[This entry is dedicated to Johnny Ray Huston, whose Cinema Scope article "Double 'O' Heaven: The Vertigo Pop and Phantom Desires of João Pedro Rodrigues" provided some of the first working language to appreciate this Portuguese maverick's films more fully. Thanks, Johnny! João Pedro says hi and looks forward to seeing you in Vancouver. This entry is not for the spoiler-wary!!]
In his most recent vision Morrer Como Um Homem (To Die Like A Man, 2009), Portuguese filmmaker João Pedro Rodrigues has staged some uneasy equations. The film begins with a close-up of a soldier's face applying camouflage paint. You hear the voice of another soldier—who you will later learn is Zé Maria (Chandra Malatitch), the son of drag queen Tonia (Fernando Santos)—complimenting his friend on how he looks, adding some finishing touches to his lids and cheeks. The parallel to how women apply their daily war paint is obvious and these militarized men are tainted by a suggestion of femininity. They break away from their patrol to wander AWOL in the night. Zé Maria leans his feminized friend against a tree, pushes down his pants and spitfucks him hard. At this point, you realize this is not your father's war movie. Their lust satiated, the two soldiers continue exploring this dark enchanted forest of the night that they have entered. They come across a house brightly lit in the darkness wherein two men dressed as women are singing at the piano. The sodomized soldier suggests candidly to Zé Maria that perhaps his father knows these two? Zé Maria hardens, mutters, "My father is dead" and shoots his friend in the chest. Rarely has a spit-stiff dick and a rifle penetrated flesh with such enraged and internalized homophobia.
This violent act initiates To Die Like A Man's portrait of transgendered Tonia, a veteran drag queen in Lisbon circles whose life has begun to unravel. The drag queens are getting younger and more competitive. Audiences want a different style of performance. Her son Zé Maria has become a deserter and a murderer and her boyfriend Rosario (Alexander David) is pressuring her to have a sex change operation. Her silicone breast implants have poisoned her body and she is dying of cancer. Sometimes it's just not worth waking up in the morning. In order to forgive and be forgiven for the slights endured over a long life as a drag queen performer, Tonia devolves her body back into a male form and seeks reconciliation with her estranged son, even if it be by way of dementia.
To Die Like A Man arrived for its North American premiere at the Toronto International after competing in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes. David Hudson gathered those decidedly mixed reviews at The Daily @ IFC. At Toronto—where day after day I caught one adequate film after another—To Die Like A Man stood out as a uniquely energized and distinct vision, strange and special. As indicated at Wikipedia, the story of Tonia was allegedly inspired by the life of Joaquim Centúrio de Almeida (artistic name: Ruth Bryden), and has motivated a lawsuit by Carlos Castro, the author of de Almeida's biography. I welcomed the opportunity to sit down with João Pedro Rodrigues and one of his actors Alexander David to discuss the film.
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Michael Guillén: João, To Die Like A Man is a fascinating film and difficult to talk about because it operates on multiple registers: it's sublime, it's ridiculous, at times sad and frequently hilarious. Perhaps it would help me more if we start at the end of the film?—that closing fado?—whose lyrics synopsized what I had just witnessed and perhaps not fully understood. For starters, who sings that fado?
João Pedro Rodrigues: That fado is sung by Fernando Santos, who plays the transvestite Tonia; but, the song is a fado from the '80s from a singer who is not very well regarded in Portugal. He was a rebellious maverick of the fados in the '80s. As a man, he would wear skirts in the streets—quite the crazy guy!—but, he wrote strong lyrics. That closing song is a particularly beautiful fado. Fados aren't what I listen to most; but, especially that song expressed a lot about the film and sublimated Tonia's character. I wanted Tonia to have the aura of the grande dame of the drag show. At the same time, in this film I tried to go against the usual films that feature drag queens. I wanted to do something different. I wasn't interested in shooting Tonia's stage performance, at least not until the end of the film when it becomes a special moment; when it becomes something different.
Guillén: As far as I'm concerned, To Die Like A Man is now the definitive transgender movie and has set the bar for subsequent transcinema. Not only does it speak uniquely for the transgender community; but, it has a "formal audacity"—as Eye Weekly's Jason Anderson phrases it—that is downright thrilling, precisely for its difference. You dalliance with some stunning visual flairs.
I suppose why the fado struck me so much was because it desirously expressed what I have long felt is the underlying fear of gay people: the confrontation with their unapologetic androgyny; that they suffer no façade of what is male and female and operate at their best when remaining true to both. Their particular desire might be argued to be a longing—in fact—to remain both male and female, to remain—as the fado puts it—plural. "I want to be plural," Santos sings. He wants to be understood for being more than what he appears to be; that the singularity of his appearance might deceive his true plurality. For the singular, unfortunately, plurality is judged as an abomination, something supranatural exceeding division. Its excess is suspect. In the face of such inexplicable androgyny, a single sex suffers deficit.
That being said, I guess my true question is who is this movie for? Who do you imagine to be your audience? Or do you imagine your audience?
Rodrigues: I don't think about it. I'm the first audience of the film. I think of myself first as a viewer; but then, it's hard to tell. But I don't mean that I only want to do films for myself. The way the film is shot and the way it resembles my other films, I suspect you either like it and understand it or you don't. Even in terms of space. When I think of filming a room, I prefer filming pieces of the room. If you then try to combine the pieces to see how the room looks as a whole, you can't. In my films I try to build a space that—though not real space—is close to reality. Reality comes first. I like films that are real even as I try to arrive at some imaginary space. Of course, any film is about building an imaginary space constructed from shots and sounds, all the more so because the film also goes into the direction of a fairy tale. It's hard for me to know a priori what kind of reactions audiences will have toward the film.
Guillén: You're no stranger to controversy so I'm sure you're used to mixed-to-negative reviews?
Rodrigues: I am.
Guillén: Now, I want to be clear that I am wholly respectful of your singularly unique vision; but—as I was preparing how I wanted to approach this interview—I found I could understand To Die Like A Man better by comparing it to the work of other filmmakers. If I mention other filmmakers, I don't want you to interpret that in any way as some judgment that you're derivative because that's not what I mean at all. And nothing could be further from the truth. It's more that I find your films to be in the same domain of energy as certain other filmmakers.
Rodrigues: I do that too. I watch a lot of films so it's normal. Although I went to film school, I learned how to make films mostly by watching other films.
Guillén: As To Die Like A Man starts out, two AWOL soldiers have separated from their patrol and are alone together in the dark forest. This reminded me of how you claim night's terrain as a mise en scène within which to frame the fractured passions of obsessed psyches, which I wrote about when I reviewed your last film Two Drifters. As with that film, because To Die Like A Man starts with a night sequence, I am once again reminded of Djuna Barnes' Nightwood query: "Watchman, what of the night?" This seems to be the presiding question that addresses your films. Within your films, we watch the night. In this, they remind me of the films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul and the "Plaisirs de la forêt" series of photographs by Pierre and Gilles. All three of you share a fairy tale element to the night. Can you speak to what night means for you in your films and why you use it so frequently?
Rodrigues: This might not be at all what you're thinking, but I wanted the movie to start as a war movie in the style of classic Hollywood cinema, like Raoul Walsh's Objective Burma (1945). In that film you follow an abandoned troop of soldiers. I wanted To Die Like A Man to start as one thing so that it could turn into something else altogether, though of course you return to characters in the film that you glimpsed in the beginning. I wanted the film to be always changing and surprising, even if only little surprises.
As for the night, well, first, it's mysterious of course. Sex is connected to the night. Though To Die Like A Man starts as a war movie, the two AWOL soldiers start fucking. While I was writing the script, it seemed obvious to start it that way. Sometimes I don't know how to put into words or to explain my choices. Sometimes they're instinctive. Through the film work, things come up and I don't know exactly why sometimes.
Guillén: Inversely, as spectator, those who do understand what you're filming experience a commensurate instinctual response. As a filmmaker, you tap into something spectators instinctively recognize. I found it difficult to explain to myself why I was reacting to the film the way I was. But that's your gift. You have a knack for the numinous.
I don't mean to be overly literal, but I'm curious what the blue swing means in your film? Not only that it's there in your night scenes but that it's also pushed and set swinging each time it's passed?
Rodrigues: That came from a book called Casa Susanna, which is a bunch of photographs of men dressed as women that were found in a flea market. The pictures are from the '50s and the '60s. The two men who edited the book [Robert Swope and Michel Hurst] didn't know who the individuals were in the photos, but were intrigued by these men dressed as women drinking tea or walking in the woods. They're a bit like William Eggleston's pictures sometimes. They possess that mystery of finding images of people who you don't know who they are. One photo shows a transvestite in front of a tree on which a sign is nailed: Casa Susanna. You can just imagine their social encounters in the middle of the woods somewhere in America.
Guillén: We used to be able to have social encounters in the woods. It's all been privatized now so we can't do it anymore for fear of prosecution. But it was fun while it lasted!
Rodrigues: [Laughs.] Anyway, there's one very beautiful image of a man dressed up as a woman in a swing. That's where the image of the swing came from. Also, because I framed that shot exactly the same way the two times you see it, it's like a doorway into another world; a swinging door into a fairy tale world.
Guillén: One interesting visual flourish with Alexander's character Rosario is that you take this broken young man whose masculinity is frail and contingent and you dress him in macho t-shirts. I often see this on public transit—scrawny kids wearing Conan the Barbarian t-shirts—it's their way of expressing a masculinity that is not readily evident. Which leads me to ask about the performance of gender. Acting like a man. Acting like a woman. Passing for either. Sometimes possessing masculine attributes through feminine gestures.
Rodrigues: That idea was built with João Rui Guerra da Mata, the art director of the film, who's worked with me on all my films. Everything is constructed—the clothes, the décor—everything is worked out even at the writing stage. The idea was that there are these young guys like Rosario in Portugal who go out to the clubs with drag queens. I don't even know if they're gay or not. They pretend to be with their women. That's the idea behind their wearing—what you call—macho shirts. Also, there's a playfulness in that. Rosario wears a Robin Boy Wonder shirt too. We were playing with the idea of Rosario as an eternal child, not a feminized young man, but a playful, childish one. Rosario's relationship with Tonia, they're more than lovers, they're almost mother and child.
Guillén: There's also a slightly sadomasochistic co-dependency going on. An almost necessary cruelty passes between them. Much in the same way that a teenage son would rebel against his parents by punishing them with juvenile behavior. Further, there's also another quality that I've come to think a lot about in my middle years that was introduced to me during the Men's Movement some years past: that there is a specific male nurturance that is not an imitation of female nurturance; a male nurturance that is paternal, not maternal, and specific to the male gender, where some older guy helps a younger incomplete guy get along with life, much as Tonia did with Rosario. I sometimes question whether the unhappiness of drag queens like Tonia might have something to do with their misunderstanding this nurturing impulse within themselves, defining it as feminine and maternal when in fact it's one of the best masculine qualities they have: an ability to guide, to take care of others, to provide, to make decisions.
Alexander David: With them also there's something of a shared survival instinct. She helps Rosario but Rosario helps Tonia too. I'm not exactly sure in which way; perhaps just by being with her, providing companionship. I imagine they were in love when they first met; but, that faded away as they lived together.
Rodrigues: Tonia is also a very lonely person. That echoes my other characters in my other films, as someone who doesn't really know how to deal with that and who can't face that she's really lonely.
Guillén: That I understood, unfortunately, through personal experience. [Rodrigues laughs.] My partner of 12 years passed during the AIDS pandemic. It's now been 13 years since his death and I've, of course, had to move on with life; but, the truth is that since him, I've never been able to fall in love again in the way that I loved him. I have found and lost other lovers and have now discovered—in my middle years—that all I can do is to unconditionally further love in others. If I know there's something I can do for someone else, that's the only kind of love I have left. I don't feel the passion I used to have for my partner. So in my experience I have, like Tonia, taken young men under wing who frequently remind me that they believe they have stolen from me what I have offered freely. But there is still enough power and love within me to absorb such slights and to help them achieve their goals in life.
I agree with you, Alexander, that Tonia and Rosario give each other reasons to keep going, even though they're a bit abusive to each other. The relationship between Maria and her partner Paula likewise has a level of abuse going on, much like a diva with her stagehand. Can we speak about Maria Bakker (Gonçalo Ferreira De Almeida), who—in my estimation—took your film into Fassbinder territory: unapologetically melodramatic, over the top, chewing the scenery.
Rodrigues: [Chuckles.] That character Maria Bakker pre-existed my writing of the script, even though Gonçalo Ferreira De Almeida usually plays Maria Bakker in English. For Gonçalo, Maria Bakker is a fantasy character. He does shows and sings songs. At first, he didn't want to do it in Portuguese because for him it didn't make sense that Maria Bakker would speak Portuguese. For a while we considered that Maria could speak in English and Tonia in Portuguese and that they would somehow understand each other. Perhaps in this strange world people could understand each other even if they didn't speak the same language? But then we decided it would be too strange. [The idea of something being too strange in a João Pedro Rodrigues film made me chuckle under my breath.] Maria Bakker in my film, her hair, all of that comes from the character that Gonçalo already created. Also, it's a little past the halfway point in the film when Tonia and Rosario arrive at Maria's house. At that point, I wanted the film to go towards the direction of comedy.
Guillén: And that's where it went!
Rodrigues: But it's very difficult to play comedy. Still, I wanted to try. Did people laugh during your press screening?
Guillén: There were these two buffed up butch dudes who I presumed were straight laughing their asses off. They got it. It became interesting to me to watch when people would leave the screening, at what point, at what scene. Mainly it was women who left. I don't know if they felt they were being travestized, perhaps? I've known women who have admitted they don't like drag queens because they don't feel that they perform women; they feel they perform travesties of women, which insults them. I don't know how across-the-board that sentiment is.
Can we talk about things buried in the garden?! First, there's the soldier buried in Maria's garden, which startled me at first. I kept thinking, "What is that soldier doing buried in Maria's garden?! Wouldn't they have come looking for him precisely because he'd gone AWOL? And isn't this a dead giveaway with the soldier's helmet perched on the cross on the grave?" Then there was that wonderful sequence that actually moved me quite a bit where Tonia and Rosario dig up her memories from the backyard garden where her little dog has buried them. Perhaps as someone whose heart's cargo consists of memories frequently recapitulated, I once again identified with Tonia. I am often reminded of how important my memories are to me; they're like seeds buried in my garden.
Rodrigues: The idea was that—just before she falls ill—Tonia has a flashback of symbolic moments in her life. You got exactly what that scene meant. As for the soldier buried in Maria's garden … [Rodrigues starts laughing] … sometimes I can only answer you with silly answers. The soldier died in Maria's garden and there was no undertaker to remove him to a morgue and bury him in a cemetery, so they buried him in the garden. I wanted it to be like an Indian burial from the cowboy movies.
Guillén: So before we wrap up here, let me ask you Alexander how you approached your characterization of Rosario in the film? I didn't much like your character at first. He reminded me a little too much of the kind of young man I was talking about earlier who feel they have stolen what has been given freely.
David: I tried to follow the kind of acting style from Robert Bresson. João Pedro gave me some of Bresson's films so I could gain a sense of his style.
Rodrigues: But you're also naturally like that. That's what I liked about you. You're natural for what interests me in an actor.
Guillén: So what exactly is that? Is it a lack of affect that you're going for? What is it that interested you in Alexander?
Rodrigues: Again, it's instinctive. It was instinctive to play the character in a sotto voce tone. Basically [addressing Alexander]—not that you acted like you are; you're not like that addict at all—but, we talked about this: you were playing yourself a lot of the time.
David: I strived for low profile acting. There was no psychological construction of my character.
Rodrigues: We didn't talk much about psychology.
David: He didn't want that, so I didn't do that.
Guillén: Rosario was so angry, though. Where did the anger come from? Wasn't there some psychological motivation for that?
Rodrigues: The role was written that way.
David: Yes. Why was he angry? The stuff with the girlfriend. [He grins.]
Cross-published on Twitch.