Thursday, May 31, 2007


Every so often I consider just how blessed we are in the Bay Area to have our armada of film impresarios: Eddie Muller educating and entertaining us with classic noir at the Noir City Film Festival; Bruce Fletcher surfing the edge with Dead Channels; and Joel Shephard haunting the vaults for classic genre pieces for his YBCA programs. Clearly among them are the Castro stage tribute/benefit events organized by Marc Huestis, who has singlehandedly—and way ahead of the pack—introduced many a star from yesteryear to the adoring attention of new audiences. Everyone's got their favorites from the past 11 years, I'm sure, but suffice it to say that I'll never forget Ann Blyth recalling Crawford and Mildred Pierce; John Waters celebrating Christmas; Carol Lynley and Stella Stevens surviving the capsized Poseidon; Barbara Parkins surviving The Valley of the Dolls; and Karen Black performing country live with Come Back to the Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. These were not just film revivals but cinematic events that underscored that the history of a film isn't over until it's over. Huestis has a gift for breathing new life into old vehicles.

Huestis now wants to know if you have a passion for Prada and crave couture? If so, you're in luck because he has organized the Fabulous Fashion in Film Festival, running Friday, July 27 through Thursday, August 3 at San Francisco's premiere movie palace The Castro Theatre. The program's up on line and includes such sizzling combinations as a gala screening of The Women (1939) with Santino Rice and Jeffrey Sebelia—the bad boys of Project Runway—on hand to dish dirt on who's in and what's what. Margaret Pellegrini—one of the last surviving Munchkins—offers commentary on the festival screening of Wizard of Oz (1939). Jim Van Buskirk reveals his loving knowledge of Audrey Hepburn at a screening of Funny Face (1957) while Jan Wahl and Donna Sachet follow suit to talk hats in My Fair Lady (1964). Justin Bond—of Kiki and Herb fame—hosts Grey Gardens (1975) while Matthew Martin fastens his seatbelt for All About Eve (1950). Leave it to Huestis to program the obvious double-bill of the year: Sparkle (1976) and Dreamgirls (2006). Plus much much more!

Not having anything to wear won't be enough of an excuse for this one. Be creative, be flamboyant, be outrageous if you must, but be there!


Every now and then you're thrown a choice plum, even though sometimes it's dripping in blood!! Tonight I was among the first audience to see the world premiere of Eli Roth's anticipated sequel Hostel 2, with Roth in attendance to introduce the film and to field questions afterwards. Was the torturous wait worth it? Absolutely!!

Take my running complaints about titillating torture porn and throw them out the window. Hostel 2 takes everything I found offensive about Hostel and ups the ante, becoming even more outrageous and, in the process, somehow funnier and—dare I say it?—more enjoyable. Perfectly pitched to the extreme, Hostel 2 emerges unabashedly camp and this is why it's a better movie than its predecessor. Hostel punched Narnia out of the number one slot when it stormed the megaplexes. This year—pitted against the Transformers, Spidey3, and PiratesHostel 2 might just prove once again that it delivers a more satisfying bang for its buck.

Fresh from the resounding adoration of his Grindhouse faux-trailer Thanksgiving, Eli Roth has picked up his tale exactly where the first film left off. Paxton (Jay Hernandez), minus a few fingers, is found bleeding on a train. If you recall, he kept his head and survived the Slovakian torture factory. That proves essential to kick start this story which introduces three young women touring Eastern Europe—Beth (Lauren German), Whitney (Bijou Phillips), and Lorna (Heather Matarazzo)—who become beguiled by Axelle (Vera Jordonova), one of the most seductive villainesses in recent cinema history. She lures the nubile trio to our favorite hostel in Slovakia, allows them an evening to enjoy a harvest festival and the following day to soak in the spa, oblivious to being auctioned off to the highest bidder. Americans Todd (Richard Burgi) and Stuart (Roger Bart) win the international bidding war (gleefully rendered in split screen) and arrive in Slovakia ready to fulfill their secret sadistic desires. The rest, you might say, is a slice of life.

A major shout-out to Heather Matarazzo who may just become the reigning queen of lesbian gore. Not to be mistaken with Lesley Gore. She'll never be able to go back to the Dollhouse now. Every moment she's on screen is a delight.

Eli counters that it's a matter of personal taste whether audiences find this sequel funnier than the original. He happens to think the original was just as funny; but, I don't agree. Hostel's tone was decidedly more paranoid and uncomfortably mired in dread. That may have been partly because Hostel was influenced by the extreme cinema coming out of Asia—the work of Takashi Miike (who had a cameo in the first film), films like Audition, Battle Royale, and Chan-wook Park's Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance. With Hostel, Eli wanted to place this extreme Asian violence into an American genre film.

Whereas while he was toying with Hostel 2 and writing the sequel, Roth went to Rome where he met such great Italian directors as Sergio Martino, who made the amazing I Corpi presentano tracce di violenza carnale (Torso, 1973). Roth also saw other films like Avere vent'anni (To Be Twenty, 1978) by Fernando Di Leo—"Which was just so fucking sick; the ending of this movie I just couldn't fucking believe it"—and L'ultimo treno della notte (Night Train Murders, 1975) by Aldo Lado. These were all early 70's giallo films; not the operatic Argento-style giallo but the realistic-style giallo.

While in Rome, Roth lunched with the beautiful actress Edwige Fenech with whom he fell "madly in love." Though currently a producer and distributor, Fenech came out of 15 years of retirement to play the role of Hostel 2's Art Class professor. The Italian detective in the opening hospital sequence is Luc Merenda, the star of many 70's polizia films and famed director Ruggero Deodato (Cannibal Holocaust, 1980) flew from Rome to portray Hostel 2's cannibal (in an over-the-top scene that puts Hannibal Lecter to shame). So, yes, without question, Hostel 2 pays homage to the 1973 Italian giallo films that Roth had never seen until recently and I suspect this influence has rewardingly stylized the violence.

Cross-published on Twitch.

06/06/07 UPDATE: Kimberly over at Cinebeats has, yet again, compiled an exquisite and thorough profile of Edwige Fenech, which greatly amplifies this entry. Check it out!

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

THE PRODIGY—The SF360 Interview With William Kaufman & His Creative Team

Along with my earlier Evening Class review of William Kaufman's The Prodigy, SF360 has picked up my interview with director Kaufman and his creative team when they attended the opening night screenings of their Roxie Film Center run.

San Franciscans still have four more chances to catch the Dead Channels presentation of The Prodigy at the Roxie Film Center and I strongly encourage you to take advantage of the rare chance to view this film as it is meant to be seen on a large screen.

Cross-published at Twitch.

Friday, May 25, 2007

QUEER CINEMA—Spotlight On Jean Malin

This entry is dedicated to George Chauncey, whose masterful erudition recovered Jean Malin's biography from oblivion. My heartfelt thanks for his generous permission to use such hefty quotes from his historical study Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 (BasicBooks, 1994).

* * *

When I first saw Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca (1940), I was thrilled by a scene towards film's end where Laurence Olivier's character Maxim DeWinter reveals to Joan Fontaine—whose name we are never given; she is simply characterized as "the Second Mrs. DeWinter"—exactly how Rebecca, the First Mrs. DeWinter, met her untimely death. He describes her final movements evocatively, cueing the camera's pan across the room, so that you all but see Rebecca moving around the room, you hear her scoffing laughter, you are seduced by her cool ruthless beauty. Through the camera's intent notation of her absence, Rebecca's presence is vividly summoned. It is a masterful stroke of insinuation, of conjuration, that Hitchcock utilized once again in Rope (1948) when Jimmy Stewart's character Rupert Cadell pieces together how Brandon Shaw (John Dall) and Phillip Morgan (Farley Granger) have done away with David Kentley. Hitchcock's conceit became one of my first articulations of how someone's absence can become a palpable presence; what Raymond Carver calls "the white shadow."

There are, of course, the absences created by narrative deaths, characters who leave a story through the plot's permutations, and then there are absences created by the omissions and erasures of calculated censorship; but, the dynamic remains essentially the same—a presence is created through absence. If you are a marginalized individual—a gay male, let's say—who cannot find images of himself in the mainstream culture, then you develop the facility to mine the margins for representation, to read between the lines, and to locate presence in absence. The sheer fact of an absence of representation incites and encourages such compensatory strategies.

In his landmark study, Outlaw Representation: Censorship and Homosexuality in Twentieth-Century American Art (Oxford University Press), Richard Meyer argues for a "dialectical concept of censorship" whereby "the censorship of visual art functions not simply to erase but also to enable representation; it generates limits but also reactions to those limits; it imposes silence even as it provokes responses to that silence." (2002:15) Adapting the concept of "structural absences" introduced by Pierre Macherey in his volume A Theory Of Literary Production (which describes how literary texts are shaped by their own absences and avoidances), Meyer mines the cultural and material absence of queer art within the public sphere to sift out its presence within twentieth-century American culture from the forces of censorship that sought to eradicate it. (2002:291, fn. 52.)

When Richard Barrios indicated to me during our recent conversation that the one film added to the TCM Screened Out lineup that had not been included in his eponymous book was the comedy-drama Double Harness (1933), he provided a good reason: the film had simply not been available for nearly 50 years and was only recently brought to light due to resolution of a longstanding legal dispute between King Kong creator Merian C. Cooper and former RKO and Selznick International Pictures finance executive Ernest L. Scanlon (the details of which can be gleaned from the TCM press release). But there was an equally good reason for Barrios to include Double Harness in the Screened Out program; namely, that Jean Malin was not in the film. His absence is historically important. As the TCM press notes point out: "Jean Malin, who had gained fame as a female impersonator in the 1920's and was part of the so-called 'pansy craze' of the early 1930's, was originally cast as dress-shop owner Bruno in the opening scenes. He filmed the sequence and can still be seen in some publicity stills. But the scenes were reshot with Fredric Santley, at the then-sizeable cost of $1,669, after RKO executives ruled that Malin was too flamboyant a presence even for those liberal times. Studio president B.B. Kahane wrote in an inter-studio memo that 'I do not think we ought to have this man on the lot on any picture—shorts or features.' "

It's odd to watch a film to gain a sense of an actor who's not in the film. But as Double Harness was available on Comcast On Demand—and intrigued enough to take a look before its Screened Out broadcast—I took a look at Double Harness.

Wikipedia's succinct profile of the "brief meteoric rise of the career/phenomenon of Gene (Jean) Malin" is unabashedly dependent upon George Chauncey's excellent discussion on Malin and the phenomenon of the Pansy Craze, Chapter 11—"Pansies on Parade: Prohibition and the Spectacle of the Pansy"—from his fascinating study Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 (BasicBooks, 1994).

Gene Malin, Wikipedia writes, was born Victor Eugene James Malin in Brooklyn on June 30, 1908 to working class Polish/Lithuanian parents. He had two brothers and two sisters. As a child, Gene attended P.S. 50 in Brooklyn and then went on to Eastern District High School for a while. One brother became a cop the other worked for a sugar refinery, but Gene had other inclinations early on. As a teenager Gene was already winning prizes for his costumes at the elaborate Manhattan Drag Balls of the 1920s. [Chauncey claims he "was said to have won prizes for an outfit of black velvet and silver lace and for several other more exotic creations consisting entirely of pink or gold feathers" (1994:314).] By his late teens Malin had worked as a chorus boy in several Broadway shows ("Princess Flavor", "Miami", "Sisters of the Chorus") [but lost several jobs because he was too effeminate]. Around the same period, Malin worked at several Greenwich Village clubs as a drag performer, [first at Paul and Joe's but] most notably the "Rubaiyat".

Several columnists noted his talent and in 1930 (age 22) Malin was booked at Louis Schwartzs' elegant "Club Abbey" at 46th and 8th Ave. It was at this point that Malins' career and fate took a most interesting turn. Although Malin was at times assisted by "Helen Morgan JR.", a popular drag artist of the day, he did not appear in drag himself. The crux of his act was not to impersonate women, but to appear as an openly gay male (emphasis on the Male). Here he moved on stage and amongst the audience members as tuxedo clad, elegant, witty, wisecracking Emcee, Master of Ceremonies. He still often resorted to a broad exaggerated swishing image and the many other such "Pansy acts" that followed—often had a tone of a straight vaudeville man doing an exaggerated impersonation of an effeminate "Pansy". Perhaps the joke had several levels—as the performer was often a gay man doing his impression of a straight man doing his impression of a gay man. (Shades of Victor Victoria, anyone?) Regardless, in doing so, Malin and other such performers as "Karl Norman" and "Ray Bourbon" ignited a "Pansy Craze" in New York's speakeasies and later in other cities as well. Malin became the top earner of Broadway for a time. After headlining numerous New York Clubs, he took his act to Boston and ultimately to the West Coast. While in Hollywood, he appeared in several films (such as Arizona to Broadway and Joan Crawford's Dancing Lady) usually as the stock character of a witty limpwristed clerk.

In the early hours of August 10, 1933, Gene Malin was killed in a freak accident. He had just performed a "farewell performance" at the "Ship Cafe" in Venice California. He piled into his sedan with roommate Jimmy Forlenza and Comedic actress Patsy Kelly. It seems that Malin confused the gears and the car lurched in reverse and went off a pier into the water. Malin was instantly killed (pinned under the steering wheel) the other two were seriously hurt, but miraculously survived. It is staggering to realize that Malin was only 24 years of age at the time of his death. Although many in his audience probably saw him as one more oddity, in a short span of time Malin had made and changed the course of history!

Malin left behind two recordings, released posthumously and pressed in a single royal blue shellac 78, "That's What's the Matter With Me" and "I'd Rather Be Spanish Than Mannish"; the latter can be heard here.

The Queer Music Heritage site has a great video clip of Malin in Arizona to Broadway (1933), perhaps the earliest clip of a performance by an actual female impersonator. Malin had an uncredited role as Ray Best, a female impersonator who's conspicuously channeling Mae West. Synopsis: Gangster Tommy Monk wants to have a Broadway show so at gunpoint he coerces Malin, Jimmy Durante and Ed Wynn to perform.

There are a couple of things that strike me in this wonderful and valuable video clip. First, as indicated above, this was not Malin's characteristic representation. He normally did not perform in drag. He performed as a pansy, not a female impersonator. Chauncey writes (1994:315): "By the time Malin moved his act from the Village to the Club Abbey, he had transformed his stage role from that of a female impersonator to that of a pansy. A large and imposing man, he strolled about the club, interacting with the patrons and using his camp wit to entertain them (and presumably scandalizing them with his overtly gay comments). …Malin's 'act' was simply to bring the camp wit of the gay subculture from Greenwich Village to the floor of one of the city's swankiest clubs, although virtually no evidence remains concerning the precise content of that act. He 'wore men's clothes,' one paper explained, 'but [he] talked and acted like women.' Some newspapers continued to call him a female impersonator, even though he wore men's clothes; others called him a male impersonator, as if his male clothes were the only manly thing about him."

What is of equally distinctive importance here is that Malin gained notoriety for being "a pansy playing a pansy." Chauncey clarifies (1994:316): "Malin, in other words, was regarded as a gay man whose nightclub act revolved around his being gay, not as a 'normal' man scornfully mimicking gay mannerisms or engaging in homosexual buffoonery, as was the case in most vaudeville and burlesque routines." Further, Malin's nightclub act disrupted conventional spatial arrangements between performer and audience. He was not isolated on a stage; he wandered freely among the Club Abbey clientele, frequently ridiculing the straight men who heckled him.

Chauncey expounds (1994:317): "His very presence on the club floor elicited the catcalls of many men in the club, but he responded to their abuse by ripping them to shreds with the drag queen's best weapon: his wit. 'He had a lisp, and an attitude, but he also had a sharp tongue,' according to one columnist. 'The wise cracks and inquiries of the men who hooted at his act found ready answer.' And if hostile spectators tried to use brute force to take him on after he had defeated them with his wit, he was prepared to humble them on those terms as well. 'He was a huge youth,' one paper reported, 'weighing 200, and a six footer. Not a few professional pugilists sighed because Jean seemed to prefer dinner rings to boxing rings.' Although Malin's act remained tame enough to safeguard its wide appeal, it nonetheless embodied the complicated relationship between pansies and 'normal' men. His behavior was consistent with their demeaning stereotype of how a pansy should behave, but he demanded their respect; he fascinated and entertained them, but he also threatened and infuriated them."

One instantly recognizes the precedent Malin set for subsequent performances such as Terrence Stamp's Ralph/Bernadette Bassenger in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994), not only by his actions in the video clip from Arizona to Broadway but through his own life. "A story told about Malin highlights the image he developed as a street-smart defender of his dignity as a gay man and the degree to which his fans thought his stage and offstage personas were one and the same. Published in the Daily Mirror after he had become famous, and presumably circulating in the gay world before then, the story explained that after winning the prize for being the 'best-dressed woman' at a Greenwich Village drag ball, he had wandered into a cafeteria without having bothered to change his clothes. This was … a common step for a man to take after experiencing the heady solidarity of a drag ball, and the heckling he started to receive from some of the other customers at the cafeteria was also fairly routine. But what happened next was not. 'When a party of four rough looking birds tossed a pitcher of hot water at him as he danced by,' the columnist reported, 'he pitched into them. After beating three of them into insensibility, the fight went into the street, with two taxi drivers coming to the assistance of the surviving member of the original foursome.' The story portrayed Malin as claiming his right to move openly through the city as a drag queen. Still, it ended on a suitable camp note. When the fight was over, Malin was said to have had tears in his eyes. Yes, he'd won the fight, he told another man, 'but look at the disgraceful state my gown is in!' " (Chauncey, 1994:317-318.) One might even add that Malin not only influenced subsequent performances, but set the tenor of the Stonewall (East Coast) and Compton Cafeteria (West Coast) riots.

Monday, May 21, 2007

SCREENED OUT: GAY IMAGES IN FILMThe Evening Class Interview With Richard Barrios

Holding degrees in musicology and cinema studies, Richard Barrios worked in the music and documentary film industries before turning to the area of film history. His first book was the acclaimed A Song in the Dark: The Birth of the Musical Film, which received the prestigious Theatre Library Association Award. Screened Out: Playing Gay in Hollywood from Edison to Stonewall, his second book, was a finalist for that same prize. He has written for numerous publications including The New York Times, and has lectured on film at the Smithsonian and American Film Institutes, among other venues.

For Turner Classic Movies, he narrated and appeared in Busby Berkeley: Going Through the Roof, which was also shown on PBS's Great Performances. His numerous appearances in documentaries on television and DVD also include Fred and Ginger: Partners in Rhythm and Oklahoma!: CinemaScope vs. Todd-AO. Additionally, he has served as audio commentator for the DVD releases of State Fair, The King and I, South Pacific, and Words and Music. Originally hailing from the swamps of South Louisiana, Barrios currently resides in the Philadelphia area.

Richard kindly consented to a phone interview. My heartfelt thanks to TCM's publicist Sarah Hamilton for helping facilitate same.

* * *

Michael Guillén: Thank you for taking a few minutes today, Richard, to talk about the upcoming TCM broadcast of Screened Out.

Richard Barrios: Glad to do it. I was actually reading your blog this morning and enjoying it vastly. I can't wait to see La Vie En Rose and I love the background you gave for it.

Guillén: Thank you, I'm glad to hear that. Now, I want to make sure, this is the first time that this program is being run on TCM?

Barrios: Yeah. Last year they ran a comparable program called Race In Hollywood: Black Images In Film. This year it's on Gay and Lesbian film.

Guillén: In his review of your book Screened Out for the Guardian, Simon Callow commented: "Barrios's admirable book seems perhaps to be overstating the importance of the movies—television, both here and in America, is again becoming a great engine for social change, more adept at reflecting realities than its older brother. …Television is again the medium of the future." It must feel particularly sweet to have had your book cross over to the "medium of the future" to be used as the template for this month-long program?

Barrios: Absolutely! I admire Simon Callow immensely as an actor and a writer and everything else. I didn't always feel he quite grasped what I was getting at in the book and I do say in the book that the period after the book cuts out—I cut out with Boys In the Band in 1970—it wasn't until after [1970] that television did pick up the slack and has continued to. It's much richer in its programming of gay and lesbian images than film; but, that didn't happen until [the time period] after my book had cut out. To have this opportunity for us to have this retrospective and talk about how these films spoke to audience members—gay and straight—is an extraordinary opportunity. I'm very grateful.

Guillén: Extraordinary and phenomenal. It's amazing that TCM would be doing this for the queer community during Pride Month. Can you speak on how the project manifested itself? Were you approached or did you pitch a proposal?

Barrios: It was actually very interesting. It came from good networking. When Screened Out (the book) first came out in the Fall of 2002, I actually went down to Atlanta to speak and present a screening of the film Turnabout, which is actually going to be part of our Screened Out series and there's a still from it on the cover of my book. That was at the Out on Film Festival that they have in Atlanta every year. When I was there, I met a gentleman named Lee Tsiantis who works in the legal department, not of TCM but more the parent Turner organization and he's a great movie buff and he had been a big fan of my first book, A Song In The Dark. He and I touched base and exchanged email and every once in a while we'd write over the next few years. Last year we were speaking and he mentioned that one of his friends and business associates worked in the programming department at TCM, a man named Dennis Millay. Dennis was not familiar with Screened Out and Lee mentioned it to Dennis and they basically both had a light bulb go off together. Dennis called me and I put together a proposal and film clips of some of the pertinent films to show them the variety and richness of what was out there. Dennis pitched it and TCM took it. I was ecstatic and a little surprised because it is further afield than TCM has gone; but, I think very appropriate. By December, we knew it was going to happen and I shot the shows actually in April.

Guillén: It speaks to TCM's courage and farsightedness in how they're reaching out not only to a younger audience but their queer constituency, as well as responsibly educating their straight audiences as well. Did the transposition to television present any complications for you?

Barrios: The only consideration was that the last night of The Fox and Staircase and Boys In the Band and The Killing of Sister George were all originally rated R. Actually Sister George when it first came out was rated X and then they changed it to an R later. That kind of material has to be run after certain hours. It has to be run later. That's why whenever TCM runs Raging Bull, it's always in the wee hours; they can't run it in prime time. So that necessitated a bit of shifting around. As big as TCM's library is, the fact that they went outside the library to get these—all four of these are TCM premieres and we have several others that are being TCM-premiered—what better support could you ask for? I'm lost in appreciation for how much they've extended themselves.

Guillén: That's wonderful to hear about TCM's support in helping you develop this program. If—as Callow also comments—"film mirror[s] the prevailing social climate", what distinguishes the historical approach of your project from, let's say, Vito Russo's The Celluloid Closet, which—tethered to the temper of its time—eschewed negative stereotypes in an effort to portray positive mainstream images of queer identity? You seem unfettered by that concern and willing to embrace and celebrate performances that might be considered negative stereotypes. What value or relevance does that have for queer folk today?

Barrios: Some of the films that I write about, I've seen audiences and spectators react either way to them, either cringe or really embrace them. It's a matter of context and of the eye and ear of the beholder. People ask me, of course, about Vito Russo a lot and—without his work—mine would have certainly not been possible. When he was writing The Celluloid Closet, look at the decade he was coming off. It had been just horrible. After The Boys in the Band, there weren't any major follow-ups. The big four queer movies that we're running the last night of the series—and there were a couple of others like The Sergeant and one or two others—after that, there was nothing except people to be murdered or villains or psycho-dykes. Then, of course, it climaxes with Cruising—gee, thanks—so when he was writing his book, he was coming off that and I think his anger and railing against the negativity was an apt reflection of what he and audiences had just been seeing. At the same time, a lot of the earlier [films] that I write about, especially a lot of the [films] made before the Production Code, they were not available to him. There was no TCM in the early 80's,of course, so he didn't know about a lot of these [films]. One of the reasons I was able to write Screened Out, in fact, and have as many films in it as I did—and that I'm now programming at TCM—is because I saw things on TCM that sometimes just astonished me about the range and sometimes the explicitness of these portrayals, even in movies made in the early 1930's.

Guillén: My experience has been similar watching movies on TCM. The subtext within which so much of queer history has been marginalized and hidden accomplishes—at the same time—a witty subversion. Have you set criteria by which to distinguish when queer representation has been an act of purposeful subversion incorporated into a film against recontextualizations of when queerness has been read into a classic film, which is subversion of a different color?

Barrios: Actually Robert Osborne and I have a discussion on camera about matters to that effect on at least one occasion of all the films that we're co-hosting, when we're running Gilda. He takes the view on camera: why would anyone see queer stuff in Gilda? I've always seen it but I also know it's not just existing in a vacuum either and that many many others have seen it. You go back and you wonder, "Did they really mean it?" Well, Glenn Ford was quoted as saying he did know it [whereas] the director Charles Vidor said he did not know it. So you get a "he said, he said" sort of thing. I really did want to put everything into its context and not have the content as something that we see now and attach our retrospective opinions and cynicisms upon. I really wanted it to be more about what audiences saw in these films when they came out because I think film's role in giving especially gay and lesbian spectators—who naturally would have been incredibly hidden away in the 30's and 40's and 50's even—a sense of identification that they probably wouldn't have gotten anywhere else from any kind of mass culture, even when the images are fleeting or momentary. When I did the research, [I found] out more and more that, yes, this is what they intended. They were broadcasting these scenes and messages and characters to those who would be capable of receiving them.

Guillén: That's what I find essentially radical about your scholarship; that this is how these films were intended to be seen and not just recontextualized by wishful projection.

Barrios: You can basically read anything as queer if you want to. [That's] certainly one of the cornerstones of queer theory. I got one review online that mentioned that I only referred in the book to queer theory in passing and that I misunderstood it. I don't usually get insulted but I really was insulted by that because I do work with queer theory; but, I chose to use the parts of it that suited my thesis. I didn't want to fit everything into that template either. It was more important for me as a historian to go back and see, "Is this what they meant? Is this how it was received?" Over and over I found out, yes, it was.

Guillén: Michael Musto, Ron Nyswaner, Charles Busch, Tab Hunter and Alan Cumming have also been enlisted to provide commentary and retrospective on the series….

Barrios: And Don Murray, which I'm really excited about!

Guillén: Don Murray, eh? How's that to be set up? Are you in dialogues with them?

Barrios: No. I never met any of them actually. They're [filmed] for the interstitial [segments] that run between movies throughout the month.

Guillén: I imagine your book covers many more films than were chosen for the television program. Was it difficult to winnow out the films you wanted to present? How was that selection process accomplished?

Barrios: Basically Dennis Millay, the programmer, and I talked for a while. Once the decision was made to limit the films to the same time span that I covered in the book, and that parameter was set—because, you know, part of me would have loved to add Making Love maybe or Longtime Companion, Parting Glances, Go Fish, whatever—but, they wanted to keep it in the same time frame as the book. After that [parameter was set], I knew there were some [films] that were really key, some that were just personal favorites of mine for one reason or another, some that I knew were incredibly important and then it turned out that there were one or two that were just not going to be available. I would have loved, for example, Hitchcock's Rope—which would have been an important film in this whole area—but, it was not available. They couldn't get it.

Guillén: Are there any films included in the program that are not written about in your book?

Barrios: The only one that is [not in the book] is one that I wouldn't have had any way to know about when I was writing the book. I don't know if you saw it last month when TCM ran the RKO Lost and Found group of six films?

Guillén: Regretfully, I didn't catch that, no.

Barrios: There were six movies released by RKO in the 1930's that had not been part of the t.v. packages and had basically not been seen in more than 40-50 years. One of them [in that group] was a racy comedy drama from 1933 called Double Harness with William Powell and Ann Harding. What the people at TCM had found out because they had all the legal correspondence was that it had originally featured a scene with Jean Malin who was the most famous gay American entertainer of the 1930's. He was like the superstar of the pansy craze that swept the country in the early 30's. They filmed one scene with him where he's wearing rouge and is playing a dress designer. Once the studio chiefs realized who he was and they did a little checking and realized how notorious he was, they made them go back and re-shoot the scene; but, we actually have a still of him in the scene. For Malin's queer notoriety to have been a consideration in a movie shot in 1933, I said, "Oh yeah, we have to run that. That's just too important a part of the history."

Guillén: I'm definitely glad I get a second chance to take a look at that. Are the evening's themes patterned after chapters in the book?

Barrios: No. Not really. We had to go with what was available and extant. In the first couple of chapters of the book a lot of the movies I wrote about are basically lost. I went more with, in some cases, genre. We have an evening of comedy, an evening of horror, film noir, the early pre-Code [films]. Some of it's more historical, like the last couple of nights are the films that really pushed the Production Code starting with Tea and Sympathy and then the films that were out and open after the code was gone and there was the rating system. So [the programming] is a combination of genre and historical [importance].

Guillén: Well, I'll take this opportunity to say that—one of the reasons why I have to ask you so many questions about the book—is because I've had trouble locating it here in the queerest of cities in the world. I sincerely hope your publisher Routledge Press will do some restocking in urban centers of your book in preparation for the TCM broadcast.

Barrios: I would certainly hope so. I know that TCM has attempted to talk to Routledge about that. I don't know what the story is. All I'll say on the record is that the distribution of this book is not [that admirable].

Guillén: All the more important that you've been able to transfer your research to this TCM program to make your thoughts more widely available.

Barrios: Robert Osborne does make a point of holding up the book several times every night, which I'm really happy about. [Laughs.]

Guillén: That's funny. Let's talk about some of the films you've selected. I'll be posting the entire schedule, but, for our purposes, let's begin with—what I understand—is one of your favorites: Cecil B. DeMille's Sign of the Cross (1932), whose notoriously steamy "Naked Moon" sequence was claimed by Cecil B. DeMille—in a "magnificently hypocritical" piece of direction—to be "a dreadful warning."

Barrios: [Laughs.] Well, yeah. He wanted to turn people on as well as shock and repel them. He wanted to have it all ways. He knew that "Naked Moon", the lesbian song and dance, was going to be shocking for people and he thought it was a big turn-on as well. That's the whole cornerstone of a lot of DeMille's work. You have to show the appeal of sin in order to condemn it.

Guillén: That's moreorless how I've lived my life. Now, I note that you include two queer noir selections—The Big Combo and The Maltese Falcon—and I was curious, first of all, if you know anyone who has been writing on queer noir? Secondly, someone like Raymond Burr who frequently features in queer noir as a straight heavy; where do these closeted performances fit into the queer canon?

Barrios: It's very interesting. In the book I don't deal a great deal with offscreen [affairs]. I only do it insofar as it impacted on the onscreen images, like with Rock Hudson in some of the comedies where he plays faggy to get the girl like in Pillow Talk and A Very Special Favor. A lot of times I don't necessarily deal with [closeted sexuality] when I don't find that it has a large impact on the screen persona. With Raymond Burr, you don't think of many of Raymond Burr's characters having any sexuality. Even in Perry Mason, his sexuality wasn't there. Generally in noir, there's so many figuratively and literally shadowy personalities. The whole layout of noir both physically and dramatically encourages ambiguity.

Guillén: Do you know anyone who's writing on that?

Barrios: Not offhand though I'm sure it has been [written about]. The Maltese Falcon has been written about so much in that way. So much so that I didn't feel that it was essential for us to have to host that and that's why it's on late night. I felt something like The Big Combo—which had not been written about as much as The Maltese Falcon had in this context—and the relationship between Earl Holliman and Lee Van Cleef's characters in The Big Combo are brilliantly important and very explicit as well.

Guillén: You complete the series (and your book) with Mart Crowley's The Boys in the Band, which came out nine days after the Stonewall riots. The Boys in the Band—whose commitment to film Simon Callow terms "a relative triumph" even as another critic described it as an "instant relic"—is further described by Callow as "a truthful account of some gay lives at a time of considerable oppression, though scarcely an affirmation of gay liberation." I remember being horrified and repulsed by this script when I first read it as a teenager, even though now I can respect its tribute to painfully enunciated strategies of survival. Why did you choose to stop your inquiry with this film? Why didn't you continue on writing about queer cinema as it's being expressed today?

Barrios: It was my feeling that the period after The Boys in the Band had really been covered by other writers starting with Vito Russo with thoroughness and candor. It was more important for me to illumine the earlier years that I didn't feel had been covered enough. I had done that with my first book as well. Song in the Dark is about the birth of the movie musical and I cut out right when Fred and Ginger were getting started because I wanted to illumine the earlier part, which wasn't as well [documented]. It's also a way to respect other people who have done really good work. I don't think I could have brought anything to those later films after The Boys in the Band that Vito Russo hadn't already done with all that. I made it a point in the book to refer to The Boys in the Band as the gay equivalent of The Birth Of A Nation. On the one hand it's groundbreaking, extremely important on a lot of levels, and you look at it today and it's certainly not impossible to feel repelled by it.

Guillén: I'm hoping that the TCM broadcast of Screened Out will engender invitations for you to come to the Bay Area to present a program. Have you ever lectured here?

Barrios: Not in the Bay Area, no, and I would love to so if you know anybody, I'd be more than happy. I even bring 16mm film clips with me.

Guillén: That's excellent. I'll actually mention it to Jennifer Morris who is the programmer for our Frameline Festival because I would love to hear you speak in person.

Barrios: They like me. [Laughs.] There's just so much richness of material in the clips and the nature of a lot of these movies is that they get at the short excepts very well. A lot of these images are fleeting and you get it across in just a few [frames]. Just like that famous moment in Wonder Bar when the two guys dance off on the dancefloor. You get the whole thing in just a few seconds. They're very excerptable.

Guillén: Well thank you very much, Richard, I appreciate your taking the time and I certainly look forward to the broadcast.

Barrios: Thank you so much. Thank you for everything.

Cross-published at Twitch.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

QUEER CINEMA—Turner Classic Movies Broadcast of Screened Out: Gay Images In Film

June is Pride Month for the queer community and this year promises to be perhaps one of the richest celebrations in recent memory, beginning with the groundbreaking Turner Classic Movies broadcast of Screened Out: Gay Images In Film, a month-long 44-film tribute inspired by the Richard Barrios book Screened Out: Playing Gay in Hollywood from Edison to Stonewall, moderated by Barrios with Robert Osborne and interstitial commentary by Michael Musto, Ron Nyswaner, Charles Busch, Tab Hunter, Alan Cumming and Don Murray. TCM is airing the series every Monday and Wednesday in June at 8:00PM Eastern / 5:00PM Pacific.

Bookwrapcentral offers up a great sampling of video clips of Barrios discussing his book. To further set the stage, here's a YouTube clip on Tab Hunter. My thanks to AfterElton for alerting me to same:

Here's the program schedule for Screened Out: Gay Images In Film. All Times Pacific. Notes by TCM.

Monday, June 4
Night One—The Early Years

At a time when much of the world is hotly debating rights that should or should not be granted to lesbians and gay men, it's useful to recall that the controversy has been present for a far greater time than many people realize. The struggle has, in fact, long been evident in American life, and sometimes even more evident in American film. Richard Barrios's book Screened Out traces the history of the movies' portrayal of gays and lesbians from the earliest years through the end of the 1960s and the birth of the Gay Liberation movement. Many of those portrayals, in the long-ago days of silent movies and early talkies, were brief and fleeting, just as real-life men and women who acknowledged their homosexuality were compelled to lead furtive and sometimes shadowy lives.

However, some of the cinematic portrayals of "the love that dare not speak its name" were more substantial, as the first evening's programming of the Screened Out series demonstrates. These early characters provide a window not only on how homosexuality was portrayed in film but also how it was perceived by the general public and in many cases by homosexuals themselves. The men were most often flamboyant dandies ("pansies"), the women usually wore close-cropped hair and smoked cigars—stereotypes, to be sure, but with some foundation in gay and lesbian realities, both positive and otherwise, as they existed in the earlier parts of the 20th century.

Algie, the Miner (1912—TCM premiere), directed by the pioneering filmmaker Alice Guy-Blaché, predates even the Charlie Chaplin comedies with its wild-and-wooly tale of an effeminate Easterner who makes his fortune out west. The Lon Chaney horror-comedy The Monster (1925) costars Johnny Arthur, who often portrayed high-strung "nervous nellies" in late silents and early talkies. The 1926 comedy Exit Smiling, a vehicle for the comedian and gay icon Beatrice Lillie, was the first feature film appearance of Franklin Pangborn, who became the movies' foremost interpreter of covert gay roles in the 1930s and 1940s. And the Oscar®-winning The Broadway Melody (1929) was both the first true original film musical and the talkies' first instance of a flamboyant theatrical type—the giggly costume designer played by Drew Demarest.

Also running on the first night: Way Out West (1930), in which MGM's gay star William Haines occasionally comes close to "outing" himself; The Office Wife (1930), with character actress Blanche Friderici donning tweeds to play a cigar-smoking "literary type"; and the backstage epic Stage Mother (1933), in which Alice Brady (in the title role) pushes her daughter onto the boards with a big assist from a flaming dance coach (Jay Eaton).

5:00 PM Algie, the Miner ('12)
5:30 PM The Monster ('25)
7:15 PM Exit Smiling ('26)
8:45 PM The Broadway Melody ('29)
10:45 PM Way Out West ('30)
12:00 AM The Office Wife ('30)
1:15 AM Stage Mother ('33)

Wednesday, June 6
Night Two: Gays Before the Code

Prior to the enforcement of the oppressive Motion Picture Production Code in 1934, Hollywood films treated audiences to a smorgasbord of sex, crime and other transgressive delights. During this time, as is clear from tonight's selections, the movies didn't shy away from homosexuality. Cecil B. DeMille's The Sign of the Cross (1932), with violence and nudity crammed alongside of faith and spirituality, is one of the most extreme of the Pre-Code efforts. Charles Laughton became a top star with his portrayal of a (literally) flaming Nero, but the film's most blatant sequence is undoubtedly "The Naked Moon," a song and dance of lesbian seduction performed by the exotic Joyzelle.

In Our Betters (1933), with gay director George Cukor filming gay author Somerset Maugham's comedy of manners, the plot crises are resolved only with the over-the-top entrance of the unforgettable Ernest (Tyrell Davis), a dance instructor whose florid and rouged ways raised hackles with both censors and studio chiefs. In the wake of this portrayal, RKO's Double Harness (1933) was given a significant piece of surgery: Jean Malin, an "out" gay nightclub emcee in real life, found his one scene reshot with another actor due to studio fears over Malin's fame and notoriety. MGM's Queen Christina (1933) also ran into censor difficulties, but these were over its portrayal of the queen's fictitious heterosexual romance; the more authentic love affair between the queen (Greta Garbo) and Countess Ebba (Elizabeth Young) was allowed to remain.

Later in the night, the 1934 musical extravaganza Wonder Bar memorably features a male-male duo out on the dance floor, and The Sport Parade (1932) includes enough gay allusions and undercurrents for its costar, William Gargan as to have its depiction of his relationship with Joel McCrea later described as, "Boy meets boy; boy loses boy; boy gets boy."

5:00 PM The Sign of the Cross ('32)
7:15 PM Our Betters ('33)
8:45 PM Double Harness ('33)
10:00 PM Queen Christina ('33)
11:45 PM Wonder Bar ('34)
1:15 AM The Sport Parade ('32)

Monday, June 11
Men and Women Behind Bars

Homosexuality has frequently been a feature of prison movies, perhaps because the censors seemed to be more permissive when such frankness was made part of a penal environment. In the 1932 chain-gang exposé Hell's Highway, a corrupt prison official enjoys some down time with the camp's effeminate cook. The following year, in Ladies They Talk About, Barbara Stanwyck finds herself behind bars with a cigar-smoking type and her fluffy girlfriend. The central conflict in Warner Bros.' Caged (1950), the ultimate women's prison melodrama, is that of a sadistic matron (Oscar nominee Hope Emerson) tormenting young inmate Eleanor Parker, who also attracts the fond eye of vice queen Lee Patrick. Also from 1950 is the reform-school saga So Young, So Bad, which ran into censor trouble with its blunt hints of affection between runaways Anne Jackson and Enid Pulver.

The 1957 drama The Strange One starkly portrays a prison of another sort: a brutal military academy dominated by a sadistic Ben Gazzara, who enjoys terrorizing his adoring acolyte "Cockroach" (Paul). Women's Prison (1955) features a self-explanatory title and yet another sadist: ultra-nasty warden Amelia Van Zandt, played to the manner born by Ida Lupino.

5:00 PM Hell's Highway ('32)
6:15 PM Ladies They Talk About ('33)
7:30 PM Caged ('50)
9:15 PM So Young, So Bad ('50)
11:00 PM The Strange One ('57)
1:00 AM Women's Prison ('55)

Wednesday, June 13
The Dark Side: Film Noir and Crime

At a time when some real-life lesbians and gay men were compelled to live secretively or even illegally, gay and lesbian characters and undercurrents were often a part of movies dealing with the shady side of the law. In 1955, the tough and violent film noir The Big Combo (TCM premiere) featured Lee Van Cleef and Earl Holliman as another gay couple definitely on the wrong side of the law, working as mob hit men. The film version of Tennessee Williams's play Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) was the most controversial film of its day, with its all-star cast (Elizabeth Taylor, Katharine Hepburn, Montgomery Clift) and A-list director (Joseph L. Mankiewicz) put at the service of some sensational subject matter: the mysterious and ghastly death of a New Orleans poet who, it turns out, was a gay predator. Taylor returned to gay-tinged material in John Huston's Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967), adapted from Carson McCullers's gothic tale of murder on an army base in the South. Marlon Brando stars opposite Taylor, giving a memorable performance as her closeted officer-husband who is obsessed with enlisted man Robert Forster.

Rounding out the evening are two classics from the 1940s. Gilda (1946) features the every-which-way romantic triangle of Rita Hayworth, at her most electrifying, plus Glenn Ford and George Macready. And John Huston's The Maltese Falcon (1941) features a definitive portrait of deviousness: Peter Lorre as the gay crook Joel Cairo.

5:00 PM The Big Combo ('55)
7:00 PM Suddenly, Last Summer ('59)
9:00 PM Reflections in a Golden Eye ('67)
11:00 PM Gilda ('46)
1:00 AM The Maltese Falcon ('41)

Monday, June 18

The collection of films shifts from the melodramatic shadows of crime films to out-and-out horror, a genre in which gay characters have served as villains and victims since the 1930s. The sophisticated haunted-house story The Uninvited became somewhat of a cult movie in 1944 when it became obvious, at least to some lesbian and gay audiences, that its (female) ghost had been in a highly-charged relationship with one of its live characters, the domineering Miss Holloway (Cornelia Otis Skinner). The following year, MGM's adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray raised the hackles of the Roman Catholic censorious Legion of Decency after critics commented on how well writer-director Albert Lewin had been able to convey the homosexual undercurrents in the classic Oscar Wilde tale.

Voodoo Island, from 1957, is a notably less prestigious horror yarn than its two predecessors this evening, despite the presence of Boris Karloff in the starring (and non-villainous) role. It's also one of the major surprises in Screened Out, as it features the most explicitly frank lesbian character (played by Jean Engstrom) in American film since the pre-Code days. Robert Wise's The Haunting (1963; not to be confused with the 1999 remake) is one of the most genuinely chilling of all cinematic ghost stories. Claire Bloom costars as the beautiful and sophisticated Theo, who hails from Greenwich Village and is both a psychic and a lesbian. Also from Greenwich Village, and also lesbian, are the chic devil-worshippers in The Seventh Victim (1943), one of the most affecting and subtle of the Val Lewton horror classics.

5:00 PM The Uninvited ('44)
7:00 PM The Picture of Dorian Gray ('45)
9:00 PM Voodoo Island ('57)
10:30 PM The Haunting ('63)
12:30 AM The Seventh Victim ('43)

Wednesday, June 20

Movies frequently laugh at gay characters. Fortunately, and almost as often, they laugh with them, and so tonight's lineup features a varied group of gay-themed comedians. Manhattan Parade (1931) is one of the lesser-known Warner Bros. wisecracking comedies. Set at a theatrical costume house, it costars Bobby Watson as Paisley, the company's ace designer. (In later years, Watson moved from playing gay characters to being the movies' foremost portrayer of Adolf Hitler.) In George Cukor's Sylvia Scarlett (1935), Katharine Hepburn stars as Sylvia, who cuts her hair and masquerades as Sylvester, thus causing sexual confusion in co-stars Brian Aherne and Cary Grant.

Confusion also runs rampant in the supernatural 1940 comedy Turnabout, which features an upwardly mobile husband and wife (John Hubbard and Carole Landis) who magically manage to exchange bodies. In a supporting role, Franklin Pangborn essayed one of his most explicitly gay roles, thus bringing down the wrath of the Motion Picture Production Code. Gay themes frequently turned up in the sex comedies popular in the early 1960s, especially those starring Doris Day. Case in point: That Touch of Mink (1962), in which Gig Young's psychiatrist suspects him of having an affair with Cary Grant.

The laughs continue late into the night with The Producers (1968). No targets are safe from writer-director Mel Brooks, and this includes Broadway director Roger DeBris (Patrick Hewitt) and his exotic partner Carmen Giya (Andreas Voutsinas). In Vincente Minnelli's 1957 Designing Woman, sports writer Gregory Peck has a culture clash with wife Lauren Bacall's world of fashion and theater, as embodied by dance director Randy (played by famed choreographer Jack Cole).

5:00 PM Manhattan Parade ('31)
6:30 PM Sylvia Scarlett ('36)
8:15 PM Turnabout ('40)
9:45 PM That Touch of Mink ('62)
11:30 PM The Producers ('68)
1:00 AM Designing Woman ('57)

Monday, June 25

After years of domination by the restrictive Motion Picture Production Code, movies began, in the later 1950s, to explore franker themes and ideas. Among the films to successfully extend the limits of the Code were several having gay themes as their central premise. It took MGM nearly three years to come up with a Code-viable adaptation of the Broadway smash Tea and Sympathy. In Vincente Minnelli's 1956 film version, John Kerr repeats his stage role as the pre-school teenager accused of being gay (or, in this Code-softened version, a "sister boy"). In 1962 Otto Preminger, no stranger to cinematic provocation, pushed hard and successfully against Code strictures to feature a gay-themed subplot—and the screen's first visit to a gay bar—in the multistar political drama Advise and Consent.

Another high-profile director, William Wyler, first filmed Lillian Hellman's stage hit The Children's Hour in 1936, with both the title and the subject matter—accusations of lesbianism hurled at two women running a girl's school—changed. (That version was retitled These Three.) When Wyler decided to refilm the story in 1962, the Production Code was still objecting—but this time, after extensive wranglings, Wyler reinstated both the title and the theme with the assistance of some major star power: Audrey Hepburn, Shirley MacLaine, James Garner, and Oscar nominee Fay Bainter. That same year saw the Code challenged some more when another star, Barbara Stanwyck, was cast as a New Orleans madam having an affair with one of her "girls" (Capucine) in the aptly titled Walk On the Wild Side. A Code seal was given to all these films, but was denied the pioneering (and still-timely) British drama Victim (1961), in which Dirk Bogarde stars as a prominent barrister being blackmailed for a long-ago gay infatuation.

5:00 PM Tea and Sympathy ('56)
7:15 PM Advise and Consent ('62)
9:45 PM The Children's Hour ('61)
11:45 PM Walk on the Wild Side ('62)
2:45 AM Victim ('61)

Wedensday, June 27
Out and Open

When the Motion Picture Production Code was finally dismantled in 1968 in favor of the new rating system (G, R, X, etc.), the movies were finally free to tackle previously taboo material. It seemed for a while that gay/lesbian themes would be part of Hollywood's new-found explicitness, but after some early efforts the movies essentially relegated the gays to the fringes, or put them back in the closet completely. On this, the final night of the Screened Out series, TCM looks at four major films (all TCM premieres) to depict "out" homosexuality in the first flush of the movies' new liberality. Stanley Donen's Staircase (1969) features an improbable (if memorable) romantic star teaming: Rex Harrison and Richard Burton as a bickering pair of London hairstylists. The Fox (1968) was one of the first films to be given an "R" rating, in large part because of its graphic depiction of the lesbian portion of the love triangle that had been somewhat less overt in the D.H. Lawrence story. Sandy Dennis and Anne Heywood are the lovers, and Keir Dullea is the "fox" coming between them.

Screened Out, the book, concludes with the pioneering film made just prior to, and released right after, the Stonewall Riots that marked the beginning of the new gay movement. Fittingly, The Boys in the Band (1970), adapted by William Friedkind from Mart Crowley's play, looks both backward to a more closeted time and forward to a freer time for gay men and lesbians. The Boys contains a fair number of the old stereotypes, to be sure, along with some indications of new directions for real and reel gays alike. The series concludes with another provocative theater adaptation. Robert Aldrich's grimly funny tale of London lesbians, The Killing of Sister George (1968), is in some way similar to The Boys in the Band—making use of the old stereotypes while also exploring new possibilities. It has been nearly 40 years since these pioneering films came to the screen, and debates about gay rights still rage on many fronts: marriage, adoption issues, spousal rights, health benefits and numerous others. Despite the occasional success of a Brokeback Mountain, the movies, too, are still grappling. Screened Out, then, is the prologue to everything still being discussed both on and off the screen.

5:00 PM Staircase ('69)
7:00 PM The Fox ('67)
9:00 PM The Boys in the Band ('70)
11:15 PM The Killing of Sister George ('68)

Cross-published at Twitch.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

BELGIAN CINEMA—Nue Propriété (Private Property)

What is so painful to watch in Joachim Lafosse's Nue Propriété (Private Property) is a woman's heart being converted into privatized property, which the men in her life (ex-husband, sons, lover) feel entitled to. That sense of unquestioned masculine entitlement proves infuriating and, ultimately, tragic for all parties involved.

Right off, you know something is wrong with the family scenario. The twin boys François and Thierry (real-life brothers Yannick and Jérémie Renier) seem too grown up to be living at home with their mother Pascale (the incandescent Isabelle Huppert). She works all day, feeds them, and irons their clothes while they play video games and stuff their faces watching television. Their age likewise makes uncomfortable a familiarity they have with their mother's privacy, not only when she tries on new lingerie in front of a mirror but—more shockingly—when Thierry assesses her nudity in the shower. Something is not quite right. Some boundary is not being set, let alone enforced. The scenario is charged through and through with a hazardous and self-serving infantilism. These young men do not want to grow up and become responsible in an adult world, their mother is incapable of setting boundaries, and their father thinks that all that's necessary is an ample and timely allowance.

By the time François and Thierry are shown bathing together and giving each other shampoos, you might as well spell arrested development with a capital "A" and a capital "D"—and, though Ed Gonzalez's chastizing Slant rant that only "pervs" would find anything erotic in the bath tub scene seems downright miserly—he's on to something in specifying that the scene is "justified" even if the behavior is not.

In what Variety's Jay Weissberg describes as a flawlessly calibrated performance, Huppert plays a woman who is "on the one hand yearning for an empty nest and on the other incapable of standing up for herself." She dreams of selling her house and investing in a new life by opening up a B&B with her lover Jan (Kris Cuppens), but the mere suggestion of her dreamt-of autonomy triggers a chain reaction of inappropriate behavior from her sons. François clings to her and suggests she take him with her to help out at the B&B and Thierry asserts the house and whatever money their father supplies is for the twins and not for her. Each family meal becomes a battlefield of glossed-over resentments and rising tension that is effectively gripping and nervewracking. Jérémie Renier has rapidly become the arrogant goodlooking guy you love to hate in the character of Thierry, whose selfish amorality is reminiscent of the role he played in L'Enfant; a comparison made again and again by critics and reviewers alike. I swear if I see him on the street I will spit at his shoes for selling babies and treating his mother so callously.

All of the performances in Private Property are solid and sound; but, I'm in complete agreement with Eye Weekly's Adam Nayan who offers that "the strongest presence in the film actually belongs to the director" whose static set-ups and long-take lensing mark an original approach towards depicting themes of psychological boundaries and physical confinement. Matt Riviera further reminds that the film's opening dedication reads "A nos limites...", setting up the understanding that "Private Property is indeed a film about boundaries, and what happens to people who have grown up without them."

"The only boundary not crossed," Jay Weissberg synopsizes, "is the one within the frame." Boyd van Hoeij equally extols Lafosse's camera work for European-Films.Net, where he compares the noteworthy "use of static imagery in which the camera does not move and the actors are thus confined inside the picture plane as if trapped, something which makes perfect sense thematically here" with "the Dardennes' trademark handheld camerawork, even if cinematographer Hichame Alaouie collaborated on both films (he was an assistant on L'enfant)."

That's why the film's bipartite coda is so impressive. First the parents are shown picking up shards of broken glass as if they have each finally accepted responsibility for picking up the broken shards of a marriage that has damaged their children. Dennis Schwartz interprets this as "a note of guarded optimism that the family can pick up the pieces from the wreckage and find a way to move forward without injuring each other further." Yet within a few moments of that seemingly resolute scene, Lafosse—in a final flourish of camera movement—breaks from the tightly-held frame he has untilized throughout the film to suddenly course away from the house down the road, which Boyd van Hoeij describes as "a literal and symbolic escape from the confines of the titular property."

07/31/07 UPDATE: Dennis Harvey weighs in on the film for SF360.


I can't seem to escape the ensorcellment of the Parisian cemeteries of late. If not Edith Piaf at the Pere-Lachaise, then Henri Langlois at the Cimetière de Montparnasse. Then again, I'm not really trying to escape, am I? Infatuated as I am with stone angels kissed by reminiscence. Any return to Paris—even by memory—is welcome.

Girish's site should more appropriately be named The Evening Class. It's there I genuinely learn about film through his challenging lesson plans, let alone wryly wallow in the alliterative sibilance of his cinematic syllabus. His most recent entry on Henri Langlois reminds that it's not enough to watch film; one must read about film as well. Mon Dieu! Girish gleans more from a minute than most do from a month. Not only does he catch the three-and-a-half-hour version of Jacques Richard's documentary, Henri Langlois: Phantom Of The Cinematheque; but, he handpicks choice quotes from Richard Roud's 1983 biography of Langlois (A Passion For Films).

In response, and with Michael Hawley's gracious permission, I offer up Michael's journal entry of our attendance at the opening of the new Cinémathèque Français in the Frank Gehry-designed US Cultural Center on the east side of Paris.

* * *

[On October 28, 2005] Maya and I had the good fortune of seeing the brand new Cinémathèque Français on its opening day. The place was mobbed and you could still smell drying paint in some of the exhibition spaces.

Located in the 12th arrondisement, adjacent to the Parc de Bercy, it's a huge modern building with three theaters, a library, two floors for its permanent exhibition (the Passion Cinema museum), one for new acquisitions and another for special exhibits.

The museum, unseen for many years since vacating its previous home at the Palais de Chaillot, is full of fascinating memorabilia. The best known item is probably La tete de Madame Bates, a.k.a. the skull of Tony Perkins' mother in Psycho. There are plenty of great costumes, everything from a serpentine turban Mae West wore in Belle of the Nineties, to a fabulous Karl Lagersfeld number Stephane Audran wore in Discreet Charm of the Bourgeousie. Many of the costumes are accompanied by video clips of them actually being worn in the movie.

I'd say a good third of the museum is taken up by an exhibit of early moving picture technology, some of which visitors are able to experience hands-on. There's also a whole room dedicated to the infamous 1968 Affaire Langlois, and a beautiful collection of Sergei Eisenstien production sketches made for several of his films.

The Cinémathèque's first special exhibition is "Renoir/Renoir", an intimate look at the famous artistic family in which the paintings of Pierre-August Renoir are linked with the films of his son, Jean. There are several dozen Renoir paintings on display, many of them hung side-by-side with projected clips of Renoir films that are connected by theme. A few that I made note of were the hunting scene from Rules of the Game with the portrait "Jean en chasseur" (a teenage Jean dressed in a hunting costume,) "Danse a la Campagne" with a scene from French Can Can, and the bullfighting scene from Le Carrosse d'Or with "Ambrose Vollard en costume de toreador."

Unfortunately, we didn't get to see any screenings there. The following night we attempted to attend an in-person tribute to Michael Caine with a screening of Zulu, but ultimately decided to spend our last night in Paris elsewhere.

After our lengthy tour of the new Cinémathèque, we sat and rested a while on a bench in the Parc de Bercy while the nearby children's carousel played James Brown's "Get Up I Feel Like Being Like a (Sex Machine)" and Billy Paul's "Me and Mrs. Jones."


Usually when you think of child prodigies, you envision mastery over a piano or a violin, not murder. This action thriller starts off with a video interview with a young kid being asked what it feels like knowing he has violently hurt others. "It doesn't," he states flatly staring into the camera. This catches the attention of assassin Claude Rains who admires the kid's candor and obvious talent for coldblooded mayhem. He appoints him his successor and anoints him with blood.

Mike Watt at Film Threat was perhaps the first person to promote William Kaufman's The Prodigy, way back in October 2004. I'd be curious to know how he accomplished this since the film didn't actually have a world premiere until horror impresario Bruce Fletcher nabbed it for San Francisco's (Yet Another) Hole in the Head Film Festival in early June 2005. Notwithstanding, Watt kickstarted the praise by stating The Prodigy was a crime movie that played like a horror movie. Hell, he called it "a little come-out-of-nowhere masterpiece" and fervently opined: "If there is any justice in the business, when The Prodigy starts making its festival rounds, a studio with clout and integrity will pick up this little gem and allow the principals to pay back their supporters and themselves."

So much for justice. The Prodigy premiered at Holehead in San Francisco, Fletcher took it to the Idaho International Film Festival, it played the Raindance Film Festival in London, England, and had already gained a following at private screenings in Dallas. Yet it's never had an official U.S. distribution so—before its Fireside Releasing launch on DVD later this month—Fletcher stepped in once more to champion the film by running it at the Roxie Film Center under the aegis of Dead Channels from Friday, May 25 through Thursday, May 31. I encourage you to catch it on a large screen like it's meant to be seen and to take advantage of director William Kaufman and actor and co-writer Holt Boggs opening night apperarances.

When Dennis Harvey caught the film at Holehead and reviewed it for Variety, he tempered his reservations with genuine enthusiasm: "William Kaufman more than compensates for sometimes murky tale's familiar genre elements with punchy ultra violence, vivid atmosphere and a first-rate tech sheen on a smalltime budget." Sheen is the perfect word. The stylized look of this film is nearly hypnotic, even if sometimes confusing. The Prodigy has cult clout.

So it turns out the young kid who doesn't feel when he harms others is protagonist Truman Fisher (Holt Boggs) as a young boy. Whatever plans he might have had to give up his criminal life and settle down with his squeeze Nicki (Mirelly Taylor) goes out the window when mythic assassin Rains shows up to begin his initiatory training. He's been tracking Truman all these years and wants him to take over his reign of terror. He's nicknamed Claude Rains because he's an "invisible" hitman who, as Watt states it, "makes hardcore criminals eat their vegetables." Apparently, along with the nickname, Rains' wardrobe was intentionally modeled after that of the Invisible Man in the 1933 classic. Thus, all the taglines rush in where angels fear to tread: "Sometimes what you are looking for ... is looking for you"; "Every man has a dark side ... One man's dark side is about to be awakened"; and "If God uses suffering to refine us; then why blame the Devil at all?"

C.G. Jung's answer to Job seems particularly relevant while staring into this dark and violent whirlwind of a movie and Holt Bogg's character Truman Fisher is precisely ensnared in Job's biblical dilemma. Boggs—who has been likened unto Ben Affleck—deserves a classier comparison than that. I'd say he looks more like a young, thin Orson Welles. He's the film's "true find", its "star", infusing his morally-ambiguous character "with a depth and intelligence not usually found in low-budget crime thrillers (or big budget ones, for that matter)" (Watt again) and I hope to see his upcoming performances in Road To Red (in post-production) and Tenebrous (filming) soon.

When an independent first feature looks this good and is this compelling, it deserves the support of its audiences. If you're a fan of independent film, vote with your bum in the seat. Likewise, my vote goes to Bruce Fletcher and the quality he's continuing to bring San Francisco through Dead Channels.

Cross-published at Twitch.