“Dafydd Thomas (Lucas), a delusional queen in PVC fetish drag, jealously guards his status as ‘the only gay in the village’ even when competing queens arrive to challenge him.”
119 Bullets + 3 (Yeud Levanon, 1996)
Yeud Levanon’s chilling video doc was made almost twenty years ago but remains a significant look at the mindset of Israel’s Jewish settlers. The title refers to the number of bullets that Israeli settler Baruch Goldstein sprayed into the backs of praying Moslems (119) and the number law student Yigal Amir used to kill Yitzak Rabin (3). Levanon spent a year and a half interviewing the leaders of the right-wing settler movement in the occupied territories of the West Bank. These speakers are smug and dispassionate in discussing their deification of “Saint Goldstein,” their plans to violently destroy the Arabs and turn Israel into a fascist theocracy. “We blew their [the Arab mayors’] legs off. But that was a marginal activity for us.” Yigal Amir — though admired — presents a sort of intellectual puzzle for these men (they’re almost all men): he killed a Jew, not an Arab. The seemingly unbridgeable gulf between these fanatics and the reasonable majority of Israelis is made clear when Levanon extracts a pledge from a particularly violence-addicted settler that he won’t shoot him. The settler smiles and adds, “Don’t give me a reason to.”
Antonio Gaudí (Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1984)
This brief (72-minute) tribute to the visionary Spanish architect Gaudí (1852-1926) by Japanese director/artist Hiroshi Teshigahara (Woman in the Dunes) is an oblique cinematic biography that focuses more on the creations than the creator. Utilizing subtitles without dialogue, ethereal electronic sounds by Toru Takemitsu (Ran), and painterly views of motifs and buildings, Teshigahara also minimizes his own presence in the interest of immersing the viewer in the architect’s dreamscapes. Gaudí was a major influence on the surrealists, but his own inspiration came from Art Nouveau, Orientalism, medieval churches, and above all nature, evident in the flowing organic forms — tree branches, stalagmites, nautilus shells, honeycombs — that distinguish the extraordinary La Casa Mila apartment building (still lived in today), and the Sagrada Familia, a vast, otherworldly church that, like the forms that inspired him, continues to “grow” long after his death through enhancements by his disciples. While it’s possible to glean many of the facts of Gaudí’s life from this film — his entry into Barcelona’s architecture school at 16, his patronage by Count Guell, his death in a trolley accident are here — Teshigahara’s strategies encourage the viewer to forget all that reality and surrender to the spell of these timeless works.
Architecture to Zucchini (2005)
At a time when the Bush cabal is rejecting science, embracing “faith,” wreaking havoc on the U.S. and the world, suppressing the very notion of progress and thoughtful stewardship of resources in favor of pushing us into a new Dark Age where they can rule us serfs unfettered, it’s heartening to know there are pockets of resistance and sheer good sense. This documentary explores one of these pockets. Essentially a teaching tool but inspiring to anyone interested in these issues, Architecture to Zucchini offers 12 case studies of “sustainability pioneers” — leaders in industries from wood processing plants to pizza joints that operate on sustainability principles, all based in and around the Portland, Oregon area.
There are plenty of statistics here — 2.7 billion people in the world lack sanitation; 1 billion lack clean water; 20 percent of the population consumes 86 percent of the world’s resources. These figures provide important background, but the real story here is that of pioneering businesspeople who are making their business work in tandem with sustainability principles. Typical is the Norm Thompson company, a high-end clothier that would seem unlikely to be involved with progressive policies. In fact, the company employs a sustainability manager who researches every possible way to “do it right,” from phasing out PVC to procuring green power to reducing off-gases in their buildings — all put into practice in their stores and buying practices. The net result is a highly successful company with a strong customer base and a respected workforce. Bill and Karla Chambers of Stahlbush Farms have discovered uses for what are traditionally waste products that end up in the landfill — for example, redeploying thousands of tons of waste from processing corn as cattle feed. David Yudkin of Hot Lipps Pizza is shown negotiating with a local vegetable provider, holding up eggplants that come from just eight miles away. This relationship helps sustain a local farm, employ workers paid a decent wage, and of course, ultimately provide a better, fresher product. The connections cultivated in this new business model also help build community, in the process undermining the hegemony of monolithic agribusiness and returning power to the local level.
The other interviewees include farmers, nonprofits, lumber companies, businesses focusing on education and government, and others. The owner of New Seasons markets, a five-market family chain, sums up this movement succinctly, saying the goal is to be “environmentally sound, socially desirable, economically viable” — a new template for business that challenges conventional propaganda that says business and social responsibility are mutually exclusive terms.
Breakfast on Pluto (Neil Jordan, 2005)
Neil Jordan, like everyone with taste, loves his trannies. The director who mythologized genderbender Jaye Davidson in The Crying Game (and made Tom Cruise look like a drag queen in Interview with the Vampire) introduces another major tranny diva in Breakfast on Pluto. Despite the weird title (why not Snacks on Saturn, or Brunch on Uranus?), this film is a wonderfully complex ode to being different and a sure cure for those interminable Bushco blues.
Set in 1970s Ireland and England, this Dickensian romp stars Cillian Murphy as Patrick Braden, who redubs himself “Kitten” and terrorizes family, school, and neighborhood with his unrepentant drag ways. (The opening scene shows him strutting down a street in haute couture being propositioned and then insulted by confused construction workers.) Obsessed with Hollywood glamour (via a fascination with ‘50s star Mitzi Gaynor), he manages to hook up with a few other outsiders, including a Down’s Syndrome kid and a beautiful biracial girl, who form a loose-knit but loving family. And Kitten needs one. He has no idea who his parents are, a problem that eventually pushes him out of smalltown Irish life and on to London. Once there, his dramatic personality — a mix of fearlessness and coquettish masochism — gets full play. He meets a lonely magician (played by Jordan regular Stephen Rea) and becomes his assistant and quasi-girlfriend. He turns to prostitution, he’s eventually nailed — and tortured — as a suspected IRA killer when a disco he’s at is bombed. In the background is his sympathetic friend Father Bernard (Liam Neeson), a priest who hears his confessions and even follows him to London to help Kitten find himself.
Breakfast delicately balances heartbreak and whimsy (check out those two bitchy birds that appear throughout to offer commentary on what’s happening). There’s a wistful tone underlying Kitten’s search, but also plenty of finely judged black humor, even in scenes like his torture by British cops that should play far from funny. (Typical of the film, he charms his tormentors, one of whom thoughtfully gets him a job as a whore.) There’s also a witty send-up of The Avengers and spy movies in a fantasy of Kitten, in Emma Peel-ish leather body suit, felling crim after crim with a spray of perfume. All this is held together by Cillian Murphy’s brilliant incarnation of Kitten. It’s hard to imagine even a Real Queen pulling this off; the fact that Murphy is straight in real life makes it downright miraculous.
Brigitte Lin aka Lin Ching-Hsia
Sexual ambiguity is one of the hallmarks of Hong Kong cinema’s golden age, and no one did it better than Lin Ching-Hsia, aka Brigitte Lin. Her gender-bending roles as Invincible Asia (in the Swordsman series), the general’s daughter in Peking Opera Blues, the indomitable swordswoman in Dragon Inn (right), and other such characters typed her forever in many fans’ minds as perhaps the most alluring incarnation of androgyny in late twentieth-century cinema.
But Lin’s ascension to these legendary roles would not have been easy to predict based on her early career. Born November 3, 1954 in Taiwan, she was discovered by a Taipei movie producer at 18 and made her first film, Outside the Window, in 1973. This was one of dozens of romantic melodramas and family comedies that made her a familiar face to Asian moviegoers, even if the films themselves — with titles like Love Love Love (1974) and Cloud of Romance (1977) — were lightweight efforts, cinema versions of romance novels.
Lin would go on to make over 100 features during her career, but her film persona changed radically in the early 1980s, when she moved from lovestruck girls and self-sacrificing “other women” into supernatural, historical, and heroic roles that would bring her greatest fame. This shift began with a string of collaborations with Taiwanese director Chu Yin Ping. Films like Demon Fighter (1982), Pink Force Commando (1983), and Fantasy Mission Force (1983) exploited Lin’s strength and sensuality in equal measure and hint at the more powerful persona to come.
These “superwoman” roles grew out of a long Chinese tradition, both cinematic and literary, of strong women who fight as ruthlessly as men. But Lin’s beauty and sheer intensity made these characters her own. One of her best-known films from this era, Police Story (1985), seems a throwback, with Lin overshadowed by costar Jackie Chan’s tour-de-force stunts. But a year later came Peking Opera Blues. This Tsui Hark masterpiece showcases both Lin’s fighting skill and her fine comic timing. Her image as the revolutionary Tsao Wan, mesmerizing in her crisp military uniform, is one of the most indelible in her career.
Lin hit her stride in the early 1990s playing a series of supernatural characters in the second and third installment in the Swordsman and Bride with White Hair series. In the Swordsman films, she’s surrounded by the cream of HK talent, including Jet Li, Rosamund Kwan, and Joey Wong. Here she effortlessly deploys unforgettable weaponry — sprays of needles, binding threads, lethal bolts of cloth — and has some intensely erotic quasi-lesbian scenes, particularly with Joey Wong. Dragon Inn (1992) and The Bride with the White Hair series (1992, 1993) sealed her reputation as the preeminent woman warrior of modern HK cinema. Lin’s final film was Wong Kar-wai’s Chunking Express (1994), in which she played a blonde hitwoman opposite Tony Leung. Since retiring in 1994 to marry and raise a family, her only film credit is as narrator for the queer HK film Bishonen (1998), perhaps a thank-you to the gay community’s embrace of her as an icon of androgyny.
The work of Deborah Stratman is distinguished by its variety — few filmmakers attach their names to both distinctly experimental and documentary work — and its fascinating formalism. The DVD Something Like Flying offers a glimpse at an unusual career via three of her most important works.
Kings of the Sky (2004, 68 mins.) is recognizably in the ethnographic tradition, documenting a little-known subculture through nominal biography of one of its celebrities. The subculture is a Turkic Muslim society, the Uyghurs, located in China’s largest, westernmost province Xinjiang. The celebrity is the charismatic Adil Dawaz, a Guinness World Record winner for his extraordinary tightrope walking, a vocation that stretches back through his family over 400 years. Stratman followed Adil’s troupe with her camera through the province’s village oases over a four-month period, documenting their colorful, dangerous performances. (Adil recounts a fall that left him with 17 broken bones, but he’s also shown walking a tightrope over a deep canyon, so high up that he disappears into clouds for part of the walk.) But along the way, other dramas unfold, taking the film beyond individual biography to confront larger issues. One of these is the conflict between the separatist-minded Uyghurs, who’ve routinely been harassed, incarcerated, even executed for their attempts at sovereignty, and the dominant Han Chinese who want to ensure control. In one vivid scene, police harass a crowd of ethnic Uyghurs with large tree branches. Woven throughout the journey are the small details that comprise a rich culture. The troupe’s gorgeous costumes, their struggle to erect a vast tent against the desert’s blinding winds, the dazzling variety of sights in the marketplace — all contribute to a finely etched portrait of a man whose literal balancing act reflects a larger one that a whole society is engaged in.
In Order Not to Be Here (2002, 33 mins.) opens with ultra-grainy surveillance footage, with a helicopter’s eye-view of what appears to be a police action involving dogs and a fugitive. This sequence sets the stage for a cutting exploration of the dark side of the modern American mindset. Much of what follows is a series of tableaux mordant documenting a Hopper-esque America at night — eerie shots of barricade-like fences and walls, some with the faux-fancy names (“Ashbury”) that mark the modern haute housing development, others with low lights that illuminate them against an encroaching, threatening darkness. In this world, fast-food drive-ups are empty but the signage is friendly, and lonely ATMs blink repeated invitations of “Welcome,” a cold robotic communication that substitutes for reassuring human communication. Even the interiors have the sterile feel of a Kubrick set — a perfectly positioned armchair in a room that looks like a window display, a cookbook opened to a recipe in a pristine, empty kitchen. Stratman punctuates these images of a world without humanity or human beings with creepy electronic music and ambient sounds of ominously barking dogs and wailing police sirens. The second half of the film expands on the alienation/paranoia theme, again returning to the godlike viewpoint of a helicopter relentlessly pursuing a “suspect” running through a grainy landscape. The image is a negative to the earlier shots’ positive, as fuzzy as those scenes of abandoned urbanscapes were sharp, with the mysterious fugitive running through fields and forests and finally into a river that becomes a kind of maelstrom/vortex that swallows him whole — the fate that awaits, it seems, humankind in an increasingly “civilized” world.
Stratman’s travels have taken her across the globe (most recently to a long stint in Laos). From Hetty to Nancy (1997, 45 mins.) is set in remote Iceland. This landscape film counterpoints majestic shots of rugged mountains, raging oceans, and other natural imagery with two texts: one a series of historical accounts that appear on screen describing various catastrophes — pirate attacks, enslavement, shipwrecks — the other a voiceover from a series of letters from the 1930s in which two young women exchange droll and bitchy insights into their trip to Iceland. The women emerge as hilariously overcivilized as they laugh at and complain about their schoolgirl charges and the conditions of travel. They carp that their “tent was closing in on us like something out of Edgar Allan Poe.” They wittily invoke Mother Britain: “To see Maisie struggling out of her undies in two square feet of space makes you realize what built the Empire.” The great gulf between such talk, however entertaining, and the vast, destructive power of the natural forces at work here challenges both human arrogance and the supposed benefits of civilized society — a challenge that drives some of Stratman’s other work.
Drawing Out the Demons (David Vaisbord, 2005)
David Vaisbord’s Drawing out the Demons features a subject who is full of life but lives it on the edge. Canadian painter Attila, aka Robert Lukacs, gained notoriety in the 1980s for a stunning series of epic-scale homoerotic portraits of skinheads, working-class butches, and other representatives of the much-vaunted hypermasculine queer ideal. His work recast traditional subjects like the Garden of Eden as queer sex spaces with no Eve in sight. What saved it from foolishness was his superb draftsmanship, which made him seem like a new “Old Master” despite the raunchy subject matter. We first see Attila here histrionically parading through a huge loft that he’s forced to leave. A major diva, he puts everyone through hell — lovers and ex-lovers, his art dealers, his supportive parents, moving men — demanding that the movers treat even his packing materials (peanuts and bubble wrap!) as “art.” The film is a warts-and-all picture of this obviously troubled genius who hits rock bottom on crystal meth and somehow bounces back. This “fuzzy little teddy bear” (Mom), “crazy genius” (dealer Patrick), and lucky guy who “lands with his bum in the butter” (fellow painter Angela Grossman) is a riveting, larger-than-life character, articulate even in his more demented moments, of which there are many. Drawing out the Demons superbly nails him in one of the most incisive portraits of an artist — and a queer one at that — in the genre.
The Dying Gaul (Craig Lucas, 2005)
Robert (Peter Sarsgaard, right) is a queer screenwriter who’s penned 15 scripts with no luck. Number 16, with the not-exactly-commercial title of “The Dying Gaul,” finds a fan in producer Jeffrey (Campbell Scott), who offers Robert a million bucks for the rights. One catch, though. The script is apparently a dark love story featuring two gay men, which Jeffrey dismisses as box-office poison, proposing instead to make it a comedy with heterosexuals. There’s another catch: Jeffrey’s hot for Robert, despite the latter being unhinged and a little scary after the death of his lover from AIDS. Enter Mrs. Jeffrey, Elaine (Patricia Clarkson), a former screenwriter turned bored society wife who learns of hubby’s gay affair when she — hold your hat — impersonates Robert’s dead lover in a gay sex chat room. (Code name: Archangel!) Things get exponentially more unbelievable from there.
If the plot sounds contrived, it is — big time. Screenwriter/director Craig Lucas based The Dying Gaul on his play of the same name, and it has the stagy, schematic feel of a play throughout, with lots of overheated dialogue, curious coincidences, and clueless characters who can’t figure out what the audience sees — and what they should have seen — from a mile away. And for a queer filmmaker whose other credits include Longtime Companion, Craig Lucas serves up one of the most stereotyped faggots this side of Jack in Will and Grace. Sarsgaard inexplicably, and annoyingly, plays Robert as an ultra-sensitive, eye-rolling queen right down to an unconvincing lisp and a fascination with flowers. Some viewers will cringe at the sex scene in which Sarsgaard, whose alluring nipples and fuzzy butt were seen to better advantage in Kinsey, wails and screeches and freaks out to operatic excess.
That said, the movie is surprisingly watchable, as we breathlessly await the next contrivance or cliché. The Hitchcockian cat-and-mouse game between Elaine and Robert in the queer chat room is engaging despite the quasi-supernatural trappings, not unlike a message-y episode of Twilight Zone. And while neither Sarsgaard’s homo hero nor Campbell Scott’s instant bisexual are particularly credible, Patricia Clarkson is intriguing for awhile, before she apparently realized the limitations of her role. File this one under Guilty Pleasures.
The Eternal Present (Otto Buj, 2004)
True seat-of-the-pants indies are more talked about than actually made; scratch many an alleged indie and you’ll find a big studio or a big bankroll lurking behind it. Not so with Otto Buj’s intriguing first feature. Buj is a film programmer and archivist from Windsor, Canada (known primarily as that gambling town across the border from Detroit) who shot The Eternal Present for about $60,000. He apparently did everything but mop the floors. (Well, he may have done that too.) He’s listed as director, producer, writer, cinematographer, editor, and set designer, though he uses a large cast and there are other crew. All this energy pays off in one of the more striking studies in urban paranoia and alienation in quite some time. As a programmer, Buj was obviously schooled in the masters, and The Eternal Present has a formalist panache and sophistication that keeps it watchable even when the seams are showing.
Craig Gloster plays Tim, a grim young man who gets a job doing obituaries for a local newspaper. As if that weren’t depressing enough, it seems that Tim has more of a hand in these obits than merely writing them. He helps an old lady across the street, and the next day she’s dead. He meets a sexy girl at a nightclub, and voila, a beautiful corpse. It doesn’t help that some of Tim’s assignments are delivered by a supposed co-worker that nobody knows. From here the film spirals into a Twilight Zone-style mind-fuck as Tim becomes increasingly unhinged, and what we see on screen may or may not be happening outside his head.
This plot sketch doesn’t capture the film’s hypnotic effect, which is like watching one of those mesmerizingly weird low-budget ‘60s black-and-white films while nodding off. Think the existential torpor of Roger Corman or Del Tenney, with a twist of Resnais and German silent expressionist film. The Eternal Present is beautifully shot, with Buj’s visual trickery at its best in a recurring motif of screen blackouts. Not just a second or two, but sometimes agonizingly long, an ingenious combination of economics (how expensive can a black screen be?) and structuralist flash. Buj also uses time-shifts to fine effect, as the events Tim experiences move choppily forward and backward almost at random in some scenes, indicating something of Tim’s merely passing relationship with reality. There are, inevitably, art-school touches (Buj was a drop-out, it seems) and hommages to film classics, e.g., Tim remaking himself as a doppelganger of the somnambulist in Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. But these potentially pretentious elements in fact contribute to the otherworldly mood of this surprisingly effective debut. The DVD contains solid commentary by the articulate Mr. Buj.
Garçon Stupide (Lionel Baier, 2005)
Loic (Pierre Chatagny) is a fetching young Swiss homo who works at a chocolate factory, day after day turning out perfect gold-wrapped squares of the tasty treat. At night he works even harder, traveling to Lausanne to pick up Internet tricks and fucking their, and his, brains out. He’s attended by a faithful fag hag, Marie, who mothers him and lets him prattle on at numbing length about his one-night stands (“I fucked him. He fucked me. I sucked him. He sucked me.” etc.) And he takes photographs with his camera phone.
But something’s amiss in Loic’s compact little world. He worries that he’s not as bright as he might be. He’s never heard of Adolf Hitler, for example, though he tries to remedy the omission by looking up Der Fuhrer in the dictionary. Less easily remedied is the monotonous pattern of his life — chocolate and tricks, tricks and chocolate. And his world is starting to unravel. Marie gets a boyfriend, which sends the selfish Loic into a rage. And he’s getting fed up with the “filthy men” he has sex with and declares he’s no longer homosexual (“It was a bad phase.”). And his biological family’s no help — they’re estranged. When he meets a sexy Portuguese soccer player named Rui, what looks like a potential friendship or even romance (Rui isn’t “filthy,” he bathes) becomes yet another complication in an already beleaguered life.
First-time feature director Lionel Baier expertly pulls us inside the head of this self-absorbed, emotionally toxic character, helped not a little by Pierre Chatagny’s skillful acting (or being, really, since there’s very little sense of him as an active, engaged person) of the role. The use of digital video rather than film is a plus in giving a sense of immediacy to Loic’s blank life, a minus in making it all look a little too cheesy — perhaps inevitable with video. Garçon Stupide also gets points for its numerous near-hardcore scenes of le boy idiotique banging away in heavenly split-screen.
Gay Sex in the 70s (Joseph Lovett, 2005)
Fundamentalist types love to compare queer culture to the last days of decadent Rome, an opinion that’s easy to dismiss given how little fundamentalists actually know about history, homosexuality, or anything outside their crazy cult. But, surprisingly, some of the gay men who participated in the nonstop orgy that was New York City (and a few other metropolises) between Stonewall (1969) and AIDS (1981) make the same comparison in Joseph Lovett’s short (71 minutes) but satisfying documentary Gay Sex in the ‘70s.
Many of those who played hardest in — and presumably would have known the most about — those days are dead. And not only from AIDS. This scene was so wild (okay, decadent) that a few mad queens (known today as sex addicts) engaging in gymnastic blowjobs on the upper floors of abandoned buildings plunged to their doom in the Hudson River. No report if this was before, during, or after orgasm. Of course, most were in fact hit by HIV, but a few survived, and some of those few are interviewed here.
Gay Sex in the 70s features a wealth of revealing photographs of queer sexhounds busy at their work in the many impromptu venues New York City thoughtfully provided before Giuliani and Disney streamlined it into sexlessness: empty trucks after-hours, “the piers,” sex bars, sex theaters, or any alley or alcove, really. And the dark cover of night, though always desirable, wasn’t necessary either. One of the queens here wistfully recalls the times he had sex in broad daylight on construction sites, with the straight workers eating their lunch nearby and either laughing at the activities or joining in. Such were the joys.
The documentary interweaves amusing period porn vignettes, and scenes of screaming gay protestors with big hair, long sideburns, and elephant bells, into this loose history of a time almost unimaginable today. But most compelling are the comments of the boyz whose devotion to the orgy dominated their lives. Looking back, they’re articulate as only New Yorkers can be in revisiting those days — vividly expressing mock-shock and excitement at how blatant and over-the-top it all was, sadness at the massive casualties that followed, regret that a killer disease put a bitter end to what looked then like the long-awaited gay sexual revolution finally kicking in.
Island of Roses: The Jews of Rhodes in Los Angeles (Gregori Viens, 1995)
The “Rhodesli” are a little-known Sephardic sect who lived on the Mediterranean island of Rhodes from 1492, when they were expelled from Spain and Portugal, to World War II, when the Nazis seized their homeland. Their culture, which predates Christ by 800 years, survives as a small emigre community in Los Angeles. Gregori Viens, whose mother is Sephardic-American, spent over a year interviewing rabbis, linguists, and the Rhodesli themselves for this fascinating documentary. Why expend effort on a dying culture? Because their complex ethnic and religious heritage is unique in the world today. The Rhodesli are Jews who speak a rare medieval Spanish dialect (Ladino) and observe traditions derived from Turkish, Moorish, Spanish, and Jewish sources that remain mostly unchanged from centuries past. Rebecca Amato Levy is the matriarch and prime source of information about the Rhodesli, informally transmitting precise details of food preparation, religious ceremonies (including faith healing), and language that date back millenia. Levy, described by one rabbi as “virtually an encyclopedia of Sephardic traditions” (but specifically, Rhodesli), is proof that the complexities of an entire culture can exist in a single individual.
The Life and Times of Frida Kahlo (Amy Stechler Burns)
Frida Kahlo’s life had more dramatic twists and turns than a John Grisham novel. From her beginnings as a brilliant, fearless little girl who liked to dress as a boy, to the horrific accident that made her a quasi-invalid all her life, to her tempestuous marriage to Diego Rivera and a remarkable painting career, this 90-minute documentary, narrated by Rita Moreno, provides the fullest documentary portrait of Kahlo to date. Director Amy Stechler Burns interviews friends, associates, admirers, and even a few ex-lovers (unfortunately no women, though), and includes extensive archival footage of Kahlo at work and play. In these amazing scenes, we see the bisexual artist working on a scaffold with Rivera, running around Paris and London, hobnobbing with Leon Trotsky, and in an appropriately theatrical-macabre touch, arriving by ambulance at a show of her paintings shortly before her death. Kahlo’s commanding personality was as evident in her work — which is richly sampled — as in her life, and both are exceptionally well served here.
Little Britain (Matt Lucas and David Walliams, 2003)
If you’re not familiar with the catch-phrases “You see, I’m a LAY-DEE” (screeched by a rouged-up, sausage-curled cross-dresser in a Victorian pinafore) or “I’m the only gay in the village!” (petulantly intoned by a tubby queen in red rubber hotpants), it’s probably only because you don’t live in England. These are two of the popular taglines from Little Britain, a brilliant sketch comedy show that was a hit in England but less so in the U.S. Running for three seasons (2003-2005) with a brief American spinoff on HBO in 2008, it’s as good as any of the beloved British import comedies, but with a hipper, in fact screamingly queer, edge than most. Given the raw touches — occasional full frontal nudity, a twenty-something slackerboy furtively sucking an an old lady’s big toe in close-up, blackface — it’s surprising it got made at all. Included in the DVD package are a slew of extras including deleted scenes and interviews with creators and stars Matt Lucas and David Walliams.
Lucas, who’s queer in real life, and Walliams, who’s straight, play the girls (and various boys) of this parallel-universe England to comic perfection. Emily Howard (Walliams), a determined but unconvincing transvestite, terrorizes incredulous locals with her vain attempts to put herself over as a Victorian “LAY-DEE.” Dafydd Thomas (Lucas), a delusional queen in PVC fetish drag, jealously guards his status as “the only gay in the village” even when competing queens arrive to challenge him. Other memorable characters include unintelligible slutty teen Vicky Pollard and FatFighters’ noxious group leader Marjorie Dawson (both Lucas), along with grunting, destructive mental patient Anne and Sebastian, the Prime Minister’s assistant who can’t hide his lust for his unfazed boss (both Williams). Even these simple descriptions show how relentlessly un-PC this show is.
Little Britain‘s been sold as a kind of gallery of grotesques, but what’s most alluring is how essentially realistic, with a few exceptions, these larger-than-life characters are. They could be variations on the forlorn average Brits created by Ray Davies or Mike Leigh, with dashes of Kids in the Hall‘s concept comedy thrown in. A standout in this regard is the Lou and Andy relationship, with phony-disabled Andy wreaking quiet havoc on his patient, loving, clueless pal Lou in a series of black-comic variations on sadomasochistic codependency. Lucas and Walliams’ skill at incarnating these characters makes them repeatedly watchable despite claims of redundancy by some critics. It doesn’t hurt that these actor-creators are as gifted vocally as theatrically, with Walliams’ high-pitched shrieks as Emily, and Lucas’s hyperspeed teen-girl babble as Vicky and cheery-nasty bellowing as weight-loss fascist Marjorie Dawes (above) being high points.
Not every sketch hits the mark, and sensitive viewers may bristle at over-the-top characterizations of retardates, fat people, midgets, and minstrels. But the ones that do work are among the best in comedy from the era, with Lucas and Williams capturing these endearing eccentrics in a few sharp strokes.
Made in Secret: The East Van Porn Collective (One Tiny Whale, 2005)
The do-it-yourself documentary Made in Secret: The East Van Porn Collective opens with a hilarious manifesto recited by a member of a Canadian collective of feminists, anarchists, dykes, and simpatico straight boys. Sick of seeing exploitative porn that doesn’t arouse them, they decide to become pornsters themselves, casting each other in an erotic movie called BikeSexual intended to inject some fun — and “real sexiness” — into the genre. The manifesto, recited by a girl named “Monster,” declares the collective’s “homemade grass-roots pervert revolution,” with “movies full of arty cuties making out and enjoying it.” Monster adds, helpfully, that they’ll make a movie “so far from dumb that I’ll sit on the wet spot after I come.” Amen, sister.
The film follows the travails — and there are plenty — of their production, with all these earnest youth trying to be sexier than their hammered-in inhibitions allow. Things come to a head after the film is finished and Monster wants to send it to a private indie porn festival in Portland, Oregon. When one of the women, Nerdgirl, who wasn’t even in BikeSexual, objects (in a marvelous moment of self-delusion she says she’ll feel “retroactively violated!”), cracks in the collective start to emerge.
Made in Secret is a diverting look at the pleasures and pitfalls of the creative process as it affects a group of smart, cocky kids whose insecurities threaten to deep-six the project. Their goal of a “pan-sexual romp” has some exciting payoffs here, not the least being a hot scene between Dyke J. D. Superstar and hetero girl Monster, and a long, loving French kiss between two straight boys who abandon their strict heterosexuality for a larger goal: “to attack the porn hegemony!” Best of all is the intense scene where the group starts to implode, showing how far they are indeed from their own ideal of sexual liberation.
Middle Sexes: Redefining He and She (Antony Thomas, 2005)
Narrated by a typically droll Gore Vidal, Middle Sexes is a wonderfully wide-ranging documentary on the many cultural and biological aspects of queerdom and homophobia. The film, which interviews scientists, academics, queers of every stripe, and family members, opens the discussion with the murder of Gwen aka Lida (right), the 17-year-old California transgender killed by four “straights” after they discovered the girl they had fucked was in fact a boy.
Middle Sexes shows clearly that gender identity isn’t there from conception but only begins to appear several weeks later — and in some cases (intersex) never entirely resolves into male or female. It also reminds us of the increasingly irrefutable evidence that homosexual behavior is common in the animal kingdom.
But the film is far from a clinical study, wisely simplifying these issues by putting faces and life stories on them. Crazy Christians (redundant) like to idealize the heartland as a homo-free zone, but what do they make of eight-year-old Noah, a natural cross-dresser whose “normal” family of farmers is highly supportive despite the problems with their community? Noah himself is rather amazingly centered, perhaps indicating a new kind of young queer emerging in society. Asked how he reacts to classmates’ questions of whether he’s a boy or girl, he says simply, “I would just like to tell people I don’t want to answer those questions. So don’t ask me.” No labels!
From Middle America the film proceeds to queer demimondes worldwide. Thailand’s kathoey have it better in some ways. These queens in various stages of gender-shifting — some use makeup and dress to conform the image to the inner reality, others are transsexual — appear to be accepted as what they say they are — women — to the point where straight men idealize and marry them. A far cry from the California teenagers who killed Gwen. Suriname, in South America, also has an intriguing queer community in its well-integrated older dyke couples. India’s famous castrati, the impoverished hijra, are shown creating their own version of family as they band together for support and survival. Widespread homophobia in that vast country assures that the life of two Indian men seen here, bisexuals married to women but also, discreetly, to each other, will be as difficult and bitter as possible.
One of the most hilarious and enlightening parts of the film shows actual footage from the 1996 Western Michigan University study in which two groups of men — homophobic types and straights who couldn’t care less if other people are gay — were shown gay porn while wires attached to their penises measured their level of arousal. Of course, the live-and-let-live boys showed no physical reaction, but the homophobes got unmistakable hard-ons, though they denied it in interviews. Crazy Christians, are you listening?
Movies That Shook the World (Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, 2005)
What triggered the punk movement, 1950s nostalgia, AIDS awareness, and hip-hop culture? If you believe a new series of mini-documentaries, it was movies — Pink Flamingos, American Graffiti, Philadelphia, and Shaft, respectively. Queer documentarians Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato of Inside Deep Throat and Eyes of Tammy Faye fame, present brief (20 minutes or so) histories of “movies that shook the world” that include the above films along with The Blair Witch Project.
These are snappy, if not altogether satisfying, surveys of the allegedly limitless influence of movies on American culture. The Pink Flamingos entry credits the film with everything from the midnight movie to revolutionizing drag-queen style (both credible claims) to inspiring the punk phenomenon (which surely arose from a lot of sources). That said, this is an entertaining look at John Waters’ seminal grossfest, with witty interviews with the likes of drag porn director Chi Chi LaRue, Mink Stole, and of course Waters himself. He waxes poetic, especially about Divine (“a combination of Jayne Mansfield and Gorgo” he wistfully recalls), and shows a previously unseen sentimental side when it’s said he cried during a performance of the musical remake of Hairspray.
The Shaft entry showcases still hunky Richard Rountree in the film that helped kick off the blaxploitation phenomenon of the 1970s. Bailey and Barbato’s campy side is plenty evident here in the fashion parades of the multi-colored pimp garb, clunky gold chains, elephant bells, and other tacky-elegant accessories of the era’s black male superstar. And Whoopi Goldberg serenades us with her version of the best-selling theme song, which features such immortal lines as “Who’s the black private dick that’s a sex machine for all the chicks?”
There’s a little too much self-congratulation in the Philadelphia entry for comfort. In the endless high praise for the film, mostly from cast and crew, you’d never know that more than a few queers found it too maudlin and too repressed in failing to show any affection between the Tom Hanks and Antonio Banderas characters — the usual problem with Hollywood approaches to homosexuality. Still, this one’s worth watching for compelling footage of early gay rights struggles and those first grim years of the pandemic.
One cautionary note. These mini-films were produced for cable network AMC, which routinely censors its broadcasts. AMC must have missed the irony of extolling Shaft‘s breakthrough portrayal of the powerfully sexual black male while optically fuzzing out Richard Rountree giving the finger to Whitey; or celebrating Pink Flamingos‘ bravery in tackling taboo subjects while they transform the everyday word “shit” into “shhh…” (“Faggot” and “nigger” were deemed okay, of course.) Viewers sensitive to hypocrisy and indefensible censorship are warned.
Pick Up the Mic (Alex Hinton, 2005)
“Queer rap,” aka “Homohop,” sounds as oxymoronic as “jumbo shrimp” or “presidential integrity.” But, shocking to say, hip hop is no longer the exclusive property of homophobes and misogynists. Or so says the new documentary Pick Up the Mic.
Queers and rap have a tortured mutual history at best. Along with women (make that bitches and ho’s), queers (uh, faggots) have been the target of some of the most venomous verbal assaults in any medium. Of course, just because rappers own the airwaves doesn’t mean queers need to take this lying down. And they haven’t. Mostly in major urban centers like San Francisco/Oakland and New York City, but also in less hospitable venues like Minneapolis and Houston, queer rappers are taking on the homophobes with their own version of this music.
The results, as seen in Pick Up the Mic, may ultimately be more impressive as activism and community building than as music. The documentary showcases the leaders of the genre, queer boys, dykes, and trans people, with catchy, sometimes campy names like Katastrophe (a teenage FTM), Scream Club (two dykes, above), Dutchboy (a bi guy), the Deep Dickollective (black queens from Oakland), and God-Des, a Wisconsin dyke who may be the most talented of this bunch. She’s certainly the most doggedly ambitious, risking poverty in Brooklyn and a break-up with her nervous girlfriend to achieve her dream. More typical is Johnny Dangerous, a hunky hottie who spends more time onstage bumping and grinding than (unconvincingly) rapping.
The question of talent in this group is key. Director Alex Hinton gives us plenty of time, and reason, to get to know these people. We see them performing (mostly to very small audiences or each other), relaying their colorful personal histories, struggling to find a voice and, more elusive, a career. Most of them are smart and engaging and highly articulate in telling their stories. But anyone looking for superior examples of hip hop per se will be disappointed. They’re recycling the same kind of rhyming and rapping we’ve heard for the last twenty-five years, just adding queer motifs. As a portrait of a subculture struggling to re-appropriate an identity stolen from them, Pick Up the Mic is compelling viewing. Just don’t expect the “rainbow flava” sounds, much as we want to welcome them, to scintillate.
Robert’s Story: Dying with Dignity (Tom D’Antoni, 2005)
At first glance, this unsparing portrait of Robert Schwartz, an AIDS victim preparing to kill himself via Oregon’s assisted-suicide law, looks like a manipulative advocacy piece for the law. That perception isn’t helped by the director’s voiceover that seems lifted from a high-school cautionary movie about the dangers of drunk driving. But Schwartz is such a charismatic, endearing subject that all such objections eventually fall away as we get to know him. The film tracks his decline in every gruesome detail, including a spleen removal shown in bloody close-up, but balances those difficult images with a moving picture of his support system: lover George, devoted family, medical and caregiving professionals. News footage of the appalling ex-Attorney General Ashcroft trying to end the assisted-suicide law contrast with intimate scenes of Robert as he goes about his days, setting the date of his death and then withdrawing it as some simple new pleasure occurs — sometimes as simple as riding a bike when he thought he couldn’t. Bring a few Kleenex to this powerful film.
Sister, My Sister (Nancy Meckler, 1994)
The erotic and murderous potential of two working-class girls slaving as maids for a spoiled dowager and her daughter are explored in Sister, My Sister, Nancy Meckler’s claustrophobic version of a true crime that occurred in France in 1932. Older sister Christine (Joely Richardson) is a model of servile efficiency — a brilliant cook, seamstress, and cleaner, invisibly running the household of Madame Danzard (Julie Walters) and her indolent daughter Isabelle (Sophie Thursfield). When Christine’s sister Lea (Jodhi May) comes to join her, Madame Danzard is delighted at getting “two servants for the price of one,” but the elegant, insular world of her house gradually collapses as the sisters begin a torrid affair and eventually become violently unstrung.
Christine suffers from flashbacks to a childhood obsession with one of her nun-teachers, while Lea, younger and less settled into a life of servitude, rebels in small ways, shocking her employer by wearing a gorgeous, hand-made sweater over her maid’s uniform. Madame Danzard is increasingly puzzled and unnerved as the sisters grow ever less talkative and their secret erotic relationship — shown in loving detail — displaces their fascination with scrubbing toilets and baking scones.
The film has little sense of a world outside the Danzard home — the outside would mean escape, and for these sisters there is none. The lone male here — a photographer who takes the maids’ picture — is never shown, only heard. In every sense a “woman’s film” — the director, producer, and writer are women, as is the subject — Sister, My Sister is similar to Heavenly Creatures in alleging that women without men will bust every taboo and become murderously insane, but Sister‘s performances are so finely wrought and intense that they overshadow such a conventional cliche. The brilliant Joely Richardson is a credit to her mother, Vanessa Redgrave; Jodhi May is stunningly mature as Lea; and Julie Walters is almost comically scary as the doomed dowager.
Transgeneration (Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, 2005)
The Fenton Bailey-Randy Barbato queer documentary factory takes on the trannies in a new show for the intermittently worthy all-queer cable network Logo. Transgeneration is a reality TV mini-series that follows four female-to-male and male-to-female transsexuals as they transition from one sex to the other while also navigating an uncertain entrance into the adult world via the pleasures and terrors of college.
Reality TV shows, queer or otherwise, are usually only as interesting as the people who populate them. The trans of Transgeneration bear little resemblance to the colorful, clownish characters of trash TV. These are all articulate, engaged young people you can’t help rooting for.
The personalities here cover a wide range. Gabbie is an excitable, if undersocialized, computer science student. Born Andrew, she’s a self-described “computer nerd” who obsesses over anime and is bracingly open about her status. Gabbie’s lucky in having supportive parents willing to pay the $15K for her sex reassignment surgery. Less fortunate in this regard is TJ, a brilliant Armenian student who came to Michigan State from Cypress on a Fulbright scholarship. Thin and intense, she’s entirely out, organizing drag king shows and political protests — all the while agonizing over her own “transition,” holding it off in hopes that her unsympathetic mother and sister will adapt to her new male identity.
Family, aka “the F word,” is always a major thread in these stories. The interplay between Lucas, formerly Leah, and his loving mother during a vacation at home in Oklahoma, is fascinating as both stumble toward common ground. Most satisfying in this respect is the family of Raci (above), a beautiful, bubbly Filipina born a boy and also deaf. An aunt recalls the family meeting in which they decided they must support Raci in transitioning from male to female. Adding poignancy to Raci’s story is her uncertainty in a drama class when she has to role-play a loving couple with a straight boy who has no idea she’s trans — a fact she knows she can’t hide forever.
Having transgenders enter the reality TV circus was inevitable. In Transgeneration, they inject some much-needed life into this increasingly moribund genre and give a lift to the Logo Channel from the familiar queer fare (how many times can we watch Priscilla, Queen of the Desert? for chrissakes) that dominates too much of its playlist.
Note: These “quickies” 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!