“Don’t these children deserve the respect of a beautiful film?”
Affinity (Tim Fywell, 2008)
The lesbian-inflected historical romance is a specialty of novelist Sarah Waters (Tipping the Velvet), and Affinity is the third of her works to be transferred to the big screen — though in fact it was made for the little screen, by the queer cable network Logo. The film follows the travails of wealthy Victorian beauty Margaret (Anna Madeley, right), who has plenty to be depressed about. Her beloved father has died, and her female best friend (and secret lover) has just married Margaret’s brother. It doesn’t help that she’s also besieged by the unwanted attentions of a male family friend. To lift her mood, she does what a lot of wealthy, depressed Victorian women apparently did, becoming a “lady visitor” to a women’s prison. The idea was that society women could assuage their class guilt while providing a model of good deportment to the Bonnie Parkers and Ma Barkers of the day.
Affinity was filmed in Romania for economic reasons, but it doubles nicely for England in the 1870s, with every atmospheric detail in place from hansom cabs to period corsets. The scenes of the “dark circles” of Selina channeling are effective if somewhat muted. The acting is solid but sometimes too predictable in the “we’re trained British actors!” mode. Fortunately, the chemistry between the two gorgeous leads is strong enough to keep us watching when scenes run past their dramatic point.
La Corona (Amanda Micheli and Isabel Vega, 2008)
We all assume that beauty pageant contestants have a dark side, but they usually keep it under wraps, at least onstage. In this remarkable 40-minute documentary, the girls ignore convention and appraise their competition like so: “Don’t spit on me, you sick fuck! You dirty cunt! That dirty bitch thinks she can spit on a lady.” The “lady” here is one of the young inmates at Colombia’s largest women’s prison, and the event is an all-convict beauty pageant.
The film opens with one of the judges, a queen named Laisa, mocking the event as yet another in the country’s apparently ridiculously large number of beauty pageants: “Miss Potato, Miss Jelly … The only one we don’t have is Miss Cocaine.” But the women vying for the crown are deadly serious about it. La Corona follows their deep absorption in the process as they fuss and rage over their gowns, makeup, hair, and the routines they hope will sway the judges in their favor. Between sessions of dress-up and practicing their walks, we learn about their lives in interviews that offer a jarring contrast between how they look and why they’re there. “I was a hired killer,” says Maira Alejandra matter-of-factly. This deceptively demure looking young woman is serving eight years for murder. Model-gorgeous Viviana Bustos is doing thirteen years for guerrilla activity.
This 2007 Oscar nominee shows the intensity of the bonds that form in this closed environment. When one of the women loses, the whole cellblock suffers — loudly: “I was robbed! The jury was corrupt!” There are also moments of bittersweet emotion here, as when one of the contestants is about to be paroled and reluctantly leaves her devoted lover.
One of the most surprising aspects of La Corona is how different this prison is from its American counterparts. These women parade up and down the corridors seemingly at will, have a parade, get serenaded by a mariachi band, and one of the losers is lovingly consoled by the warden — all signs of a basic humanity unfortunately no longer present in our bloodthirsty “lock ‘em up!” culture.
Cthulhu (Dan Gildark, 2007)
At this writing,the Internet Movie Database lists 74 movies or TV shows, starting in 1962, based on the work of cult horror writer H. P. Lovecraft. The number is impressive and somewhat startling. Most of HPL’s fiction is based on “atmosphere,” with the horrors more suggested than shown. His plots center mainly on the return of ancient, monstrous gods from space or the ocean or an old New England house to terrorize humanity, though they typically only appear briefly before vanishing till the next story. While such vagueness should make it hard to put Lovecraft on celluloid, filmmakers have not been deterred, beefing up his wafer-thin plots and cartoon characters and sometimes adding topical elements to entrance new generations of viewers. This has led to some very un-Lovecraftian works indeed. For example, Re-Animator (1985) featured a grinning, decapitated head performing cunnilingus on a hapless female. Lovecraft, a notorious sexophobe, might have found that more horrible than any of his monsters. Now we have Cthulhu (2007), with its gay hero and storyline. Lovecraft was also, alas, a homophobe who railed against “precious sissies” and other “deviants.”
Director Dan Gildark does his best to keep the jolts coming, and there are some scary moments in Cthulhu. And the look of the film can’t be faulted. Cinematographer Sean Kirby has lit and shot it with exceptional skill, expertly evoking the slate blue-grays of the Oregon coast. But the hero’s homosexuality seems gimmicky, the story is weighed down with plot twists, and the expected horrific climax feels like a cheat. Leading Lovecraft scholar S. T. Joshi has said Cthulhu may be the best adaptation of HPL to date, but with 73 other contenders for the honor, there’s too much competition for this one to claim that honor.
Hair: Let the Sun Shine In (Pola Rapaport and Wolfgang Held, 2007)
It’s surprising that only now, more than 40 years after its debut in 1967, are we seeing a documentary about one of the seminal products of the counterculture, and one that’s woefully short at a mere 55-minute running time. Hair was as much phenomenon as musical, attracting an astounding 30 million viewers worldwide since its debut and selling 3 million copies of the soundtrack in the first two years.
Another problematic aspect of this film is its extended focus on a recent production overseen by James Rado. While this was apparently intended to show Hair‘s timelessness, it has something of the opposite effect, perhaps in part due to historical forces beyond its control. The contemporary group’s voices are conventional at best, and watching them playing dress-up in daisies and bandanas and flashing peace signs just shows how far we’ve come from the spirit of liberation of the original. A quick cruise through youtube clips of recent high school and college productions of Hair confirms the co-optation that’s been widely feared; just as psychedelic rock songs have been licensed to give street cred to crass corporate commercials, so Hair has been remade by history into something like hippie kitsch, a sad echo of an orgy-bound America that no longer exists.
Lolita (Stanley Kubrick, 1962)
One of my earliest “literary” memories dates back to the early 1960s, when my mom was reading Nabokov’s then-notorious Lolita. I remember watching her, intrigued by a vague sense of scandal I somehow knew was associated with the book, by the paperback’s cryptic black cover and above all by her ringing laughter as she read it between ironing and doing the dishes. I wonder if armies of housewives distracted themselves from the tedium of their day with the mysterious pleasures of this “little black book.”
To see how far we hadn’t come in the decades following Kubrick’s film, we need only look at the delay and hand-wringing that accompanied the 1997 Adrian Lyne remake. It languished for two years, not because it’s an awful film (it is), but because of America’s pedo-paranoia. The revival of Kubrick’s Lolita, which Nabokov heartily approved in spite of the director’s rewrite of the script, is a welcome reminder of how important this work was and remains as a scathing indictment of American materialism, upward mobility, and kitsch; and as one of the great dissections of sexual fetishism. The irony is that, far from being simply a victim of child abuse, as the modern view would have it, the Lolita of both Nabokov and Kubrick is portrayed in a way unimaginable today, as a scheming, self-absorbed brat who immediately discerns Humbert Humbert’s obsessive interest and is only too happy to exploit him to gain her own goals.
The opening shot of the film tells us much of what we need to know about the relationship of drooling literateur Humbert and his “victim.” From the left side of the frame, a man’s hands nervously paint the toenails of what appear to be a young girl. No faces are visible, only isolated body parts, and it’s clear from their positions in the frame that the man is slavishly serving the girl. This tableau is repeated and expanded on throughout, as Humbert relentlessly pursues his elusive object in spite of the physical and psychic toll it takes on him. Lolita, by contrast, appears to be unaffected by any of this. She toys with Humbert for a while, then unceremoniously dumps him, clearly no worse for the wear.
Kubrick left intact Humbert’s explanation to Lo’s mother Charlotte (Shelley Winters) of why he decided to become a lodger in her house; looking directly at the bikini-clad Lolita popping gum and listening to her transistor, he says it’s because of Charlotte’s “cherry pies.” Such comically sexual language — the town is named “Ramsdale,” Lolita spends the summer at “Camp Climax” — is mostly lifted from Nabokov directly into the film, but in other areas Kubrick deviated. The character of Quilty (Peter Sellers), Lolita’s and her mother’s lover and Humbert’s tormentor, was considerably expanded, due to Sellers’ exceptional improvisational talents. Both Quilty and Lolita sadistically exploit Humbert. Quilty’s reasons are both prosaic and intellectual — disguising himself as a high school counselor and bullying Humbert into letting Lolita be in the school play allows Quilty to have his own sexual liaisons with her; on a more cerebral level, he relishes his role as Humbert’s dark twin deploying an elaborate and sadistic joke designed simply to unhinge the “nutty” professor.
The film manages to extrapolate something from this touchy material unseen in the Adrian Lyne version. Kubrick was able to get his film made by using elaborate strategies and deceptions in portraying a transgressive affair — suggesting the physical aspects through discreet fadeouts and rituals like Humbert’s servile painting of Lolita’s toenails. But the film is really about a larger kind of impossibility than an illicit affair — it’s about the numbing pursuit of a romantic ideal that bears no relation to the ideal itself. Humbert is a desperate, tragic romantic, and Lolita is beautiful and blank, wholesome, well adjusted, and completely superficial. Like the beloved butterflies Nabokov was famous for chasing, Lolita is a gorgeous, empty object that can be touched only briefly before it vanishes.
The Nutty Professor (Jerry Lewis, 1963)
Maligned by middlebrows, lionized by the French, and adored — at least in his heyday — by bread-and-butter audiences throughout the world, Jerry Lewis long ago settled into the comfortable niche of comedic institution. Scorsese paid tribute to him in The King of Comedy; Steve Martin’s “jerk” persona, Pee Wee Herman’s evil androgyne, Jim Carrey’s modern doofus, and a host of other recent comic characters may not have existed if Lewis hadn’t paved the way with a score of noisy, manic “idiot” roles from his first film with Dean Martin, My Friend Irma (1949), to his last directorial effort, Hardly Working (1981). Lewis’ comic persona was always like a giant screaming baby, a simultaneously dazzling and disturbing brat whose personality was too big to exist in one body. Not surprisingly, when he struck out on his own as a director with The Bellboy (1960), he began to multiply — like a virus.
Lewis was always a student of film (he was heavily influenced by his frequent director Frank Tashlin), and by the time of Nutty Professor he had an enormous command of cinematic vocabulary. The transformation scene in which Kelp becomes Love is a model of tight framing, dynamic editing, and Lewis’s trademark garish color schemes. His first entrance into the local hangout, the well-named Purple Pit, brilliantly renders what Kelp wishes he could be in a slow, elaborate dolly shot from Buddy Love’s perspective. We don’t see him, but a long line of shocked and enthralled people do, as he walks toward the “Pit.”
One of the most intriguing aspects of Lewis’s comic persona is his almost schizoid inability to communicate in a logical, linear way. When either Kelp or Love is sliding uncontrollably into the other’s personality, it’s marked by a breakdown in speech, as a kind of mindless babble takes over — a comic device Lewis pioneered and perfected. Kelp is a genius at this kind of maddening discourse. After he blows up part of the campus in an experiment, he’s called to the office of college president Dr. Warfield. After a stern lecture, Warfield asks if he’s correct in assuming they won’t have to this kind of “little talk” again. The nervously overwrought Kelp can’t simply agree and leave it at that. Instead, he replies, “[inarticulate mumbling] Without question, you’re absolutely … yes … we’ll never have to correct our talk … uh … we won’t ever speak — uh, that is, we’ll never have to talk again. We just never will discuss talking … we shouldn’t really converse … about speaking.” Lewis is surely improvising here, dragging the unconscious mutterings of the mind into full, freakish display.
Commentators over the years have claimed that the Buddy Love character is Lewis’s vicious satire of Dean Martin, an idea the director emphatically denies. A better case can be made for Love as simply a more inflated (if that’s possible) Jerry Lewis — the smarmy host of the Telethon, the egomaniac who wants to play every role in his films, and the control freak who excels even with the technical chores, from casting to color design to editing. In some respects at least, by the time he made The Nutty Professor, the “baby” had grown up.
Renaissance Village (Gabe Chasnoff, 2008)
“Renaissance” was an ironic name for the “village” of formaldehyde-oozing trailers in which FEMA officials warehoused 3,000 of the 120,000 people left homeless by Hurricane Katrina. As director Gabe Chasnoff shows in this intimate look at a complex story that remains underreported in the national media, the experience was literally more akin to death than rebirth.
The story here is of slow and spiraling debilitation on a physical, emotional, and spiritual level, with glimmers of hope. FEMA commissioned the building of travel trailers at breakneck speed, we learn, and without the quality standards required for “housing” intended to be occasional rather than ongoing. Once FEMA knew there was massive formaldehyde leakage (ten times the safe amount) in the trailers, they advised tenants to open their doors for ventilation. In the 115-degree heat of rural Louisiana, that was untenable, and in closing their doors to keep the trailer livable the villagers suffered illness and in some cases death.
But the struggles of Renaissance Village’s tenants occur in other areas, too. Simple survival becomes a challenge. For Herbert Nicholson, “the candy man,” that means buying and reselling junk food to make ends meet, a situation that brings him unwanted, and eventually, life-changing, attention from FEMA. Former auto mechanic Paul spends most of his time waiting for promised social services that don’t materialize, or being retrained in classes that don’t result in a job. Gwendolyn Allen and Thelma Howard drift into memory mode, recalling brutal racial crimes against their family that seem to be stirred up by their present situation. Most face homelessness after the hotel vouchers run out. Still, there are encouraging moments, too, as when Wilbert Ross emerges as a reluctant spokesman for the group, convincing an attorney to start a lawsuit against FEMA and forcefully challenging the agency’s infuriating mix of indifference and interference whenever he can.
A chief virtue of Renaissance Village is that the filmmakers didn’t need to be polemical; the facts were sufficient to make the case, and that’s what Chasnoff and his crew rely on. That approach, along with the compelling cast of characters and a dramatic narrative of life lived in extremis, makes this an important addition to the socially conscious documentary.
Rock Bottom (Jay Corcoran, 2006)
Under the spell of H. P. Lovecraft, who began publishing his own writings before adolescence (he wrote and “hectographed” The Scientific Gazette in 1899, at age 9), I published my first zine in 1967 at age 16.
One of the poems I still recall verbatim, though the title remains elusive:
A rose in a garden was growing
So very rich, so very beautiful
And though she was more than wise
She picked it
And with covetous eyes
Stared for a longing minute.
She bit into the cool damp
Lush with dew.
A hard-shelled bug
In the secret petals
Crunched bitter and sour
Inside her mouth
And she was sick.
I offer this intro to a review of Rock Bottom, about gay men and meth addiction, because the image of the girl biting the flower and then the bug came to mind during the screening, and it seemed almost absurdly appropriate. The Peter Pan’s lost boys of Rock Bottom can’t resist the loveliness and power of the rose of meth, but the bug inside is considerably more lethal than the one the girl of the poem tasted.
Director Jay Corcoran followed seven men around with a video camera for 2-1/2 years, tracking their ups and downs as they grapple with the addiction, alternately embrace and deny it, and move in and out of recovery and relationships. The appeal is powerful and transporting, at least at the beginning: “way enjoyable … it’s a blast … this is fierce!” Corcoran mostly lets the men speak for themselves, and we can hear the boundaries melt away in the space of a few words: “I’m really high, really horny, really out of it,” says one, as he comes on to the cinematographer. The film shows the physical effects of meth in wrenching before-and-after images and the men’s speed-talking, sudden, nervous movements, and drifty expressions. But the personality drifts, too, often radically. One man discusses almost dispassionately how he changes under meth to the point of assaulting his boyfriend. Another recounts without affect losing “a great job … a job I loved” because the drug began to consume him.
Occasionally a caregiver or other professional weighs in. A professor says the typical user is socially phobic: “men who have a difficult time in social situations.” A therapist describes “fear fatigue” as a driving factor — “people are sick of being afraid of HIV.” For some of the men, the addiction is indeed an escape, if only temporary, from the plague: “Fifteen years of living with a death sentence — all that goes away when you do crystal.”
Corcoran neither aestheticizes his subject nor acts as a moral scold, though it’s hard to see Rock Bottom as other than a grim cautionary tale. Some of the stories end on a positive note, with family and friends offering unstinting support, or the user finding unexpected strength within himself; for others, it’s death or a downward spiral with no visible end: “Every rock bottom has a door.”
In Search of the English Folksong (Ken Russell, 1997)
Ken Russell has had a somewhat schizoid career in cinema, putting his unique stamp on both studied tributes to artistic figures like Isadora Duncan and Frederick Delius and on more familiar exercises in operatic excess such as The Devils and The Music Lovers. But Russell apparently has other interests besides eccentric dancers and horny rebel-priests, as this 1997 documentary shows. Russell’s in witty-respectable mode here as he meanders around England, from pub to carnival to garden to countryside, with the stated purpose of trying to determine what an English folksong is and whether (and if so where) the form might still exist.
In Search of the English Folksong is worth a look as a whimsical diary of one man’s obsessions and a historical record of a handful of excellent performances.
Summer Heights High (Chris Lilley, 2007)
Summer Heights High is the creation of Australian comic Chris Lilley (right), who wrote it and also plays the three main roles. This mockumentary series filmed in a real Australian high school focuses on egomaniacal drama teacher “Mr. G” (right) and two obnoxious students, 14-year-old slackerboy Jonah, and smug 16-year-old Australian Valley Girl Ja’ime.
Mr. G at first appears like a typical theatrical type, a queeny buffoon who imagines his limited talent knows no bounds. But the more we see of him and his interactions with the students, the more hilariously disturbing he seems. When he learns that one of the students has O.D.’d on ecstasy, he can barely contain his joy as the tragedy inspires his new musical: “A Girl. A Pill. One Hell of a Night.” The clueless chorus: “She’s a party girl with a bad habit, bad habit for drugs. She’s a naughty girl with a bad habit, bad habit for drugs.”
Lilley trains his cross-hairs on classism with the character of Ja’ime, a delusionally self-absorbed rich girl who talks about herself nonstop, patronizes those less fortunate (“I love disabled people!”), and hooks up with the A-list girls while secretly dissing them as “housing commission whores” to her rich friends. In addition to her spew about the “public school trash” she’s having to commingle with, arrogant Ja’ime’s at the center of some of the show’s most unsettlingly funny moments, as when she initiates a tumultous “romance” with a perplexed 12-year-old (“He’s hot!”). Behaviorally troubled Jonah, who manipulates his naive counselor and teacher to a dizzying degree, wraps up this trio of horrors.
Summer Heights High isn’t Chris Lilley’s first series, but it should be his breakthrough hit in the States. With it, he joins the Little Britain boys, Larry David, and a handful of others in the stratosphere of contemporary comedy.
War Dance (Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine, 2007)
How much influence documentaries have had on changing social conditions is quantifiable in some cases — think Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line, which helped inspire the movement to reinvestigate Death Row cases in America’s prisons. Some documentaries may help simply by exposing a situation that the western news venues have left to the gulag of obscure activist websites and localized media. Such is the case with War Dance.
Filmmakers Sean and Andrea Fine lived in the camp while shooting War Dance in order to gain the trust of these people. This proximity pays off as the film takes us deep into its subjects’ lives as displaced people, budding artists, children. Shot in HD, the cinematography has a magisterial beauty, with the camera lingering on the children’s faces and surveying the bush, which is both seductive and terrifying as the site where “the rebels” frequently hide before starting their raids — and where some of the children’s murdered relatives are buried.
Numerous reviewers (John Anderson in Variety and Stephen Holden in The New York Times among others) have lauded the film but also criticized its “slickness,” with Anderson making the common complaint that “the young black faces are too beautiful, the landscapes too pretty, and the personal stories of slaughter too scripted.” But why shouldn’t the faces and the landscape be shown as beautiful? That’s what they are. And visualizing them that way — iconicizing them, really — shows clearly these kids’ power, their possibily, and their tragedy. They are extraordinary human beings who’ve lived so far beyond the norm that such treatment strikes this reviewer as the perfect approach.
As for the seemingly scripted nature of the children’s confessions, it’s hard to take seriously objections to what is essentially their articulateness in recounting almost unimaginable experiences. The charge that they were scripted is a curious one, perhaps more indicative of western reviewers’ disturbing inability to recognize that these children are in fact as intelligent and penetrating about their lives as they seem. (A case could be made that being abducted, sometimes raped and forced to kill may have pushed them into a maturity of self-awareness that belies their years.) At any rate, producer Susan MacLaury has refuted this baseless charge in the San Francisco Chronicle: “I want to go on the record as saying there was nothing scripted or staged, and the kids were never coached. When Sean went to the camp, he didn’t pick up a camera for three weeks — and trust me, as an executive producer, I was well aware of that. He wanted to form a basis for a relationship before he put anything on camera.” Sean Fine perhaps summed it up best at a Q&A cited in the same article. Asked how he could “shoot such beautiful stuff” in this environment, he replied, “Don’t these children deserve the respect of a beautiful film?”