Bright Lights Film Journal

Quickies: Random Short Reviews from Bobby Abate to The Whale Rider

“It’s a spring break party 24/7 365 days a year!”

Bobby Abate

In his online bio, queer avant-garde filmmaker Bobby Abate compares himself to Britney Spears. Like her, he says, he’s “a slave to ritual, commercialism, self-reflexivity and contradiction. Not a boy, not yet a man – you might say he’s painfully wedged under pop culture with his little head sticking out and screaming for help.” This thumbnail self-portrait captures Abate’s whimsical side but not the complexity of his work. The San Francisco Cinematheque’s one-night retrospective in 2004 – one night because his films are all shorts so far – showed an intriguing and very queer talent at work.

The earliest selection is 1999’s The Tanti Man, an 11-minute evocation of a summer romance between Abate (who stars in much of his work) and a handsome drifter. Shot in Salisbury, Massachusetts, this sweet work deftly interweaves love scenes with memories of the melodrama of being a tortured high school homo, complete with wounded poetry and threats of suicide. Skeeter Davis’s mournful ditty “The End of the World,” excerpted in endlessly repeated loops, provides the hypnotic soundtrack to what is ultimately a bittersweet idyll. Among the arresting images: the boys making love sprawled over a Candyland gameboard.

Chisholm, made the same year, ups the artistic ante with striking images of a porn film shot on high school graduation night at a cheesy motel. “All we wanted to do was get fucked up and party all night,” a voiceover repeats against flickering, half-lit images of tits and asses and hard-ons, again accompanied by the homely looped refrain of an early ‘60s teen-girl tune, this time Little Peggy March wailing about lost innocence, presumably that of the mysterious stars: “My teenage castle is tumblin’ down …”

“What would happen if Truman [Capote] had followed his original intention” of having Holly Golightly be male? That question was the inspiration for The Zero Order (2000, right), Abate’s longest work to that time at a little over a half hour. In this striking rethinking of Breakfast at Tiffany’s he (and several others) plays Holly, rediscovering the true queerness in Capote’s original novel. A clever touch is a voiceover of a 1950s-style psychiatrist trying to cure Abate’s homosexuality.

One Mile Per Minute (2002) wittily portrays a literally topsy-turvy world (the camera is on its side for much of this one). In this fractured dreamscape, robot-consumers mouth commercial mantras, including such sacred cows as “hip” sitcoms – “I love Frazier, I love ER…” – and rest under a sun that’s a corporate logo.

The three-part Real Videos (1999-2001) are a heady mix of Pixelvision beefcake scenes, airplane crashes, and webcam homosex that show cocksucking, buttfucking, and whacking off as sources of solace in a capsized capitalist world. Abate exploits the chilliness of the modern techno-landscape to clever effect, placing his sexy porn boys in scintillating scenarios of pleasure even when one is on a computer and the other is watching. Naked rough trade, sleepy rimmers, a man (the director, it appears) licking a modem – these are some of the denizens of Abate’s sensual, skewed world.

The American Astronaut (Cory McAbee, 2001)

The brain behind this midnight-movie-in-the-making is writer-director-star Cory McAbee, frontman for the San Francisco cult art-pop band The Billy Nayer Show. McAbee calls it an “autobiographical musical space Western,” but even that doesn’t quite capture the film’s intermittently amusing bizarrerie. Interplanetary trader Samuel Curtis (McAbee) meets his old pal the Blueberry Pirate (Joshua Taylor) in a miner’s saloon on the planet Ceres. They dance a little, listen to some jokes where the rowdies laugh at the setup rather than the punch line, and decide to ransom the remains of a dead stud from the Venusian matriarchy by giving the horny gals a new one, the Boy Who Saw a Woman’s Breast. (They’ll get the Boy from his pals on Jupiter in exchange for a cloned Real Live Girl.) Mad scientists, props worthy of Ed Wood, polished black-and-white photography, and best of all a string of memorable tunes – “Venus Touchdown,” “The Baby in the Jar,” “The Girl with the Vagina Made of Glass” – make this a worthy entry in the retro-futuristic sexy Z-movie musical genre.

Angela Mao

Angela Mao (Ying) is best known in the West for what may be her smallest role: as Bruce Lee’s sister in the 1973 kung-fu classic Enter the Dragon. Fans of Mao were disappointed not just that she appeared only in flashback, but that she is shown killing herself, an unthinkable fate for this “deadly China doll” widely viewed, during her heyday in the early 1970s, as the female Bruce Lee.

Angela Mao was born in Taiwan on September 20, 1950. The child of Peking Opera star and director Mao Yung Kang, she took ballet classes before joining the Peking Opera herself at the age of 8. Her evident skill in kung-fu brought her a contract with Golden Harvest before she was 20. Her first film for the company, Angry River (1970), differs from most of her work in having supernatural elements. More typical are titles like Lady Whirlwind (Deep Thrust, 1972), Lady Kung Fu (Hapkido, 1972), and Deadly China Doll (1973), which were mostly “chop-socky” programmers with a stunningly athletic Mao consistently – and sometimes literally – rising above the material.

The standard Angela Mao film features the diminutive star violently defending family or family honor, one religious or martial-arts sect against other, or her country and culture against an invader (often the Japanese). Foremost in her arsenal are rapid, dynamic hand movements and a dazzling array of high kicks, deployed with consummate athleticism and grace. Mao was not averse to using weaponry; the films show her adroitness with swords, spears, metal yo-yos, sashes, a spinning umbrella, even spinning razors on her shoes. But her body and its inner resources were always her most impressive weapon. Mao’s pouty, innocent look, conscious lack of glamour, and often ruthless methods of dispatching her enemies are key elements in her appeal.

The international success of Enter the Dragon triggered a flood of releases of Mao’s films in the West, where they played in the same grindhouse venues as other “superwoman” films from Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, Crown, Dimension, and other exploitation companies. Contemporary observers read her films as an Eastern response to the women’s liberation movement, but from today’s vantage point they can be seen equally as part of a long tradition of virtuous fighting women in both Chinese opera and cinema.

Mao’s collaborators included many of today’s best-known martial-arts stars – Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan (who choreographed her 1976 film Dance of Death), and Sammo Hung, a frequent costar – but Mao herself has slid into obscurity. After nearly three dozen films, she retired in 1980 and married her longtime boyfriend Kelly Lau. A 1974 profile in the magazine Fighting Stars reveals a thoughtful, unpretentious woman behind the kicks and whirls, a judgment seconded by critic Verina Glaessner’s dead-on sketch of Mao, in the book Kung Fu: Cinema of Vengeance as a highly disciplined star who “approaches her roles seriously, directly, and without a trace of narcissism.” Mao appeared, looking surprisingly unchanged at 49, in Tony Russell’s 1999 documentary survey of “kung-fu women” Top Fighter 2: Deadly China Dolls.

Broadway: The Golden Age (Rob McKay, 2003)

With Broadway: The Golden Age, director Rob McKay (right, with Carol Channing) set out to discover what, if anything, was “golden” about the classic era of plays and musicals from the 1940s through the 1960s. For this composite portrait, he interviewed 100 luminaries from that time, stars like Angela Lansbury, Carol Burnett, Carol Channing, Eli Wallach; composers Stephen Sondheim and Fred Ebb; dancer Fayard Nicholas of the Nicholas Brothers; and virtually every major star (and a few minor ones) still living at the time of production. Also here are plenty of rare performance footage and period photographs. The result is a vivid picture of an exciting but long-vanished America, one in which even the hoi polloi could experience the cream of America’s theatrical talent for as little as 85 cents a performance. This was the era of the 10 cent hamburger, the 5 cent coffee, and socializing in the streets until the wee hours.

The “actor’s life” as seen here is one of happy chaos and nerve-wracking promise. Carol Burnett talks about arriving in New York with no money and bursting into tears, but, having seen the bright lights of Broadway, refused to go home, taking herself and her “cardboard suitcase” to the Algonquin Hotel. Robert Goulet stole silverware from the automat. Betty Garrett and her mother put off getting an ironing board for two years in order to buy theater tickets And their initial forays into being working actors weren’t always glamorous. Carol Lawrence laughingly recalls rehearsing for a month on West Side Story with no pay.

Despite such deprivations, this was a dazzling time, and those interviewed here know it. The camaraderie, the spontaneity, the on- and off-stage dramas, the lack of pre-recorded soundtracks and over-the-top special effects and even microphones – these are what made this art form so seductive for players and audiences. The personalities – and voices – were larger than life, carrying to the farthest reaches of the theater. A bittersweet subtext to this story is that by the early 1970s, the Broadway inhabited by these legends was virtually gone, replaced by the tired bombast of Andrew Lloyd Weber et al. But at least we have this doc on DVD (with an extra hour of footage) as a reminder of that much-missed time.

Cathouse (Patti Kaplan, 2002)

HBO’s Undercover America series has spawned many worthy docs, from Nick Broomfield’s Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer to Oliver Stone’s Looking for Fidel. Patti Kaplan’s Cathouse doesn’t belong in this exalted company and, despite a controversial subject and a glitzy look, apparently didn’t aspire to. Surely a “hidden camera” foray into a whorehouse should make for raucous, if not inspired, viewing. But Kaplan has made perhaps the first infomercial for a brothel, in this case Nevada’s Moonlite Bunny Ranch. We meet a predictable cast of characters: windbag owner Dennis Hof who “sells” the Ranch to viewers as an alternative version of Disney’s “happiest place on earth”; Madame Suzette, a mother hen type who dotes on her “girls” and presides over their dress-up tea parties when they’re not busy fucking and sucking; and “the girls” themselves, who indeed call Dennis “dad” and Suzette “mom” and seem to a woman beside themselves with joy at all times. This is classic soft porn apologetics, with all participants part of a sunny, loving family without the slightest hint of darkness. For Hof, “It’s a spring break party 24/7 365 days a year!” For Suzette, “I’m their mother, and I love them all!” The film doesn’t record her feelings about the johns who can’t pay the going rate of $1,000 and up for an hour. (Hof tries to come off as a sexual philanthropist, saying he’s helping average Joes get off for “a little money.”) Director Kaplan misses even the broadest of targets in her attempts to wallpaper this probably much more complex scene with happy faces – e.g., a mother who brings in her repressed 22-year-old virgin son for deflowering. Mom’s excessive attentiveness to nervous, twitchy Sonny Boy cries out for a little Q&A by the filmmaker. But no luck. What’s really being purveyed here is the usual stock-in-trade for HBO sex-related “exposés”: tired tits ‘n ass, with lots of camera surveys of shiny butts, augmented breasts, and blank, Barbie-doll smiles that reek of a 1980s Penthouse layout. This is one exposé that doesn’t expose anything. The producers would no doubt protest that they’re being “sex-positive” – witness the girls’ endless chatter about how darn happy they are – but “sex-prurient” seems a more accurate term.

Chain Camera (Kirby Dick, 2001)

The premise was simple enough: give ten students at L.A.’s Marshall High School a digital camera, ask them to record their daily lives, and then pass the cameras on to another ten. But this “chain camera” strategy – unlike the chain letter concept on which it’s based – actually worked. Kirby Dick (Sick: The Life and the Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist) is the nominal director, but this is the students’ show all the way. The film was cut from 700 hours to 90 minutes of hilarious, raw, wistful self-profiling by 16 teenagers who let the viewer see into their lives in a way unimaginable in the tidal wave of so-called reality TV shows. The kids’ backgrounds are wildly varied economically and racially – Marshall is home to 41 different ethnic groups – and their experiences equally so, running the gamut from Cinnamon’s unapologetic dykedom, to naïve Ernie’s puzzlement over the “exact meaning” of virginity, to Jesse’s do-or-die social activism. This is what the real “real world” looks like for contemporary urban teens.

Dead or Alive (Takashi Miike, 1999)

Miike’s films (Audition, Visitor Q, Ichi the Killer) should come with a warning label, or at least some Rolaids. Equally adept at pulling viewers into the theater and sending them screaming toward the exits, Miike works on the farthest fringes of personal cinema, using a hyperkinetic style to skewer such sacred institutions as the family, yakuza loyalty, the Japanese obsession with conformity and restraint. This 1999 entry in the psycho-sweepstakes opens with a vertiginous montage of a neon Tokyo out of control: a naked woman plummets to the pavement clutching a bag of cocaine, a gay drug dealer gets his throat slit as he backdoors his boyfriend in a public loo (above), a rain of noodles is blasted from the belly of a yakuza boss used for target practice. Miike, never shy with the satire, has created a dizzying send-up of the “noble yakuza” films of Beat Takeshi Kitano in this story of an implacable cop pursuing a ruthless young criminal trying to take over the city’s drug trade. The fearless Miike’s parade of modern horrors – which this time include some literal “doggie love” – is as exhilarating as it is weird.

Hush! (Ryosuke Hashiguchi, 2001)

Western audiences tend to associate recent Japanese cinema with endearing but not particularly challenging comedies like Shall We Dance or over-the-top psychokiller riffs like Takashi Miike’s Dead or Alive. But some of the best work from that country fits neither of these styles.

Gay filmmaker Ryosuke Hashiguchi is not exactly a household word, having made only three features since he began directing in 1993.The Slight Fever of a 20-Year-Old (1993), shot on a shoestring budget in 16mm, and the more ambitious Like Grains of Sand (1995) were enormously successful in Japan, but were mostly relegated to the gulag of the film festival circuit in America. Like Grains of Sand, particularly, has been called one of the best films of the 1990s for its penetrating portrayal of adolescent gay romance in a society that continues to view homosexuality as an aberration.

Hush! is unlikely to change the director’s standing in the West, which is a shame. This masterful exploration of an unusual triangle – a pair of gay lovers and the woman who wants to use one of them to help her have a child – deserves a wide audience.

Asako (Reiko Kataoka) is a chain-smoking slacker girl working in a dental office making crowns. She’s had two abortions, tried to kill herself, and is besieged by a self-centered suitor with whom she has unprotected sex. She meets Katsushiro (Seiichi Tanabe), a closeted but partnered engineer, and decides she likes his eyes enough to ask him to father a child with her – not to marry her, simply to provide the sperm, along with a possible friendship. Katsushiro’s lover, Naoya (Kazuya Takahashi), is not pleased with this possibility. He grooms dogs at a pet shop and, being out, is appalled by Katsushiro’s apparent interest in a heterosexual model of family and children.

Adding to the confusion are other memorable characters who float in and out of these three lives. Asako’s creepy quasi-boyfriend pops up at the least opportune times. Katsushiro is plagued by an unhinged stalker girl himself, a pretty lunatic who throws massive fits in public over this unrequited love. Katsushiro’s brother and the latter’s family come to Tokyo to try to figure out his life and strange relationships. And Naoya’s mother, a comical fag-hag type, laments with her irritated son that his luck with men is no better than hers.

Hush! is both bittersweet comedy and social critique, subtly lambasting Japan’s repressive society that keeps these characters locked in their private anguish. They’re desperate for emotion but so disconnected from their own and what’s happening around them that after a troubling encounter between Asako, Katsushiro, and Naoya, the two men have to ask themselves – as the audience does – whether she is suddenly, inexplicably out of their lives for good. Unanswered pleas for love, or even touch, pervade the film.

Some of the social critique here takes the form of black comedy, with the pet shop, with its pampered pooches and ditzy housewives, a particularly rich locale in this regard. But there are plenty of other targets, including an arrogant medical establishment. When a doctor tells Asako she has a fibroid cyst, he also suggests that since she sleeps around she should have a hysterectomy to avoid future pregnancies. Nor does the film spare the queer community. Gay bar scenes, shot in a cinema verité style, show a particularly evil queen ridiculing Asako as only an evil queen can.

Not everyone will appreciate the film’s pacing, which tends toward the glacial, but patient viewers will be drawn into the film’s powerful emotional spell. Hashiguchi is a master of the long take, and some of Hush!‘s best sequences are shot uninterrupted, such as an extended quietly brutal confrontation between the three principals and Katsushiro’s family. Hashiguchi’s earlier films used amateur actors; here he uses experienced ones, who bloom beautifully under the camera’s relentless gaze.

Ultimately, all the film’s spaces – the pet shop, the various apartments, Katsushiro’s brother’s house – offer no solace. In Hush!, there are no real refuges – only small clusters of people trying to find each other in a chilly world.

 Kingpin (Bobby and Peter Farrelley, 1996)

The boys – that’s the right word – who brought us There’s Something About Mary and Dumb and Dumber take on the world of pro bowling in this typical gross-out comedy. Woody Harrelson plays Roy Munson, an alcoholic ex-champ who teams up with Ishmael (Randy Quaid), an Amish simpleton with a secret passion for the sport, to reclaim his status as “kingpin” and help save the Amish homestead. His nemesis is veloured sleazebag Bill Murray, whose performance reeks of Elvis impersonators and Jerry Lewis at his most droolingly insincere. Like most of their films, this is a crazy quilt of gross-out gags and movie quotes, most notably from Showgirls, when a confused, cellulite-ridden Ishmael, in sparkling pasties and g-string, becomes an exotic dancer, humping and licking a metal pole just like Elizabeth Berkeley. There are some amusingly lowbrow – make that no-brow – moments, but Kingpin will be most satisfying to fans of bodily discharges: Woody’s lengthy puking session after he exchanges sex for rent with his ugly landlady, and a cow-milking where the “cow” is actually a bull and the “milk” is a big sloppy bucket of come. Quaid more or less sums up the movie when he discovers the joy of flossing and mindlessly flings big gobs of rotting food onto a mirror.

Love and Death on Long Island (Richard Kwietniowski, 1997)

Thomas Mann is not exactly common source material for today’s filmmakers, even at a time when the work of once-untouchable classic novelists like Jane Austen, E. M. Forster, and even Virginia Woolf has been hauled onto screens in multiplexes across America (admittedly mostly by British directors, who always overestimate audiences’ taste and tolerance). So Love and Death on Long Island, adapted from a minor novel by British film critic Gilbert Adair, comes as a bit of a surprise. While not a direct adaptation of Death in Venice, the film is clearly a cut-rate revamp (with a dash of Lolita), tracking the pathetic progress of an unrequited, indeed barely expressed, gay romance. This time John Hurt stands in for repressed old queen Gustave Auerbach, and Jason Priestley offers his doughy charms in a teen-idol retread of the transcendental Tadzio.

The film, written and directed by Richard Kwietniowski, opens in autumnal colors, with stuffy Brit academic Giles De’Ath (get it?) emerging from the pain of his wife’s death into a modern world that he’s always steadfastly ignored. This “erstwhile fogey,” as one of the newspapers calls him, accidentally buys a ticket to the wrong movie; expecting an adaptation of Forster, he’s suddenly faced with Hotpants College II, a lowbrow American comedy in the Porky’s mode. Bored by the pizza-scarfing, teacher-mooning antics of the story, De’Ath snaps to attention when Ronnie Bostock (Priestley) appears. You see, Ronnie’s not like the other boys in the film – he’s handsome and sexy, but more important, he’s sensitive, and doesn’t go in for the kind of rough-housing the others engage in. In one scene that especially entrances De’Ath, Ronnie gets beat up and ends up stretched out on a counter in his pizza delivery uniform in a classic martyr-boy pose.

Like an obsessed teenage girl, De’Ath begins to study his new idol and collect every possible bit of trivia on him in an album he labels “Bostockiana.” He at least has enough sense to hide this fetish tome from his nosy housekeeper. His passion for Ronnie has the welcome effect of bringing De’Ath out of his doldrums, but what has up to this point been a whimsical study of the minutiae of an old curmudgeon’s life takes on a darker tone as De’Ath decides he must meet Ronnie. Traveling from London to Long Island on the pretext of writing a book, he becomes a classic stalker – setting up Operation Ronnie at a local adult motel, ingratiating himself with the locals, and exerting his peculiarly British hauteur on his target’s trophy girlfriend, Audrey (Fiona Loewi).

Eventually he does meet his dreamboat, and fortuitously Ronnie is in the kind of artistic crisis that the sophisticated De’Ath is ideally equipped to guide him through. De’Ath tantalizes Ronnie with the idea of abandoning the lucrative Hotpants series in favor of High Art, as in Shakespeare. Of course, this would entail some radical personal and career moves; De’Ath insists Ronnie dump Audrey, move to England, and live with him in order to gain the benefits of an “older man’s experience.” (De’Ath doesn’t mention what other “benefits” will be offered.) One of the film’s funnier moments comes when De’Ath labors to explain to a puzzled Ronnie the virtues of such an arrangement by citing a string of famous queer literateurs likewise engaged. But alas, poor Ronnie, hearing “Rimbaud,” says “Rambo?”

The film gets some comic mileage out of its movies-within-the-movie, droll excerpts from Ronnie’s films like Tex Mex and the Hotpants series. And some of the early humor is sweet and sharply observed. But Hurt is playing a throwback that will surely irritate modern audiences – the tight-lipped, aging, desperate queer of the 1950s lusting hopelessly after 1990s boyflesh. The film persistently, but perhaps unconsciously, gives evidence of De’Ath’s dark side – his extreme self-absorption, his nasty treatment of practically everyone around him – while also expecting us to sympathize with him as a tragic figure, since the film speaks literally with his voice through a voiceover. But when the key moment comes in which he must face his feelings and lay them out – or maybe just pounce on Ronnie – he does so with the pitiful whimpering of a pup, eclipsing even Mann’s Gustav in the Sad Old Homo department.

A Matter of Taste (Bernard Rapp, 2000)

A chance encounter in a restaurant becomes a lethal cat-and-mouse game in this elegant psychological thriller, the second film by acclaimed director French writer-director Bernard Rapp (Tiré à part). Based on Philippe Balland’s novel Affairs de Gout , A Matter of Taste probes the increasingly deadly relationship of wealthy middle-aged Frederic Delamont (the icy Bernard Giraudeau of Water Drops on Falling Rocks fame) and ambitious young waiter Nicolas Riviere (Jean-Pierre Lorit). Delamont is a paranoid germophobe who hires Nicolas to become his “taster,” someone to test foods for him lest he be poisoned (a distinct possibility given his sadistic behavior). But Delamont is also sophisticated and charismatic, his personality and wealthy lifestyle irresistible to Nicolas, just as Nicolas becomes indispensable to him. The film recalls The Servant in its scathing vignettes of mind games and psychological skirmishes, as each man tries to gain the upper hand with the other to the exclusion of all else. A Matter of Taste was nominated for five Cesars, the French Oscar, including best picture, actor, and screenplay.

No Skin Off My Ass (Bruce La Bruce, 1991)

In the early 1990s, while the New Queer Cinema was busy trying to sell fags ‘n dykes to mainstream audiences, Canadian Bruce La Bruce was happily preaching to the queer choir. No Skin Off My Ass wasn’t his first film – it followed a handful of Super 8 shorts – but it was the one that got him attention and fixed his image as a talented trashmeister willing to mix it up with social satire, homo camp, and hardcore sex. No Skin Off My Ass, a low-rent remake of Robert Altman’s That Cold Day in the Park, is a typical Brucian effort, with the usual pleasures and pitfalls.

Bruce, who wrote, directed, and photographed, also stars here as a hairdresser who obsesses over skinheads. Luckily, right near his apartment he finds a handsome specimen, sitting silently on a park bench. Before you can say “wash and set,” Bruce has lured “Skinhead Guy,” as he’s known, into his apartment. There Bruce gives the bald beauty a bath (using Mr. Bubble), after which he locks his new pal in a bedroom. Of course, this being a Bruce La Bruce movie, Skinhead Guy quickly and easily escapes for a visit to his sister, a lesbian activist filmmaker and graffiti artist. But soon Bruce and Skinhead are reunited for more edgy fun.

Shot in extra-grainy Super 8 and blown up to 16mm, and mostly lacking synch sound (Bruce’s voiceovers occupy much of the soundtrack), No Skin Off My Ass has the look and feel of a low-rent porn flick, with Bruce’s love object the ultimate wish-fulfillment fantasy – a mindless stud who lets Bruce take every imaginable liberty with him, from boot-licking to urinal caressing to straightforward blow jobs. And like much porn, this one has stretches of dullness that will endear some viewers to their fast-forward. As gorgeous as Skinhead Guy is, the camera’s endless slow crawl over his fetching flesh as he bathes, lounges, and lusts becomes numbing after a while.

Still, Bruce gets points for daring to bare all, and doing it with humor. A zany soundtrack that includes such ill-matched talents as Karen Carpenter, the Subhumans, and Tiny Tim adds to the foolish fun.

Salmonberries (Percy Adlon, 1991)

Salmonberries takes place in the Northwest Alaska town of Katzebu. k. d. lang plays a confused, sometimes violent pipeline worker, named Katzebu after the town, abandoned as a child and raised as a boy. The film details her obsessive relationship with local librarian Goswitha (Fassbinder star Rosel Zech), a middle-aged German émigré who fled to the frozen north after her husband was killed trying to cross the Berlin Wall.

Our first view of Katzebu reveals a stark, silent, but powerful personality that finds a perfect analogue in the mysterious glacial expanses of Alaska. The film plunges us into the story before it tells us much about the characters; Katzebu appears menacingly at the local library, which she inexplicably proceeds to tear up. A few establishing shots tell us that she works on the pipeline, that her coworkers assume she is a man, and that she’s bothered – bigtime. In a riveting dreamlike sequence, she appears in the dark library completely naked before an astonished Goswitha.

Gradually, the film gives us tantalizing glimpses of her real personality and the forces that drive her. Salmonberries is about dislocation and duality, and Katzebu is its primary symbol of a divided identity: a loner abandoned at birth, a practically mute character desperate for ways to communicate, a woman believed by others (and herself, it seems) to be a man. The film traces her dogged, unswerving attempts to find some kind of reasonable identity by attaching herself to the embittered Goswitha, whose resistance she gradually wears down.

Director Adlon uses k. d. lang’s genderfuck persona to explore the stifling aspects of sex roles, but he extrapolates further into general questions of alienation and spiritual disenchantment. He textures the film with heavy symbolism, particularly the title image, the endless jars of salmonberries Roswitha has canned and used to barricade herself against life. But Rosel Zech (unforgettable in Fassbinder’s Veronika Voss) anchors the narrative even when Adlon is pulling out his directorial tricks.

lang is another matter. She’s a fantastically powerful, hypnotic presence, but eventually falters under the demands of the role. It could be argued that the stiffness and discomfort she exhibits here is exactly appropriate for a character as tortured as Katzebu, but either through her own uneasiness with acting or the director’s inability to elicit the same richness we hear in her voice, she fails to bring her character’s tragedy to life. The score benefits considerably from her singing, particularly her hit “Barefoot.”

Le Samourai (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1967)

The anti-hero is often considered an American phenomenon, stretching back to feisty Jimmy Cagney in the 1930s, through 1940s film noir and moody actors like Robert Mitchum and Humphrey Bogart, and into the 1950s and ‘60s with the Holy Trinity of rebel hunkdom, Brando, Dean, and Newman. But surliness and violence know no national borders, and the French have made major contributions to this type in the persons of cinematic bastards like Belmondo and Alain Delon.

With a director like Jean-Pierre Melville, who worshipped everything American, it’s possible, in fact rewarding, to trace a character like Delon’s Jeff Costello in Le Samourai back to these earlier rats. In fact, the name provides a clue to the film’s ethos – Jeff is the spiritual son of an earlier, American Jeff: Mitchum’s doomed romantic Jeff Bailey in one of the greatest noirs, Out of the Past (1947). These two Jeffs are bound by something that 20 years and a few thousand miles can’t break: a piercing sense of loneliness and alienation that dominates and finally consumes them.

Delon’s Jeff is a bloodless killing machine, a hit man who dispatches his targets with ruthless efficiency, but also simple, almost childlike in his wish to “do the job” without fanfare. In the opening scene of Le Samourai, we see him first stretched out alone on his bed, in an apartment so dreary it makes this color film look black and white.

His first act is the methodical murder of a stranger, a nightclub owner. But this time he’s seen, by a beautiful, cryptic black pianist (Cathy Rosier). According to Jeff’s “samourai” warrior code, he should kill her, but he doesn’t – the first sign of weakness we see. She returns the favor by refusing to identify him in a police line-up. From here the film becomes an elaborate cat-and-mouse game, with the police convinced he’s guilty and Jeff moving ever closer to oblivion as he becomes a double target – turned on by the faceless men who hire him.

Melville called Le Samourai “an analysis of a schizophrenic by a paranoiac, because all creators are paranoiac.” But the director’s “paranoia” may be easier to accept than the character’s “schizophrenia” because, atmospherically, the film is very much a paranoid nightmare and Jeff, in some way, an “innocent” victim. Like the film, which has whole sequences without dialogue, Jeff is terse, almost mute. His emotional life is suggested rather than explored, as if it were impossible to penetrate beyond the surface. Still, Melville humanizes this character through his relationship with his mistress (Nathalie Delons), who remains loyal even when she’s threatened, and through his increasingly complex relationship with the police and his unknown employers, both of whom are after him. His obsession with honor, and his mantra, “I never lose. Not ever,” become pitifully ironic as he’s wounded by another hired gun and chased through the streets by what looks like half the Paris police force. The film reaches heights of paranoia worthy of Fritz Lang during the chase scene, with the police coolly following his desperate movements through the streets and subways of the city on an electric map.

Le Samourai is a superior early example of the neo-noir, expertly manipulating the elements that go with the genre – location shooting; drab, claustrophobic environments; a condensed time frame, noted by day and time printed on the screen; and an emotionally dead hero caught in the last moments of his life.

In the cyclical nature of such things, Delon’s Jeff inspired yet another Jeff, Chow Yun Fat’s character in the John Woo films Hard-Boiled and The Killer. Woo has called Melville his favorite director, but the great Chow can’t eclipse the subtle power Delon brings to this role. In one scene, Melville shows him behind a rainsoaked car window, staring ahead, with a cigarette in his mouth, an unforgettable image of stoicism and bravery in the midst of chaos.

Street of No Return (Samuel Fuller, 1989)

Film aficionados know Sam Fuller as one of the great postwar primitives, the consummate roughneck writer-director who not only helped define the brutalizations of American culture in the ’50s and ’60s, but also spurred a score of other filmmakers – especially members of the French New Wave – to pick up a camera. Films like The Naked Kiss and Shock Corridor were in fact critical in breaking good-taste taboos by exposing the black center of small-town America and its institutions. (Who can forget bald prostitute Constance Towers viciously beating up her pimp in lurid close-up in The Naked Kiss? Or Shock Corridor‘s black man driven so crazy by society that he spends his time complaining about “the Negroes” and babbling homilies to the KKK?)

Street of No Return (1989), made in France, mines familiar film noir territory. Based on a novel by noted hardboiled writer David Goodis, the film follows the progression of famed pop singer “Michael” (Keith Carradine in David Bowie-style glitter robes) into the urban gutter. The film opens with a spectacular set-piece of a race riot on a dark street, and continues with an unrelenting string of violent episodes that show how Michael’s world is slowly closing in on him. His involvement with a mysterious fatale bit-player in one of his videos capsizes his career and hurls him into poverty and anonymity when she turns out to be a gangster’s moll, and the gangster slits his throat. The characters are film noir archetypes – a cigar-chomping dominatrix, a corrupt industrialist, and of course Carradine as an ambivalent, uncommitted character drawn into a seedy demi-monde that can mean self-actualization or destruction.

Fuller’s understanding of the mechanics of the modern American ghetto is surprisingly pointed. He strengthens Goodis’ bleak original by fleshing out the idea of a white corporate gangster who introduces crack into the community, then orchestrates race riots in order to devalue property which he buys for nothing, renovates and resells. This social decimation provides a dramatic backdrop for Michael’s attempts to redeem himself from the sterility of his now-lost pop career, and it’s part of Fuller’s approach that personal redemption must coincide with a sense of social purpose.

The actors are uniformly strong, with Carradine particularly affecting in his incarnation as a gaunt, ghostly, wasted alcoholic. Like the novel it’s based on, the film is exceptionally dark, even claustrophobic, not only in Fuller’s use of low-key lighting and determinist high and low angles, but in his successful characterization of a man hunted by those on both sides of the law. Watch for Fuller in a wonderfully unsettling cameo – as a screaming, maniacal police commissioner whose shadow alone we see. Street of No Return gives us a rare opportunity to observe a modern master still in good form at the end.

Way Cool (Marc Huestis, 2004)

Nobody can accuse the left of being lazy anymore, what with seemingly dozens of documentaries pouring onto screens big and small on subjects ranging from Kerry’s experiences in Vietnam to a scathing portrait of “Bush’s Brain” (aka Karl Rove) to multiple assaults on a Big Media held captive by the right wing. Adding to the fun is Marc Huestis’s video diary of the 2004 Republican National Convention, Way Cool: RNC as Not Seen on TV. Huestis is San Francisco’s preeminent queer impresario, responsible for extravagant revivals of movies like Poseidon Adventure and The Bad Seed attended by their fading stars and drag queens interpreting trashy scenes from the flicks. Think a camp version of vaudeville. Huestis – affectionately known as “Hostess Huestis” in San Francisco – is also an activist whose credits include the documentary Sex Is… in which gay men spill the beans on their love lives, and now Way Cool.

The scandalous behavior of New York officials in trying to isolate the hundreds of thousands of protestors (estimates vary from 500,000 to over a million) from the Republican National Convention is the backdrop here. But the real stars are the ordinary people exercising their rights in an increasingly elusive democracy. There are “Glamericans” – trannies and their friends who carry signs like “Fashion Tip: Flip Flops Are In!” and add an always welcome sense of playfulness to the protests. There are little kids, one of whom responds to director Huestis’s question of why he wants to get rid of Bush with a loud, heartfelt “Because he’s stupid!” Also here are senior citizens flipping off the cops, union workers who passionately recount a (long) list of Bush’s failures, and a poignant interview with a man whose son was killed in Iraq.

Inspired by Haskell Wexler’s famous 1969 documentary Medium Cool about the 1968 Democratic convention, Huestis captures the buzz of this event with panache. He unflinchingly records the sometimes whimsical, often heated exchanges between the protestors and convention attendees, who range from grimly smiling automatons to a goofy, screaming old man decked out in extreme patriotic kitsch. Huestis can’t resist getting his own zingers, at one point insisting (to a befuddled Republican) “I’d rather have blow jobs than no jobs!” And really, who wouldn’t?

The Whale Rider (Niki Caro, 2002)

The Whale Rider opens on a grim note, in a hospital in a small New Zealand coastal town where a woman is dying while giving birth to twins, with the baby boy joining his mother in death and the baby girl surviving. In the traditional Maori culture they’re all part of, this is a wrenching development as the boy would have been groomed by his grandfather, Koro, for the role of chieftain. The girl, Pai, grows up embraced by her grandmother, and loved by Koro as long as she’s just a typical little girl. When she begins exhibiting unmistakable signs of ambition to become a chieftain herself, Koro becomes her enemy.

They make for powerful adversaries, one obsessed with an imperiled tradition, the other determined to reinvent it as the first girl “whale rider” – a reference to the mythological character who started the Maori race millennia earlier by riding in on a whale. Pai learns the ancient songs and rituals, while Koro tries desperately to thwart her. Matters escalate when a pod of whales washes up near dead on the beach, a dire event that Koro blames entirely on Pai and her alleged hubris.

The simple storyline of The Whale Rider, like that of The Fast Runner, has the poetic power of ancient myth, with a primal narrative enriched by an element of genderplay in its pitting of patriarchal Koro and the rigid, repressive ways he represents against the expansive feminine spirit incarnated by Pai. It’s their conflict that gives the film much of its considerable force.

The native actors are uniformly strong, particularly Vicky Haughton as Pai’s sympathetic grandmother, and Rawiri Paratene as Koro, expertly evoking an obsessive macho male who goes to any length to protect a tradition in transition.

But the most riveting element of the film is the performance of Keisha Castle-Hughes as Pai. Castle-Hughes is simply extraordinary in this complex role. It’s impossible not to be moved by her incarnation of this slight, sad, powerful girl, a character driven by a force that seems equally likely to transform and destroy her. It’s hard to imagine an adult actor being able to meet the demands of such a role; that a 12-year-old girl does it this well approaches the miraculous.

Note: 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!