“As soon as my health is in jeopardy, everybody shows up to lick my ass!”
Cyclo (Anh Hung Tranh, 1995)
At first glance, Hung’s follow-up, Cyclo, hints at a quantum leap into a grittier, more gripping universe, one that’s clearly indebted to neo-realism. The setting is Ho Chi Minh City, and the opening shots show in vivid close-up an impoverished Cyclo (the word refers to both the popular bicycle taxi, or pedicab, and to the driver). Like the other characters in the film, “the Cyclo” (played by untrained actor Le Van Loc) is unnamed, intended to represent an archetype of human suffering.
His parents dead, the Cyclo works for a surrogate mother figure, “the boss-lady,” who oversees a criminal empire. When he stops to take a piss (obligatory in neo-realist cinema), a rival gang steals his cab, an event that triggers his descent into both a real and a metaphorical underworld. There he meets a strange array of characters: the Poet (Hong Kong superstar Tony Leung-Chiu Wai), who spends the entire movie saying little and looking sad; the boss-lady’s insane son, who enjoys pouring cans of paint over his body; and a group of killers, headed by the Poet, who demonstrate their viciousness to the Cyclo by torturing and killing a man tied to a chair and wrapped up in bondage-style tape. The Cyclo nihilistically embraces the group and becomes a major asset, unquestioningly carrying out every task they assign him, from drug smuggling to fire-bombings.
Meanwhile, he drifts increasingly deeper into a kind of poetic catatonia. Never exactly a Chatty Cathy, the Cyclo becomes practically mute, and spends his spare time biting live salamanders and goldfish in half, taking drugs, and — like the boss-lady’s mentally ill son — pouring buckets of paint over his muscular frame and rolling around on the floor.
Director Hung runs parallel plots that comment on each other, chiefly the rejection of the Poet by his disgusted father, and the degradation of the Cyclo’s sister (Papaya’s Tran Nu Yen Khe), who also ends up working for the Poet, as a whore. The director uses her trysts as a springboard for self-consciously decadent fantasies — a customer forces her to piss into a bowl while he masturbates, another masochistically washes her feet. These scenes are shot with loving detail, pulling the viewer into the discomfort she feels as she slides into objectification.
Hung’s fascination with the details of degradation and the succumbing to a kind of pre-civilized state is everywhere evident, and does result in some striking images. The most arresting of these is the Cyclo’s drug-induced collapse into a pool of luminous blue paint, in which he lies so long he becomes part of the color. But, as in Papaya, the characters are primitive, broadly sketched, ultimately impenetrable. Hung’s attempts to link the fate of the Cyclo and his sister with social decline are half-hearted, amounting to little more than a few scenes of enormous tenements contrasted with what appears to be a wealthy resort. On the other hand, the kind of philosophical vortex in which the pair find themselves is implied in the early scenes of Ho Chi Minh Square, with the Cyclo seeming to ride in endless circles searching for passengers or simply trying to make it through the day. In the end, the film founders because director Hung is so in love with his admittedly sometimes powerful imagery that he fails to bring his puppets to life.
Doin’ Time in Times Square (Charlie Ahearn, 2007)
The footage here, spanning the 1980s, documents one of America’s most violent and colorful spaces: pre-Giuliani, pre-Disneyfied Times Square. At that time, the area attracted everyone from suburban kids and gangbangers to tranny prostitutes, drug addicts, and the sometimes aggressive mentally ill. Time appears to stand still here; night and day ripple with unpredictable activity. Ahearn’s camera unflinchingly records threadbare preachers yelling about “the lesbians and the homosexuals,” street brawls that appear to end in murder, slugfests between men and women who may be husband and wife or pimp and whore, drug deals successfully concluded or gone terribly wrong — all enacted to the wail of the police siren and the screams of people on the verge. Inevitably, there are poetic moments, as when a woman is seen unself-consciously dancing in front of a broken window at the seedy Times Square Hotel (below). Much of the footage is at night, deepening the already palpable aura of mystery around these people and the dramas they’re playing out.
One of the revelations of revisiting some of the female-centered, textbook noir classics is that despite the havoc they wreak, these women are surprisingly sympathetic as they try to blast their way out of the traps of dull domesticity, middle-class life, and suffocating sex roles.
A good example is Brigid O’Shaughnassey (Mary Astor) in The Maltese Falcon (1941). Brigid spends the entire movie tearfully fucking over everybody around her, including lovestruck gumshoe Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart). But from the safety of our seats, we’re as drawn to her beauty and power as Spade is, and we unexpectedly suffer as he does when she finally gets her comeuppance. Gun Crazy’s (1950) Annie Starr (Peggy Cummins) leads a good-natured naif astray but she does it with heart. Jane Greer’s brilliant portrayal of the murderous Kathie Moffat in Out of the Past (1947) humanizes one of noir’s most vicious characters, one who single-handedly engineers a dizzying series of double-crosses to get the kind of plush life — and man — she wants. Some of the women here go even farther. In The Manchurian Candidate (1962), frustrated power-bitch Mrs. Iselin (Angela Lansbury) destroys her son in a plot to take over the U.S. government. In the apocalyptic Kiss Me Deadly (1955), a scheming beauty opens an atomic-age Pandora’s Box capable of ending life as we know it. Woman power!
Critics often read film noir as one of the more macho genres, embodying male anxieties and fantasies of empowerment as working-class joes try crime as a way to get rich or to nail some moll who wouldn’t look at them unless they had money. But this series shows noirs are just as likely to be fueled by female ambition. Take Mildred Pierce (1945). This famous Joan Crawford film (she won her only Academy Award for it) has its share of memorable males in Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott) and Wally Fay (Jack Carson), but the women — Crawford as the obsessive mother and Ann Blyth as her monstrous daughter Veda — rampage through the film, with Mildred a veritable 50-Foot Woman as she climbs to wealth through sheer willpower while alternately fighting off and submitting to an even greater power: the monstrous Veda! Noir’s proto-feminist angle as seen in these films is obviously not their only lure, but it’s a major one.
Fatherhood Dreams (Julia Ivanova, 2007)
In the process of hearing the men’s personal stories, we learn that Canada’s surrogacy and adoptions laws are in some ways as problematic as the ones in the U.S. There’s the usual meddlesome presence of the Church in some adoption agencies. And no money is allowed to change hands for surrogacy, removing much of the incentive for would-be surrogates.
One problematic aspect of the film is a certain bent in the interviewing of Stephen’s youngest daughter by, presumably, the filmmaker. Questions like “Is one mom more kind than the other,” while perhaps useful on the surface in teasing out the true feelings of the child, feel intrusive and subtly judgmental. Also, curiously, there were two more stories that weren’t integrated into the film proper. That’s particularly the case with the story of Murray and Dwayne, who, with their adopted older sons, are integrally involved with the Church. Their story, and that of Kelly, who’s enduring a particularly difficult process of adoption, appear as extras but are just as compelling as the ones in the film itself, where they surely belong.
The Lost Coast (Gabriel Fleming, 2008)
The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me (Tim Kirkman, 2000)
Unlike most plays, this one has been granted an afterlife through the miracle of motion pictures. Director Tim Kirkman (of Dear Jesse fame) collaborated with Drake on a filmed version, an apparently faithful rendering of the original leavened for cinematic purposes with some lighting changes and editing sleight-of-hand, but retaining the minimalist sets and unerring focus on Drake as he takes us through the childhood and adulthood of his alleged Everyqueen. In this version an unseen audience offers scattered titters and applause.
Drake begins in 1975 with his sixth birthday, which, serendipitously, is on the same day as the 1969 Stonewall Riots. Clad in regulation tight jeans and vein-displaying muscle-hugging T-shirt, he leads the viewer on a tour of his early interest in Barbie, his faghag pal Janice, his first gay kiss at 16. From there he moves into sketches of the personal ads, gay gym culture, the Village People, cruising, AIDS activism, and other byways of then-modern queer life. In one segment he exchanges his jeans for a jock, sometimes pausing while the camera lovingly surveys his gym-fresh butt.
More important than his admittedly intriguing ass are Drake’s words, which he delivers in a dramatic, declamatory, musical style, adhering to some internal rhythm. Occasionally his phrases have a mildly felicitous ring: “Swim Team Tim,” the title of one of the more successful sketches, had “the scent of that chlorine-bleached hair” that drove him crazy. Sixteen himself, he amusingly refers to Tim as “the older man, seventeen.” But that’s about as striking as his imagery gets. This laughter-and-tears show ultimately has too little of either.
Drake’s delivery is hyperdramatic, sledgehammer, with a recurring motif of repetition. The whole thing has the air of an overcaffeinated queer poetry slam; surely only in that realm would we hear such phrases as Drake’s “Hour after hour after hour after hour” or “the month after the night after the night after the night after the night after the night.” Even the most banal insights get the royal repetition treatment a la James Joyce: “I threw down those pages pages pages,” “Boys and boys and boys and boys,” followed by the equally scintillating “I’m lookin’ lookin’ lookin’ lookin’.” Such echoings (there are many more) can be read as a stylistic signature — perhaps initiating a new genre, gay rap — but they are ultimately wearisome and begin to look suspiciously like a cover for a lack of any real insight or inspiration.
There’s also an interminable “gym bunny” sequence, where Drake carries on about the superficiality of that scene. He screams and flexes and pulls at his dick (outlined in his jockstrap), and lifts an imaginary barbell up and “down down down to” — where else? — “the ground ground ground.”
Drake fans may protest that he is not really a writer but a performer, whose charisma compensates for these literary missteps. And he does have an undeniable degree of allure; he’s watchable even at his most extreme. But too much of this performance reeks of self-indulgence, narcissism, and cloying sentimentality. Director Kirkman could have cut this 84-minute exercise in self-adoration to a more svelte 60 minutes or so without losing any of the punch. Particularly cut-worthy are Drake’s reenactments of his childhood, which begin with him on his knees, not cocksucking like any queen worth his salt, but praying and chattering about Barbie and other done-to-death topics in a sing-song baby voice that’s more embarrassing than evocative. Drake has been ranked by some critics with Spalding Gray and Sandra Bernhard, but such comparisons only point out his limitations, The New York Times and The New Yorker notwithstanding.
Ossessione (Luchino Visconti, 1943)
Ossessione (1942) was based on James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, adapted from a typed translation given to him by Jean Renoir, who passed on the project. Happily, Renoir’s lack of interest paid off big for Visconti and for film fans. This Postman almost single-handedly ushered in Italian neorealism, and didn’t stint on the homo subtext either. No wonder the powerful busybodies of the Church and the fascist censors tried to suppress the film. (And in the case of the censors, destroyed what they thought was the only negative; the savvy filmmaker had squirreled away a duplicate that became the basis for later prints.!)
Visconti came from Italian royalty and grew up in privilege, but he was also an irrepressible Marxist who could present the lives of the poor and exploited with enormous authority. Ossessione’s wandering hero, Gino (Massimo Girotti), travels what would become well-trod territory through the next decade, the bleak road of the “neoreal” marked by themes of impoverishment, despair, murder, sexual candor, and of course a femme fatale who leads him far astray. But Ossessione also presents a near-queer romance that resonates almost as powerfully as the driving hetero “obsession” of Gino and Giovanna (Clara Calamai).
Gino is the first of many Visconti hunks, a gorgeous dreamy-eyed drifter lovingly surveyed, indeed practically cruised, by the camera. Giovanna is sick to death of the older fat man she married to escape poverty and prostitution, and when Gino arrives, she, along with some audience members, lights up with lust. Visconti perfectly captures this mutual longing in their furtive steamy encounters barely out of view of her hubby.
Spagnolo (Elio Marcuso) subsidizes Gino’s first escape from Giovanna. Gino is on the train but lacks the money to pay, so Spagnolo offers and the two become friends and fellow travelers. Spagnolo’s homosexuality is blatantly portrayed considering the time and circumstance (fascist Italy) in which the film was made. This relationship ripples with loving glances but goes farther. In one scene they’re in bed together and Spagnolo lights a cigarette, holding the match over Gino’s face and studying it with unmistakable devotion. Visconti presents Spagnolo as an alternative, a superior one at that, to the chaos that Giovanna represents, though historically the time was not right for Gino to make the choice, even if it meant saving himself. Visconti would be more upfront later in films like Rocco and His Brothers, The Damned, and Death in Venice. Still, there’s almost as much electricity between these two potential male lovers as there is between the straight ones.
The homo subtext is far from the only lure of Ossessione. It’s a wrenching study of a doomed romantic triangle that destroys everyone involved, played by a superb cast against gorgeous northern Italian locations. The queer icing just makes this already tasty cake that much more satisfying.
Palace of Stains (Bob Moricz, 2008)
Moricz sets up so many tropes and targets that the effect is dizzying: religious hypocrisy, incest, orgies, S&M, terrorism, grim youth, hooded killers, corrupt cops, naked lesbians in a hot tub, and of course dysfunctional families. Not that that’s bad; the shotgun effect is more exhilarating than exhausting. Allegiances turn on a dime, characters suddenly whip out guns to mow down their pals, and even a sulfurous Satan drops by. Stories overlap and motifs recur to vertiginous effect. Moricz takes the Kuchar (and perhaps Meyer) approach of embedding a surprising new development every few minutes (or sooner) to keep the eye and mind engaged. In this sense, Palace of Stains recalls the very earliest cinema, where novelty was the lure.
The script cleverly counterpoints moments like a mock-philosophical chat between a husband and wife (“Ever feel like the marriage of institution is outmoded?”) with images like a naked muscular hunk preening next door, whose pants wifey can’t wait to get into. During a séance, Mrs. Cosgrove appears as a screamingly funny ghost-image that resembles an animated photographic negative. During an eye-stomping sequence, the victim-eye is shown in absurdly huge close-up. As if the nonstop action wasn’t enough, the film adorns the frame with witty visual touches, from iris-like cut-outs to saturating cartoon blood dribbling down the frame. The gore fx are endearingly simple, as in the crude, seemingly drawn-on bullet holes on the frame; or amusingly over-the-top, like the phony human leg being gnawed by a demented cannibal. The actors are amateurs in the DIY mode but bring sufficient gusto to their roles. The score, mostly by the Optical Pies Orchestra, nicely enhances the mood.
Underbelly: A Year in the Life of a Dancer (Steve Balderson, 2008)
An engaging mix of performance and practice footage and interviews with both dancers and scholars, Underbelly follows Los Angeles-based Gehman deploying her art in a series of exotic venues: Tribal Dreams in Lincoln, Nebraska, Tribal Fest 7 in Sebastopol, California, a Mexican Riviera cruise ship, Margaret Cho’s off-broadway hit The Sensuous Woman, London, and elsewhere. (Cho is one of Gehman’s students and friends, and is seen here in interview.) Along the way we get to know Gehman, a shapeshifting artist who was a fixture on the L.A. punk and rockabilly scene in the 1980s; a booker of bands and a musician in at least three bands of her own; a fiction writer and journalist; and starting in 1991, at age 32, a belly dancer. Gehman’s popularity with both audiences and her peers is instantly clear; despite working in a rareified form that might seem too insular to interest those outside it, she’s hilarious and down to earth, gifted without being pompous or self-important, articulate about her art and life, nurturing without controlling or even expecting a payoff except that her students try their best. In her classes, she can pause from showing how to break down a tricky belly flutter to its simplest components to expertly mimicing Ethel Merman doing “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” or talking in gritty, witty detail about the veritable orgy that was the Los Angeles club scene in the ’80s.
That same sense of openness and daring that characterizes her classes led Gehman, and most of the other dances in the film, to reject boilerplate feminist claims that belly dancing “objectifies” and “degrades” women. That’s a hard objection to support given the form’s obvious inclusiveness. Dance Gloria Darling notes that it “embraces all body types, all ages,” which is evident in the women (and a few men) seen here. Gehman’s brio also takes her into a controversial area. Like certain popular musical forms, belly dancing has undergone radical transformations that the film explicates nicely. Inspired by some of her own challenges as a sometime bulimic, Gehman spotted a surprising connection between belly dancing and burlesque — the celebration of the female body. This led to the creation of a hybrid form of the two that she nervously introduced at some of the important venues. As the film shows, hesitation was in order; belly dancing traditionalists (some of whom are interviewed in the film) were disgusted and dismissive at the idea that burlesque could be introduced into what they see as a classical form. But Gehman’s experiment proved successful, attracting more attention, audiences, and dancers and spawning further refinements and variations such as goth belly dancing. As one of the academics in the film says, belly dancing is a living thing, subject to, surviving by, and flourishing through change — a description that could also be applied to the charismatic woman at the center of this excellent doc.
Many of the films reviewed above were shown at the QDoc festival, Portland, Oregon’s annual showcase for the best in queer documentaries (the only one in the U.S.). Thanks to ace programmers Russ Gage and David Weissman for this exceptional festival.
These “stabs” are affectionately dedicated to — and modeled on — the pithy capsule film reviews pioneered by Calvin T. Beck’s deservedly legendary Castle of Frankenstein magazine in the 1960s. Thanks, Cal, wherever the hell you are!