reason, instead of some other brand of more familiar or less evocative media. The collection’s title poem, which takes its epigraph from Cocteau Twins’ vocalist Elizabeth Fraser, pushes toward the boundaries of the transcendent that we most often find through music, and certainly through the Cocteau Twins’ songs that devise their own language; “the Sirens would have / never sung in words — so their semitones / unspooled the way that bodies pool and crash / together, raptured after sex.” Other well-known musicians appear throughout the book, from the realms of pop, folk, blues, and alternative rock: Kurt Cobain, Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris, Charley Patton, Steely Dan, and most transfixingly, in a sequel to the book’s title poem, Ian Curtis of Joy Division (“he reached for / a magnetic field from far within that foaming [. . .] // place a stone inside / the music”). Together, they all provide a sort of under-voice for the collection, or maybe they even loosely cohere as a disparate chorus of the underworld, an inverted heaven that the book’s title again seems to suggest.

If those aural spirits provide Stardust Media with its haunting soundtrack, then the volume’s plethora of visuals construct for us its endless chain of glowing screens of every size, our handheld devices and laptops with their luminescent wallpaper. Early in the collection, “Smartphone Inlet” presages that trend through a deft comparison of embroidery to texting, reaching back for contrast through history to eras when “women / would brood like robins on inchoate / letters pulled airily from cloth,” but whose “words were never / lit from within, the way that ours are.” Pugh dances back and forth from the clack and chime of a manual typewriter’s carriage in “Toll,” to stolid Ohio barns along the interstate highway (“Sky-blue / with white roofs. Wait, isn’t sky-blue brighter / than any sky you really see?”), to a meditation on Krzysztof Kieslowski’s cinematic masterpiece Blue, to “the promiscuity of television,” naturally, “its screen, I mean, since it flickers to anyone.” And so our present-day technologies are met in Pugh’s poems, ultimately, with a democratizing embrace, although more tangible physical artifacts also maintain their foothold: Italian Renaissance art, handcrafted lace, Luigi Ghirri’s photographs, James Turrell’s geometrical lightscape installations, the spotlit set design accompanying a stage production of David Lang’s composition “Where you go,” which inspires a moving dedication to Pugh’s husband, Richard DelVisco (alongside echoes of another major theme of the book, the recent death of Christina’s father).

One exciting aspect of the book for me was reading a poem about a musical performance that I attended myself with Christina and Rick when I was visiting their city of Chicago back in November of 2015. It’s actually the very first time that I’ve ever “seen” myself in a poem in exactly this way, and that makes it quite special to me. During my visit, we went to watch a concert at City Winery by the singer/songwriter Susan Werner, which prompted Pugh’s poem “Pink, Pink, Pink,” particularly Werner’s choice of song for her encore that evening (“we heard an Iowan / sing La vie en rose with, to my ear, no American accent. / And I was listening hard for a caving of the r”). The concert happened on the same night in 2015, Friday, November 13th, when several coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris, France, killed 130 people and injured hundreds more. Due to the timing of our pre-show dinner and the concert itself, we weren’t aware of this tragic news until just after the show had ended: “When she sang, / I hadn’t yet heard about the murders in France / or seen our own monuments lit blue, white, / red and American ambidextrous. But nobody / says rose-colored glasses anymore.” In this poem, and throughout Stardust Media, Christina Pugh amply captures the world at its own pace, on the brink of where we all now currently stand.

Saturday, July 10, 2021

Robert Hamberger, Blue Wallpaper (Waterloo Press, 2019)

I remember meeting the wonderful English poet Robert Hamberger (through our mutual friend, the equally wonderful English poet John McCullough) about a decade ago now where he lives in Brighton on the southern coast of England. When I asked Robert the title of his latest collection of poetry that he was working on at the time and he said, “Blue Wallpaper,” I thought it was one of the best book titles I’d heard in a long while. The book came out several months prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, and now that our international mail delivery is finally back to normal here in the United States, I was very happy to receive Robert’s book in the mail just a few days ago, after looking forward to reading it ever since that time we met in Brighton.

The poems and themes in the book are beautifully consistent with those in his three previous volumes, and having now read through Blue Wallpaper twice, I’m more convinced than ever of Robert Hamberger’s permanent place in the canon of English poetry. His mastery of the sonnet and other poetic forms, along with his limber command of the line in free verse as well, should secure his position in a literary lineage that makes me think of the great World War I poets Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke, and Siegfried Sassoon, and perhaps especially Edward Thomas, who crafted some of the most perfect formalist poetry in the English language. In the case of many of those poets, love between men is frequently central, as it is in Hamberger’s writing, too.

Blue Wallpaper opens with “The lesson of sand,” one of six subtitled sections that give the volume its intricate structural solidity. The seven sonnets in this first section of the book are elegies in remembrance of Hamberger’s mother, both in her younger years when she resembled a glamourous Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca, and in her later years struggling with aging and memory loss, when Hamberger would visit her regularly at a care home: “I stay for an hour, watching the lesson / of sand giving way again to sea.” It’s a precise and careful metaphor that encompasses so much: time as it slips away from us, our delicate human relationships under the power of something greater, yet also bearing witness to the traces of our lives that still remain after the waves have washed over us and receded again.

Similarly, in the book’s wistful second section, “Coming home,” Hamberger reflects back on his family relationships from his youth, etching an indelible boyhood memory of a lost brown jumper with a yellow camel on it, which his mother had knitted for him before his father “went / the way of camels and palm trees.” Hamberger is always adept at lifting these sorts of tokens of memory back up into the light and showing them to us in their vivid and moving resonances: listening to “Dancing in the Street” by Martha and the Vandellas up in his bedroom as his mother shouts for him to turn the music down, memorializing an injured war veteran and “cloth-cap tenor” who would serenade for coins in the streets of their neighborhood, and detailing an older gay man with a “citrus scent / he must have sprayed at his wrists and throat” who chatted him up during the intermission at a screening of The Sound of Music before Hamberger’s mother ushered him back to their seats. One of my favorite poems in the book, “Mr Muxworthy,” gorgeously recalls Hamberger’s schoolboy crush on a handsome teacher who “peeled off his shirt in front of us / that time before gym, baring his hairy chest, / its tangled fascination, elbowing himself / into maroon and yellow stripes, / ready to shout at us to run and run.” Then the poem pivots towards darkness as Hamberger imagines climbing inside the man himself, to “tunnel to the trees barred by his ribcage, / stroke the smoky branches there.”

The fabulous third section in the middle of the book collects seven sonnets by Arthur Rimbaud, adapted by Hamberger from literal translations by his husband Keith Rainger, ranging in subject matter from the leaner socioeconomic life of poets in “My Bohemia,” to a colorful meditation on the vowels of the alphabet, to the hilarious “Arsehole sonnet” that pays riotous tribute to that particular part of the human anatomy. I was reminded on several levels of Robert Lowell’s 1961 book Imitations, his terrific collection of loose translations and re-imaginings of poems by a wide array of famous European writers throughout history, which included several renderings of poems by Arthur Rimbaud as well. The powerful fourth section of Blue Wallpaper, “Golden dragon,” turns to poems about mythical and natural creatures of various kinds: a kestrel spotted out on the patio (“that head a claw-hammer”) making a meticulously violent meal out of a fledgling starling, a lobster wielded on a silver platter in a restaurant “like an armoured warrior” (with deft echoes of Elizabeth Bishop’s warrior in her poem “The Fish”), right down to the very last fly of winter “uselessly fussing against glass.”

“Husbands,” the book’s fifth section, features a wide and attentive array of love poems. I was riveted (and also reminded of legendary gay performance artist Leigh Bowery) by the tender scrutiny of Hamberger’s poem “Becoming a Lucian Freud nude,” a semi-self portrait of an aging male body seen in a long bathroom mirror: “Blotches, moles and blemishes / map my years / in coral, oyster, pink,” and yet because every sign of age is also evidence of survival, Hamberger rightly proclaims by the poem’s end, “Victory’s here.” The final section of the book, “Being the sea,” re-traces Hamberger’s move to Brighton, where he settled after a series of major life changes recounted in his previous collections. The contemplative “Unpacking the books” locates Hamberger’s place on the bookshelf amongst the poets he admires, while “35C” maps the interior of his living space in relation to the world outside of it. “The AIDS memorial,” one of the finest poems to arise from the aftermath of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, remembers twenty years after their deaths Hamberger’s close friends, the artist Clifford Haseldine (one of whose paintings appears on the book’s cover) and Clifford’s partner Andrew: “Tonight your names / join a list at the service. / Couples and singles cup their flames / by this floodlit memorial. / Once I’m numb from too much snow / I’ll kneel before the sea’s crashed gardenias.” The title poem of Blue Wallpaper, which closes the volume, envisions the poet himself poised again at the edge of the sky and the ocean where “I’m here and a hundred miles away; / this morning and fifty years ago / roll together.”

That’s actually the aspect of Hamberger’s body of work that I always enjoy the most, how he’s able to navigate time in a way that situates the present and the past not only in relation to one another, but also side-by-side in a kind of stunning lapidary manner. I think it’s one of the most important mysteries of our shared predicament as human beings, as we move together through our allotment of years on the planet; we continue to accrue new memories with each day that passes, even though our memories from the days that have already passed continually swim back, then fade away, and then swim back to us again.

Sunday, June 20, 2021

23rd Annual Provincetown International Film Festival (June 16th - 25th, 2021)

The film festival in Provincetown made a gradual post-pandemic return this past week, with Waters Edge Cinema hosting the majority of the screenings. I watched four films there over the past several days, as well as one at the Mary Heaton Vorse House in town, in addition to streaming some of the festival selections online. While it felt quite different from my routine at the festival in previous years, when I’d watch as many as twenty movies at the venues around town over five days, it was also nice to ease my way back into things this year because it’s been quite a long time since I’ve sat shoulder-to-shoulder with other moviegoers at a cinema, given the restrictions during the various lockdowns internationally throughout the past year and a half. Of course, that made it even more fun to see the five in-person screenings that I was able to attend at this year’s festival, so here are the details on my four favorite films that I watched.

I’d really been looking forward to seeing Summer of 85, the latest film from gay French director François Ozon, who’s long been one of my favorite filmmakers. The movie was just about as enjoyable as I’d anticipated, and well in line with the themes and tones of Ozon’s previous movies. A unique hybrid of a gay teenage love story and a darker-edged thriller, Summer of 85 is loosely adapted from Aidan Chambers’ 1982 young adult novel Dance on My Grave, and I could definitely feel the tendons of that particular source material connected to the movie at various points while watching it, especially in the adorably innocent scenes of Alex (Félix Lefebvre) and David (Benjamin Voisin) falling for one another and exploring the intensity of their physical attraction. Of course, the characters are somewhat too young and fresh-faced even to know what to do with that attraction to a certain degree, and so Alex becomes instantly jealous when David’s attentions suddenly turn instead to a young woman named Kate (Philippine Velge), whom the two boys have recently befriended.

And that’s where the storyline clearly takes a turn toward the tragic. Some critics have remarked on the clashing tones of a film that swerves from a fun and sunny gay teenage love story to a somber tale of heartbreak and loss, but having watched many of Ozon’s films numerous times, I saw plenty of worthwhile consistencies and linkages with his other movies and therefore understood why he’d have been interested in adapting Chambers’ novel for the screen in the first place. My two favorite films by Ozon, Time to Leave and Le Refuge (Hideaway), explore the difficulties, disappointments, and sustaining qualities of sexual and emotional relationships. Ozon always pursues those complexities ardently, rather than simply letting his films remain in an overly comfortable zone for his longtime viewers. Although the moments of discomfort in Summer of 85 can feel a bit too overt at times, and its plot twists a little too blunt, the actors all sustain the audience’s interest and make feeling concerned about these characters a rewarding endeavor, ultimately, even if invoking Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name was excessive, given my views of the shortcomings of that over-praised film.

If there’s any movie that could resurrect Vivante hair products overnight, it’s Todd Stephens’ gorgeous new dramedy-meets-road movie Swan Song, starring the legendary Udo Kier in what will probably be remembered as his best performance eventually, if there’s any justice in the cinematic universe. I’m a lifelong fan of Todd Stephens’ 1998 classic Edge of Seventeen, mainly because I came of age in Ohio in the ’80s and found his rendering of what it was like to grow up as a gay man in the Midwest back then to be so precise that characters in Edge of Seventeen matched up exactly with some of the people I knew back in my own youth. Swan Song situates its comedic and dramatic concerns at the other end of the age spectrum with Kier’s portrayal of retired hairdresser Pat Pitsenbarger, who’s unexpectedly called upon to perfect one final hairdo for his former client, the wealthy socialite Rita Parker Sloan (Linda Evans of Dynasty, totally fabulous), after she’s passed away. It’s the woman’s dying wish, which her gay grandson Dustin (Michael Urie) has helped to actualize for her. Jennifer Coolidge also makes a memorable and semi-villainous appearance as Dee Dee Dale, Pat’s haughtier-than-thou hairdressing nemesis.

So Pat sets off on a journey through rural Ohio on foot, hitching a ride or two along the way, to return to Sandusky on the northern border of the state along Lake Erie, where he’d previously owned a hair salon and lived with his partner David, who sadly died of AIDS back in the mid-’90s. Throughout Pat’s picaresque trek, he re-encounters ghosts of various kinds from his past, some of whom are figments of his imagination, culminating in an unforgettable performance at a gay nightclub, one that quite openly owes a debt to The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Terence Stamp’s seminal Oscar-nominated role in it. For many of the above reasons, I knew that I’d enjoy Swan Song even before watching it, but I was moved over and over again in ways that I hadn’t anticipated, mostly due to Udo Kier’s soulful and uninhibited embodiment of his character, with his famous ice-blue eyes and flamboyant gestures sweeping viewers along through every scene, while also conveying quiet depths of feeling in his long and distinguished career’s crowning achievement.

Halfway through watching Daniel Sánchez López’s Boy Meets Boy, I realized that I’d been smiling widely the entire time. Inspired by the likes of Andrew Haigh’s 2011 film Weekend, the story of Boy Meets Boy is simply the chance meeting of two 20-something gay guys, a dancer named Johannes (Alexandros Koutsoulis) and a doctor named Harry (Matthew James Morrison), who walk together around Berlin and talk (and flirt, and have sex with each other) over the course of a long day, after they bump into each other and make out on the dance floor at a club. Johannes then takes Harry to a late-’90s style internet café, so that Harry can print out his boarding pass for his flight back home to the U.K. What had me smiling for 45 minutes straight was how the camera usually focuses on the two guys and nothing else, which heightens their immediate intimacy for viewers. For example, at the internet café, when they take turns drawing images of each other using the old-school graphics program called Paint, we never even glimpse the computer or its screen at all, only their sweet and beaming faces, mutually happy that they’ve found someone whom they’re interested in, and someone who reciprocates that interest.

The film made me aware of something that I’d never before considered about gay relationships. They’re often quick and brief in my experience, in part because in the initial moments and hours of getting to know somebody, we’re allowed to imagine them as we hope they’ll turn out to be. Long-term relationships are rarer, of course, because the more fully we get to know somebody over time, the more we become certain about who they actually are, so then the exhilarating rush of imagining them as we hoped they’d be gradually recedes and settles into more mundane, realistic routines. While some people may find the chattiness of Boy Meets Boy boring or derivative, I felt the opposite. Gay men have received somewhat of a raw bargain in terms of how we’ve been represented on screen, historically, so I personally think that we can never have too many “naturalized” renderings of gay relationships on screen. The more stories I see about gay men who are just being themselves and living their everyday lives, the better.

I was so moved by Nora Burns’ David’s Friend, her hour-long theatrical show with the awesome Billy Hough, directed for the stage by Adrienne Truscott, and filmed for the screen by documentarians (and real-life couple) David Ebersole and Todd Hughes. Fortunately, Burns’ live performance of the show was recorded in Los Angeles on March 8th, 2020, just one week before the worldwide lockdown due to the global Covid-19 pandemic. Burns’ play, exquisitely written and performed with equal amounts of fierceness and tenderness, captures perhaps the most important period in our recent pop cultural history, from the time in 1979 when Burns met her close gay friend David while dancing at the long-defunct gay club at 1270 Boylston Street in Boston (“I went right from Donny Osmond to Donna Summer,” Burns recalls, “there was no AC/DC in between”), through their years in New York tearing up the city with wild scenes of sex, drugs, and hustling, right up until David’s early death from AIDS in 1993. Photo projections from throughout their friendship punctuate Nora’s monologue, as do flashback entries from Burns’ long-ago journals, along with notes and letters written from David to Nora, in which he professes his heartfelt (and occasionally drug-induced) feelings of total love for her, moments that made me cry twice in the span of Burns’ show.

Although Nora and David were most interested in simply enjoying their youth and living their lives to the hilt at a time when the world was still so full of possibility and interconnected in real-time (rather than through the mediation of devices and screens), they also made their mark on an urban art scene that would gain genuine nostalgic currency from then to now. Not only did they celebrate at legendary venues like Studio 54 and pretty much every single gay bar in Manhattan, turning up in the famous club photos of New York photographer Patrick McMullan, but David was also well-connected and admired (and gorgeous) enough to be hand-drawn by the likes of Tom of Finland. The lingering cultural PTSD in the aftermath of the AIDS crisis haunts the show and Burns’ own delivery of her monologue, when her eyes well up with tears several times as she recounts and conveys the tragic early loss of her close friend. What she and co-star Billy Hough, along with the stage director and filmmakers, have accomplished in David’s Friend is that they’ve now given Nora’s collected memories of David the chance to live again and be preserved forever.

One aspect of the Provincetown Film Festival that I always love best is how it makes me feel like LGBTQ+ life stories, and particularly those of gay men, really matter and still have a significant place in our ongoing social discourse. As the world has continued to progress and change in profound and crucial ways over these past several years of remarkable cultural upheavals and political action, I’ve sometimes wondered how much our collective experiences as gay men have spoken to people inside and outside of our own community. The artistic and communal events at the annual film festival in Provincetown help to promote and fortify a world and a future where those stories will continue to matter in shaping society and our own directions within it throughout the coming decades.

Sunday, June 13, 2021

Five Favorite Gay Cinematic Losers

There’s a book of queer theory from 2007, Heather Love’s Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History, whose central concept I still love today: “Modern homosexual identity is formed out of and in relation to the experience of social damage. Paying attention to what was difficult in the past may tell us how far we have come, but that is not all it will tell us; it also makes visible the damage that we live with in the present.” For this reason, the gay “losers” of cinema are always the characters that have interested me the most. Their more successful counterparts steer clear of the loser designation either by mimicking straight culture so well that they can pass for straight, or by following the gay rulebook so closely that they effectively give up their own sense of an individual identity. Within twenty minutes of thinking of the idea to write this post, I had already compiled a list of twenty gay cinematic losers, and that was just from browsing my own shelf of DVDs at home. Maybe I’ll write a sequel (or two) to this post eventually, but for now, I’ll focus on my five favorite gay losers of cinema, the characters who’ve stayed with me the most over time, and what they all share in common, as well as where exactly they diverge.

Miguel Arteta’s 2000 film Chuck & Buck, written by and starring Mike White in a gloriously unashamed performance as the perpetual man-child Buck, is somewhere in my top three favorite movies of all time. I remember that at the time of its release, actors as diverse as Jeff Bridges and Catherine Deneuve praised the movie and Mike White’s performance in it. During the course of the film, Buck tries to re-connect with his childhood friend Chuck (Chris Weitz), another kid from his neighborhood who’s now a straight, married music executive in Los Angeles, and whom we find out later in the movie had sex with Buck for a period of time in their youth. I related a lot to the film’s main storyline because I’d experienced exactly the same thing with a boyhood friend from school back when I was growing up in Cincinnati, Ohio, and at pretty much the same age. I assume that plenty of other boys had such experiences, too, but for obvious reasons, they almost never get addressed by the culture in any serious way.

To say that Buck remains stunted in the wake of that childhood experience, and in his totally understandable desire to relive that early experience again with Chuck and nobody else, is an understatement. Stuck in a kind of torturous yet blissfully unaware form of eternal youth, Buck writes a bizarre play about his boyhood friendship with Chuck, stages it at a tiny community theater right across the street from Chuck’s office building, and then invites him and his wife Carlyn (Beth Colt) to watch it on opening night, Buck’s way of trying to force Chuck to confront the truth of what had transpired between them. I recall that back when the movie came out, a somewhat lunkheaded gay writer I knew back then interpreted Buck as a kind of stalker figure, which completely misses the point of the film. The movie is, moreover, about the important question of whether we change or don’t change over time. The truth is that we both change and don’t change, but our pasts never change, and we all must find ways to reconcile with that.

The only ripped-from-the-headlines performance on this list is Christian Slater’s career-best portrayal of online gay porn purveyor Bryan Kocis (here named Stephen) in Justin Kelly’s 2016 film King Cobra. Kocis, who discovered the porn star known as Brent Corrigan (perfectly embodied by Garrett Clayton) and filmed the gay porn movies in which Corrigan starred early in his career, was brutally stabbed and killed in 2007 by two guys who were running a rival porn company (Keegan Allen as Harlow Cuadra and James Franco as Joseph Kerekes). Slater’s performance in the film has received far too little attention, probably because it’s so on-the-nose that it kind of floats along under the radar. Slater deftly hits all of the requisite notes of regret, frustration, and desire that most gay men can relate to at midlife, aging into their nether years while still trying to hold onto some semblance of youth and social connection. Molly Ringwald, in an underdeveloped role, plays Stephen’s concerned sister who’s aware of some but not all of her brother’s shady dealings.

What makes Slater’s performance special and precise is his subtle and fairly naturalized way of inhabiting the character. While some traces of flamboyance rise to the surface on occasion, Slater’s approach to the character remains mostly subdued, the most sensible choice for a middle-aged gay guy who’s living out in the suburbs and filming porn right in his own home, and just at the moment when the internet was beginning to gain traction as a viable source of income in the culture. The eventual tragedy of the film’s violently murderous climax is always lurking under the character’s surface in Slater’s skillful and quiet counterpointing of Stephen’s resignation and desperation. In a movie that’s focused on dramatic elements like sex and money, it’s easy for those sorts of subtleties to get overlooked, but at every moment while watching the film, I knew exactly where that character was coming from because of how specifically Slater channeled his particular nuances. I liked him, I feared for him, and I felt sorry for him all at once.

It’s probably a bit of a controversial choice to include on this list Jake Gyllenhaal’s Jack Twist from Ang Lee’s 2005 gay romantic blockbuster Brokeback Mountain. After all, it’s not entirely Jack’s fault that he falls deeply in love with a man who’s even more closeted than he is himself, and not just briefly but over a substantial series of years and semi-covert encounters. This role was clearly the pivotal point in Gyllenhaal’s career when he became a serious actor who’s in it for the long haul, and the performance gathers its power from watching Jack Twist transition from a randy young sheep herder and rodeo bull rider to an emotionally tormented wreck of a man who can’t shake how much he cares for Ennis Del Mar (the wonderful late Heath Ledger). If there’s one quality that all five of the gay characters on this list share: they fall in love with emotionally unavailable men, and then they never quite find their way out of that experience.

What draws the audience closer to Jack Twist, to the extent that there’s rarely a dry eye in the house by the time we reach his eventual end (and implied murder via a violent roadside gay-bashing), is his openness, at least in intradiagetic narrative terms, in processing his grief at not being able to share any type of stable relationship or more meaningful life with Ennis, due to Ennis’ own fear of cultural reproach for being gay. If, as Roland Barthes theorized in A Lover’s Discourse, the male lover “who waits and who suffers from his waiting is miraculously feminized,” Jack Twist’s expression of emotion through tears and anger at various points in the film allows the audience to empathize with him and, in a sense, care for him in the same way that Ennis wants to, and in fact does, once it’s already much too late for his caring to matter.

Gay American-Canadian director Thom Fitzgerald’s 1997 masterpiece The Hanging Garden is also somewhere in my top ten favorite films of all time, and it remains woefully unknown and underseen outside of Fitzgerald’s current home country. As a film that functions in the slippery terrain of magical realism, and in which each character is named after and wears the colors of a separate and particular flower, it’s not so easy to summarize the movie. Sweet William (Chris Leavins) returns to his childhood home in Nova Scotia after a decade-long estrangement from his family, to attend the wedding of his rowdy sister Rosemary (Kerry Fox, with Sarah Polley portraying the teenage version) to handsome Fletcher (Joel S. Keller), the guy whom Sweet William had fooled around with sexually back when they were all younger. We soon find out in flashback that Sweet William in his teens (bravely portrayed by Troy Veinotte in a performance that’s never been matched by another actor at that age) was both uncomfortably overweight and just starting to figure out that he was gay.

The film also centers around a suicide that may or may not have happened (the movie’s title is a double entendre) and its devastating and lingering effects on Sweet William’s entire family. Chris Leavins’ performance as the slightly older, openly gay, and slimmed down Sweet William remains one of my favorite performances of its kind nearly 25 years after the film’s release. His portrayal of the character is not only totally sexy to me, but also full of humanity, heart, humor, and consummate knowledge of what so many young gay men go through, but that rarely gets discussed or witnessed in any way by the culture-at-large. Coincidentally, I once ran into Chris Leavins at the long-defunct Tower Records in Piccadilly Circus in London, when the store was empty late one weeknight (after I’d just seen Daniel Radcliffe on stage in Equus), and we talked about the The Hanging Garden for a few minutes right there in the shop. He was excited that someone had recognized him from the movie, enough so that he said he’d be telling Thom Fitzgerald about it, one of the more memorable encounters of that sort from my life.

Finally, Christian Bale’s character Arthur Stuart in Todd Haynes’ 1998 film Velvet Goldmine is somewhat of a quintessential gay cinematic loser, even down to the way his character is written into the screenplay. Although the movie’s focus is on the era of ’70s glam rock and the brand of popstars who reigned supreme in those days, it’s really Arthur’s story, and he’s actually the one who’s writing it. Arthur had grown up in Britain as a closeted and socially awkward young gay man, a loner and outcast who was trying to come to terms with his sexuality through the glam rock stars whom he idolized, and against the pressures of his conversative family. By the time of the film’s “present day” setting in New York City in 1984, Arthur has become an investigative journalist who’s researching an article about the staged death of bisexual glam rock star Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), who has since secretly reinvented himself as Tommy Stone (Alastair Cumming). Slade’s set-up shooting death had been a hoax, which was faked at a concert that Arthur attended back in 1974, at the height of Slade’s involvement with fellow glam rock performer Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor) and Slade’s wife Mandy (Toni Collette).

Arthur’s playful costuming, a way of taking on various facets of identity back in that youthful “glitter era,” gives way to his drab gray administrative uniform as a stoic urban journalist in the mid-’80s. Haynes’ camera often moves closely in on Christian Bale’s beautiful, expressionless face as he interviews various figures from Brian Slade’s past, piecing together Arthur’s own relationships with those in Slade’s inner circle in the process. We never quite know if Arthur has even come out as gay by the time we arrive at that slightly later point in his life, but Haynes’ screenplay and direction make it clear that the character identifies as gay, albeit perhaps silently. We also discover during the film’s gorgeous climax and denouement (unless it’s all just a fantasy?) that Arthur had a rooftop same-sex encounter, maybe for his first time ever, with Curt Wild himself, a potent memory that extends far into Arthur’s own future life. By closing the film in the way that he does, Todd Haynes in essence allows Arthur to embrace his extraordinary position as the star of his own private movie, ultimately. He also sends his audience a clear message about whose story is worth telling and whose story will endure.

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Sublet (dir. Eytan Fox, 2020)

Israeli director Eytan Fox’s latest film, Sublet, which is currently screening in film festivals prior to its theatrical release here in the United States this summer, captures the soul of Tel Aviv. That kind of intimate encounter is achieved both through cinematographic details, like panoramic shots of curved tidal pools rolling onto the beaches of Tel Aviv by day and by night, as well as through the central gay characters, Michael and Tomer, at the heart of this gorgeous two-hander. As viewers, we experience the city both through the fresh perspective of professional tourist Michael (John Benjamin Hickey, in a perfectly calibrated performance) and the more familiar perspective of Israeli native Tomer (Niv Nissim, who hits all the requisite notes of sexiness, jaded youthful humor, and depth). The movie opens with Michael, a 50-something New York Times travel writer, landing in Tel Aviv for an assignment over a five-day visit. When he arrives at Tomer’s apartment to sublet it for the week, the 20-something filmmaking student has totally forgotten that his subletter would be arriving that day, setting up a standard odd-couple scenario that turns out to be so much more than that. Sublet is the finest and most delicate May/December semi-romance in a far-flung location since Sofia Coppola’s 2003 Tokyo-set Oscar winner (for Best Original Screenplay), Lost in Translation.

Later in the movie, when Tomer’s mother (Miki Kam) asks Michael about his impressions of Tel Aviv over a quiet dinner at her home in the kibbutz near the end of his stay, he replies that the city is a unique mixture of intensity and laidback vibes, which is actually a great description of the film itself as well. Because Tomer’s bicycle gets stolen during the film’s early scenes, we experience the city — along with Michael and Tomer’s relationship — on foot at ground level as Tomer becomes a tour guide for Michael, and so the film unfolds with exactly the pace that such a relationship would. What’s special about Sublet as a piece of gay cinema is its cross-generational component. That element is handled in a sensitive manner that’s quite rare in gay movies, achieved through subtle moments that are fairly easy to miss: Michael’s glance of realization when Tomer’s mother mentions that she’d had him with a sperm donor and raised him alone, for instance, or Tomer’s gradual recognition of the hardships that gay men of Michael’s generation have faced over time.

Sublet also isn’t afraid to face more difficult truths about contemporary gay culture and why plenty of younger gay men today can struggle to find stability and contentment. After Tomer invites over a hot guy from a hookup app for a potential threesome midway through the movie, we catch on long-partnered Michael’s face a dismissive glimpse of disappointment as he excuses himself from the scene, despite his clear feelings of desire and physical interest. It’s such a deft momentary expression for an actor to convey, and it reminded me of a comment that I heard the actor/director John Cameron Mitchell make a while back, about how younger gay men have been poorly conditioned by the instant gratification of apps like Grindr, to the extent that any attempts at actually getting to know somebody (or even enjoying the pleasures of foreplay) just get totally omitted these days. Although Tomer claims to like the quickness of those sexual interactions that require “no drama,” Michael senses otherwise and so begins to nudge the younger man gently in another direction.

I was fortunate to see John Benjamin Hickey starring on stage as Henry Wilcox in Matthew Lopez’s epic two-part play The Inheritance on Broadway in late November of 2019, several months prior to the shutdown of theaters prompted by the global Covid-19 pandemic in mid-March of 2020, which occurred just a couple of nights before that play was scheduled to close its Broadway run. Hickey portrays a similar character in Sublet, someone who lived through the AIDS crisis, lost his first boyfriend to the disease, then survived to weather the cultural changes of the ensuing decades, only to end up overseeing the lives and antics of a younger generation of gay men in New York City, providing them with support and good counsel as an older gay man. Eytan Fox relies on Hickey’s gently timeworn facial features to ideal effect here, so that we, too, can feel the span of time that the character has endured, enabling a kind of closeness via Hickey’s performance that winds up feeling more internal, rather than being focused solely on age or the distinctions of external appearance. This is probably the movie’s most distinguishing emotional aspect, and Fox and Hickey both seem to be aware of that.

Niv Nissim’s performance as the younger and somewhat disenchanted Tomer is equally profound on many levels, believably inhabiting a character who doesn’t want to be tied down to strict definitions of sexuality or long-term monogamous relationships, nor even obligatory “happy endings.” He’s happier having more fleeting encounters with a wide variety of people, sexually and otherwise, while making art through unconventional horror films with the help of his young actor friends in Tel Aviv. (One of his student films that he shares with Michael was perhaps a little too clearly inspired by Rosemary’s Baby.) Tomer's predilections provide an important contrast to Michael’s own relationship with his partner David (Peter Spears) back in New York, with whom he face-times on his cell phone and laptop at a couple of strategic points in the movie. They argue and discuss, in particular, whether they should pursue having a child via a surrogate again, after their first attempt to do so went tragically wrong, as we find out during a deeply moving and matter-of-fact scene late in the film.

Where the movie goes from that point in its final act is better left unsaid, simply in terms of the audience’s emotional payoff. And while the film’s central pair of characters do move on and resolve their issues on a number of levels, where exactly Michael and Tomer will go in the wake of their encounter remains open-ended, even if it’s clear that the encounter has changed both of them in key ways as they return again to the familiar grooves of their individual separate lives. I’ve seen and loved all of Etyan Fox’s films, which collectively provide an essential document of gay Israeli life over the past three decades, but at this particular point in my own life as a gay man at age 47, Sublet is his movie that’s meant the most to me on an immediate emotional level, and also the one that I’ve related to most closely. I watched the film twice over the past couple of months, and both times I was moved to tears by the exact same scene. It’s obviously the scene that the director intended to make his audience cry, as a result of all that’s been expertly held back by the actors up to that moment, and then all that’s finally allowed to reveal itself more fully in the brightness of an airport’s waiting area, a space of anonymity and transit.