“Don’t know, don’t care. Beads for boobs!”
The Best of CineKink (Curated by Lisa Vandever, 2007)
Even vanilla can benefit from a little spice — that’s one of the messages of Cine Kink. This New York-based traveling film festival serves up sexual spice, everything from canine role-play and food lust to tranny “dads and boys” and edgeplay. Curated by Lisa Vandever, it’s also one of the more inclusive fests, too, with plenty to divert eyes hetero, homo, and anything in between.
The fest kicks off with Power Plays, a collection of eight shorts. “Dog Eat Dog” spotlights that perennial favorite in the gay male fetish scene, puppy play. For the first time, the International Mr. Leather group opened their dungeons to this fetish. The opening music — the B-52’s “Quiche Lorraine” — sets the campy tone for what’s to come. Various “dogs,” some sporting canine ears, tails, paws, and other accoutrements, run around on all fours, bark, whine and yelp, hump their masters’ legs, and generally compete for coveted alpha dog status. Director Lum foolishly muddies the action with multiple screens, but the film is effective in showing both the fetish and its lighter side.
“How Long Has It Been?” is a depressingly clinical view of a daddy/boy scene between two transmen. More stimulating is “Guy101,” which uses a clever computer motif to tell a creepy cautionary tale about a guy who picks up a hitchhiker and gets more than he bargained for — or does he? “Hitchcocked” is an anonymous sex pickup story with a twist. Just as Hitchcock’s Psycho supposedly made audiences terrified to take a shower, this little gem will have some queens repeatedly checking their bathroom in hopes of finding the two hunks seen here.
Banned in Australia, “Damon and Hunter: Doing It Together” is the longest “short” of the evening at 46 minutes. This is a rarity — a hard-core documentary about the sex lives of two twenty-something gay men. The film is a bit like listening to your friends talking about sex and then watching them do it. What it lacks in deep insight it gains in extended views of the boys’ fetching flesh.
The second program is Passion Plays. “Honey and Bunny,” about two hot dykes in love and showing it in various cartoony-retro settings, is a little too cute for its own good. Better is T. Arthur Cottam’s “Filthy Food,” an ode to licking and sucking everything from bananas to Hostess Sno-Cones. This is one you won’t see on the Food Channel, though you may want to suggest it. “Headshot” is a steamy tribute to Andy Warhol’s infamous “Blow Job.” In both films, a handsome guy gets head offscreen; we basically only see his face as the tension melts away and he gets his longed-for “happy ending.”
The final program, Best of CineKink, repeats some of the above films but adds the excellent “Want.” This one explores one of the last cultural taboos — sex with the disabled. Self-described “queer crip” Loree Erickson, a photographer, filmmaker, and Ph.D. candidate at Toronto’s York University, stars in and directs this explicit short in which she unabashedly demands the same sexual considerations as everybody else. Erickson’s message — why let limitations stand in the way of fun and fulfillment in life? — is a simple but powerful one. Demand your local cinematheque or country-western bar program this always provocative fest.
Black White + Gray: A Portrait of Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe (James Crump, 2007) and A Walk into the Sea: Danny Williams and the Factory Films (Esther Robinson, 2007)
Sam Wagstaff and Danny Williams aren’t familiar names in a culture choking on the minute-by-minute doings of Britney Spears, but students of cutting-edge postwar art probably know Wagstaff and may recall Williams as one of the many mysterious satellites orbiting Andy Warhol. Two new documentaries try to fix these elusive characters on film. Both are worth watching.
Wagstaff is the subject of Black White + Gray, which also profiles his friend, protégé, and lover Robert Mapplethorpe (above). Director James Crump tracks the handsome, rich Wagstaff from “debutantes’ dream” to pioneering curator of modern art to erotic experimenter secretly indulging in some of the sleaziest activities in New York’s version of the sexual revolution. Featuring in-depth interviews with the third member of the Wagstaff-Mapplethorpe trio, punk goddess Patti Smith, Black White + Gray offers a sensible balance in its biography, reminding us of Wagstaff’s importance in introducing important art movements like minimalism and happenings to the culture, while also showing us a vulnerable and driven human being. The brilliant Mapplethorpe emerges as both a cunning manipulator of his mentor and a guide for Wagstaff’s liberation. Both died of AIDS, Wagstaff in 1987 and Mapplethorpe in 1989, but the film wisely dwells on their lives, not their deaths.
Better still is A Walk into the Sea: Danny Williams and the Factory Films. This film came about because the niece of Danny Williams, Esther Robinson, was always curious about what happened to “Uncle Danny,” who in 1966 drove to Cape Ann in Massachusetts, parked his car on a cliff, and was never seen again. Williams was a gifted Harvard grad who hooked up with Warhol, operated the famous light shows that helped make the Velvet Underground a cause celebre, and became Warhol’s lover. Unlike most of the damaged druggies (Edie Sedgwick) and cynical players (Paul Morrissey) who surrounded Warhol, Williams was known as a kind, open-hearted, non-neurotic, talented man. Of course, these traits were taken as an affront and a challenge by the intensely self-absorbed Factory folk. In the brutal Darwinism of that small world, Williams became increasingly marginalized, eventually hooked on meth, and expelled by his now indifferent lover. A Walk into the Sea is more than a portrait of Williams, who left no diary, letters, suicide note, or eleventh-hour chats to help us figure out why he killed himself, if indeed he did. It’s also a fascinating look at the cruelty and cultishness of the Warhol world, with then-and-now commentators such as Paul Morrissey, Billy Name, Chuck Wein, Brigid Berlin, and others showing what made that scene both special and sad. Included are substantial excerpts from Williams’ own, previously unknown experimental films, which hint at a potentially major talent whose light flickered and failed too soon.
Chasin’ Gus’ Ghost (Todd Kwait, 2007)
Gus Cannon (1883?-1979) was a pioneer in the world of 1920s and ’30s jug band music, yet far from well known today even by some roots enthusiasts. But his influence was pervasive, starting with appearances on Harry Smith’s seminal Anthology of Folk Music (1952) and riding the wave of the folk music revival that began in the late 1950s. Popular folk groups like the Lovin’ Spoonful, the Rooftop Singers, and Jim Kweskin and the Jug Band credit Cannon as a major inspiration. This captivating documentary starts with a “let’s go find Gus and his grave” trope that takes director Todd Kwait everywhere from Memphis to Yokohama, Japan. On this search he hangs a consistently fascinating history of the jug band, affectionate profiles of some of the greats in the genre past and present, and modern and vintage footage of jug bands in action.
Scholars who haunt the archives already know much of this stuff, but Chasin’ Gus’ Ghost should get a hearty welcome from anyone interested in roots music or folk music. Cannon is the focus of the early part of the film, and it’s an enlightening picture of a man who had everything future folkies would treasure: he was a fine musician with no formal training; he was a poor, salt of the earth type who left home at 15, and entertained at such treasured early American locales as sawmills and railroad camps. He was also elusive and thus resonant with myth, playing with a variety of groups in many locales under various names, and collaborating with such luminaries as harmonica master Noah Lewis. The film shows that he got as much from the folk revival as he gave it. He was rediscovered and celebrated as a master, and surely took some pride in seeing his music — including the Rooftop Singers’ mega-hit “Walk Right In,” which he wrote — revived and, best of all, producing royalties for him. That he eventually became embittered over alleged financial ripoffs by the music industry — a phenomenon too widespread not to be taken seriously — doesn’t minimize his interest.
But Chasin’ Gus’ Ghost is more than a biography of a gifted pioneer; it’s also a heartfelt tribute to the kind of music Cannon forged, that continues to endure. Some of the best footage here is in the portraits of torch carriers like the beloved Fritz Richmond, who carried “non-instrument instruments” like the jug and the washtub bass (literally a stick, a string, and a washtub) to new heights of musical expression. Wonderful, sharp 1960s footage of Jim Kweskin’s Jug Band shows Maria Muldaur, Richmond, Kweskin, and raging tenor Geoff Muldaur at the height of their powers on the classic “Ain’t Gonna Marry.” There are plenty of sizzling modern performances here too, some from the rich jug band scene in Yokohama, Japan. The global village never looked so good as when Kweskin and a Japanese enthusiast do a bilingual version of “Sweet Sue.” Interviews with historians Bengt Olsson and Samuel Charters offer context and vivid details of the hardscrabble lives of Cannon, Noah Lewis, Sleepy John Estes, and other legendary names in jug band music. Vintage photographs and recollections by friends and relatives of the old players bring it on home.
Coffee Date (Stewart Wade, 2006)
In this surprisingly likeable indie — surprising because it’s practically a textbook of gay clichés — 35-year-old straight man Todd (Jonathan Bray) is tricked by his obnoxious roommate brother into an Internet blind date with “Kelly,” who Todd assumes is a girl but is actually a gay man. Nonetheless, the two hit it off, sharing a passion for the movie Amadeus among other things, and Todd decides to repay his brother by pretending he’s turned gay. To that end, Todd and Kelly waltz provocatively back to Todd’s apartment and terrorize bro’ with fake orgasms coming from the bedroom. Of course, the scheme backfires and soon Todd can’t convince anybody that he’s not gay and romantically involved with Kelly. He spends the entire film trying to counter the shrill demands of co-workers, neighbors, and his neurotic mom that he come out of the closet and be “out and proud!” Eventually he starts questioning himself, and Kelly is all too willing to help him here, hoping in the process to transition from friend to boyfriend.
This storyline, expanded from a short film by writer-director Stewart Wade, is at first glance a standard gay farce, with lots of predictable comic confusion among the characters and a seemingly endless series of plot twists as Todd tries desperately, and to some extent at Kelly’s expense, to re-establish his straight credentials. But the chemistry between the two stars gives unexpected heft to the drama, and distracts from the nonstop references to Barbra Streisand and Judy Garland; the screaming queens and fag hags at every turn; and, more egregiously, scenes of straight characters grimacing and twitching in disgust around gay people. Handsome Wilson Cruz, famous for My So-Called Life, is so endearing as Kelly that we soon forget the stereotype he’s playing. His ability to convey Kelly’s strength and vulnerability, particularly given his arguable role as a mere vehicle for Todd’s self-discovery, keeps us connected to the film. Jonathan Bray also excels as the questionable straight. Coffee Date wins points too for its often snappy script (Kelly talks about his “dating rampage”), and bright cinematography that neatly nails the glamorous gay ghetto of West Hollywood.
Curl Girls (Logo Channel, 2007)
It’s Lesbian Surfers Meet Babewatch in yet another of Logo’s questionable productions. The titular “girls” are six attractive dykes in their twenties and thirties who take time out from stressful careers to catch a wave. The show starts with thumbnail sketches of each one. Michele is 33, a “soul surfer” who runs photo shoots and practices yoga. Vanessa, also 33, designs clothes, likes the “creative urban life” and the shock value of taking off her tube top in public. Erin, 29, is an attorney who surfs to free herself of responsibilities, to “be mellow and have fun.” Jessica, 23, is an HR exec for an international company and a self-described “bad-ass” and “hard-ass.” She’s been seriously dating Curl Girl #4, Melissa, 29, a sales manager who’s “really competitive.” Gingi, 25, is a clothing designer and shameless flirt who “overcomes my fears by surfing.”
The beach is little more than a scenic backdrop to the girls’ seemingly endless romantic problems. And it isn’t like there are any new insights here, though it’s probably naïve to expect any. Perhaps cluelessness is a given of the genre. Typical is Jessica’s solemn description of her Japanese tattoo as meaning “devotion to truth,” shortly before she’s exposed for cheating on poor Melissa. It doesn’t help that the women are simply not that interesting, certainly not enough to sustain a six-part show (mercifully only a half-hour each).
Fans of beautiful female athletes having love trouble may find Curl Girls diverting, though they may be less approving of Logo’s relentless censorship tactics. In addition to the constant bleeping of cuss words, it’s a little disconcerting to hear Vanessa talking about how much she enjoys shocking people when Logo won’t let her prove it. When she takes off her tube top, a black bar appears over her nipples to spare us this apparently too shocking sight.
Desert Hearts (Donna Deitch, 1985)
Desert Hearts happened because producer-director Donna Deitch wanted to make a lesbian movie “that didn’t end in a bisexual triangle or a suicide.” This legendary 1986 film, based on Jane Rule’s acclaimed novel Desert of the Heart, has only the merest hint of bisexuality and nary a glimmer of suicide. The film wisely replaces such tired tropes with unabashed images of two gorgeous, vibrant women in love.
Set in 1959, Desert Hearts is bookended by train scenes, comings and goings. Uptight Columbia University Professor Vivian Bell (Helen Shaver), who looks like one of those grim, “glacial” blondes from a Hitchcock movie, has come to Reno to get a divorce. We don’t learn the details of her backstory, but we see her consistently struggling to keep her hard mask of composure intact. Soon she meets local wildwoman Cay Rivvers (Patricia Charonnbeau), who’d love nothing better than to remove that mask and spends much of the film trying to do so. Along the way are a variety of subplots involving Cay’s friends like ranch owner Frances (Audra Lindley), her chanteuse pal Silver (Andra Akers), and her love-struck boss Darrell (Dean Butler). All this is backgrounded by period country tunes from Patsy Cline and Jim Reeves and some spectacular Nevada desert scenery.
Desert Hearts is not without its problems. The dialog is often stiff and sometimes smarmy. “He reached in and put a string of lights around my heart” would surely fit better on a Hallmark card. And it’s a question whether Reno in 1959 could really have been as gay-friendly as it appears. Homophobia is barely evident in this world — even the good old boys at the local casino smile and nod at the gay shenanigans.
But Desert Hearts is about love, not homophobia, and on that basis there’s much to recommend, not the least being the acting. Shaver and Charbonneau manage to overcome the script problems to emerge as authentic, complex people, while Audra Lindley is especially effective as a lonely, confused woman whose motherly interactions with Cay hint at deeper needs. Most powerful is the long-awaited love scene between Cay and Vivian. Some recent gay films have reverted to old bad habits in avoiding the details of queer bodies going at it, particularly when the stars are ‘fraidy-cat heteros. Happily, Desert Hearts, starring two apparently straight actors, keeps it real in a full-throttle love scene.
Note: Wolfe Video’s two-DVD set contains an informative director’s commentary, a documentary, interviews, alternate takes, a trailer, and other goodies for the completist.
Extras (Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, 2005-2007)
“Reality TV” has survived, and to some extent thrived, on American dreams of upward mobility and instant celebrity and wealth — not to mention being incredibly cheap for the networks to produce. But the endless parade of annoying wannabe superstars, chefs, psychics, etc. has spawned a more intriguing twin: the reality TV satire. Shows like Reno 911 and Curb Your Enthusiasm have become cult favorites here in the States by making fun of the genre, but Great Britain hits the bull’s-eye with Extras, seen in the U.S. on HBO and available on DVD.
Running only two seasons (a tidy 12 half-hours + an 80-minute finale “third” season), Extras was conceived by, and stars, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, also responsible for the highly acclaimed British version of the series The Office. In Extras, Gervais plays nervous, ambitious schlub Andy Millman, a “little 43-year-old actor,” who spends the first season desperately trying to move from extra to star and the second finding fame when he sells a show to the BBC. His “success” becomes extremely humiliating, however, as the network dumbs Andy’s artistic concept down to the gutter; he’s forced to wear a bad wig, silly glasses, and repeat brainless catch-phrases like “Are ya havin’ a laugh?” In an unbelievable exchange, Andy and his co-stars titter as they try to figure out if one of them said “fish stew” or “fist you.”
Extras‘ 80-minute climax show reprises all that was best about the series, not the least being the use of actual stars in situations that riff on some of their notorious failings or turn them into monsters. George Michael appears in a clever gay park-cruising scene; hunky Clive Owen portrays an appallingly sexist male diva who wants to do something incredibly nasty to a hapless extra on a movie set. Andy is equally infected by egomania, but he’s not tough enough to pull it off. He pleads for more respectable parts but ends up dressed as a vomiting dragon for a Dr. Who episode. In a truly inspired sequence, Andy appears in the British reality series Big Brother. The cult of celebrity has rarely been given such a drubbing.
I Like Killing Flies (Matt Mahurin, 2004)
Kenny Shopsin is one of New York’s secret treasures — a middle-aged, slobby, eccentric, improv intellectual who for 32 years ran an infamous diner, named after himself, with a combination of warmth, noise, and whimsical bitchiness (“No parties of five will be seated — ever!”). Kenny, his family, and Shopsin’s are the subject of this engaging 2004 documentary that offers an irresistible counter to the notion of the coldly efficient corporate restaurant. Shopsin’s is more like a pub run by a lovable tyrant who’s also an expert cook with a menu that, according to one devoted customer, offers “about 900 dishes.” Between sudden scream-fests, Kenny offers sage thoughts on everything from vermin (“It’s very existential, killing flies”) to the “sexy pleasure” of creating “fusion” dishes like Barbecue Banana Split (“It’s almost like putting your dick in the wrong hole . . . there’s a thrill to it!”) While Kenny’s a fascinating one-man show in himself, the film heats up when Shopsin’s is given the boot and forced to find new digs. This entertaining doc is also an important historical record; sadly, Shopsin’s appears to have closed its doors for good at this writing.
In the Tall Grass: Rwanda’s Road to Redemption (J. Coll Metcalfe, 2006)
In 1994, over a period of 100 days, Hutu death squads composed of ordinary people murdered, by machete and club, upwards of a million rival-tribe Tutsis. This genocide, ignored by both President Clinton and the U.N. until it was too late to stop, has occasioned much soul-searching, finger-pointing, tribunals, Hollywood movies, and even a bizarre theory emanating from French Hutu sympathizers that the Tutsis were the perpetrators. Less noticed is a phenomenon called gacaca, begun in 2004, in which Rwandan citizen-judges, composed of members of both tribes, gather survivors and accused killers to try to reconcile and heal by getting the Hutu murderers to confess and the Tutsi to forgive. The meetings occur in simple outdoor settings, but this simplicity belies the judges’ power. They lack ceremonial robes or even a courtroom (the gacaca takes place outdoors, and the judges dress more plainly than the villagers), but they’re legally empowered to offer leniency to those who tell the truth and severely punish anyone they determine is lying. A killer who is judged Category One, reserved for leaders and planners of the massacres, can be passed on to higher authorities and punished with death.
Masterfully directed by J. Coll Metcalfe, In the Tall Grass: Rwanda’s Road to Redemption focuses on the gacaca of a Hutu man named Butera, who must face his Tutsi neighbor Joanita (above), who claims he helped murder her husband and three children. The film opens with a brief montage of bulldozed bodies and gruesome footage of the hacked-up corpses of children. Mercifully, it then moves quickly into the quiet, intricate dance between the judges, Butera, Joanita, and the villagers, most of whom still appear shell-shocked and unwilling to testify. Joanita’s demand is not extreme considering the gravity of the crime: she simply asks Butera to acknowledge what he did and apologize — and to be told the location of her children’s bodies so she can properly bury them. Butera admits he was with the death squad but rigidly maintains he personally didn’t kill anyone, despite contrary testimony by neighbors and inconsistencies in his own. Ironies abound during gacaca: Butera joins the search for the bodies of Joanita’s dead children as she watches, and when the small bones are found, he meticulously washes them. Wrenching close-ups of Joanita show a woman who remains brutalized more than a decade after the tragedy. A wistful comment — “Sometimes my husband and I would drink wine and talk all night” — shows how much she must now live in her pre-1994 memories.
Coming to grips with the darkest impulses of human nature as exemplified in the film conjures knee-jerk thoughts of brutal retribution, a strategy more likely to endlessly recycle the horrors than to end them. But In the Tall Grass, which packs quite a punch in its brief 57-minute running time, shows that bringing together killer and victim, and forthrightly pursuing admission, forgiveness, and reconciliation, is a better — perhaps the only — way to deal with brutality on an unimaginable scale.
Life Support (Nelson George, 2007)
Since HIV first appeared in the early 1980s, the black community, led by homophobic churches, has faced accusations of ignoring, denying, or dismissing it (as simply “the gay disease”). Life Support, an HBO feature film set in contemporary Brooklyn and based on a real person, aims to remedy the problem. Coproduced by Jamie Foxx and Queen Latifah, this low-key, intermittently effective drama stars Latifah as Ana, a reformed crack addict living with HIV. Her husband Slick (Wendell Pierce) also has the virus. Completing their household is nine-year-old daughter Kim (Rayelle Parker), and Anna’s daughter by a previous marriage, Kelly (Rachel Nicks), a teenager who lives with Anna’s mother Lucille (Anna Deavere Smith).
The film opens with a group of black women talking casually, and sometimes comically, about living with HIV. Ana’s problems seem to be both medical and familial; she has bad feet and a daughter who can’t forgive her mother for past transgressions. Complicating matters, Kelly’s best friend, Amare (Evan Ross), is a drugged-out, sickly, poz gay youth who disappears. Ana, who works for an AIDS education awareness group, hopes to repair her relationship with Kelly by finding Amare, a journey that could also help her find herself.
Life Support gets points for good intentions, but the educational impulse driving it sometimes drain the drama. Ana’s women’s support group sparkles with gritty, gallows humor, as when one woman’s boyfriend reacts to her status by asking, “I don’t think I can have sex with you but I can eat your pussy, right?” Interspersed with these witty touches are numerous, sledgehammer “AIDS tips” about dental dams, female condoms, etc. that give the film the dreary feel of a classroom lecture.
What ultimately makes Life Support work are the performances. Queen Latifah’s charismatic warmth and stubborn pride make her seem like a friend. Rachel Nicks excels as the righteously embittered daughter, while Anna Deavere Smith registers strongly as the grandmother whose fierce reaction to her daughter’s troubled past may capsize her relationship with Kelly, too. Even the smaller roles are well handled. Diana Ross fans may notice two of the evil diva’s children here: son Evan Ross, convincing as lost Amare; and daughter Tracee Ellis Ross in a brief, memorable bit as Amare’s sister who’s hit her limit with her brother’s problems, and with Ana’s.
Lilies (John Greyson, 1996)
One of the more worthy treats in the mixed bag of New Queer Cinema is Canadian filmmaker John Greyson’s (Zero Patience, Uncut) Lillies. Adapted by Michel Marc Bouchard from his play Les Feluettes, Lilies opens in a small Quebec prison in 1952. A group of inmates is staging a play, and no ordinary one. They’ve bribed the guards, co-opted the chaplain, and lured the powerful bishop Bilodeau (Marcel Sabourin) with the supposed purpose of taking the confession of a dying prisoner, Simon (Aubert Pallascio). Once inside, the bishop is kidnapped and forced to watch an “entertainment” devised by Simon that’s actually an exploration of their mutual tragic history. In 1912, 18-year-olds Bilodeau (Matthew Ferguson), Simon (gorgeous, black-eyed Jason Cadieux), and Vallier (Danny Gilmore) were bound in a lethal gay triangle, with Simon the object of both of the other men’s lust and love.
Greyson expands on the kitsch-camp potential of the Saint Sebastian figure by casting male actors in the female roles, a conceit (no doubt derived from the play) that makes sense if we are to view the events as the imaginative creation of a group of male prisoners. On the other hand, it’s a little disconcerting to see an actor like Brent Carver simply donning a dress and tossing a few strands of wig on his head to become Vallier’s mother, the demented Countess de Tilly. Even more extreme, and redolent of the ethereal camp of Firbank, is the character of Lydie-Anne (Alexander Chapman), a black French “woman” who arrives at Roberval to much fanfare in a hot air balloon. The film toys with the audience by refusing to explain this unusual drag strategy, in fact rubbing our noses in gender confusion by having the actors speak in their own voices, not in the queenly, mocking strains we’ve come to expect from men in dresses. To further confound us, in true genderfuck style, these “women” are blatantly titless, their chest hairs curling visibly over the tops of their gowns.
In the foreground of these campy proceedings, Simon’s gay affair with Vallier comes to the attention of his father, who beats him unmercifully. This sends Simon scampering into the arms of Lydie-Anne, with whom he becomes engaged. But he can’t repudiate Vallier, and while Lydie-Anne waits rather pathetically for him, Simon meets Vallier again, seemingly for the last time. In a scene that resonates with sensuality, and shows Greyson’s powers as a pictorialist, past and present merge as the two make love in a boat that transforms into a bathtub on the filthy floor of the modern prison. In the final flashback, the literal hellfire that religious fanatics like Bilodeau believe are the inevitable result of a homosexual tryst brings this affair to a sad end, puts Simon in prison for life, and marks Bilodeau forever.
Despite its complex structure, shimmering tableaux of lost love, playful gender politics, and intriguing performances, Lilies remains somewhat frozen, its characters caught like mysterious figures in some ancient frieze. Greyson’s clever manipulations are ultimately more intellectual than visceral, and while the film dazzles the eye, it doesn’t always engage the emotions. Still, anyone interested in the painterly possibilities of movies, or New Queer Cinema, or — what the heck — beautiful men will find suitable distraction in this lush, literate mix of Genet, Brecht, and Firbank.
Looking for Cheyenne (Valerie Minetto, 2005)
With contemporary queer indie cinema threatening to drown in clichéd coming-out stories, tortured romances, and featherweight farces, a film like Looking for Cheyenne is refreshing indeed. Directed and co-written by Valerie Minetto, the film opens with the startling image of a body sleeping on cardboard on a Paris street in the wee hours. The body turns out to be Cheyenne (Mila Dekker), who’s been booted from her journalist job and decides to shed all material comforts — no car, no phone, no computer — and move to a squat house in the boondocks. Unfortunately, one of the casualties of her new life is girlfriend Sonia (Aurelia Petit), a science teacher whom Cheyenne, in her fury, denounces as a “lackey of capitalism!” These women love each other, but Sonia has no interest in dumpster-diving or substituting leaves for toilet paper, so she turns her attention elsewhere — first to good-natured activist Pierre (Malik Zidi), who wants her to have his kids, and then to the domineering, game-playing Beatrice (Guilaine Londez). Meanwhile, Sonia plays host to a runaway student and decides to check up on Cheyenne, who’s living with another woman and a Russian émigré in the middle of nowhere, to see if their relationship can be salvaged.
Looking for Cheyenne skillfully foregrounds multiple personal storylines to a background of globalization and France’s increasingly widespread unemployment. The sharp script and striking visuals — this Paris and the countryside will have some viewers grabbing for the travel brochures — breathe life into a complex but always intelligible drama. Acting is uniformly excellent, though Dekker occasionally tumbles over the top during one of her screaming denunciations of Sonia and the system that betrayed her: “Stuff your fucking money!” Some viewers may be put off by the film’s magic realism touches, in which characters who aren’t actually present pop up in each other’s bedrooms or kitchens for philosophical chats. But this is minor carping given Looking for Cheyenne’s fresh take on love under siege by a stressed-out society and by less definable but equally powerful inner forces.
Mardi Gras: Made in China (David Redmon, 2005)
With Chinese junk products flooding America’s store shelves at an ever-increasing, and seemingly unstoppable, rate, it makes sense to step back and look at some of the details of this uneasy co-dependent relationship of production and consumption. In this illuminating doc, director David Redmon provides some of those details by examining a small item that has vastly different meaning for the two cultures involved. Perhaps the most enduring symbol of Mardi Gras is the ubiquitous string of green plastic beads that adorn every reveler, tossed giddily from balconies to drunken women and men willing to reveal their tits and dicks to gain the brief status the beads confer. Many of the necklaces come from the Tai Kuen Bead Factory, a typical barbed-wired compound in the Chinese countryside in which the workers live and work.
Still, Mardi Gras: Made in China is neither self-righteous lefty ego-tripping nor guilt-slinging sermonizing (though few viewers are likely to find the green beads alluring after this). Redmon isn’t chasing down doddering celebrities or aging captains of industry or appearing in most of the scenes à la Michael Moore. The film is more a lively shapshot of the daily lives of those who provide our disposable diversions, and those who consume and dispose of them. The beads evoke radically different reactions in the two groups. In New Orleans, a trucker laughs when asked if he knows where they come from: “Don’t know, don’t care. Beads for boobs!” An M.B.A. student, told that the bead workers make 10 cents an hour, says, “That’s a lot of money for them,” though the workers say flat-out that they’re drastically underpaid. In a startling sequence, Redmon shows some of the factory girls images of Mardi Gras excess and what people must do to get the beads. One is horrified: “They are crazy!” Another declares, “Don’t snatch! Don’t grab! They’re ugly!” A far cry from the factory owner’s practically teary-eyed recollection of visiting Mardi Gras and seeing Americans using his product: “The people are so happy!” — a sentiment he also imparts repeatedly, with his fatherly smile, about his employees.
Not Everybody’s Lucky Enough to Have Had Communist Parents (Jean-Jacques Zilbermann, 1993)
Writer-director Zilbermann was a “red-diaper baby” — raised in a post-war communist household. His recollections form the basis for this leisurely, good-natured look at France, circa 1958, and particularly, his stalwart middle-aged mother’s attempts to keep the faith in the face of an indifferent husband and a changing world. Irene (Josiane Balasko) is a militant whose cell meetings, strikes, and fanatic devotion to all things Russian are driving her husband Bernard (Maurice Benichou) crazy. He runs a small shoe store, from which Irene secretly outfits all her fellow travelers. Their relationship is strained to the breaking point when the Red Army Choir arrives and Irene falls in love with the lead singer, who towers over both Irene and the even shorter Bernard. The film incorporates charming Russian musical themes, and the humor is alternately sweet and sharp. When a man — a hated Gaullist, no doubt — makes a play for Irene, she points to the concentration camp number on her arm and says, “My phone number — interested?”
Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky, 1996)
“Southern justice” is a well-known oxymoron, like “jumbo shrimp.” In this case, “justice” is meted out to three Arkansas teenagers dubbed the “West Memphis 3” who dress in black, read Stephen King novels, and listen to Metallica. Their crime? Supposedly abducting three eight-year-olds, and sexually assaulting, mutilating, killing, and perhaps cannibalizing them. The evidence? The forced confession of a borderline-retarded kid who got all the details wrong, a prosecutor determined to convict somebody, and a small town in the throes of “Satanic panic.” No physical or even circumstantial evidence links them to the crime; the problem seems to have been their appearance, that slight cockiness typical of youth, and their literary and musical taste.
This horrifying story, told through interviews with everyone involved, is often grueling to watch, not only because of the graphic footage of the victims’ bodies, but because we see the suffocating mores of a southern town smash the lives of three innocent teenagers. The film shows how the police trampled the crime scene and the prosecution hired notorious phony cult “expert” Dale Griffis, a crackpot bible-thumper whose degree came from the now-closed diploma mill Columbia Pacific College. Most disturbing, much evidence points to one of the boys’ stepfathers, a pathological religioso named Mark Byers with a history of violence against kids, as the real killer. A follow-up film, Revelations: Paradise Lost 2 (2000), offers further damning evidence of Byers’ guilt and police/prosecutorial corruption, but the West Memphis 3 remain in jail. A third film on the subject, Paradise Lost 3, began production in 2004 but has not been released at this writing. However, the trio has enjoyed widespread support, and an appeal, based on extensive new DNA testing that shows no evidence they were ever at the crime scene, will occur this month (February 2008). In a very recent development that stunned just about everybody, Mark Byers declared his belief in the threesome’s innocence.
Semper Fi: One Marine’s Journey (Vince DiPersio, 2007)
At first glance, Semper Fi looks like a standard-issue queer confessional with all the expected elements: a gay kid growing up in the bible belt and harassed as a “sissy”; the minister praying for his hetero redemption; the father who “just can’t understand it”; the loving mother who gives unstinting acceptance. The opening scene of a somewhat awkward, and amateurish, one-man play with the film’s thirtysomething star, Jeff Key, in marine dress uniform talking about his experiences as a gay soldier doesn’t bode well.
Then something unexpected happens. Key quickly emerges as a thoughtful, charismatic man whose realization of the importance of living authentically colors every aspect of his life. He comes out to his parents and eventually moves to California. There he finds a replacement family, as so many gay people do, in the form of loving friends, and shocks them by living a boyhood dream of public service — in this case signing up, at age 34, to serve in the marines. Soon he’s shipped to Iraq. His experiences there, both as soldier and gay man, are the heart of the film, and he paints a remarkably vivid, sometimes heartbreaking picture both of the conflict at ground level and his unusual place in it.
Key is a gifted storyteller whose accounts are deepened by still photographs and video footage he shot in Iraq. As in any war, there are sad and shocking extremes everywhere. One of the most haunting scenes profiles his friendship with a ten-year-old ragamuffin who tattoos the marine’s name on his arm. Another telling moment occurs when Key and his company realize that the “unparalleled humanitarian effort” they’ve been told would rebuild Iraq fails to materialize. In pathetic compensation they desperately dispense M&M’s to the hungry children leaping around them. In a brilliant sequence recounted but unfortunately not captured on film, he tells of meeting a gorgeous Iraqi soccer player in the desert and trying to figure out a way to connect. It’s clear there’s an intense mutual attraction — not surprising considering Jeff’s strapping 6’4″ body and rugged good looks — and each knows the important questions to ask: “Do you have a wife?” “No?” The Iraqi presses his lips to his palm and holds it up to Jeff — a bittersweet stand-in for the kisses they can’t manage to exchange.
Contrary to the cliché, Key’s queerness caused barely a ripple with his company. Those who claim openly gay soldiers would compromise the unity and trust within the platoon need to watch this film. Not only was he accepted (after a few homophobic remarks are crushed by supportive straights), he was admired, respected, and loved by his fellow soldiers, whose interviews are among the most poignant in the film. Semper Fi is a beautifully wrought portrait of a man driven to serve a country that probably doesn’t deserve him.
Zizek! (Astra Taylor, 2005)
The exclamation mark after this film’s title is cute but unnecessary; its subject, Slovenian “academic rockstar” Slavoj Zizek, is dramatic enough without it. Zizek, the subject of a long profile in the New Yorker awhile back, holds nothing back in this engaging documentary. He’s a rumpled genius, adored by students, who pontificates madly on everything from psychoanalytic theory to leftist politics. Not to worry, though — he’s so hyper-gabby and charismatic he makes it all exciting and even, occasionally, intelligible. It doesn’t hurt that he’s happy to turn his sardonic gaze on himself. Zizek! is a loving tribute to an eccentric intellectual who can dazzle and disturb in the same sentence.