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

28 April 2017

Florida Film Festival 3 of 5: The Strange Ones

Finally I saw a movie at the FFF that I loved.

Pettyfer & Freedson-Jackson
Christopher Radcliff and Lauren Wolkstein's The Strange Ones is not a strange film, really, but the people in it certainly have done (and are doing) something strange. The Strange Ones is a mystery. A boy – 13 or so, I'd say – and a grown man in his late thirties are seemingly on a road trip or running from the law or something. We don't really know what is happening or what has happened, and it is unclear what the two men's relationship actually is. They keep saying that they are brothers, but it is sort of clear from the beginning of the film that they are not.

The Strange Ones is expertly crafted and rewards close watching. Its mysteriousness is captivating, and if most of the time I was wondering what was going on, I also sincerely enjoyed this bafflement. The characters in The Strange Ones are compelling and fascinating; I wanted to know what was going on with them. This has everything to do with the excellent central performances, by James Freedson-Jackson and Alex Pettyfer, as well as the superb scripting and filmmaking by Radcliff and Wolkstein, who adopt just the kind of David Gordon Green / Daniel Patrick Carbone style and pace that I love (lush, rural, humid). More than anything else, The Strange Ones is a fascinating homage to Deliverance, visually quoting the film several times and updating and modifying its themes in clever, sensitive ways.

I am not going to say anymore because I don't want to give it away, but if you're interested in puzzles, you'll be interested in The Strange Ones.

By the end of the movie I was pretty sure what had occurred, but after it was over my companion and I could not agree on what we had just seen. He was wrong and I was right, of course, but the viewer must watch very very carefully. The Strange Ones is beautiful.

27 April 2017

The Ardennes

Robin Pront's The Ardennes is not worth watching. This was advertised as somehow related thematically or cinematically to Bullhead. But Bullhead this ain't. This is just a generic Euro crime thriller with nothing else to say for itself. No thanks.

26 April 2017

Florida Film Festival 2 of 5: A Stray

There isn't much to say about Musa Syeed's A Stray, I'm afraid. It's only ok, the acting is not that great, and the film doesn't really have much to say. It settles for the modest goal of giving people a portrait of a world they might not know much about and presenting some of the struggles (very minor, according to this film) in that world. When the woman announcing the film at the Festival said "We chose this film because when I saw it I was just blown away! I didn't realize that this community existed in my world!" I already knew we were in trouble.

A Stray is a U.S. American film in English, Somali, and Arabic about an older teenager living in Minneapolis's Somali refugee community. Adan has stolen some of his mother's jewelry as well as $50 so she has kicked him out of their apartment in the projects. He could return the jewelry and be forgiven, but he doesn't want to (or something), so he goes to live on the street. Adan is hungry and tired, but a very charismatic and fun person. Played by Barkhad Abdirahman (who was the youngest of the pirates in Captain Phillips), Adan is charming and immediately lovable.

And then he finds a stray dog and gets more lovable. For someone who is mostly homeless, the dog causes even more trouble.

But... all of this trouble has been contrived by the film's writer-director Musa Syeed. A Stray feels like a manipulative narrative from the first. The director puts Adan in a series of situations that comprise the plot of A Stray, but Syeed does not explain the material conditions that put Adan and his mother in those situations, and Syeed doesn't let us into Adan's own decision-making processes enough to explain how or why he gets himself out of those situations. So, Adan is homeless and has no job and he wants to pray but can't figure out how and is being manipulated by the FBI, fine. But all it takes is a stroke of Syeed's pen and Adan can have a home, a job, and a religion again. And the FBI can go fuck themselves. No biggie. The stakes are all just so low.

A lot of this, too, has to do with the choice to tell the story of a person who is mostly a kid. The stakes really are lower for someone who is dependent on his mother for housing and food and who doesn't have to worry about feeding a family or sending money back home to Somalia or dealing in a more serious way with the violence of U.S. American law enforcement. Adan doesn't even really deal with structural U.S. American racism in A Stray. The struggles just aren't that serious. I have spoken before about my vague disinterest in stories about children and teenagers. (My recent viewing of Edge of Seventeen confirmed this yet again.) I am just less interested in stories from these simplified perspectives. For a much more interesting story of immigration and refugees, see Dheepan or Mediterranea. Both are great!

What's sort of a shame about A Stray is that I am sure the Somali refugee community in Minneapolis and in other places in the U.S. has all kinds of real crises and issues, not the least of which, I am sure, is related to being Muslim in a nation whose laws and culture are overwhelmingly biased toward Christians. But A Stray is not really interested in that. For A Stray, there is no ill in the world that can't be solved with the simple addition of an adorable puppy.

25 April 2017

Florida Film Festival 1 of 5: Pushing Dead

Last night I saw my first film from the 2017 FFF. I am excited for these movies.

The FFF is usually big on comedies. Most of the films they bring to screen are funny in some way, even movies that are potentially serious wind up being quirky or have some humorous take on the material. I tend to avoid most of these movies, I have to say – I focus instead primarily on the "International" selections.

Tom E. Brown's Pushing Dead is a self-styled "AIDS comedy", so it obviously fits the usual FFF mold – the one that I would normally avoid. But I was excited that there was going to be a movie about gay subject matter, and Danny Glover is in it. So I went. (The title, incidentally, is a play on the idea that someone could be pushing 40. In this case our protagonist is only forty or so, but he's pushing dead. This is the character's sense of humor about his own mortality – something that doesn't really translate into a movie title.)

But Pushing Dead is very, very funny. I laughed a lot, in fact. The premise is that an HIV+ poet in his early 40s, through an odd little event, gets pushed off of his insurance and needs to try to figure out how he is going to pay for his drugs. There is a bunch of other (delightful) nonsense happening, but this is the premise of the movie.

I really liked this film. It's silly and hilarious, the script is clever, and the main performances – by James Roday, Robin Weigert, Danny Glover, and Khandi Alexander – are all very funny.

The weird part for me is that Pushing Dead is just not very gay. Like, so strangely not gay. At one point early in the film I remember thinking Oh maybe the quirkiness here is that this is a straight guy living with HIV. And then I thought about it for a bit and figured out that he was actually supposed to be a gay character. But there are only three gay characters in the film, and the main character (played – of course he is – by a straight actor) has no gay friends at all. This allows for the whole thing to be "universal" or something, I guess? But it also seems to have no connection to the real world.

Object of desire Tom Riley – also not played by a gay actor
Even more than just the interactions between characters, the filmmaking is not very gay. For example: Although our main guy goes on two dates, and although we see him in flashback with a past relationship, the men never kiss. And breaking from all the rules of gay filmmaking, there is literally not one shot of a guy without a shirt. This is not actually a problem with the filmmaking, of course, I'm just noting that the film didn't feel very gay. It clearly, in other words, was not intended for a gay audience. Even worse, one of the gay characters is presented as a kind of curiosity or surprise. This isn't done in an offensive way, at least as far as I could tell, but in a film with so few queer characters, it seems an odd way to use one of its three queer folks.

Pushing Dead does have some really beautiful poignant moments, and these occur when the film (paradoxically) ventures into non-"universal" territory, like when it discusses living with HIV for a long time, or dating with HIV, or the early years of HIV in club culture, or young people like our protagonist struggling with mortality. But the film seems less interested in these things; they seem rather to be a kind of backdrop for the film's humorous antics.

Pushing Dead left me fairly cold.

19 April 2017

The Ox-Bow Incident

The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) is a movie about lynching, by which I mean another movie about lynching from this period of time.
Of course the victims of this lynching were two white men and a Latino and not a black man from the Jim Crow south, but it seems like Hollywood did try in its oblique way to tell lynching stories.

Other lynching movies from the period, see Fury (1936) and Barbary Coast (1935).

16 April 2017

Frantz and François

I loved the new François Ozon film, Frantz. The movie stars Paula Beer and Pierre Niney and is mostly in black and white. It is a mystery of sorts. It takes place in Germany in 1919 after WWI and concerns a strange French mourner, Adrien, who has come to weep at the grave of Anna's dead fiancé.

The mourner haltingly develops a relationship with Frantz's family and Frantz's fiancé. He was Frantz's friend in Paris, he tells them. But it is clear from the very beginning that Adrien is taking Frantz's death much harder than he ought to be taking it. We will find out what their real relationship was as the film continues, but Frantz is a film consisting of a series of parallels. Images, situations, languages are doubled in the film, ghosting each other. There is always another side to every situation in the film, there is a second ghost for every one we meet. Frantz is divided neatly in half by the revelation of Frantz and Adrien's real relationship midway through the film, and from there Ozon has more surprises in store.

Frantz, it should be noted, is not an action film. It is a slow, sad, romantic film that is more about the ghosts of World War I than it is about anything else. But Ozon is doing wonderful work, and his use of color in Frantz is absolutely astounding.

The rest of this post will have spoilers. 
* * * *
What I love about Frantz is the way everything in the movie is doubled. When we're first in Germany we feel sorry for Adrien and Hans Hoffmeister as they try to talk sense to the Germans who hate the French and spit at them. Their singing and nationalism seem scary but also ignorant and stupid. How easy it is to look down on the Germans, who, after all, would start the next war. But when Anna goes to Paris she encounters precisely the same thing. The train car attendant glares at her, the French woman with her children looks at Anna in disgust. And then in the bar all the patrons stand and sing "La Marsellaise". It's actually terrifying. And we are not in a tiny German town. This isn't a little burg somewhere: this is Paris.

The French and the Germans are doubled in Frantz, certainly, as Adrien is Frantz's double, but Ozon also doubles the dead for whom we are asked to mourn. Frantz himself, whom we grow to love, even as he fades more and more persistently from the film, but then when we meet Fanny, we find that her brother, too, was killed in the war, a boy even younger than Frantz who, of course, is named François. The film is insistent that we understand World War I not as a series of aggressions in which France and Germany fought one another but as a disaster that befell a generation of men because their fathers willed it so. What is France? What is Germany? the film asks, other than the happiness of its young people?

Ozon's use of color and black-and-white is, perhaps, Frantz's most striking feature. Ozon is a theatrical director, and it is here where his film betrays his flair for excess, but in Frantz this is understated and subtle, and Ozon uses it to such perfect effect. The work here is a kind of gorgeous tribute to Douglas Sirk, and Frantz is certainly a melodrama. The very first shot of the film is in color, even though it looks like it is in black-and-white. We see pale pink flowers as we look at the image of a nearby town in a gray morning sunshine. It is a trick of the light – the kind Melville pulls in Le Samouraï. Then we meet Anna and the film is firmly in black-and-white. But the film becomes a color film when the oppression of grief lifts momentarily. As Adrien first tells the Hoffmeisters about his trip to the Louvre with Frantz, we see the boys run and cavort in the palace, and the film soars in color as we watch them. We return to the present and return to black-and-white, of course, but the next time Adrien tells a story about Frantz we are again in color as Adrien lovingly moves Frantz's hands as he teaches him violin technique.

The first time the present day switches into color took everyone in the theatre by surprise. Anna and Adrien walk through a shadowy underpass and as they emerge, we are in color. The switch is so subtly done that the people next to me only figured it out forty seconds in, at which point they gasped. It's a gorgeous sequence of events, and Anna's happiness is made beautifully evident. We've been desperate for her happiness for most of the film and we hadn't realized it. After we have found out the truth and Adrien has gone back to France, Anna walks that same path on the way to commit suicide. The shots are doubled. She covers the same area alone, paces a field, crosses through the underpass, and when we didn't switch to color this time, I couldn't help but cry. It is all black-and-white for Anna.

There are more doublings in the film – the entirety of Frantz hinges on a kind of double story of possibility: what might have happened if the war hadn't existed, if Adrien hadn't killed Frantz, if Adrien hadn't been French and Anna German, or if those things didn't matter, if Adrien had married Anna instead of Fanny. These worlds exist in the film, though, because we are told about them; all of these worlds are described beautifully to the Hoffmeisters, who believe them. But the film plays with these fantasies and allows us to project our own desires onto these characters as well. I will confess that I hoped that Frantz and Adrien had been lovers. This mysterious, beautiful man, who wept so easily, so copiously while talking about Frantz. Surely, I thought, their relationship had been sexual. In the fantasies Adrien spins for the Hoffmeisters, the first painting we see in the Louvre appears to be one of Sebastian, that patron saint of queer men. In these beautiful, colorful fantasies, Adrien looks at Frantz with such absolute love that it is heartbreaking, and after he kills him, he lays on top of the other man like a lover, caressing his face.

Le Suicide
Ozon plays with these fantasies, and we project them continually. I came to feel that our projections were the very purpose of Frantz, who is, after all a projection himself.

Adrien finally kisses Anna and it seems that, perhaps, the two might make a life together. My heart followed that fantasy, hoping it could be possible. No, Anna says, it is too late. But then she writes to the Hoffmeisters precisely the opposite. She has met Adrien in Paris, she says, and he is playing with the Orchestre de Paris, and she is accompanying him on the piano. We know it isn't true. Or do we? At the film's end, Anna returns to the Louvre; she walks toward the two Manet paintings on the wall, the Dejeuner sur l'Herbe and Le Suicide, and we see the back of a young man's head. It is Adrien, we think! They are together again. He has left Fanny, and she is meeting him at the Louvre. All will be well. It is not him, of course, and what becomes clear to me is that it is I who am living in the fantasy world, here. It is I who wish for reality not to matter, hoping the pair can find each other, dreaming that out of the pain of the war something beautiful can be created. 

Dejeuner sur l'Herbe (Le Bain)
One last double. Above the Manet painting with which Frantz ends is another, more famous Manet canvas, the Dejeuner sur l'Herbe. This is not the focus of Anna's happiness, apparently, but it is a double of Le Suicide. Indeed, Ozon replicates the image of the painting in his own film. Adrien – in color, although the image above is in black-and-white – comes out of the water like the woman in the back center of the painting, and he lies, as you can see above, mostly naked with one knee up, like the woman in the foreground of the image, while Anna, fully clothed and wearing a hat, sits and looks at him. Manet's painting was originally called Le Bain, and Frantz hints at this swim as an image of togetherness for Anna and Adrien, as she asks him to teach her to swim. "I was waiting for you," she says. It is an image of happiness and life that is the opposite of the suicide she chooses when she walks into the water.

But what of the ending? The Louvre is oddly empty, so perhaps we are, again, in a fantasy. Who is the weeping young man with Anna staring at Le Suicide? Is it François, a dead man slightly younger than Adrien? Or is it someone we do not know at all? Perhaps she is dead. Le Suicide, Anna says, makes her happy, and, indeed, the film switches to color again for a last look at Anna and then the painting. (Well, mostly color. The painting is framed on both sides by a gray wall. It is a color shot that is also partially a black-and-white shot, an echo of the trompe l'œil of Frantz's first frame.) If the film has moved back to color, Anna is, truly, happy, but all we have are our fantasies about what might have happened. Has Anna committed suicide – that is, after all, the painting's own title – or has she simply left behind the Hoffmeisters, Frantz, Germany, and Adrien, attempting to make a life for herself in Paris on her own? Is her letter about living in Paris and playing the piano partially true after all?