Wednesday, November 29, 2006

TRANSGENDER CINEMA—The Evening Class Interview With Jed Rosenthal Bell


Jed Rosenthal Bell is a San Francisco filmmaker who started out as a community organizer for ACT UP, queer civil rights campaigns, and FTM International, learning graphic design along the way by making posters and flyers, protest signs and transgender newsletters. Jed wound up combining the collaborative, crowd-orchestrating skills of activism with the visual storytelling of graphic design to start a career as a filmmaker. His first film, the queer noir crime drama Foucault WHO? (made with writer Wickie Stamps), has toured the globe, winning "best of festival" awards in the U.S. and Europe. His second film, the kvetchy animated trans satire DRIVE THRU, is still making its way around the world after winning "Best Animation" at San Francisco's Rough Cut Film Festival.

I was introduced to Jed Rosenthal Bell through his participation with Frameline's Persistent Vision Conference earlier this year, where Matt Florence interviewed him for the Persistent Vision website and where he organized and moderated a panel discussion on Emerging Voices in Queer Cinema. I was struck by his articulate enthusiasm and asked if he'd be up for an interview. Luring him over to my home for ricotta cheese pancakes, we finally got the job done. And what an enjoyable job it was!

* * *

Michael Guillén: Jed, I'm really glad to talk with you. I think you're one of the brightest young talents of queer cinema.

Jed Bell: Aw, thank you.

MG: I'll be honest and say I was a bit cautious watching your films, not quite knowing what to expect, but I was genuinely pleased to find a professional edge to your work, which for me indicates a certain respect for your audiences that many young queer film makers—who are angry and acting out—sometimes forfeit. Your two films—Foucault, WHO? and DRIVE THRU—are strikingly dissimilar and yet both reveal your obvious fascination with genre. Could you speak a bit about that?

Jed: Yeah, I'm just not interested in films that aren't about genre and I didn't even realize that until I heard Joss Whedon speak at a screenwriting expo last year. Do you know who he is?

MG: I don't.

Jed: He's the creator of the t.v. show Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. Also he was the writer of the movie—but that doesn't represent him well—anyway, he's making the new Wonder Woman movie now and he's done various things inbetween. He talked about studying genre studies at Wesleyan in the [late '80s]. He said he's only interested in making things that are about genre, whether they're in genres or a mix of genres. So he makes sci-fi, horror, westerns, but no movies about "a little girl that had a feeling." I call them "little girl that had a feeling" movies, what San Francisco narrative filmmakers specialize in, including a lot of my friends who are very talented, who I'm not dissing; I'm just not interested in making those kinds of movies. When [Whedon] articulated this, I thought, "But that's me!" I like crime dramas and satires and some comedies and stuff but I totally don't care about the kind of stuff that the Sundance Film Festival likes to show a lot, like general American landscape and a person having a feeling within it. I'd rather chew my own arm off than make or watch one of those movies. It just doesn't interest me.

MG: Which surprises and intrigues me. One of my favorite filmmakers is Apichatpong Weerasethakul, a Thai experimental filmmaker, who has altered both local and mainstream genres a lot. I'm also quite fond of Japanese filmmaker Kiyoshi Kurosawa who likewise tweaks established genres like horror and police procedurals and turns them into something else, something unexpected.

Jed: I love that! We actually just watched The Grudge finally from beginning to end a couple of days ago. Have you seen that movie?

MG: The American version?

Jed: The American version. Now I want to see the original. Have you seen it?

MG: Yes, I have.

Jed: It's just this strange movie. I realized I had to really pay attention to it. I had watched the first 20 minutes of it like 10 times and never got caught up in it but I realized you had to sit and pay attention. It's paced differently. It's about something different than the horror movies I usually watch. Yeah, I just love the unexpected emotional relevance of it or whatever. I mean, I love regular horror movies too. I have all these theories about horror movies. They're all about guilt and class fear and the fear of people from outside the cities. They almost always have a framing story—I've never studied this; it's just things I've noticed—but, a classic example is I Know What You Did Last Summer, a fine film, also starring Sarah Michelle Geller. [Chuckles.] Anyway, I find [genre films] much more emotionally relevant for me, I guess.

MG: What strikes me about genre films—and I've already mentioned the efforts of Weerasethakul and Kurosawa—is how they're evolving. Genre films in the past have definitely been entertainment films—westerns, police procedurals, romance melodramas—but I'm noticing several contemporary filmmakers using genre films as platforms for, as you suggest, encoded themes and messages. I felt it quite astute on your part to express some of the most controversial political themes going today through the popular format of genre.

Jed: Thanks. It's just what interests me. I wouldn't pay attention to the movies myself if they didn't have it, do you know what I mean? Like, I really like Memento. To me that's almost a perfect example because it's a thriller, and a mystery, and crime drama, but it's secretly about something important and deep and that's the only way I want to hear about it. We're American narrative filmmakers—that's what we're good at, is showing people a good time—let's use that to trick ourselves and other people into learning something.

MG: That's what I admired about Foucault, WHO? It had an accomplished atmosphere. It reminded me of a period of time here in San Francisco back in the '80s when there was a serial killer loose in the Folsom [the gay leather community] and, at that time, I remember writing a draft for a horror film based upon the notion that cruising was the context by which the horror occurs. You've pursued that theme somewhat in Foucault, WHO? Could you talk about that film and its production? Where was it filmed?

Jed: It was filmed at The Loading Dock. [The Loading Dock was a popular denim and leather gay bar in San Francisco.]

MG: That's what I thought. I just wanted to be sure.

Jed: It's an interesting genesis and it was partly inspired by Andrew Cunanan the serial killer who was around in the '90s. There's a great quasi-autobiographical fiction work by Gary Indiana about [Cunanan] called Three Month Fever. I don't know if you're read that?

MG: I haven't; but, I like Indiana's work.

Jed: It's fantastic. That's possibly his best. So that was one of the inspirations. Foucault WHO? was made by me and my partner Wickie Stamps who's former editor of Drummer magazine and was very much a part of the leather scene.

MG: I was curious about your access to the leather bar. I don't associate transsexuals with the leather scene necessarily.

Jed: Yeah, although actually now there are a lot of international title-winning trans guys in the leather scene.

MG: Is that true?

Jed: Yeah, there are some really hot tranny boys that have won titles like International Mr. Drummer, Mr. Leather, both in the "toppy" and "bottomy" categories. It's really important for some young trans men especially who identify as gay men. Wickie was very much of that world. She'd been a judge at International Mr. Drummer. With her name people never knew that she was a woman. They would write, "Dear Mr. Stamps" when they'd write in to Drummer magazine. That's actually kind of how I found out about her and decided I wanted to meet her in the first place. There's a woman who works in this hypermasculine magazine. If I [were] a woman, that's the kind of job I would have. I have to meet this person. I sort of scoped her out for years and then we got together. She knew all the players. Graylin [Thornton], who plays the bartender in the film, is a prizewinning leather man who actually has worked as a bartender but he's also a filmmaker, a film guy, who lives in Southern California. He's an old buddy of Wickie's and he just volunteered to play that part. Thanks to him, we also made our entrée into The Loading Dock—which, then, was an exclusively male environment—easier; but, we also fit right in there. Wickie's very at home surrounded by leather men. I've never seen her more comfortable than in those environments. So that was that. The other important part of how—practically—it happened was that Wickie wrote a grant to Film Arts Foundation for first-time directors from under-represented communities and got the grant and they provided us with some funding, technical help and an amazing mentor, Margot Brier, who helped us for a year to plan for that film. We had no idea what we were doing. We had no money, nothing, and we were, like, "Okay, we're going to film it in Paris, and we're going to have cops breaking down the barricades, and we're going to have an S&M party with 800 people and I know I can do it because I have friends in Paris." The mentor and the teachers we had said, "Look, you are out of your minds. One location, five characters. Calm the hell down." [Laughs.]

MG: Well … and there's always the future, isn't there?

Jed: Yes! Next crime drama. Thematically, it was a strange mix of Wickie's background and mine. I come from a more middle class, studied postmodernism in college, Francophile kind of background and a huge Foucault fan. We were arguing about the script at one point and Wickie said, "I mean … Foucault WHO?" And that's how we got the title. There's this kind of tension between people that are just going to the bar and trying to get laid and people that see that as this context for all these amazing theories and things to talk about. That's represented in our relationship in some ways and in this film.

MG: I felt the film accurately captured the hazard—let's say at least among gay males—of the unbridled attraction to youth. Though the hazards of cruising in your film are depicted as life-threatening, I see them all-in-all as psyche-threatening period.

Jed: There's also the sexiness of cross-generational attraction. Wickie and I are very different generations and, for us, that's just sexy and interesting in itself. For me, a lot of how I wanted to set up the scenes in the movie, was to emphasize the slightly-twisted sexiness of the difference between the two men, how they looked, and [how they were positioned], how one man is always in a higher position than the other, physically.

MG: First of all, I agree. One of the things that has attracted me most as a sexual creature in my adulthood was the erotic aspect of education and the grooming and sociality that comes from homosexual experience. As a younger man, I was attracted to older men because they taught me things and they provided things, experience….

Jed: What do you mean by "sociality"? That's a good word.

MG: When I arrived in San Francisco as a young man, I didn't know what a "gay" person was. Certainly, "queer" as an identification hadn't been developed yet. Older gay males taught younger gay males what being "gay" was and, at that time gayness—I have to state as an aside that I now think gayness is completely passé—but gayness, at that time, was an exciting and necessary social movement, it was a political statement that has been, of course, since then co-opted and turned into a consumerist lifestyle choice.

Jed: Yeah, I missed that. I missed that!

MG: Well, it was fun while it lasted. But you're involved in a powerful current momentum of transgender expression. I'm the old guard. You're the new energy.

Jed: It's interesting that you were talking about older gay men teaching younger men to be gay because I think there's a thing that … you can see very obviously that both of these movies are gay male movies.

MG: You think of DRIVE THRU as a gay male movie?!

Jed: Yes.

MG: I thought DRIVE THRU—which is your animated feature—was very edgy. Lightly, in four minutes, it puts the viewer into the driver's seat ….

Jed: Exactly. You understand.

MG: …to come into this situation of choices and most of them, to me, horrific choices.

Jed: Exactly!

MG: I'm never seen anything like this where such choices had to be made. For me, it one-upped gender parity issues because the film isn't about female/male gender parity; it's about female-to-male and male-to-female gender parity, which—in my admittedly limited experience of transgender issues—I've seen no one discuss or depict, so I have to commend you on exposing me to that disparity and for expressing the issue's cutting edge by way of film.

Jed: Thanks! All of those issues are important and there are definitely things that are easier about being FTM than MTF, although surgery is probably not one of them, but all those issues of parity are still important to me. First I want to say the thing about the gay maleness of it but I want to get back to what you were saying. It was interesting to me that you were talking about learning to be a gay man from older gay men because gay men are really important to me as a trans guy, as my sort of fellow queer male brothers. Butch women also but gay men also. Different people that express masculinity through a queer diffraction.

MG: Fellow performance artists.

Jed: Well, no, no, no. Not exactly. Gender as performativity is something I associate with more femme characteristics.

MG: Is that so? That's interesting.

Jed: Yeah. Masculinity is about the seeming lack of performance. Anyway, the thing is I've been hurt many many times by gay men, gay men in the Castro especially, gay men in the Castro Theater during the Queer Film Festival possibly most of all, who seem to feel no interest or obligation in learning that trans guys exist. I'm sort of an ambiguously gendered presentation person and so, for example, like guys at the theater will tell me I'm in line for the wrong bathroom, why don't I use the other bathroom, over and over and over. Gay men are the only people that … I mean it just hurts my feelings so much and it makes me so mad. The main thing I wanted from DRIVE THRU was for gay men to watch it actually and learn a tiny bit about our culture and that we exist and that there are men that are attracted to us and that we're your queer little brothers in a way and we're learning how to express maleness in a complex way and who better to learn it from than gay men? And I got to say butches too but there's a different … we're more likely to have had more access to butch women. It's kind of like what you were saying about learning to be a man from other men.

MG: Well, not to argue with you about it, but the performativity that I associate with masculine expression or, rather, masculine expressions (in the plural), the fact that it's not looked at as performance might be one of the things that hinders an appreciation of masculine expression as performance. As a gay male this has long been an issue for me. In the '70s when I first arrived in San Francisco I remember writing in my journal that the cruelest men I'd ever met were gay men. I had come from a straight rural culture where straight boys were my first sexual contacts and my first "boyfriends" and, amazingly, very nice to me. In retrospect that kind of surprises me actually. So when I arrived in San Francisco I was stunned by the throwaway attitudes in the sexual scene and it took me a while to understand that gay men had come to San Francisco from all parts of the States. Many of them had arrived bigoted, many of them had arrived racist, and many of them had arrived sexist.

Jed: And hurt and damaged also.

MG: It stunned me at that time to recognize the value of the diversity of that influx, however desirable or undesirable, and to factor in, as you say, the personal histories of hurt and damage. For example, could the particular beauty and specific power of the films of Marlon Riggs have been possible without the inherent racism in the Castro gay scene? Another issue as a gay male that has recently been concerning me in the realm of film is what I'm calling the queer colonialization of the medium. A film comes from Thailand, let's say, or Korea, or somewhere else, with a gender-variant theme and it's criticized and evaluated by American gay male aesthetics and not understood within its own cultural context. This is why I would argue performance is important because this is how individuals enact how they understand themselves, and it's often culturally inflected and distinguished. That's how I look at performativity. I don't think of it as something artificial.

Jed: Or whimsical.

MG: Whimsical or purely for entertainment value, as I often think of drag queens—not that I have anything against drag queens—but, when I'm talking about the performativity of gender as self-expression, I'm thinking of it as an honest enactment—not an acting out—of an authentic self-understood identity.

Jed: I like "enactment" as a word for it. I think that's great. It's somewhere between performance and self-expression but with more agency. Yeah, enactment. That's a good word.

MG: I'll be frank with you. When the transgender and transsexual voice first began to be heard, it confused me. I didn't understand it. It has taken me many years to understand it and, honestly, I'm only beginning to understand it. That's why I'm very honored to speak with you today because I consider you one its most articulate spokespeople.

Jed: That's very nice of you.

MG: I'm also intent on having it understood. That's why I was glad at Frameline's Persistent Vision Conference that they included the panel on up and coming voices and visions, which you moderated. Also, I've been keen on some of Ruby Rich's comments on the new filmmaking coming from the transgender sector. Do you align transgender with queer? Do you consider yourself a queer individual?

Jed: Definitely, yeah.

MG: So, for you, it's part of the same umbrella?

Jed: Were you there for the big throwdown about that at Ruby Rich's talk at Persistent Vision? Well, we tried to have a throwdown and she refused to have it. Ruby, I'm still ready to have that. I thought what she was saying about that was strange and bigoted and wrong.

MG: Could you define that? How did you understand what she said?

Jed: Well, she said queer is inclusive and transgender is exclusive and then a couple of us trannies questioned her about it and she said, "I don't have time. We're going to talk about other questions." It was strange. She's totally wrong. The development of "queer" as a term exactly parallels the history 10 or 20 years later of "transgender" as a term. You first had the term "gay" and then people fought for a bigger term that included all the kinds of queer self-expression.

MG: Would you consider it an anatomical bias?

Jed: Well, yeah, it started out that way. With gay and lesbian and so on it was mostly a sexist and an anti-bi or a bi-exclusive thing, like "gay" was used for everybody, but with "transgender" it used to be, "You're transsexual or you're a cross-dresser." And they even used that term initially in the FTM, the cross-dresser, even though there was only one person that anyone knew of who identified as a female-to-male cross-dresser. There was no word for anybody who didn't identify as 100% transsexual, gonna-have-all-the-surgeries-if-I-can-get-the-money-together, there wasn't a word for it, especially in the FTM world. In the MTF world there was transvestite, cross-dresser, there were a few nuances but still a lot of people left out of that. So "transgender" developed as the—it was the same thing as with "queer"—polemically, deliberately developed as an umbrella term to embrace more people and let the definitions be more fluid and more inclusive. That was fought for in my time in the last 10 years. As a trans person there were people that were of the camp to try to preserve "transsexual" as the distinct identity and if it's not all about the body to you, and all about changing your body, you're not part of us. We fought that and we won. The same damn thing as with "queer."

MG: So are you saying then—because I want to make sure my readers understand, let alone myself—are you saying that "transgender" is a more inclusive term than "transsexual"?

Jed: Absolutely.

MG: Okay. And that what Ruby was, perhaps, mistakenly holding onto was a transsexual definition?

Jed: No. I don't think she made a mistake. I think she's being very deliberate. I think we disagree. I learned a little more background about that later. I think that it's a personal … some kind of agenda particular to her that needs to be elucidated.

MG: Either way, it's a fascinating debate and this is how culture moves forward. I recorded her talk and the subsequent Q&A and I went back through all of that to try to understand what she was saying and what you were objecting to and the sense that I got was of these a priori assumptions that were tripping the dialogue up. In debates such as these you have to vigilantly monitor and track where the words being used in an argument are starting from and I suspect she was starting from a gay male perspective. That she was basically saying that gay males are not part of the transgender community. But when you are saying that gay males can be the elder brothers to help trans men achieve self-expression, you are including gay males in the transgender community.

Jed: Absolutely. The thing that we are all targeted on, some would argue, is gender variant self-expression or disobedience to our genders. You're disobeying your gender when you fall in love with a man. I'm disobeying my gender in everything I do every day. Some people would say that gender violation is what binds all queer people together and that queer people who identify as queer are a subset of transgender. That's one way to look at it. That's what I was trying to say to Ruby that day. I think that she feels personally hurt by something that is happening within the lesbian and FTM community. That's my theory, that she was speaking about herself….

MG: The tension between lesbians and FTM is a very controversial realm.

Jed: Well it is for some people but I didn't actually know that there were any of them left. [Laughs.] We're all dating each other now, you know what I mean? That's how Wickie and I resolved that. We hooked up at the butch FTM day of dialogue at the public library and we both went there looking to hook up. We were like "Dialogue, schmialogue, these people are HOT." The same way that a lot of racial issues are resolved within the gay male community. They're not resolved, but, they're dealt with in a more beautiful way than in some of the straight world, I think. Basically people are not so alone in their races in the gay male community, sometimes in this very beautiful way that I admire.

MG: Another platform that's developing for me now as an older gay male is conscious abstinence. I basically have given up sex because sex has always been nothing but problematic in my life even within my own communities, and at this point I've chosen to go abstinent, partly also because there are so many drugs involved in the sexual arena and that's problematic for me. I find now I'm in this other category, trying to be homo-affirmative or transgender-affirmative, without being sexual and there are people who don't understand what I'm doing at all. Do you understand?

Jed: [Laughs.] Well, yes. That's so sad and wrong. Because there's a lot of cool things about being queer; sex is just one of the benefits.

MG: To a certain extent, since I am an older gay male who has witnessed so many of these historical milestones within the gay culture here in San Francisco, suddenly now to have this ability to talk about queer film, transgender film, to talk with people, to publish it out there on the Internet, I'm feeling more queer than I ever have. More than when I was getting laid every weekend! In other words, it's not having sex with other men that has made me queer; it's changing the culture that has made me queer.

Jed: Yeah, yeah. That's the stuff that I love about being queer is the stuff that's like what we—because of this historical accident or whatever the hell—we can think about things in some different way. We can imagine transformations that other people don't as quickly imagine. That's the whole cool thing about it. What happened to that? Foucault was all about that and, as somebody said to me when this movie came out, most of the queers I'm talking to don't even know who Foucault is or how to pronounce his name, and somebody who's just six years older than me said to me, "Well, the requirements for being part of queer culture are really different than they were 20 years ago."

MG: Yes. Absolutely. That's where I would beg patience for older gay males who are now the establishment whose heads many young queers want chopped off. It was a hard enough battle for them as it was and it's sort of like coping with new technologies. The new lexicon has a learning curve as difficult as trying to program a new VCR. I won't even talk about cellulars and Blackberries!

Jed: I hope you know that I'm not talking about chopping people's heads off. My thing is I feel hurt that there are these queers who are sort of role models to me who don't know I exist and tell me I'm in the wrong place and, for some reason, it's the most painful thing for me about being trans. Honestly.

MG: I genuinely hope that's overcome in time. Shifting to movies….

Jed: Yay!!

MG: When Matt Florence interviewed you for Persistent Vision, I was pleasantly startled when you stated that The Talented Mr. Ripley was your favorite transgender film. I was so intrigued by that and would invite you—if at any time you want to publish any piece about transgender expression in film—please allow me to do so. I would never have thought of The Talented Mr. Ripley as an eloquent piece for transgender expression.

Jed: Well, I certainly don't think it was intended that way.

MG: No, no, but all queer reading is usually an imposed reading….

Jed: Right. At an angle to what was intended.

MG: Exactly. So I was curious about—along with The Talented Mr. Ripley—what other films you think express transgender experience because, clearly, you're not satisfied with the ones that are meant to express transgender experience.

Jed: Oh, God, yeah. [Laughs.] Although there are a couple of excellent actual transgender films that I love too. So you're talking about other films that express what it's like to be trans without being deliberately trans? I actually haven't thought about that.

MG: Because I think—in terms of reaching out to a non-transgender audience—that's one of the most effective ways to go about it.

Jed: Yeah, it might be cool to have a film festival where you pair—it's all double features, or all shorts and features—where you pair a trans short with a movie like The Talented Mr. Ripley. That could be cool. Or that could be a thing within Frameline or another queer film festival.

MG: Well, let's stay with The Talented Mr. Ripley then. What was it that you thought about that film that struck you as a trans man as something you could claim?

Jed: Well, yeah, because it's all about … I find that film beautiful and incredibly haunting.

MG: I went and bought it yesterday on dvd, in fact, based upon your comments.

Jed: Have you watched it?

MG: I've seen it before, but, I decided I wanted to watch it again and again and again with this queer reading.

Jed: I've watched it so many times. It's my favorite film. It's about envying something that somebody else has that you can't really have. It's the sensuality of that. The physical objects, the light in southern Italy, the beauty of this man's body and his life, and all the things that he has. It's such an eloquent representation of class. It's about class longing partly for Minghella the director for that story but it's so eloquent about how … I think money is this way anyway, money has this emotional sensory quality that we deny all the time, so it just loops in perfectly with this tangible yearning of being trans. I want my hands to be that shape. I want my thumb to be shaped like that man's thumb. I want to know what it feels like to have his genitals. I want to know what it feels like to have his incredibly un-self-aware entitled way of walking through the world, where he's just having fun and not worrying about all the shit I've had to worry about since I was born. Because, when you're raised as a girl, you learn by the time you're about six that girls are the second-class citizens of the world and you don't really matter. There's that part of it, which is just beautifully done in that movie. Minghella, the director, talking about that movie talks about his own class longing growing up as a poor son of Italians on the Isle of Wight and catering to rich, English guys, English people, all summer, the tourists.

MG: What strikes me right off in that description—and I wrote a lot about this when I was younger—is that my identity came about through composite fashion. With each of my lovers, there was some physical quality—maybe it was their eyes, or their hair, or their biceps, or their legs, or their dick, one thing or another—that I claimed as mine. So that I ended up with this kind of ragdoll self-image.

Jed: But as a way to love all the parts of yourself?

MG: Absolutely. Because, at that point, I hadn't learned how to love myself yet.

Jed: You were practicing?

MG: Yes, I was practicing.

Jed: Yeah, that's so cool. You see what I mean, though? It's almost hard when you talk about it to find the difference between being a gay man and being a trans man in those ways. I totally relate to that. When I first came out as trans, I was in love with a man for a while and it was this thing of not even knowing what's the difference between wanting someone and wanting to be him? When you start relating to the physicality of the person that you desire and see it as similar to yours, is that queerness? What is that?

MG: John Cameron Mitchell did a good job of expressing that in Shortbus. He talks about permeability and impermeability as a liminal space of letting things in and keeping things out in terms of identity formation that is, frankly, brilliant.

Jed: That sounds brilliant. I'm not surprised. There's also in The Talented Mr. Ripley, if I become you, do I have to kill myself or do I have to kill you in order to supplant you? There's something about that in transness too. Some people speak about the person that they were dying and this new person replacing them.

MG: Do you think this might be the fear that some gay males have of trans men? That they fear being supplanted?

Jed: In what way?

MG: By a trans expression or a trans identity?

Jed: Some gay men, I imagine, are afraid that their attraction to a trans guy would make the gay man ungay, that if I'm attracted to somebody who doesn't have the same physical configuration I do, that erases my gayness.

MG: This is something I think a lot about because I have, in effect, given up "gay" and I have some difficulty relating to men who exclusively identify themselves as "gay" or those who pettily dismiss others as "gay." When people ask me, "Are you gay?", I say, "Oh no, no, no. I'm queer. Because, for me, gayness is a temporally-specific category. I don't think it applies anymore. I think it's a lazy term. Gayness was something that was a cultural fluorescence in the '70s and '80s, it's gone, and people who hold onto gayness too much are holding on to the commodification of gayness, they're consumers, and they're not questioning enough, and that's why I think they might be fearful of true questioning.

Jed: But I find that understandable too. You were talking about [how] for you it was so hard composing your identity and finding something to love about it in the first place that I can understand white-fistedly holding onto what you have managed to cobble together. I think it's very poignant.

MG: Did you see Transamerica? What did you think of it?

Jed: It had some infuriating flaws and things that I thought were done wrong and unnecessarily, but, I have to say it was a better-than-average trans movie. I'm not even rational on the subject, Michael. I could go on for hours about what I don't like about it, but it is better-than-average.

MG: At Persistent Vision there was much discussion about the inequality between lesbian visibility in cinema and gay male visibility in cinema, and I have to be honest and say that your shorts were the first time I even considered that FTM representation was totally out of whack with MTF representation. I would even say that, currently, MTF representation is somewhat chic. You're seeing more and more films about men who are performing feminine expression or women performing MTF characters but not as many performances in the other direction; the notable exception, of course, being Boys Don't Cry.

Jed: The thing is it follows sexism and queer culture in general so the way that—this is my shorthand for the whole thing—the way that gay men are hurt and targeted … the way that gay men are hurt by the culture is that they're targeted, beat up, singled out, they're super visible, hypervisible. John Cameron Mitchell talks about the need to hide as a universal queer thing but I disagree with that a little because the way that queer girls are targeted is … they're not targeted! They're invisible. They don't matter.

MG: They're ignored.

Jed: The same thing happens with MTFs. They're hypervisible and are targeted, beat up. FTMs don't exist, never heard of them. Literally there are trans women who have said to friends of mine with beards who are going on Geraldo together with the trans women, "What are you doing here, honey?" "I'm a trans man." "What's that?" So that's the overarching thing and that's sexist in itself. Someone—I don't know if it was Lauren Cameron—said, "What men do is always more interesting and important than what women do, even when the women are becoming men." [Laughs.]

MG: That's great. But I think it's fascinating, exactly what you've said, that the methodology by which trans people are kept down—that gay men are targeted and lesbians are not—is a strategy that enforces the hegemony of gender expression.

Jed: Yeah. It matters that gay men are sleeping with the wrong people. It's really important, even when you're six, it's important what the boys are doing, not so important what the girls are doing. If they're climbing trees and kissing girls, it's harmless because they're not important. They don't have dicks. They're not going to hurt anyone. It's harmless. And so tomboys are seen as somewhat charming, and often are! Tomboys, butches, FTMs are often—if they're not completely incapacitated by the damage they've been through—are often more charming than your average person. They've had to be because that's their way of maintaining that harmless, desexualized status and not being targeted.

MG: I find this fascinating. Questioning myself, in the last 5-6 years I've found myself more attracted to "bois", lesbians who are acting like softball jocks. I'm very attracted to them.

Jed: Who isn't?!! Anyone who isn't is crazy.

MG: But, again, it's been very challenging for me to deal with these feelings. I'm trying to understand them. To wrap things up, then—because I want to make sure I feed you your pancakes—is there anything you want to make sure gets said? Or have we covered all bases?

Jed: Trans film is getting better quickly because there is so much of it. I actually think that in some ways MTF trans people are under-represented now in the latest waves of trans film. I'm not sure why that is. MTFs do have a harder time with a lot of things in life than FTMs, economically for example.

MG: Is there a place to go to familiarize oneself with transgender cinema?

Jed: I wish there was, and there may be, and I may not know about it.

MG: If you find out, please alert me.

Jed: The trans film series at the queer film festivals. I can tell you a couple of my favorite films, which I would like to have you include if you have room. There's a movie called Shinjuku Boys, a Japanese documentary about, basically, the FTM spectrum of people in Japan that is the best literally trans movie that I've ever seen in my life. I felt ashamed to have my emotions so starkly exposed on the screen. I felt like I almost had to cover my face watching it. Different For Girls is a great British narrative trans film about trans woman played by Steven Mackintosh who's a great crime drama actor. It's just a very adorable great movie that's honest also. Then, Dell La Grace Volcano—who used to be the dyke photographer Della Grace—is a brilliant trans filmmaker who's made several films that are really great, some funny, some sexy, one of them Pansexual Public Porn is about trans guys having sex with gay guys literally in a park in London. It's a mix of documentary and fiction. Fantastic.

MG: That's good to know. I'll follow up and find out about those. Finally, what's up on the horizon for you? Are you working on any new piece? You've been traveling with DRIVE THRU?

Jed: DRIVE THRU is still making its way around the world. It's been at about 100 festivals. It showed in Japan this last month. I don't know if I gave you the Capybara? [Jed hands me a business card.] This is probably the next project.

MG: Okay. [Reading] Giant Rodents Taking Over the World. It's so cuuuuuuuuute!

Jed: That's the problem, Michael! 98% of people see the capybara as cute. I'm going to have to do something about that because I find him very very sinister.

MG: Do you? [Laughing.] But how can you? He's so cuuuuuuuuute!

Jed: This is a real issue.

MG: Well, you have time to work on it. My final spiel, my final schtick, is to advise you that—if you ever make a horror movie and you need someone to be killed off in the first scene—I will work for free.

Jed: Definitely!

MG: This is one of my fantasies. I don't know why. You get older and you think, "Why is this important to you? Getting a Ph.D. should be more important to you!" But actually the idea of being in a horror movie is more attractive because I've always loved the horror genre so much.

Jed: Right there with you.

MG: As I was growing up in the neighborhood and playing Monsters with the other kids, I was always the Monster. Then, later, when I took up acting, I was always the villain, so right now for me to be the helpless victim splattered to pieces in the first scene then out of the film has tremendous allure.

Jed: Yeah, actors are really into death scenes. That's great because [Wickie and I] definitely want to make horror movies.

MG: I would like to see you make one because Foucault, WHO? had a palpably sinister atmosphere. As I was watching it again this morning, I was thinking, "They all could be the serial killer! Is it the barback who's the murderer? Maybe even the bartender's the murderer? Maybe it's that guy who was in prison who's the murderer?"

Jed: Yeah, exactly. That's really good to know, Michael. I'm totally going to keep that in mind. I'll tell Wickie right away.

MG: Well, thank you very much. I appreciate you taking the time and now I'll feed you some pancakes.

Jed: All right!!

Foucault WHO? stills courtesy of Heads Will Roll Productions; © 2002 Calli Rose Lyons.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

AWARDS—The 2007 Independent Spirit Nominations

Allison Willmore at IFC News has announced this year's nominees for the Independent Spirit Awards (via Dave Hudson at The Greencine Daily) and—since this is the year I have seen more independent features than ever before—I'd like to riff a bit, offer my comments and forecasts, and solicit your own.

Best Feature:

American Gun
The Dead Girl
Half Nelson
Little Miss Sunshine
Pan's Labyrinth


Of these five features, I've only seen the last three but have had the welcome opportunity to interview co-creators Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck for Half Nelson and directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton for Little Miss Sunshine. I reviewed Pan's Labyrinth at the Toronto International Film Festival and look forward to interviewing Guillermo del Toro early next month. Without having seen American Gun or The Dead Girl, I am already deeply conflicted between the three I have seen. They are all outstanding on their own merit. I'm surprised to see Pan's Labyrinth among the nominations, which is undoubtedly due to some misguided equation I have in my mind that independent means small. Pan's Labyrinth doesn't strike me as a "small" movie at all. It seems, in fact, to be in a whole separate category than its competitors and, for my money, is not only the best movie I have seen this year but the best feature among this quintet. That being said, however, and catering to my notions of what I perceive an independent to be, Half Nelson has my vote as being the singularly most effective piece of independent filmmaking this year.

Best Director:

Robert Altman, A Prairie Home Companion
Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris, Little Miss Sunshine
Ryan Fleck, Half Nelson
Karen Moncrieff, The Dead Girl
Steven Soderbergh, Bubble

I feel sorry for the living directors in this category who might just possibly forfeit their win to an elegiac tribute. I'm hoping that will not be the case because, first of all, as great as he was Robert Altman's Prairie Home Companion was not his best film. Ryan Fleck truly deserves this honor this year. I'd rather see the award encourage some young talent rather than extol the virtues of the deceased.

Best First Feature:

Day Night Day Night
Man Push Cart
The Motel
Sweet Land
Wristcutters: A Love Story


I've only seen two in this category: Man Push Cart—which I just saw this afternoon at a press screening and hope to write up in the near future—and Wristcutters: A Love Story—which I caught at the Mill Valley Film Festival and which, though admittedly entertaining in a limited kind of way, left me keenly aware of its limitations, and even more of its strained contrivances. Without the benefit of having seen the other three, I would have to lobby for Man Push Cart, which I likewise found problematic for being dissatisfyingly irresolute, but, without question a much stronger film than Wristcutters.

Best Documentary:

A Lion in the House
My Country, My Country
The Road to Guantanamo
The Trials of Darryl Hunt
You're Gonna Miss Me


Having only seen The Road to Guantanamo, I nonetheless suspect it has a good chance of walking away with the Independent Spirit because of the timeliness of its topic in the wake of anti-Bush sentiment. Has anyone seen the others?

Best Foreign Film:

12:08 East of Bucharest
The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros
Chronicle of an Escape
Days of Glory
The Lives of Others


Here's another tight category. I didn't see 12:08 East of Bucharest but it seemed like every other member of my online blogging fraternity did at the Toronto International and I did not hear a single rave review so I've moreoreless even lost enthusiasm for seeing this until it's basically dropped in my lap somehow. Neither have I caught The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros the two times I've had opportunity to see it; first, because it seemed to be opposed each time to something I wanted to see much more and, second, because its theme—even though I'm queer—just didn't pique my interest. I've heard some people who really liked it and others who didn't. I saw Days of Glory at the Mill Valley Film Festival and thought it was highly overrated. I think the Cannes award for best male acting ensemble was something of a PR stunt to offset the more appropriate award of best female acting ensemble for Almodóvar's Volver. As a whole, the film lacked a necessary tension for me to maintain interest in an obvious narrative. I will be seeing The Lives of Others next week and haven't seen Chronicle of an Escape, but, my gut instinct is that these are the two true contenders here and I don't know how I can say Chronicle of an Escape is likely to win but, for some reason, that's what I'm picking up from the vapors.

Best Female Lead:

Shareeka Epps, Half Nelson
Catherine O'Hara, For Your Consideration
Elizabeth Reaser, Sweet Land
Michelle Williams, Land of Plenty
Robin Wright Penn, Sorry, Haters

I've only seen Shareeka's performance among these nominees, but, I don't care. I want her to win. I thought she was radiant and, again, I would love to see her talent encouraged and promoted.

Best Male Lead:

Aaron Eckhart, Thank You For Smoking
Ryan Gosling, Half Nelson
Edward Norton, The Painted Veil
Ahmad Razvi, Man Push Cart
Forest Whitaker, American Gun

When I interviewed Boden and Fleck after seeing Half Nelson at the 49th San Francisco International Film Festival, I commended them then and there for providing Ryan Gosling such a good turn and likewise predicted he would be nominated for this year's Independent Spirit Award. You heard it here first and now listen up, kids: he's going to win! I haven't seen Eckhart's performance and can't seem to care and, though I'm looking forward to interviewing Edward Norton for Greencine next week, and consider his performance in Painted Veil a fine one (as I wrote in my earlier review), The Painted Veil just seems too big a movie for this category. I can't give it credence in this context. As I mentioned earlier, I just caught Razvi's performance in Man Push Cart this afternoon and certainly feel it's a more appropriate nomination in this context but he doesn't have a chance against Gosling. As for Forest? I haven't even heard of this movie and wonder if he isn't being respectfully acknowledged by the Independent Spirit community when we know full well he's likely to win the Oscar for his performance in The Last King of Scotland? Just a hunch.

Best Supporting Female:

Melonie Diaz, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints
Marcia Gay Harden, American Gun
Mary Beth Hurt, The Dead Girl
Frances McDormand, Friends With Money
Amber Tamblyn, Stephanie Daley

Of this quintet, I've only seen Melonie Diaz's performance and, respectful of how the talent of her competitors has already been securely established, I can't just call this one until I've seen at least a few more of the other performances. I liked Melonie in A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, don't get me wrong, but I just don't have anything with which to compare and gauge her performance.

Best Supporting Male:

Alan Arkin, Little Miss Sunshine
Raymond J. Barry, Steel City
Daniel Craig, Infamous
Paul Dano, Little Miss Sunshine
Channing Tatum, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints

I haven't seen Steel City so I can't say a word about Raymond J. Barry. I haven't seen Infamous either though I hear Daniel Craig was charismatic as Perry; but, because he's the latest Bond with a secure toehold in the franchise, I'm prone to pass. I have seen both Arkin and Dano in Little Miss Sunshine and Arkin's performance is the undisputed better of the two and a strong contender in this category. But, I have to admit that Channing Tatum's breakout in A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints was so virile and riveting that he has my vote hands down. I should have predicted he'd be nominated for a Best Supporting Independent Spirit Award when I interviewed Dito Montiel but I guess the cat got my tongue.

Best Screenplay:

Neil Burger, The Illusionist
Nicole Holofcener, Friends with Money
Ron Nyswaner, The Painted Veil
Jason Reitman, Thank You For Smoking
Jeff Stanzler, Sorry, Haters

Hmmmm. The only two I've seen feature the same actor in the lead role. That's kind of odd. Of the two, I think The Painted Veil was more masterful in execution. From such a limited perspective, that would be my druther.

Best First Screenplay:

Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, Half Nelson
Michael Arndt, Little Miss Sunshine
Goran Dukic, Wristcutters: A Love Story
Dito Montiel, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints
Gabrielle Zevin, Conversations with Other Women

Oh man, this is a rough category. With all due respect to Zevin, because I haven't seen Conversations with Other Women, and pitching out Wristcutters (again for its strained contrivances guised as plot points), I'm left with three very good scripts, all of which I admired. I think Half Nelson has the best chance, followed by A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints (though I would have preferred to see that in some kind of adaptation category), but I'd like to divvy up the glory a little bit and hand it to Little Miss Sunshine.

Best Cinematography:

Arin Crumley, Four Eyed Monsters
Anthony Dod Mantle, Brothers of the Head
Guillermo Navarro, Pan's Labyrinth
Aaron Platt, Wild Tigers I Have Known
Michael Simmonds, Man Push Cart

I haven't seen Crumley's cinematography or Platt's, but, of those remaining Navarro is stunningly beautiful; but, again, I'm having a little trouble accepting Pan's Labyrinth as an independent (what is my problem?). But accepting things the way they are, Pan's Labyrinth should win this one.

Someone to Watch Award:

So Yong Kim, In Between Days
Julia Loktev, Day Night Day Night
Richard Wong, Colma: The Musical

In Between Days won my heart when I saw it at the Toronto International Film Festival and now, more than ever, I should follow through on So Yong Kim's willingness to let me interview her. I'm hoping In Between Days will be secured for this year's Asian-American International Film Festival. Among these three, she's certainly the one I have my eye on.

John Cassavetes Award:

Chalk
Four Eyed Monsters
Old Joy
Quinceañera
Twelve and Holding


I have to admit to being a little stunned that this is the only category in which Quinceañera is nominated. Out of sheer loyalty and love for the project, I want it to win. I sure enjoyed speaking with directors Glatzer and Westmoreland and their talent Emily Rios and Jesse Garcia earlier this year.

Truer Than Fiction Award:

AJ Schnack, Kurt Cobain: About a Son
Adele Horne, The Tailenders
Eric Daniel Metzgar, The Chances of the World Changing

No thoughts, cares or concerns whatsoever.

Producers Award:

Julie Lynn, Nine Lives, 10 Items or Less
Alex Orlovsky and Jamie Patricof, Half Nelson, Point&Shoot
Howard Gertler and Tim Perell, Shortbus, Pizza

What can I say? Half Nelson has me in a half nelson.

So there you have it. But to paraphrase Bette Midler: enough of what I think. What do you think about what I think?

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

NEW ITALIAN CINEMA—Q&A With Director Marco Bellocchio For Good Morning, Night


Before introducing Marco Bellocchio at the New Italian Cinema screening of Good Morning, Night, San Francisco Film Society programmer Linda Blackaby acknowledged the presence of Francesca Calvelli—editor for both Good Morning, Night and Bellocchio's latest The Wedding Director—and Sergio Pelone, the producer of both films.

In his early films like Fists in the Pocket, China Is Near, and In the Name of the Father, Blackaby outlined, Bellocchio became very well-known for dealing with contemporary social and political issues, first in Italy and then internationally. His recent films My Mother's Smile and Good Morning, Night, the 28th and 29th films in his career, returned to that earlier time of the 70s to look at their influence on the present. Blackaby brought Bellocchio to the microphone to introduce his film. Robin Treasure translated expertly and smoothly.


Humbly, Bellocchio said, "What can I tell you? Nothing. Those who have preceded me have already said many beautiful nice things and they may suffice. As you'll see [Good Morning, Night] describes a very tragic point in Italian history, the kidnapping and assassination of Aldo Moro. Of course I did this in a very personal way, my own way, but, I did follow the book written by Anna Laura Braghetti entitled Il prigioniero (The Prisoner). She was one of the Red Brigades, which is the group that kidnapped Aldo Moro. In this way the entire film is very internal. It takes place within this apartment where Aldo Moro was held in custody for 55 days. Unfortunately, I can't really tell you to enjoy the film because this is a tragic film; but, at the end if you do have some questions, I hope I'll be able to respond in merit."

* * *

At film's end, while the credits rolled, Bellocchio accepted questions. One fellow wanted to know how much of the film was invented? How closely had Bellocchio stuck to the actual record? Americans especially are unfamiliar with the details of the Aldo Moro kidnapping.

The film, Bellocchio responded, is based on the book that was written by a woman who was one of the Red Brigades who held Aldo Moro in captivity and killed him, which of course is in some ways represented by the character Chiara portrayed by actress Maya Sansa. This is not a historical film, however. It doesn't have a historical value. The true difference between actual history and this film is what is seen here at the end of the film. The woman who was actually a part of the Red Brigades wrote in her book that she did have some pangs of conscience, she was struggling, but in the end she went through with what the Red Brigades had set out to do, which was to assassinate Aldo Moro. Whereas in Good Morning, Night Chiara appears, at least, to have decided to go completely against their wishes and go with her own conscience to liberate Moro. Of course what you have here in the film are two parallel endings, two parallel possibilities. You have one in which it is imagined that Aldo Moro is liberated and another ending in which he is actually killed.

Bellocchio was asked what the reaction of the Moro family was to his film? Bellocchio qualified that Aldo Moro had a large family. His son Giovanni Moro really appreciated the film. Some of his daughters who saw the film have not expressed an opinion. But another daughter—the mother of the grandson that Aldo Moro adored so much—expressed opposition to the film for personal reasons.


One woman said her impression of the film was that Bellocchio sympathized with the Red Brigades by humanizing them despite their assassination of Aldo Moro and wondered if that had been his intention? Bellocchio conceded that she was entitled to her impression and her own interpretation of the film, but personally he didn't feel any affinity or bias for the Red Brigades in any way. What he wanted to highlight in his film was the deep pathology underlying the Red Brigades' ideology. They reached the utmost in a lack of humanity, which was to have no regard for another human life, to kill Aldo Moro—not because he's a human being—but because he represented something. Ironically, it's the highest point of a lack of humanity, it's as inhumane as you can be, and yet they thought they were doing the utmost in the name of humanity. But, of course, there was a lot of responsibility that lay in the hands of the political body as a whole as well. They were completely unyielding in terms of having any kind of negotiations with the Red Brigades, except for one part of the Christian Democrats and the Socialist party as well. They thought that if they gave in even just a little bit, it would result in total chaos and the destruction of the republic. But Bellocchio doesn't subscribe to that. As. J. Hoberman indicated in his Village Voice review, Bellocchio has suggested Moro "was a martyr to establishment cowardice." Bellocchio and many others would have preferred that there be negotiations. But that's not what prevailed and, since we can't repeat history, that's how it went.

Bellocchio was asked if negotiation was always the best tactic? He admitted he was not a politician and couldn't answer in general terms; but, in this particular situation, he would have favored negotiations. He is against the death penalty and doesn't believe in it in any case. That won him a round of polite applause.

As to why he wanted to make this film 25 years after the events and why he wanted to return to them to take another look, Bellocchio said that—although this was a very personal film—it had originally been proposed to him by Rai Cinemafiction, the state Italian broadcasting system, and—though he was very young at the time—he did live through it. He felt it was an important opportunity for him to reflect on an important political event.

Queried whether he would ever pursue a sequel that delved further into the political ramifications of the Aldo Moro affair, Bellocchio quickly discounted any interest in doing so. That, Bellocchio suggested, should be a task that the historians take on to examine it further, to look at the documents and study it further. There are, of course, two hypotheses: the Red Brigades say—and their version is—that everything is as they have said it was, meaning there is no alternative explanation for what happened. What they know is the truth. The other hypothesis is that it was either the CIA that was behind the assassination, or the KGB, and that it was convenient to have Aldo Moro killed. That statement agitated Bellocchio's audience and hands shot up everywhere. Some didn't await turns and cried out for explanation.

Aldo Moro, Bellocchio clarified, was the architect of what was called the Compromesso Storico, the Historic Compromise, which meant that he brought the Communists into coalition with the Christian Democrats. The CIA wasn't happy with that, of course, and hence that second hypothesis.

One woman then cheekily wanted to know the impact of this episode on Italian politics. The audience laughed incredulously. Perhaps you should read a few books, Bellocchio countered slyly. Hundreds of books have been written on just that subject. Salon's Andrew O'Hehir has recommended Leonardo Sciascia's The Moro Affair, for starters.

One gentleman reminded that Good Morning, Night was not the first time Bellocchio portrayed the Red Brigades; they had shown up in his earlier work China Is Near. That film portrayed a very young man, a Maoist, and the gentleman wanted to know how Bellocchio perceived that film's relation 40 years later to his current work. That angry young person was willing to throw a bomb into a public toilet. Bellocchio, in turn, reminded the gentleman that China Is Near was a comic film about a Maoist group perceived in a comic way. For Bellocchio, the tragic anger in Good Morning, Night is more closely connected to his first film Fists in the Pocket where the mother is killed, matricidal anger. But the big difference is that in Good Morning, Night you have this imaginary ending where Aldo Moro lives, where there's hope, where he's free. That's very different from the ending of Fists in the Pocket where it ends in complete tragedy.

The final question was a graceful segue away from political issues to aesthetic considerations of how Bellocchio edited his films and incorporated sound and music. Bellocchio said that Good Morning, Night was made by using some stock footage. The film also incorporated different usages of music. His editor Francesca Calvelli was responsible for suggesting he use Pink Floyd; music from her generation. His music—more lyrical opera—is from a previous generation. He felt that Pink Floyd's music really expressed the kind of rage and desperation that the Red Brigades were experiencing at that time. He integrated many different choices of music, stock footage and archival television coverage—which of course provided an external view—he incorporated all of that to create one single piece. He tried to make free use of that in that way.

Cross-published on Twitch.

NEW ITALIAN CINEMA—Buongiorno, Notte / Good Morning, Night


The thematic link between Marco Bellocchio's early piece I pugni in tasca / Fists In The Pocket (1965) and his recent Buongiorno, Notte / Good Morning, Night (2003) is palpably intriguing and great, insightful programming on the part of N.I.C.E. With a minimum sample of just three films, New Italian Cinema has succeeded in profiling Bellocchio's genius and piquing interest in the rest of his repertoire. As someone who was not familiar with Bellocchio's oeuvre, I'm grateful for the calculated exposure.

Good Morning, Night won Bellocchio the Little Golden Lion at the 2003 Venice Film Festival as well as an award for Outstanding Individual Contribution for a screenplay. As with Fists in the Pocket, much has been written about Good Morning, Night, so rather than reinvent the wheel, I will attempt more of a critical overview than any singular critique.

Pasquale Iannone's Senses of Cinema essay on Good Morning, Night sources the film's title to Emily Dickinson's poem "Good Morning Midnight."

Good morning midnight
I'm coming home
Day got tired of me
How could I of him?



Iannone notes that the story of the 1978 kidnapping and assassination of Italy's former Prime Minister Aldo Moro by the terrorist group Brigate Rosse (Red Brigades)—which, according to Sophie Arie of The Guardian is "still an open wound in Italian society"—had previously been committed to cinema by Giuseppe Ferrara in Il Caso Moro (1986) with Gian Maria Volonte as the ill-fated president of the DC (Christian Democrats). Roberto Herllitzka portrays Moro in Good Morning, Night. Salon's Andrew O'Hehir describes Herllitzka as the "spitting image" of the Prime Minister and praises his wonderful, "doleful" performance. As Iannone outlines, what differentiates Bellocchio's version is his eschewal of "Ferrara's solemn, quasi-documentary aesthetic for a highly subjective version of events, filtered through the consciousness of one of Moro's captors, 20-year-old Chiara (Maya Sansa) who, along with fellow brigadisti Mariano (Luigi Lo Cascio), Ernesto (Pier Giorgio Bellocchio) and Primo (Giovanni Calcagno), hold Moro hostage for 55 days in a Rome apartment."

Bellocchio describes his character Chiara as the piccola terrorista or "little terrorist", as if to diminuate terrorism will allow an intimate affection. What I especially like about Iannone's essay is how it captures one of the film's most brilliant scenes—certainly my favorite—where "Chiara reads a letter from Moro to his wife. A voiceover from Moro unveils the content of the letter. After a few sentences, it becomes clear that the voiceover is not in fact a reading of Moro's letter but a reading from a book that sits on Chiara's bedside table, a collection of letters from prisoners condemned to death during World War II. Bellocchio, in merging past and present through the subjectivity of Chiara, uses this sequence to delineate how the struggle against fascism and the sacrifices of the resistance during World War II have been forgotten. Organizations affiliated with the extreme-left are now committing the same atrocities as those of the extreme-right only three decades earlier. The director also intersperses images of Nazi atrocities to further strengthen the analogy." That this scene is scored with the anguished cries of Claire Torry from Pink Floyd's "The Great Gig in the Sky" insures a visceral response to Chiara's illumination ("His use of the music of Pink Floyd, in particular, must surely count as one of the most intelligent recent uses of popular music in film"). The hairs stood up on my neck in empathic recognition of the terrorists' misguided and tragic folly. Through the character of Chiara, Bellocchio "succeeds in giving a moral core to the film which cuts through the self-aggrandising rhetoric of the brigadisti."


As Acquarello states it at Strictly Film School: "By personalizing the inevitable tragedy from the point-of-view of Chiara, a deeply conflicted young woman whose surfacing humanity for the gentle-spoken, sensible, and conciliatory Moro—whom she sees as a father figure—and her resolute duty to the militant cause, Bellocchio creates a provocative, complex, and profoundly disturbing portrait of myopic ideology, self-righteousness, moral obligation, and the importance of communication and compromise."

"Chiara's personal conflict takes the movie beyond a dry, factual procedural," Armond White writes for The New York Press, "it becomes a wondrous and unsettling exploration of an ideologue's contradictions and misgivings." J. Hoberman, from The Village Voice, imagines Moro's period of captivity as a "rarefied spiritual struggle."


Reporting to Bright Lights Film Journal from the 2003 New York Film Festival, Megan Ratner details Bellocchio's claustrophobic mise en scène: "Bellocchio conveys the fear and suspicion of the cell members hiding out in an apartment purportedly inhabited by Chiara and her husband, who are as much prisoners as their hostage." Armond White, amplifies the description by stating the apartment "allows Bellocchio to pursue this political story as an intimate, domestic one. The close-quarters metaphor puts the tragedy into the home, creating an aura of perverse personal involvement and sinister accountability. It's a grave spinoff from Godard's La Chinoise about French Maoists practicing radicalism in a cell."

In her write-up for The Guardian, Sophie Arie positions the film's events "against the background of today's 'war on terror' " and implies that—within this context—"Moro's fate acquires a whole new significance." She continues, "The language of the terrorists who are willing to die for their cause is uncannily similar to that of today's Islamist terrorists. The enemy—the capitalist, imperialist, Christian establishment—is in many ways unchanged. In 1978 as in 2004, a small group of fervent idealists create an atmosphere of terror far larger than themselves."

Salon's Andrew O'Hehir admits that American unfamiliarity with Italian politics makes Good Morning, Night somewhat opaque and inaccessible, though not insurmountable. He describes the film as "an expressionist portrait, blending archival news footage with naturalistic but enigmatic scenes and fanciful dream sequences" unconstrained by the actual history of the Moro kidnapping since, indeed, "as Bellocchio has pointed out, the actual history of the event is none too clear." O'Hehir writes that "Bellocchio is performing an act of something like Jungian therapy on his nation, unpacking the most traumatic event of its recent history as a concatenation of dream symbols, and also as an allegorical way of addressing the tortured state the Western world, beset by terrorists both real and imaginary, finds itself in today." Though he finds the movie "strange and murky" and at times "frustrating", he also "found it profoundly moving in a way no regular thriller ever is." Armond White likewise capitulates that Bellocchio is uninterested in creating "suspense" and, instead, "takes advantage of already-determined history to look deeper."

Both O'Hehir and White highlight the "babysitting" scene. "In a funny-scary early scene," O'Hehir writes, "a neighbor dashes by to drop off her baby for a couple of minutes; Chiara looks at the little creature with mingled fear and disgust, but it's the sort of routine favor no young Italian woman is supposed to refuse. She stashes the baby on the sofa, handling him as if he were a ticking bomb—and then her compadres come lurching through the room, carrying the former prime minister in a packing crate." Armond White asserts this scene confirms the film's greatness. Chiara's "ruse of domesticity gets tested" when she "answers her doorbell and has a neighbor's baby shoved at her. Although she's some kind of outlaw (soon to be revealed as a member of a radical political sect with nefarious plans), that's providence that is placed in her arms. Bellocchio's superb visual jest teases the future of Italy and of political activism even as it arouses Chiara's filial compassion, the part of her humanity (and her untested maternity) that she had put aside for the cause. All that, in one image, is great filmmaking." J. Hoberman adds that this scene exemplifies the film's "understated magic realism."


White does a good job of comparing the backward glance of Bellocchio in Good Morning, Night with Bertolucci's backward glance in The Dreamers and praises Bellocchio's "extraordinary" attention to Chiara's dreams. "She has faded black-and-white visions of Russia's winter revolution (Lenin, Stalin). These include a remarkable documentary montage of actual political assassinations (ingeniously scored to The Dark Side of the Moon), reminding Chiara of the grim history she's about to join. Her only release from this political trap are these beautiful/horrifying dreams. Her male comrades play lethal real-life politics while she ponders the consequences. She secretly fantasizes conversing with Moro when the men sleep, as if making rapprochement with her father's underground legacy. The mix of news footage, dream and stylized drama is implicative and historical, amounting to a personally felt elegy. Good Morning, Night is full of simultaneous yearning and regret."

"Chiara's last dream," J. Hoberman writes, "is a near jaw-dropper—as though Bellocchio has imagined this cruel story through the wrong end of a telescope and staged it in a snow globe."

In her last dream Chiara configures an alternate outcome. Moro is seen escaping from captivity and walking free in morning light. In reality, Moro's bullet-ridden body was dumped on the Via Caetani, a quiet street in central Rome, midway between the Christian Democrat and Communist headquarters. The event was memorialized by a modest stone plaque embedded in the dark brick wall of a church.

Cross-published on Twitch.

Monday, November 20, 2006

PERFUME: THE STORY OF A MURDERER—Q&A With Director Tom Tykwer


Tom Tykwer recently attended a preview screening of Perfume: The Story of A Murderer at San Francisco's Embarcadero Cinema. Tykwer was introduced by Ingrid Eggers, Program Coordinator for the Goethe-Institut, annual sponsor of San Francisco's Berlin & Beyond Film Festival. He fielded questions from his press and word-of-mouth audience.

Straight off, Tykwer expressed his dissatisfaction with the fact that the music had been turned off while the remaining credits rolled for the film. He explained that the music had been interpreted by the Berlin Philharmonic. His disgruntlement was understandable in light of the fact that he composed the music. He also noted that he was very fond of all the people who had worked on the film so he was hoping not to distract from due acknowledgment by the Q&A. On the other hand, he admitted the credit roll lasted 9½ minutes and wasn't sure how much of the audience would be up for that. It would be best, he conceded, to open the movie up for discussion, qualifying: "I know it's a movie—at least it was meant to be a movie—that takes a moment and needs a moment to breathe on an audience in the true meaning of the word; but, as I'm here now, I'm ready."


Since she had the microphone, Eggers began the questioning. Noting that the film was based on Patrick Süskind's bestselling novel, published in 1985, and that it took quite some time to make a movie adaptation, Eggers considered the history of making the film and offered that there had even been a satirical documentary made about not making the film (Rossini, 1997). "So I think Patrick Süskind had reasons why he didn't want this book to be made into a film," Eggers suggested. "I don't know what his reasons were, but my question to you is—when you read the book—was it something you could immediately translate into film or did it also take some time for you to think about this and make it?"

It took four years, Tykwer responded promptly, of trying non-stop to find a way to make the adaptation work. Also, you had to factor in that Patrick Süskind is something of a phenomenon in Europe and Germany, "like a mystic a little bit." He's somebody who has actually never appeared in public. There's only a single existing photograph of him. "It's a bit like J.D. Salinger or Terrence Mallick," Tykwer explained, "We know they live or they lived but we're not really sure. And he behaves also a little bit like that." Tykwer met him, of course, and Süskind didn't appear at all to be worried about the film being made. He just didn't care to sell the rights to his novel. After 15 years, however, he probably became curious about what a film based on his novel might look like.

Tykwer has, of course, often been approached about why he picked such a distinctive piece of literature to turn into a film and his first reaction is precisely because the novel is so distinctive. Anybody who knows the novel has a strong memory about it. It's like nothing else you've ever read and is one of those books you can't compare to anything else. "You don't know how to describe it. Or maybe you can describe it but it's an experience you've not had before," which was appealing to Tykwer because that's the kind of movie he's interested in: movies that you look at, that you experience and you feel like there's something about them that you haven't visited yet. They take you to a place that you haven't been before. So he was attracted to the whole concept of the novel and never understood anybody who claimed it was unfilmable. He thought it a brilliant film concept.


"Everything that a movie needs is in there. It's a very unusual story. It has a fascinating hero; a dark hero, I agree, but still that was the challenge: that we have someone at the center of our attention who is both at the same time the one person we can attach ourselves to and at the same time he becomes a murderer. I was very intrigued by the idea to try and do the same thing that the novel was successfully doing by seducing you, or us, into staying and holding tight with this person and not letting go, even though he at a certain point steps into territory that I'm absolutely not agreeing with, of course. I like that moral friction that we get into throughout the film because this is something we understand about him or we understand about his motivations. There's something deeply human about him in what he's longing for. That's what fascinated me. I wasn't worried about all the other things that came along with it. The fact that it's a film about the world of smell never really made me worry in terms of saying it's impossible to do because I've always said the book doesn't smell so why do we worry? It's obviously a matter of language and the literature language does his part and the challenge for us, of course, was to do the same with cinematic language and it's up to you to judge that."

His collaboration with Dreamworks has been a good experience because they really loved the movie, which is great. It's not the first thing he expected, to have people who are confused by the film or perhaps even disgusted or repelled, being nonetheless supportive.


Asked why he made the film in English, Tykwer retorted, "What language did you expect?" When told German, he responded, "Why German?" The strange thing about English, he clarified, is that supposedly it is the world language. Showing people living in France and speaking English is absolutely no problem for anybody; but, imagine someone named Jean-Baptiste Grenouille walking through Paris speaking German. His audience laughed. Even he would have a problem with that, Tykwer admitted. Nobody really wondered why in Amadeus Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had a New York accent or why in Dangerous Liaisons the French elite spoke English. It's considered normal. Even for Europeans it's completely normal. Further, financing a film such as this is difficult; it wasn't a cheap movie. Doing it in English helped its international—i.e., commercial—appeal. Tykwer was ultimately grateful for the choice because the English language helped him secure Ben Wishaw for the title role, and Wishaw saved the film. The filmmakers knew they could do whatever they wanted with any stylish idea, that they could come up with any brilliant concept on how to shoot this movie, but if they didn't find the right guy to play Grenouille, they might as well not start. So they searched for the right actor for a long time. Their search, in fact, spread out to different countries and languages; but, after seeing literally hundreds of actors, Tykwer found Wishaw, who was 23 at the time and playing Hamlet at the Old Vic Theatre in London, Laurence O'livier's theater. "He was just amazing," Tykwer described, "I invited him to an audition. He was the first one who could deliver this strange paradox of the character that we were so much looking for. I find it so amazing that he's at the same time vulnerable and dangerous, that there's something boyish about him and something really complicated and scary and that there is an innocence next to the darkness that I admire, which is his work."

Complimented that one audience member considered Perfume to be the best film adaptation from a literary source she'd ever seen, Tykwer said that in Europe—where the novel is much better known than here in the States with a stature comparable to The Lord of the Rings—many people cautioned him not to touch it for fear of "messing it up." He was a bit worried about that, of course, because he loved the book; but—though he's the first to say that some books should never be turned into movies—Perfume seemed to be offering itself as a film. Marcel Proust's The Remembrance of Things Past, for example, was adapted to cinema but, in his opinion, it shouldn't have been "because there's some literature that belongs to literature whereas Perfume is both great literature but also an amazing concept for a film." Obviously the challenge is to deliver a film that stays as faithful to the novel as possible but at the same time looks for a specific, individual approach and a subjective vision of the book, which he believes his film accomplished. For those who are familiar with the novel, they will observe that the film encompasses changes and accents that differ from the novel. That's the only way to do it, Tykwer insisted, if you're going to do it at all. He hates those films that are based on novels that are literally page by page exact transcriptions.

With regard to the film's narration, Tykwer was asked if John Hurt had been involved from the beginning. To a degree, he explained, narration is a matter of taste. In general some people don't like narration in cinema, they feel it's selling out on the idea of cinema, but Tykwer totally disagrees; he loves narration in general. In this particular case he felt the narration served the movie. He liked the "trick" of it with John Hurt in particular, whose voice Tykwer admires because it gives you a feeling of a safety net and offers protection. Hurt's voice provides an epic introduction into something that then turns out to be quite different. Tykwer liked the friction and the energy that happens when you start out thinking, okay, there's a safety net, but actually as an audience you're being dropped off from a far higher point than expected. There's something dangerous about the movie even though it offers the protection through that voice. That's what he enjoyed about it. Beyond that, Tykwer loved the language of the book where these narrative passages appear. Süskind's words mix irony with tragedy. In actuality, Hurt's voice is only there for the first 20 minutes, and in the last 7, and in the middle his voice reappears for about 5 minutes, primarily to cut the film in half, like two musical movements. The narration is a framing device that divides the film in the middle. Between leaving Paris and reaching Grasse there's this transitional zone of the film where the narrator, in effect, reintroduces Grenouille. After that the narrator disappears until the end of the film. But John Hurt's voice leaves behind an intense trace, which makes him quite dominant even in his absence.


Tykwer was asked to describe how he effected the crowd scene at film's end. Was it difficult? No, Tykwer smiled, it was very easy. Basically the crowd undressed and they filmed it. Certainly it was a long path to get there, one of those major events of which he knew in advance that if he didn't pull it off really convincingly, he'd better not do the film. What he did ultimately was to collect and choose the people for his crowd scene out of thousands of applicants who responsed to advertisements run in their papers. They gathered as many prospectives as possible. Some people knew what the scene was basically about and—when they were introduced to the situation—they had to sign off on a document that allowed them to be filmed naked. But still Tykwer had to choose the right faces. He wanted the physiognomy of a different period, which was oddly difficult since, strangely enough, very often people look modern when they're naked. It's difficult to explain why, but Tykwer offered that sometimes you see faces that just don't feel like they would have been around 200 years ago. Further, he wanted to have all sorts of bodies, all ages and types. So it was a long way to even get to the filming of the scene. Tykwer ended up having a little less than a thousand extras, but, made them seem like more by framing them variously.

They rehearsed for a long time. The scene was shot in the north of Spain. Fortunately, Tykwer quipped, the Spanish people, especially the Catalan, are very open minded. Rehearsals were the core to everything. They invited these people into a sports hall, introduced them to the process of getting undressed, all of which was relatively easy. "If everybody's naked, you don't worry any more so much," Tykwer explained. But the big problem was to then have them touch each other and to do things to each other. It turned out to be an error in judgment to think they should cast a lot of couples, who ended up not working out at all because they became very nervous when their partners started touching someone else. It was psychologically demanding. Tykwer had to remove all the couples so that the crowd in the final filmed scene is composed of hundreds and hundreds of singles. "Or maybe pretending to be singles, what do I know?" Tykwer smiled. He also had support from one of Spain's most famous physical dance theater groups. He staged dancers among the extras because he wanted the scene to feel like a choreographed, emotional, transitional movement. After several weeks of rehearsing all these actions with all these people, ultimately when Tykwer came to shooting the scene, they were ready and relaxed and didn't mind that there was a crew of 150 people around them who were dressed with seven cameras and all that. They had completely let go.


"I think it's amazing what they delivered. I don't think it's so much about the nudity part. It's really about the emotion that they were able to express. The whole transition from hatred to admiration is happening in their faces. These are not actors. These are bakers and secretaries and journalists and all kinds of people. I was really amazed by that. We gave them all the book. They all had to read it because we really wanted them to understand why this scene was so crucial. It's not background action we're talking about here."

Tykwer's complaint with period films in general or films with mass crowd scenes anyhow is that they are in essence stiff costume dramas where extras are put into costumes five minutes before the cameras roll. They wander around a little bit unrealistic in wardrobes they don't know how to wear. Tykwer hates that. He hates the whole idea that background action is just about movement and not about life. "It becomes life if you talk to those people, if you really get them to live in those clothes, if you let them take the clothes home, come back in them, recut them so they're really comfortable for them, and then dirty them down and have them live in that muddy state. Then the jobs that they had to do on screen, we either wanted people to know what the job is or to come from these jobs, like fishermen being fishermen, and butchers being butchers, and that really changed them a lot." It was Tykwer's general approach to make a period movie that didn't feel like most of the period movies that bored him because they are so much into presenting what a beautiful picture they've produced, too often just showing off what they've done. Often these period pieces get bogged down in detail because the filmmakers—who have expended so much effort to create all these images—want to boast the effort, which for Tykwer, of course, is completely boring. He wanted to create a reality that you bought whole. His desire was to create something like a cinema verité time travel journey into the 18th century, where he could film the way he wanted as if he had traveled back in time with a stedicam to an 18th century street. Yes, it's important to have beautiful backgrounds and beautiful set-up, though not always "beautiful" of course, but an ambiance and an atmosphere he could sometimes just throw away by panning over them because they're just there, as if he were shooting on the street outside.

Eggers mentioned that the only character who looked stiff in their period costume was Grenouille, which she assumed was intended. He didn't look truly comfortable in his blue outfit at film's end. For that matter, he didn't look comfortable in any outfit but especially not in his blue one.

Tykwer praised Grenouille's "amazing presence" especially in that scene, which was weird for Ben Wishaw in itself let alone within character coming to the understanding he achieves at that juncture. That process of coming to an understanding could not make him appear comfortable, of course. But, in reality, Wishaw enjoyed wearing the blue outfit after so many months of wearing his other raggedy outfit or nothing at all. That there were so many people was again interesting for Wishaw because, as can be imagined, for half of the shooting he was completely by himself and alone with the cameramen and no actors to act with. His was a really lonely part. Tykwer didn't shoot the movie chronologically; he began with Wishaw's segment with Dustin Hoffman. That was good because it helped him develop his character by giving him someone to act with. It's the longest sequence that he has where he has somebody that responds to him.

A young man in the audience relayed that Grenouille in the novel is invisible. His charisma is non-existent. If the character in the film strays at all from the book, it's that he is very charismatic and compelling. What led Tykwer to that and how did Hoffman become involved in the project?


It would be a problem, Tykwer admitted, to have a protagonist in a film who was not charismatic. How Grenouille is described in the novel must remain within literature but, for the purpose of the film, Wishaw was challenged to be charismatic but act invisible, to approximate the novel's description. Tykwer feels Wishaw achieved that challenge. Cinematically, in the beginning, Grenouille is introduced in half-shadow, and that stylization is maintained throughout the film, several times he's filmed in half-shadow, people don't really realize he's there. That was one way to render his invisibility.

Tykwer found it difficult to portray Grenouille as someone that people do not relate to or that they overlook. Also in the novel there's the significant description of Grenouille as heavily scarred, distorted and quite ugly. Tykwer elected to cinematically interpret these literary descriptions of scars as psychological scars on the character's soul, which then became something Wishaw had to discover for himself as an actor. No other actor came close to Wishaw in effectively capturing this tortured soul. For Tykwer, Wishaw was Grenouille; he didn't doubt it for a second. So even though the descriptions in the book might be different from what is seen on the screen, what Tykwer felt when he read the book and what he got across in the film is essentially the same character.

As opposed to finding Wishaw for the role of Grenouille—which was a long and complicated voyage—Dustin Hoffman was the first phone call. Tykwer read the book, started to write the script, and the first call he made was to Dustin. It was very simple. He called him. Dustin said yes. That was it. The same with Alan Rickman. Both were famous actors in the film world who were easy to cast who came eagerly to the project.


One audience member wondered if Hoffman played the character of Baldini as Tykwer intended? If Hoffman hadn't gone off in his own direction, because his portrayal seemed a bit off and at odds with the rest of the film. Tykwer said that he's only been receiving that reaction in America, which is probably due to the fact that American audiences are so familiar with Dustin Hoffman, he's like everybody's "buddy." To appreciate his performance as this quirky, Italian guy is slightly problematic; but, for Tykwer, Hoffman delivered a heartwarming, interesting performance. The character of Baldini is quite exploitive with regard to Grenouille and there's something basically unsympathetic about him, or at least in the attitude he has towards the hero. At the same time, you feel this kind of fading genius. You feel so much about his desire to come back again. Tykwer felt Hoffman was putting his own life into this whole situation and related that he had fun on the set having a joyfully competitive relationship with Wishaw, enacting the aging genius to Wishaw's fresh talent. It was honest. You could see it on the set, feel it on the set, that the two of them were sparring a bit with this. Hoffman transformed what could have been a grotesque, comic, burlesque caricature into a profound character. When he ultimately dies, it's crazy that you can smile about it at the same time that there's a sadness about losing this character. "This is how I see the movie," Tykwer excused himself, "What do I know?"

Cross-posted at Twitch.