“Here’s to lost beauty. May it always be nearby with the potential to keep you warm.”
Angel Blue, aka My Neighbor’s Daughter (Steve Kovacs, 1997)
The sight of repressed menopausal men chasing the teenage bimbo of their dreams is not a pretty one — think Adrian Lyne’s numbing remake of Lolita. Roger Corman alumnus Steve Kovacs adds another entry to this increasingly (and perhaps justifiably) endangered genre with Angel Blue. This time there’s an added racial angle — Dennis (Sam Bottoms), a respectable nice-guy banker, sheds all the privileges of his position in favor of Angela (Yennifer Behrens), the fetching teenage daughter of his Mexican handyman. Issues of racism and the suffocating conformity of small-town America are touched on, and there’s a potentially powerful subplot in the form of a stalker, but the film lacks fire. Bottoms plays only the first half of “quiet desperation,” unconvincingly getting his dander up once or twice, while Behrens fails to break out of the tortured teen cliches. Watch for Karen Black in a bizarrely amusing bit as a cackling, manipulative therapist.
Brother to Brother (Rodney Evans, 2004)
Brother to Brother opens with the lead character, Perry Williams (Anthony Mackie, right), on a subway. This setting isn’t accidental; Perry is a young man in transit – emotionally, artistically, sexually. A budding artist who’s also black and gay, Perry doesn’t seem to fit in anyplace. His parents throw him out when they catch him kissing another guy. He’s dished (and later bashed) by fellow students of a black history class when he brings up James Baldwin’s homosexuality. His quasi-boyfriend seems more straight than gay, and insults him by presumptuously praising his “sweet black ass.” And he’s so tightly wound that he can’t respond even to a gallery owner who seems genuinely interested in his art.
Lo, a guardian angel appears, and no ordinary one. An old man who looks like just another anonymous street person turns out to be Bruce Nugent, one of the Harlem Renaissance’s major figures, now broke and forgotten. Despite the gap in their ages, and their different stations in life, each has something special to offer the other. Perry reminds Nugent of his own vibrant and troubled past as a gay artist, and Nugent conjures for Perry the classic world of Langston Hughes, Walter Thurman, Zora Neale Hurston, and other luminaries of that rich period of the 1920s and ‘30s. Nugent’s vivid stories — shown in extended black-and-white sequences — entrance and inspire his young friend.
Writer-director Rodney Evans spent six years working on this script, inspired by the life of the real Bruce Nugent, who died in obscurity in 1987. The film seamlessly shifts between his story and Perry’s, past and present, without losing the drama or the characters. In the black-and-white scenes, Evans sharply evokes the raucous pleasures of the Harlem Renaissance, with Hughes, Hurston, et al. saying to hell with the system — starting the renegade magazine Fire!!. writing fearlessly about topics like homosexuality and prostitution, and above all repudiating the kind of acquiescence and assimilation that marked contemporary groups like the NAACP (shown here as a reactionary force).
While some viewers may find the pacing too leisurely, this is one drama about activism and artistic struggle that can’t be accused of preachiness. Brother to Brother treats its characters as complex, flawed human beings rather than spokespersons for an issue. Nugent captures the charms of the film in a beautifully rendered toast to a friend (while thinking of Perry): “Here’s to lost beauty. May it always be nearby with the potential to keep you warm.”
For decades now, the queer documentary has been an important force in reclaiming queer identity, reinforcing community, and repudiating the lies about homosexuality relentlessly promoted by mainstream institutions from the government to the church to the medical establishment. A small group of filmmakers have been at the forefront of this truth campaign. Arthur Dong is rightly revered for works like Licensed to Kill, about psychos who murdered gay men, and Coming Out Under Fire, about gays in the military. And Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato have created a wide range of campy and historical homo-inflected docs, from Hidden Furher, arguing that Hitler was a repressed faggot whose closet status fueled the Nazi atrocities, and The Eyes of Tammy Faye Baker, about that most unusual creature, the fundamentalist fag hag.
But Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman have a special place in this select group. Epstein more or less launched the queer documentary with the landmark Word Is Out (1977, above), which featured startlingly normal fags and dykes talking candidly about their lives. This film sent the first widely received message that gay was okay. Five years later Epstein began working with collaborators, first Richard Schmiechen for The Times of Harvey Milk and then with Jeffrey Friedman for films like *Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt, Paragraph 175, about gay victims of the Nazis, and the queers-in-cinema survey The Celluloid Closet. The Times of Harvey Milk and Common Threads are now out on DVD, and are well worth watching even if you’ve seen them before.
The title of The Times of Harvey Milk (1984), which won a well-deserved Academy Award, always sounds slightly off — why “the times” and not “the life”? But the omission is intentional. The legendary San Francisco gay guru, power broker, and supervisor murdered in 1978 by right-win nutcase Dan White was, by his own reckoning – and history’s, as the film shows – as much symbol as man, less important personally than the grassroots causes he so eloquently espoused. The directors interviewed an army of Milk’s friends and associates for the film, eliciting moving testimonials from those who survived that heady time of liberation struggles, machine politics, and political assassination. Adding news footage and Milk’s puckish image and words makes for a powerful mosaic of both man and movement. The Times was recently restored to 35mm with a Dolby Stereo soundtrack, and this is the version seen on the DVD, a two-disc set that features tons of extras that make it a no-brainer buy. They include a three-way commentary, film of the premiere at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre, an alternate ending, an outtakes featurette, various 25th anniversary events, the Academy Awards presentation – you get the idea.
In 1989 Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman memorialized the AIDS crisis with Common Threads. Like its predecessor, this one won an Oscar, and a re-viewing shows why. The film remains a wrenchingly emotional glimpse at the pandemic at its height by looking at a cross-section of its victims. They include an 11-year-old hemophiliac, a former Olympic athlete, a conservative military man, an i.v. drug user, and the late activist and film critic Vito Russo. Their stories — fleshed out by lovers, parents, friends, and in some cases themselves — are told against the dramatic backdrop of the quilt, whose sheer size, seen in a long sequence at the end, is both a powerful metaphor for the scope of the disease and an extraordinary tribute to the human spirit. As is proper with any AIDS doc, this one stars the government in the role of Major Villain, with Ronald Reagan in particular indicted for his refusal to even mention AIDS until years after it had been taking a huge toll. The same “religious” types fighting gay marriage are also seen here insisting queers deserved what they got. Common Threads still packs a wallop. If it seems slightly less urgent than when it appeared in 1989, it’s probably less because of the film than because society — and many gay people — have become numb to the disease. The film runs only 79 minutes, but the DVD compensates with a 45-minute short film featuring interviews from the ‘80s with two San Francisco doctors and activist/quilt creator Cleve Jones. Also included are commentaries by Epstein and Friedman, and a riveting ACT UP speech by the fiery Vito Russo.
Forgotten Silver (Costa Botes and Peter Jackson, 1995)
A Spinal Tap for movie buffs, this ambitious mockumentary by Peter Jackson and Costa Botes honors pioneering New Zealand filmmaker “Colin MacKenzie.” So much credible detail has been jammed in here — extensive scenes from MacKenzie’s “lost” silent epic Salome, interviews with Leonard Maltin and Sam Neil — that viewers can’t be blamed for thinking he must have existed. Outlandish claims that MacKenzie created every innovation in cinema history are hilariously trounced by too-believable scenes of the clueless auteur attaching a huge, heavy camera to a rickety bicycle, and seeing the “first talkie” — made 20 years before The Jazz Singer — flop because none of his actors spoke English. A subplot devoted to evil, smarmy silent comic “Stan the Man” (above), whose shtick is cinema verité assaults on unsuspecting passersby, brilliantly captures the foolish fun of the era. Jackson and Botes solemnly maintain the fiction to the end by refusing to identify any of their skilled players in the credits.
Inside Deep Throat (Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, 2005)
Forget Titanic. Forget Gone with the Wind. Deep Throat (1972), produced for a mere $25,000, is the most successful film ever in terms of profit on investment: a staggering $600 million. Not bad for a porn flick about a woman whose clitoris is in her throat. But Deep Throat, as this diverting new documentary shows, was a lot more important than its medical gimmick, bad acting, and lame humor. This was the film that brought couples into porn theatres, legitimized the hard-core skin flick, and even challenged the vaginal orgasm. It was also at the vanguard of the sexual revolution (you know, the one that fizzled out a few years later), and endured endless lawsuits from opportunistic politicians and sexually repressed district attorneys. The whole story is told in detail here, from the tacky production circumstances (much of it was shot at the mansion of a phony middle-aged Miami Beach “Count”) to the creepy Mafia connections (they controlled all the profits) to the problems faced by its stars, horse-hung Harry Reems, who became a drunk and druggie, and, of course, Linda Lovelace, who died in a car wreck in 2002. In some ways, Lovelace is the most pathetic figure here, a likeable, not particularly smart woman seemingly used and abused equally by the pornsters and the anti-porn feminists. There’s plenty of period footage and contextualizing commentary from the likes of Camille Paglia, John Waters, Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, and other counterculture luminaries. And, oh yeah, the film daringly includes hard-core footage from the film in lurid closeup, so prudes best beware.
Kinsey (Bill Condon, 2004)
Alfred Kinsey’s name once drew shudders from the bluenoses and snickers from sophisticates, both of whom scoured his groundbreaking books like Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953) for naughty bits. But Kinsey was no pornographer, nor (despite claims by the lunatic right that persist today) did he encourage any kind of nonconsensual relationships. Above all he was a scientist who believed that sexuality could be studied and explored like any other human trait. He railed against the absurd repressions in American society, against “morality disguised as fact.” And he was adamant in insisting that homosexuality was as normal as heterosexuality at a time when such statements amounted to blasphemy. He practiced what he preached, too. He and his wife Mac had an open marriage that sometimes involved sharing the same man. Of course, he suffered from attempts to suppress his work – including charges of communism during the Red Scare days and the loss of a crucial Rockefeller Foundation grant that funded his original work. But he refused to apologize for it and never wavered in his beliefs and his willingness to voice them. All this history is dramatically delivered by Kinsey.
As played by Neeson, Kinsey is a larger-than-life figure who dominates the film, as he apparently dominated his family and to some extent the lives of his sex research team. Neeson perfectly captures the impatience, bullishness, zealotry, and blind faith of this man as he takes on a whole culture of ignorance. How ignorant? Some of the questions students ask for his “Marriage” class include “Can you get syphilis from a whistle?” and “Can’t oral copulation be injurious?”
The film focuses intensely on the “marriage of equals” between Kinsey and Mac, a relationship as much intellectual and spiritual as sexual as Kinsey feels he must live the kind of life of openness and maturity he argues for. Mac’s vacillating moods as her husband pulls her into this uncharted territory, which threatens to bring not only shame but possibly jail time, are convincingly conveyed by Laura Linney.
In addition to fine performances and a compelling storyline that jumps all over the place without losing the viewer, Kinsey has a disturbing timeliness. The atmosphere of repression it shows seems to have returned with a vengeance. With crazy Christians now fighting even such taken-for-granted benefits of modern society as divorce and birth control, not to mention gay rights, the film makes it clear that, ready or not, Kinsey’s time has come again.
Meet Me in St. Louis (Vincente Minnelli, 1944)
Meet Me in St. Louis is more classic than camp, a bittersweet holiday musical directed by Minnelli as a Technicolor Currier & Ives litho come to life. The film is celebrated for its sprightly dialogue, painterly color schemes, endearing eccentrics, and infectious tunes like “The Trolley Song” and Mel Torme’s classic “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” It’s also a kind of parallel-universe Wizard of Oz, echoing that film’s message “there’s no place like home,” and even featuring stand-ins for Oz (a mysterious but looming, never-glimpsed New York City) and the tornado that carries Judy away in the form of Judy’s bogeyman father, Leon Ames, a typical Minnelli male killer-of-dreams who threatens to move the family from their beloved St. Louis to the Big Apple. Judy is enchanting in her musical numbers and equally effective in the dramatic scenes, five years after Oz and quite a while before she was enshrined as a human pill box and the ultimate queer icon.
Ruan Lingyu’s suicide in 1935 at age 25 might have ended her legend along with her life and career, but this “Chinese Garbo” has maintained a surprisingly strong hold on Chinese and, thanks to increasing recent exposure of her films outside China, western cinephiles. One reason for this longevity — and for some of her mystique as a star — is the eerie similarity of her own life to the kinds of melodramas for which she became famous. Born in Shanghai on April 26, 1910, Ruan witnessed the death of her father when she was five, an event that precipitated a disastrous drop in social standing. Forced to support her family, Ruan’s mother became a maid to the wealthy Zhangs. Later, Ruan would have a romance with their son, Zhang Damin, another disaster as their eventual marriage was never made official due to his family’s disapproval of what was considered a serious class breach. As Ruan’s career took off, their relationship quickly devolved into sheer economics, with Ruan paying Zhang to leave her alone. When she became romantically involved with a Shanghai businessman, a vengeful Zhang exposed the affair and sued her. The local press sensationalized the story and Ruan, in despair, killed herself on March 8, 1935, leaving a note that read: “The words of people are fearful.” Her funeral, with estimates of mourners in the tens of thousands, was noticed even by The New York Times.
Ruan’s acting career began at age 16, when the Mingxing (“Star”) Film Company hired her for Marriage in Name, directed by Bu Wancang. After several more films for Mingxing, she moved to Great China-Lily Film Company, where she made another half-dozen films. Ruan was already a well-known star by 1930, but her fame continued to grow starting that year when she moved to the Lianhua Film Company. There she would find her greatest successes in a series of intense female-centered melodramas, many of them engaged with such pressing social issues as poverty, class conflict, prostitution, illegitimacy, women’s rights, suicide, and occasionally a political film that grew out of anxieties around Japan’s invasion of Shanghai.
A scan of the titles of her films indicates something of their varied content — Reminiscence of Peking, Love and Duty, Suicide Contract, The Goddess, New Woman — but fail to impart Ruan’s subtle style, which was far from the tortured grimaces and flailings that have kept silent cinema a niche genre for many contemporary viewers. The Garbo association is more than mere conceit; like the famous Swede, Ruan brought an unmannered directness and a sense of emotional authenticity to her roles that set her apart from her peers. Equally credible in the role of suicidal mother (Love and Duty, 1933), career woman (New Woman, 1934), murderous prostitute (The Goddess, 1934), even patriot (Little Toys, 1933), Ruan is a luminous presence whose collaborators well understood her appeal, deifying her through trademark close-ups that linger on her fragile, fleeting beauty. Several plays, television dramas, Stanley Kwan’s ambitious biopic The Actress (1991), frequent film festival revivals, and even a John Zorn musical composition called “Ruan Lingyu” have helped maintain her legend decades after her death.
The Stendhal Syndrome (Dario Argento, 1996)
The title malady of Dario Argento’s gruesome giallo is an authentic neurosis inspired by the famed French novelist’s seizure from sensory overload in a museum. The director uses this glittering bit of pathology as an excuse to visualize what goes on in the minds of increasingly unhinged female detective Anna Manni and the psycho-killer she’s pursuing through the galleries and back alleys of Florence. The film misjudges some of its effects — did Anna really have to french-kiss that big ugly fish? — but the always narratively challenged Argento works his fetishes by dolling up grisly scenes of rape and torture with glamorous lighting and elegant camerawork. Thomas Krestschmann excels as the handsome fiend, but some viewers will surely question the casting of Argento’s daughter Asia in the lead role. Horror directors aren’t known for treating their real-life female relatives kindly in their films (think of Adrienne Barbeau and John Carpenter), but Daddy Dario makes poor crazed Asia an especially pathetic tabula rasa on which he can write his most violent fantasies.
Straight-Jacket (Richard Day, 2004)
What to make of this movie? Writer-director Richard Day’s previous outing was the hilariously brittle drag comedy Girls Will Be Girls. There Day’s popish visuals and zingy one-liners found a happy home. Straight-Jacket (the hyphen’s there presumably to differentiate it from the Joan Crawford camp classic) aims for something more serious, with decidedly mixed results. The setting is early ‘50s Hollywood, a time of red-baiting and gay-bashing. Hunky, slutty Guy Stone (Matt Letscher) is the dreamy idol of millions of women, but he has a secret that could capsize his career. When he’s photographed leaving (stampeding out of) a gay bar, his savvy manager Jerry (Veronica Cartwright) gets him hitched, a la Rock Hudson, to a ditzy secretary who has no clue he’s queer. Guy expects to go back to his promiscuous ways but unexpectedly falls in love with a lefty screenwriter, Rick (Adam Greer). When the two are caught naked in bed, Guy’s career is again threatened — unless he agrees to “name names.”
A simple plot sketch makes this sound like a serious film, and it does seem to have pretensions to seriousness, particularly in the last third or so. But the first hour of the film is played with such camp that it’s practically a cartoon. There are sudden musical interludes, montages of magazines with titles like “Worthy Woman” showing the “happy couple,” and Guy’s mansion, a tacky CGI creation that looks like an outtake from a 1950s Disney film about “the world of tomorrow.” The intermittently funny dialogue also has a sharp camp edge. Commenting on being cast as Ben Hur, Guy remarks, “Make sure I get slaveboy approval.” On stardom? “I always say about my fans, without them I’d be no better than they are.” Director Day even throws in pratfalls and some over-obvious satire of Hollywood production styles with a papier-mâché Godzilla-like monster that can’t move. But the detour to Real Issues late in the film seems more confusing than compelling, as talk about communism and closets ensues. A film that spends so much time asking us to laugh at the antics of Guy and Sally and then asks us to take them seriously can’t be, well, serious.
Sure Fire (Jon Jost, 1990)
With the indie movement so damn conventional these days — complete with star system, surprisingly high budgets, and niche distributors owned by the likes of Disney — it’s increasingly hard to find the authentic article. Jon Jost, who’s been making features since the early ’70s (he was born in 1943), has that elusive, much-desired mix of street credibility, artistic integrity, and formal prowess that puts him at the pinnacle of, let’s call it the “pure indie” movement. Jost has always been willing to put the rest of his body where his mouth was — serving two years in jail for loudly refusing military service in the ’60s, reportedly living out of his car at one point, and making a series of venomous movie portraits of American culture sure to alienate Stepfordized audiences and docile critics. Sure Fire shows his powerful vision at its most unsparing. The star is the gifted Tom Blair, a Jost favorite (and double; they both have distinctive white-blonde hair). Blair’s Wes is an ambitious developer obsessed with “making it big” no matter what the cost on his friends and family. Jost dedicated the film to his father, but it’s an ironic tribute; Wes is a self-consumed patriarch, a smiling good-ole-boy unaware of the internal chaos that finally erupts to murderous effect during a deer hunt. A series of intense monologues by Wes’s wife, a lethal encounter between father and son, and lush visuals of the rural American landscape (Utah) show precisely what Wes is sacrificing. Viewers who like a challenge will want to check out other Jost features including All the Vermeers of New York and The Bed You Sleep In. Few of Jost’s films are available on video (they’re mostly either out of print or never were in print), sorry to say.
The Toilers and the Wayfarers (Keith Froelich, 1996)
The “toilers and wayfarers” in this short (75-minute) feature stand outside their culture in two senses, and thus are doubly damned. Sixteen-year-olds Dieter (Matt Klemp, right) and Philip (Andrew Woodhouse) are gay, and they live in New Ulm, one of Minnesota’s rigid German emigre communities, many of whose members don’t even speak English. Twentysomething Udo (Ralf Schirg) is also gay, but adds another alienating element to the mix–he’s a recent immigrant to the U.S. from Germany who acts spontaneously and says and does what he thinks. Udo’s arrival signals the departure of all three boys for the Big City of Minneapolis when the repressions of New Ulm and their uptight, Old World families become unbearable.
This simple, wistful sketch of a film, shot in crisp black-and-white, opens with best friends Dieter and Philip cavorting in a beautiful forest and river redolent of an imaginary, Norman Rockwellish America. The two meet here often for skinnydipping and conversation, but their talk quickly undercuts the kind of homespun homilies promised by the setting. Philip, who’s more “out” than the still-closeted Dieter, tells his friend that he hates his life in New Ulm, that he’s incinerated his gym uniform in protest–“The jockstrap didn’t burn too well,” he laments–and intends to escape to Minneapolis.
Dieter has problems of his own that the film lays out in considerable detail. His life is full of the kinds of denials associated with a grim, upwardly mobile immigrant mentality–no television; no beer; and frequent, embarrassing bare-butt spankings by his father Helmut (Jerome Samuelson), an unyielding authoritarian. It’s soon clear that no amount of whipping can keep Dieter in line; he identifies not with Daddy but with Udo (right), whose slacker ways and brotherly interest in Dieter are immediately interpreted as predatory faggotry.
Udo represents an enormous threat to New Ulm and the Old World ways it represents. He’s casually disrespectful, indulgent, a seasoned drinker, and relentlessly sarcastic–to show gratitude to his dying aunt for bringing him to the U.S., he says drily, “I hope I can hold back the tears.” Udo, who speaks mostly German, drives a Cadillac and wears a cowboy hat. He’s a skewed byproduct of American culture, having been raised on American TV, movies, and rock n roll. Later, the laughing boy sobers up: “I came to America and ended up nowhere.”
Philip’s departure paves the way for Dieter and Udo to follow, which they do after one of Helmut’s “fatherly” beatings. But, typical of big city cautionary tales, the trip is disastrous. Dieter’s parents alert the police that the “faggot” Udo has seduced and kidnapped their son. Udo blows most of his money on a lemon that breaks down on the highway. He loses the rest to a street hustler, and ends up homeless and scrubbing floors. Dieter fares no better, following his pal Philip into the grimy world of homelessness, hustling, and police entrapment. Philip becomes “sick” suddenly, and while his problem is never specified, it’s obvious this is a code word for AIDS.
Still, there are glimmers of beauty and points of connection in these seemingly dead-end lives. Udo meets a grandfatherly German mechanic who confesses he doesn’t understand homosexuality but knows Udo “has a good heart” and lets him stay with him. Philip and Dieter make love in an abandoned apartment. And in one of the film’s best scenes, Dieter confounds the police by speaking German to alert Udo that he’s in danger.
The Toilers and the Wayfarers gains from fine cinematography, nicely evoking the soulless uniformity of the heartland and the promise of the neon streets of Minneapolis. Writer-director Froelich coaxes sweet, unmannered performances from his actors, with Ralf Schirg and Matt Klemp most effective as Udo and Dieter. And he gets especially high marks for his honest treatment of a subject that’s never been welcome but won’t go away: the sexuality of queer teenage boys.