Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

28 March 2015

The Briefest of Reviews from 1973

Hall Bartlett's film Jonathan Livingston Seagull is one of the weirdest movies I've ever seen in my life. First of all, this is (as you might have gathered) a film about a seagull. But it's a film about a seagull who flies farther than any seagull has ever flown. It's interspersed with New-Age pseudo-Buddhist philosophy and three or four soaring songs by Neil Diamond. The whole thing seems impossible, actually, and it doesn't quite work, if you're worried about that sort of thing. But none of that mattered to me. JLS is earnest and beautifully, gorgeously shot. We follow Jonathan all over the ocean and the mountains and high up into the skies and the whole thing is breathtaking. I pretty much loved it.

14 March 2015

Violence Untold

Gary Shore's 2014 film Dracula Untold is easily one of the worst movies of the year, and I got so bored that I had to watch it in two parts. I finished off the absurdity this morning, though, and I have some questions.

First, the plot of Dracula Untold involves Vlad Țepeș, the Impaler, apparently after he has become the Impaler but before he becomes Dracula. Fine, but when he meets the vampire who transforms him into Dracula, he makes some kind of deal with him. He can have crazy-ass awesome vampire powers for three days, and then he can go back to being human if he doesn't feast on human flesh during those three days. The rub is this: his yearning to feast on human flesh will be "insatiable" during those three days.

This is part of the plot of Dracula Untold, but of course his desire to feast on human flesh is not at all insatiable, and in fact it sort of comes and goes at the screenwriters' whims. But what got me thinking is the way that the movie thinks of the self. Vlad is able to transform into a kind of cloud of bats. He leaves his human, Vlad-form behind when he wants to move quickly, and then he can fly. You can actually sort of see this a little in the poster. He doesn't become one bat, he becomes a colony of bats. So: how does a colony of bats desire? What does it mean for a cloud of bats to want something, to hunger? This is an important Deleuzean question. Vlad the Impaler – not a singular being but rather a wolfpack, a machine, a colony of bats – desires to feast on flesh. What is desire, then, if it is divided among the pack, shared among the multiple pieces that are Vlad?

Obviously, Dracula Untold does not actually ask this question, but I did while I was watching.

The other thing that Dracula Untold made me think about was this sort of absurd trend in recent cinema whereby a character whom we have all understood for many years to be villainous and evil is redeemed through an origin story that makes this evil villain out to be (surprise, surprise) actually a really great person, totally someone I would let my kids play with and ask to be in my wedding party. I'm thinking specifically of Maleficent, of course, in which we discover that Maleficent (far from the implications of her name) is actually a fabulous fairy godmother, watching over her little goddaughter. Dracula Untold functions in precisely the same way, and it is worth noting that the reason that we know that these characters are good, even though they do terrible things, is that they, like, really love their kids. If you really love your kids and if you do terrible things in order to protect your kids, you are actually still a really good person inside.

The ideological project of this kind of narrative is made all the more obvious in a film like Dracula Untold. The film somehow consistently reminds us that this is a story of Vlad the Impaler, the man who took pleasure in torturing his victims, who was known for utilizing extraordinary torture methods such as – stop me if you've heard this one – inserting a spear through a man's body without damaging any vital organs so that he isn't killed but will live for three days in pain. But Vlad the Impaler is a good guy, because he is violent only because there is a power much much worse who doesn't love kids but wants to turn them into child soldiers.

Eyeliner makes all British actors look vaguely "oriental"
So torture is justified, and violation becomes a good thing. He does it for the children. (There is actually only one child in the entire film, but we'll let that go.) It isn't too much of a stretch for me to see in all of this a justification of U.S. torture methods. In fact, the villain is the same: an orientalized mystical other called the "Turks" who ride under the banner of the crescent moon. And they are inhuman and want only to kill, to destroy, to steal our children. Vlad/Dracula becomes much much worse, of course. He becomes a monster who kills thousands upon thousands of people, feasting on their blood and bodies, and laying waste to an entire land. But the film justifies the violence committed by the good guys (Vlad/Dracula/USA). Without them, we would all be dead, so it is all worth it.

At the end of Dracula Untold, the son, this lone child, is taken away by a faux-Christian monk wielding a crucifix, and what we see as the film ends is something totally different from what we've been watching for the last ninety minutes. Dracula Untold jumps into 2014. It's been five hundred years, and Dracula is hanging out in some wealthy, overcast, English-speaking metropolis. The son he loved has been forgotten completely (dying in the middle ages, presumably). Instead, he seduces a woman by quoting some very old poetry, and he kisses her hand and calls her "my lady". Then Charles Dance, drumming his in-need-of-a-manicure fingernails on a table in an outdoor café, gets up, walks toward the camera, buttons his suit, and says to us Let the games begin. This is actually just bad storytelling: what these "games" are is not clear, but the audience is simply supposed to leave thinking about what fun it would be to have all of the power, sex appeal, and mystery that come with being a vampire.

Au revoir, l'enfant
And this is what makes the whole thing clear to me. As much as Dracula Untold is an origin story, invested in justifying the horrific and extreme violence of its protagonist through recourse to the love of a child, what the film really wants to do is dispense with this business quickly and altogether so that we can get on with the "games", with the fun of having power but not having to deal with childcare. Dracula Untold actually kills the child at the end of the film (he's been dead, in fact, for five hundred years). The film's investment in reproductive futurity is a ruse made apparent by its final sequence, a sequence not invested in the child at all but invested in the pleasure of wielding power, of wielding it not in order to protect anyone (children least of all) but for the sake of power itself. This type of dramaturgy, whereby the reasons behind acts of extreme violence like torture are narrativized in order that they might be justified, is the same exact technique used by our own government as they attempt to justify USAmerican acts of torture in the twenty-first century... against an enemy that looks surprisingly similar to the one Vlad the Impaler fought in Dracula Untold's version of the fifteenth century.

08 March 2015

The Briefest of Reviews from 1970

Madron is a western shot in Israel (apparently the first feature to be shot in Israel that wasn't set in Israel). Being a western, Madron is, of course, set in the American Southwest. This is a strange, strange picture (as its poster promises), mostly because of the television sensibility of its director Jerry Hopper. It feels like television to watch this, and that isn't just because this was released in 1970. Still, it is fun, and Leslie Caron is lovely and mysterious as the film's lead. The appeal of Richard Boone is a little lost on me, but hey: to each his own.

03 March 2015

Some 2014 Gay Movies Now on DVD

Let's start with a movie that isn't gay at all: Daniel Patrick Carbone's Hide Your Smiling Faces. This movie is a kind of old-school David Gordon Green picture – semi-rural life with kids trying to figure out who they are. The two brothers in the movie are coming to grips with the death of a young friend of theirs, and this movie is gorgeous. It tells its story in abstract, poetic ways, and it doesn't bother with the classic Hollywood narratives that might find the boys figuring out how to heal or finding solace in a new friend. Instead, it explores the frustration and terror of being a boy, of trying to fit in with other boys, of the impossibility at this age of understanding anything that one's parents have to say.

I want to say, too, that one of the reasons I love films like Hide Your Smiling Faces – and DGG's George Washington and Jordan Vogt-Roberts' Kings of Summer from last year and Benh Zeitlin's Beasts of the Southern Wild – is that they really are about childhood (pace Richard Linklater). These films are not movies about the experience of parenthood masquerading as films about childhood. They attempt to capture the lost, bizarre, truly difficult feelings that children experience, and they sort of refuse to make a kind of sense of those feelings.
* * *

I really liked Pride, as well, and I was surprised about this. Matthew Warchus's film is a rather straightforward account of a group of gay activists in 1980s London who begin to fight to raise money to support the National Union of Mineworkers' strike. I thought this was going to be a feel-good drama that repeated well-worn platitudes about the LGBT community and capitulated to the kind of capitalist-supporting identity politics practiced in the U.S. to which I object so much. But it isn't this at all! Pride is unabashed in its fight against fascism in the UK, and its message is not "acceptance" or "self-love" or even the "pride" in its title, but rather one that embraces radicalism, and understands that struggles to fight fascism can actually be won through unity. What's so fascinating about this is that the movie is not interested in identity between the miners and the queers; it is interested, rather, in coalition. One doesn't have to recognize one's self in other oppressed groups: one simply needs to fight.

Pride is, in this way, also a beautiful and moving tribute to the work of gay activists who attempted to enact real change in the world. Ben Schnetzer, the movie's lead actor, is great, and the film's supporting cast (Karina Fernandez, Dominic West, Bill Nighy, Paddy Considine, Jessica Gunning and Imelda Staunton) are mostly familiar faces who are all excellent.
* * *

Love Is Strange is just as cinematically conventional as Pride in many ways, except that this is a quirky comedy-drama about a gay male couple who gets married once marriage is legalized in New York. The man supporting the family financially through his job at a Catholic school where he teaches music, however, loses his job once he gets married. The Catholic school fires him for being gay.

The men (instead of leaving the city) move into other people's apartments – separate other people. Love Is Strange becomes a film about people's foibles, about the limits of love for our relatives, neighbors, and friends. Of course, the reason that the men are in this situation is fundamentally homophobia, but this is a movie about family dynamics, and the struggles of living with people we love very very much but don't actually want to live with.

Love Is Strange is presumably a riff on Leo McCarey's 1937 film Make Way for Tomorrow, so its conventionality has its roots, but I didn't find this movie very interesting, to be honest. The performances in it are lovely, but it is a little too dependent on narrative for my taste, and it often felt directionless. But then... the movie's ending is something else altogether. Ira Sachs' movie all of a sudden becomes an art film, representing loss and grief through images of sunlight and the trees and a skateboarding teenager. The end of Love Is Strange really does justify its title, and if it doesn't quite redeem the film in its entirety, it helped me to realize that hidden within this conventional film was an art film, secreted away and hiding. I expect Ira Sachs' next picture to be much more intriguing.
* * *

Finally, I must tell you about Arvin Chen's Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? (明天記得愛上我), a beautiful, whimsical, and very smart Chinese film about a man in his late 30s with a wife and a young son who has a kind of gay re-awakening. The film stars Richie Jen and (the excellent) Mavis Fan, and this is, more than anything else, a romantic comedy with themes similar to something like This Is 40 – about reaching a place in one's life that one no longer understands, seeing one's self in a new light as one reaches a scary age.

Mavis Fan is amazing as the jilted wife, and Stephen Wong Ka Lok is the most beautiful love interest.

But it's the way that the film works that is so good. Early in the picture, Richie Jen's manager floats away with an umbrella, and this signals a kind of child's world or fantasy realm, even though we are definitely dealing with real-world problems. Late in the film, when a drunken karaoke version of The Shirelles' "Will You Love Me Tomorrow?" becomes a beautifully produced musical number, Arvin Chen's movie has earned the right to play with reality in this way. This is a lovely, lovely film.