“THEY HAVE THAT SAYING ‘Keep Austin Weird’—and Austin’s great, but people move to Austin to be weird. It’s just something in the water here.”
This was comedian “Bobcat” Goldthwait, introducing his fifth film, Willow Creek, playing on the largest of Baltimore’s Charles Theatre’s five screens to an audience that included the city’s patron saint of indigenous strangeness, John Waters. And during the five-night, four-day Maryland Film Festival, ample weirdness was in evidence, in afterparties and on the screen.
Now in its fifteenth year, the MDFF has distinguished itself as a showcase for American independent films, and a place for those who make them, distribute them, screen them, and write about them to congregate. The festival’s inaugural event, in effect the first in a series of conversational panels throughout the long weekend, is a closed-door filmmakers’ conference bringing together guests for a free-for-all “State of the Art” powwow. The takeaway from the ongoing conversation in the panel tent was that DIY movies are, in many respects, easier than ever to make and make available outside of traditional corporate channels—and more difficult than ever to monetize. In this hopelessness lies a certain freedom. Do exactly as you like! Nobody’s getting money anyways! Shoot your movie!
Baltimore’s fest is as welcoming as its slate is challenging, and its motto, “Film for everyone,” is no put-on. Screenings were almost uniformly well attended by Baltimoreans from all walks of life, and on the stroll north along Charles Street from the Hotel Monaco (where all fest invitees were housed, and whose lobby hosted the nightly bacchanals) to the theater, it was not uncommon to be drawn into a conversation about the merits of, say, Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise Trilogy, with a barista who had noticed one’s festival lanyard.
Willow Creek was the best among the smattering of genre movies, thanks to its appealing, funny leads (Alexie Gilmore and Bryce Johnson); feeling for American obsessives; and a stand-up’s sense of timing, which gives shape to its centerpiece, a static single take lasting nearly twenty minutes. Goldthwait finds signs of life in the moribund found-footage horror template, while Gabriel DeLoach and Zach Keifer’s If We Shout Loud Enough, chronicling the life of punk trio Double Dagger, is an effective piece of boosterism for the arts renaissance in once-moribund Baltimore, featuring interviews with scene luminaries like Dan Deacon and Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner.
Double Dagger are credited with resuscitating the local music scene after the city’s best-and-brightest had, per credited music historian Tim Kabara, “moved to cultural hubs like Williamsburg, to worship the Strokes.” The arts have since thrived in the last low-overhead city in the northeastern corridor, and an assertively prideful school of Baltimore filmmaking has concurrently reemerged. As one interviewee in Shout observes, supporting your local scene usually means sitting through a lot of crap bands—but I can report, as one with no ties to the place, that the contingent of Charm City cinema at this year’s fest was unusually strong. I Used to Be Darker, the latest from local Matt Porterfield (Putty Hill), is a naturalistic drama on the surface, but discreetly a lovelorn musical. There’s a vignette at an all-ages warehouse show—shot in the Copy Cat Building, a hub of local arts activity—that’s perfect in every tonal detail, and musicians Ned Oldham and Kim Taylor play a singer-songwriter couple strumming through their separation. Moving between their Baltimore homes are two cousins, both barely undergraduate age—their daughter Abby (Hannah Gross), and lissome Taryn (Deragh Campbell), Northern Irish, fugitive from her parent’s supervision, working for the summer in a Maryland beach town when she learns she’s pregnant and flees to her nearest relatives. Porterfield doesn’t aim for emotional resolution but rather dedicates himself to decisively capturing the ineffable atmospheric presence of little moments, and this precision gives his scenes the poignancy of memories that linger for reasons unknown: that warehouse show, a swimming pool on a sticky wine-drunk evening, a stolen kiss in an abandoned tram car, a couple’s hushed and furious spat on the lawn during a soft, rainy morning.
Gabe DeLoach and Zach Keifer, If We Shout Loud Enough, 2013, color, sound, 113 minutes.
The star of the other Baltimore film of note, mythopoeic doc 12 O’Clock Boys, is an African-American teenager named Pug, a scrawny braggart who relishes and seizes the chance to perform his own legend before the camera. First-time filmmaker Lotfy Nathan manages, miraculously, to keep up with Pug while he attempts to join the ranks of the titular gang, outlaw dirt bike and ATV riders who engage in matador-like goad-and-retreat games with police cruisers. The “12 O’Clock Boys” are so named because the ultimate stunt on their hot-dogging pack rides is managing a wheelie that points a vehicle straight up and down, like the hands of a clock at noon. These moments of perfect equilibrium are drawn out into voluptuous reverie with dreamy slo-mo—this is what immortality looks like. Pug was filmed over three summers, aged thirteen to fifteen, zipping all through his Westside neighborhood. He scarcely seems to grow during this time, but much else goes on, as Pug learns to wrangle a bike twice his size, drives mother Coco to the corner bar, and sees his eldest brother set out in a coffin after an asthma attack, a premature death that must be laid at the feet of poverty. (Telling its own health-care horror story is Jeff Reichert and Farihah Zaman’s Remote Area Medical, shot during the weekend-long touchdown of a massive, volunteer-run free clinic at the Bristol Motor Speedway in Eastern Tennessee, where specimens of neglect queue up hopefully outside a shiny NASCAR coliseum with an unfathomable price tag.)
The festival has effectively piggybacked on the city’s new hip stature, fostering relationships with local musicians like Deacon and Animal Collective. MDFF director Jed Dietz, giving a guided tour of the abandoned Louis XIV circa 1915 Parkway Theater up the block from the Charles, which the festival had recently purchased from the city, envisioned Beach House live-scoring silent films there. After the Saturday night Darker screening, Oldham and band Old Calf performed across the street from the Charles; on Sunday morning, Boston’s three-piece Alloy Orchestra, longtime attendees, pounded out their score to the 1925 adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. Creating the template for just about every rampaging monster movie to come, the film revived dinosaurs from extinction through influential stop-motion animation by Willis O’Brien, later the mentor to Ray Harryhausen, who had died the week before, and to whom the screening made an inadvertent but touching tribute.
Who can say if the Baltimorean renaissance will continue for one thousand years, or if it’s already in its Indian summer? Eliza Hittman’s feature debut It Felt Like Love takes place in Brooklyn, still the lodestar of cool, but this is the Brooklyn disdained by the New York Times Styles section. When we first meet Lila (Gina Piersanti), Love’s protagonist, on the beach, she looks like a mime, her face painted with sunscreen—the image is recalled in the film’s conclusion, when the hip-hop dance classes we’ve seen Lila gracelessly shuffling through pay off in a recital, her wearing a blank Eyes Without a Face mask. A virginal brown mouse with a pout of a mouth who lives with her father in Gravesend, Lila spends her summer at the bus-convenient waterfront, sullenly trailing her best friend, Chiara (Giovanna Salimeni), watching boyfriends float in and out of Chiara’s arms. (This is their relationship dynamic—Chiara needs an audience; Lila any female role model.) Approximating its protagonist’s eavesdropping perspective, Love is a film of curious, furtive, longing close-ups, while the circuitous rhyming of images proves that there’s nothing haphazard about Hittman’s approach. Chronicling Lila’s cruel sentimental education, Hittman shows an acute sense of crawly, mortifying humor—though never squelches sympathy for a laugh.
A native of the same South Brooklyn territory as Lila, Hittman has created interludes among the wild reeds and tide pools that have the feeling of a guided tour. And here is what unites the best of MDFF, from Hittman’s urban-rustic New York to Porterfield’s humid summertime Maryland to, yes, Willis O’Brien’s handcrafted dinosaurs. It’s a celebration of the personal, the private, the obsessive—the ethos being that for film to be for everyone, it must first be for someone.
The fifteenth Maryland Film Festival ran May 8–12, 2013.
Gabriela Golder, Conversation Piece, 2012, HD, color, sound, 19 minutes.
“THIS FILM WAS MADE for very little money, with very few people,” the great Brazilian filmmaker Júlio Bressane told his mainly Argentine audience. He paused. “And it was never released. Nobody saw it. There would be three people at the beginning, and they would all run away before the film was over. This room right now has more people than have ever seen it before. So thank you very much for coming, I hope you enjoy it, and we can have a conversation with whoever is still here at the end.”
Seventeen of Bressane’s films (roughly half his output) screened during the fifteenth edition of the Buenos Aires International Independent Film Festival (BAFICI) last month. “We are the few for Bressane,” a fellow critic said apologetically before a press screening of the filmmaker’s latest, O batuque dos Astros ([The drumming beat of stars)], a jaunt through Lisbon locales once inhabited by or honoring the poet Fernando Pessoa. But no apology was needed. These dementedly titled, delirious films—among them Killed the Family and Went to the Movies (1969), The Herb of the Rat (2008), and The Caraíba Monster—New Ancient History of Brazil (1975)—unfold with a graceful calamity that provides its own justification. These are products of years of concentrated thought, typically shot in less than two weeks, and they often discard plot in favor richly colored musical moments containing drunken characters who gleefully assault each other, with Bressane’s crew sometimes intervening to show them how to do it better. One senses that in, while watching a Bressane film, that society’s foundations are being attacked so as to encourage people to relax and enjoy themselves. In the sublime A Love Movie (2003), total sexual freedom gives lovers such a lift that they can even fly.
The retrospectives at this most recent edition of BAFICI claimed attention during what proved to be a weak year for the largest South American festival’s international competition (whose top prize went to Peter Strickland’s British horror film Berberian Sound Studio) and an even weaker one year for its national one (whose Best Film was Santiago Loza’s family drama La Paz). They included highlights from Argentine cinema’s past fifteen years, an extensive survey of Austrian avant-garde film, four documentaries by Swiss chronicler of mountain life Erich Langjahr, and fifteen works by South Korea’s prolific Hong Sang-soo, headlined by his latest tragicomic treasure, Nobody’s Daughter Haewon. The repertory films generally played on 35-mm archival prints of varying condition, with digital restorations reserved for recent Hollywood classics like House of Bamboo (1965), The King of Comedy (1983), The Fly (1986), and They Live (1988).
The lone DCP revelation was the joint Groupama Gan Foundation for Cinema/Technicolor Foundation for Cinema Heritage restoration of Peter Brook’s multifaceted Vietnam War exploration, Tell Me Lies: A Film About London (1968). The film—adapted from an ensemble-shaped Royal Shakespeare Company theatrical production called US that Brook also directed—was condemned upon its very brief initial theatrical run for not taking a clear position on the war. Tell Me Lies consists of sketches and scene fragments in which civilians debate the war, sometimes directly to the camera, without achieving resolution. Its position is that all clear views on the subject (both pro and con) should be distrusted. At one point, Black Panther leader Stokely Carmichael calmly argues that the Viet Cong act in self-defense, as the oppressed always do when committing violence against the oppressor; at another, a representative of the American Embassy (played by British actor Kingsley Amis) says that the most powerful nation in the history of the world should be admired for using more restraint in asserting itself than any other world power ever has. While most much of 1960s political cinema currently feels dated, Tell Me Lies’s dialogic structure—in which ideas themselves, rather than people, do battle—has kept the film fresh and relevant to wars being fought today.
A lesson of Brook’s film is that one cannot judge without first understanding. The same lesson emerged from my favorite new Argentine work at BAFICI, Conversation Piece, a short video by the artist Gabriela Golder adapted from a previous three-screen installation. (Some of Golder’s short video In memory of the birds  can be seen on last year’s antennae collection home viewing release, Dialéctica en Suspenso: Argentine Experimental Film and Video.) It consists of Golder’s mother and two young nieces reading The Communist Manifesto out loud together, with the grandmother patiently answering whenever one of the girls asks a question. The older woman explains terms like “Communism,” “manifesto,” “oppressor,” “abolish,” “political struggle,” and “revolution” in clear, simple language while leaving the girls to form their own beliefs. Exposing them to political thought becomes a way of sharing love.
The fifteenth Buenos Aires Festival Internacional de Cine Independiente (BAFICI) ran April 10–21, 2013.
DESPITE OUTWARD TRAPPINGS OF SUCCESS, George Plimpton’s life was a fugue of failure, beginning, as we learn in the affectionate new documentary Plimpton!, with his inability to obtain any varsity letters at—or to even graduate from—Exeter, the elite New Hampshire prep school. As a scion of a prominent WASP family in an era when that still mattered, he nevertheless managed to matriculate to Harvard and complete graduate studies at Cambridge. None of this made any positive impression on his father, a New York lawyer and supreme exemplar of the Protestant ethic, who constantly sent the young George notes and letters extolling the virtues of hard work and urging him never to postpone till tomorrow what could be done today. These admonitions and the shortcomings that gave rise to them were surely unpleasant to experience at the time, but they instilled in Plimpton a carpe diem sense of adventure and the courage to fight above his weight class (quite literally, in the case of his bout with boxing champ Archie Moore).
It was these qualities, along with a gentlemanly penchant for self-deprecation, that drove Plimpton’s extraordinary, multifaceted career—founding and lifelong editor of the Paris Review, master of “participatory journalism” for Sports Illustrated (which in turn spawned the New Journalism), best-selling author, Hollywood actor, A-list socialite and party host, and, later in life, Orson Welles–style TV pitchman. (YouTube his spots for Intellivision, the Betamax of early home video game systems.) Filmmakers Tom Bean and Luke Poling, who were given full access by Plimpton’s widow to his personal archives, have stitched together copious footage of Plimpton embedded in professional sports and other daredevil situations with his own aural narration and reminiscences to create what could be called a cinematic diary.
Much like the 2011 doc Magic Trip, about Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters’ psychedelic cross-country bus trip, Bean and Poling manage to tell Plimpton’s story using almost entirely vintage audiovisual material. Unlike the Kesey doc (and perhaps because Plimpton had more friends than anyone ever), there are some talking-head interviews with family and colleagues, among them Paris Review cofounder Peter Matthiessen, Gay Talese, Hugh Hefner, Robert Kennedy Jr., first wife Freddy Espy, and widow Sarah Dudley. The interview segments are predictably warm and laudatory, though there are intimations of perennial insecurities (Plimpton never felt he was in the same literary league as his famous novelist friends) and WASPish remoteness (the ultimate partygoer/thrower was, at root, hard to know well).
Some surprises for the casual Plimpton spotter: George’s letter asking hero Ernest Hemingway to do an “Art of Fiction” interview for one of the earliest 1950s issues of the Paris Review resulted in a written response from Papa that said, “Fuck the art of fiction…and fuck talking about it” (he eventually granted the interview); a dazed recording captures Plimpton’s deposition to the LAPD after the assassination of RFK by Sirhan Sirhan (whom Plimpton helped wrestle into submission after the shooting); Plimpton may have dated Jacqueline Bouvier before she became Jacqueline Kennedy and, before marriage, was quite the ladies’ man (though, as Hefner notes, he remained “a class act all the way” in this capacity); neither of his wives liked the frequent parties George threw at their Upper East Side apartment, which doubled as the Paris Review offices; Plimpton thought that playing triangle for Leonard Bernstein’s New York Philharmonic was scarier than playing quarterback for the Detroit Lions or goalie for the Boston Bruins.
Plimpton! begins and ends with footage of a nervous George, in pale pink tights, failing (and finally succeeding) at a trapeze maneuver during his stint with the aerial team of the Clyde Beatty-Cole Brothers Circus. His life was indeed a high-wire act, one that is hard to imagine ever occurring again: Bumbling through brutal athletic confrontations by day, attending black-tie bacchanalias by night, always in nice, if rumpled, clothes; somehow finding the time to write and edit a literary magazine, all amid the turbulent crosscurrents of the age—the Cold War, cocktail culture, the sexual revolution, prominent novelists playing bongos three sheets to the wind in the corner of yet another party. George navigated all this with style, as an old-world dilettante—passable at everything, good at nothing—nothing, perhaps, but being George. That, he was good at. And that was more than enough for the many who loved and admired him.
Plimpton! is now playing at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center at Lincoln Center in New York. The film opens in Los Angeles on Friday, June 7.
“EVERY FILM IS A DOCUMENTARY of its actors,” Godard once said—a maxim movingly borne out in Before Midnight, the third installment in Richard Linklater’s unprecedented longitudinal study of Generation X romance. The first film in the series, Before Sunrise (1995), introduced us to Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), twentysomethings who meet on a train in Budapest, disembark in Vienna, and spend the next twelve hours or so roaming the capital city and falling in love. The performers reprised their roles in Before Sunset (2004), which tracks Jesse and Celine’s reunion in her hometown of Paris, their first meeting since that fateful encounter nine years earlier; they spend eighty minutes (shot in real time) volubly cataloguing the enormous disappointments and regrets of the past near-decade while seducing each other anew.
Another nine years have passed as Before Midnight catches up with the characters in Greece: Now in their early forties, Jesse and Celine are an established couple and the parents of twin girls. The family is nearing the end of a six-week stay in Messenia, where Jesse, a successful novelist, has been invited to a writer’s retreat. In much the same way that post–World War II Naples served as a fitting backdrop for the acrimonious couple in Roberto Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy (1954), the majestic ruins of the Peloponnese seem all too fitting for a relationship ignited by a seemingly indestructible passion but now on the verge of crumbling.
Unlike its predecessors, Before Midnight deals not in the lustrous imagined future conjured by two articulate romantics but in the arduousness of the present, those same two dreamers being worn down incrementally by the daily sacrifices and disappointments of long-term coupledom. Part of their weariness, too, is the result of time’s own march—here made all the more poignant by the real-life physical attributes of the middle-aged Hawke and Delpy: thickened torsos, lined faces, graying hair.
Though Before Midnight has the more challenging task of balancing the central couple’s best and worst behavior toward each other, it also stumbles more than its forerunners. While Before Midnight often thrillingly succeeds, as the earlier two films unequivocally did, with the sharpness of its observations—with “the beautiful, specific details,” in the words of Celine, speaking about past lovers, in Before Sunset—it also slips once too often into cliché and gender-essentialist nonsense. At the dinner table, the eloquent octogenarian host of the writer’s retreat, regaling Jesse and Celine and others with the tale of his happy if unconventional marriage, incongruously concludes his narrative with this banality: “But at the end of the day...” Earlier at this feast, Celine gives this advice to a woman two decades her junior: “Let me tell, you, Anna, how to keep a man. Let them win all the silly little games.”
The effect of these Katherine Heigl–isms jarringly breaks the luxuriant spell cast by so many words—Jesse and Celine make Éric Rohmer’s protagonists seem aphasiac in comparison—so beautifully and smartly put together. Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy collaborated on the scripts for both Before Sunset and Before Midnight; though the wince-making lines are the result of joint authorship, they readily recall snippets of dialogue in Delpy’s wobbly post-Sunset rom-coms 2 Days in Paris (2007) and 2 Days in New York (2012), projects that she directed, wrote, and starred in. If this astonishing triptych is to grow to a polyptych, following Jesse and Celine into their senescence, I hope the precision of the language doesn’t deteriorate like the characters’ aging bodies.
Before Midnight opens in New York, Los Angeles, and Austin on May 24 and nationally in June.
CAFTANS, POODLES, POPPERS, toupees, face peels, glory holes, diamonds, and furs: Behind the Candelabra, Steven Soderbergh’s terrific Liberace biopic, shows just what a spectacle the closet could be.
Spanning 1977, the year that Liberace (Michael Douglas) began his relationship with Scott Thorson (Matt Damon), through 1987, when the outré pianist died of AIDS at age sixty-seven, Behind the Candelabra anatomizes not just a love affair but a specific cultural condition. (With its sharp yet never didactic observations, Behind the Candelabra continues the immensely pleasurable social studies that dominate two of Soderbergh’s other recent triumphs, last summer’s Magic Mike and Side Effects, released in February.) The final decade of Liberace’s life marked a paradoxical era when flaming queerness was seemingly everywhere—1977 was also the year the Village People formed—but could never be called out as such. Throughout his career, Liberace sued (and won against) those who insinuated he was homosexual; his management at first tried to insist that his cause of death was cardiac arrest, somehow related to “anemia caused by a watermelon diet.” The folie à deux that Liberace and Thorson, forty years the entertainer’s junior, enacted in private was echoed in the bizarre pact between the flamboyant musician and his fans, all too willing to overlook the obvious.
Based on Thorson’s 1988 memoir and scripted by Richard LaGravenese, Behind the Candelabra quickly establishes the skills Liberace needed for such seduction, whether performing for thousands or just one teenage hunk. “It’s funny that this crowd would like something this gay,” a starstruck Scott, surrounded by even more agog middle-aged women, tells his friend Bob (Scott Bakula), who’s taken the peroxided cutie to the Las Vegas Hilton for his first Liberace show. “They have no idea he’s gay,” says Bob—who had earlier cruised Scott in a West Hollywood bar with Tom of Finland tableaux on the walls and “I Feel Love” playing at eardrum-puncturing volume in the film’s perfect opening scene—before introducing him to Mr. Showmanship himself after the concert.
Scott, who’s spent most of his life in and out of foster homes, quickly falls for the entertainer’s promises to take care of him. (The forty-two-year-old Damon convincingly passes as someone two decades younger, if not quite the eighteen Thorson was when he first met Liberace.) “I want to be everything to you, Scott: father, brother, lover, best friend,” Lee, as he is known to his intimates, declares to his callow lover—a pledge made all too grotesquely literal when Scott obeys Liberace’s request that he get a chin implant to look like the pianist in his youth.
The couple’s adventures in plastic surgery—procedures performed by a hilarious Rob Lowe, here an amalgam of Dr. Fredric Brandt and Andy Gibb—are merely one manifestation of the ermine-draped showman’s perverse penchant for excess. Yet as appetites—not just Liberace’s lust for new flesh but also Scott’s for drugs—and emotions grow ever more unmanageable, neither the movie nor its main actors ever lose control, refusing to succumb to easy, flaccid camp. “Nobody ever took care of me the way he does,” a panicky, sweaty Scott confesses to an indifferent cokehead after a blow binge. This is a film (which may or may not be Soderbergh’s last) about need: for love, for sex, for control, for lies—for more.
Behind the Candelabra, which premiered in competition at the Cannes Film Festival on May 21, airs on HBO May 26.
JEAN-LUC GODARD AND CINEMATOGRAPHER RAOUL COUTARD were trailblazers when it came to integrating disjunctive locales, attitudes, and story lines, but writer-director-cinematographer Haskell Wexler’s serpentine Medium Cool (1969) went even further. Observing a TV cameraman-reporter (Robert Forster) as events inexorably move from daily grind to the chaos of the Chicago Democratic Convention, blending naturalistic fiction with on-the-spot cinema verité, the movie shifts between reportage, interrogation of mass-media forms, street-theater satire, and subdued drama (occasionally flaring into melodrama, a livid outburst going up and falling back to earth), all the while balancing sociopolitical eruptions with total immersion in the small, passing details of everyday life.
Wexler ingeniously harmonized clashing elements—personally filming the actual scenes of cops attacking demonstrators and, more fancifully, shooting real footage of National Guardsmen rehearsing for those same clashes with carnivalesque abandon. (Forster, Peter Bonerz, and Verna Bloom were embedded in the scenes, caught up in them but not breaking character.) Playing multiple components off one another inside ardent improvisatory spaces, Wexler made the most courageous American studio film of the 1960s: Next to Medium Cool, high-profile totems of ’69 like Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy are cushy exercises in retrograde imposture, buckskin swindles perpetrated on the tour-bus trade.
That title is suggestive and flatly opaque—evoking a secret union of McLuhan and Miles Davis, or la nouvelle vague and Mailer’s Armies of the Night. (There is a spiky hotel room scene, ostensibly with cameraman D. A. Pennebaker, fresh from shooting Mailer’s own film foray, Beyond the Law; however, Pennebaker opted out and Wexler had him portrayed by Robert McAndrew, and acting coach and studio operative for Paramount.) A remarkable sense of simultaneity pervades Wexler’s film: The buildup to the convention, punctuated by the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, is consciously entwined in all sorts of mundane activities and revealing sidelong encounters. He had a script and had mapped out a definite plan of battle, but Wexler’s main thrust was to let changing circumstances and unfolding history dictate the content of Medium Cool. It is a tremendously open and responsive film, absorbing the bombardment of dislocation and trauma on the fly; the oblique sequence depicting RFK’s murder remains devastating in its quietude, abruptness, and desolation.
Initially, Wexler was assigned to make a movie titled The Concrete Wilderness, about a boy who raises animals in the big city. A sliver of that survives here in the Appalachian transplant Harold Blankenship—a kid who encountered his first walk-in shower in the movie, and whose natural guardedness and curiosity are employed with empathy and care. But Wexler couldn’t resist the call of the American wild, and so he threw a surrogate cameraman into the center of the maelstrom that was 1968, and shot it like a series of fast-moving encounter group sessions. Class consciousness, black militancy, sexual politics, Vietnam, the moral obligations of the man behind the camera, a visit to the roller derby: Medium Cool has a little something for everyone. Including a sense of humor that inflects the film in unexpected ways and places, from the throwaway Washington, DC, sight gag about “four and a half women to every man” to the National Guard drills and roller derby sequences whose satiric appropriations of staged violence anticipate the tone of Robert Altman’s M.A.S.H. Peter Bonerz’s background in the San Francisco improv troupe the Committee has been credited with helping the other actors tune into that wavelength, but some of the best, most unselfconscious work was done by non-actors like Blankenship and the Chicago artists (including the free jazz pianist Muhal Richard Abrams) who hassle their white interlocutors with a deft mix of put-on and put-downs that would do Paul Mooney (or Paul Beatty) proud. The use of Frank Zappa’s music also contributes a measure of irony from and about the counterculture, but one of the most serendipitous routines in the movie comes from the National Guard brigadier general that Wexler filmed directly addressing the camera: He just happens to be a dead ringer for Pat Paulsen from the Smothers Brothers TV show. The line between reality and parody was never so thin.
Clip from Haskell Wexler, Medium Cool, 1969.
Two keys to the film: Verna Bloom and her immaculate disappearance into the West Virginia refugee Eileen, a piece of acting so unobtrusive and nuanced (all about body language, social unease, intelligence, and fortitude flashing up through layers of impoverishment, hurt, and fear) it convinced Hollywood producers she was another nonprofessional. Next to her, Godard’s women were all Brigitte Bardot; she was rooted in the physical world and moved through it in determined, uncertain ways that never let her become an abstraction on someone else’s agenda. The other break for Medium Cool was who it didn’t get for the lead: John Cassavetes was Wexler’s first choice, but he would likely have eaten the film alive. Robert Forster was a more stolid, old-fashioned actor, with strong John Garfield tendencies, but the fact he could play a domineering male without having the outsize presence to dominate the scenes themselves works for Wexler’s conception. He’s part of a larger mosaic, and the slow dawning of that awareness on him is believable precisely in the context of a limited, egotistical man who discovers the limitations of his own ego.
The new Blu-ray and DVD edition of the film contains a typically fine transfer (Wexler was justifiably proud of the fact he shot virtually all the film in 35 mm, including some fantastic pre-Steadicam handheld shots), plus helpful commentaries and an hour-long version of Paul Cronin’s epic making-of documentary “Look Out Haskell, It’s Real!” (Still expanding, Cronin’s full opus currently clocks in around six hours.) It does leave you wishing you could see more than just glimpses of the unused footage, especially those from the dropped subplot about Eileen’s work on the Motorola television assembly line and her introduction to the social activism of Jesse Jackson’s Operation Breadbasket movement in Chicago. Bloom: “I’ve never been to anything like it in my life. We had to get up at 6 o’clock in the morning to get a seat at the meeting at 8. It goes on until noon, and it’s not just a meeting, it’s a political rally, a jazz concert, a soul-singing event.” You get the feeling there’s a whole other unseen movie inside Medium Cool waiting to be assembled from the outtakes.
The movie’s slap-in-the-face ending has always been a source of contention—and rationalization. From here, it looks like the only part of the movie that succumbs to fashionable alienation, radical chic. Consigning its characters to a ditch on the expressway of history like so much roadkill too neatly rhymes with the car accident that opens the picture, but rather than having a “Brechtian” effect, it serves to undermine the sense of class solidarity Medium Cool tentatively establishes. After scenes of Bloom in her plaintive yellow dress walking through a Chicago that could be doubling for Prague when the Soviet tanks rolled in, I can’t help feeling that a less arbitrary ending could have been found, especially from a filmmaker and a film otherwise so resolutely committed to nonviolence.
Medium Cool is available Tuesday, May 21, on DVD and Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection.
Luther Price, Mother (revised), 2002, color, sound, 17 minutes.
EACH MAY, the depressed yet verdant city of Oberhausen, tucked into Germany’s Ruhr industrial valley, plays host to one of the world’s oldest, most storied and important showcases for short films. With a limited local audience composed of rambunctious kinder attending the ambitious children’s programs, the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen attracts an international audience of filmmakers, programmers, professors, and, increasingly, gallery and museum curators who convene for a long weekend’s worth of screenings and discussions. While many festivals have expanded to incorporate installation sidebars, Oberhausen has, over the past decade, successfully engaged the art world, despite repeatedly asserting its mandate to present film and video solely in the cinema. Along with its main and regional competitions (featuring a mix of experimental, documentary, fiction, and animation works), the festival includes the MuVi music video competition, market screenings of artists’ films from nonprofit distributors, a handful of filmmaker profiles, and a newly created and warmly welcomed archive section, in addition to a comprehensive curated program which provides the edition’s main theme, previously guest curated by notable artists and curators such as Akram Zaatari (representing Lebanon in this year’s Venice Biennale) and Ian White, formerly of London’s Whitechapel Gallery.
Following last year’s momentous return to origins with a focus on the Oberhausen Manifesto and the revolutionary beginnings of German avant-gardists Alexander Kluge, Werner Herzog, et al., the fifty-ninth edition of the festival announced that it was high time to tackle our contemporary situation—that is, cinema after the Internet. With its seemingly matter-of-fact title, “Flatness,” this year’s thematic program was conceived by independent UK-based curator Shama Khanna, with curatorial contributions by British artists Oliver Laric, Anthea Hamilton, and Ed Atkins. Though the premise is indeed timelyurgent, eventhe theme struggled to take shape (no pun intended) over the course of its eight programs and remained frustratingly vague and amorphous. In other words, it fell flat. The term “flatness” became an easy target for cinema-hungry patrons as incoherence was matched by a number of substandard works (some made for the gallery, others plucked from YouTube) offered up as direct descendents of Robert Bresson’s incomparable corpus, flatness being variously interpreted as a blunting of sensation, a diminishing of dimensionality, technological standardization and globalization, a state of depression, apathy or impatience, a literal collapsing of depth, a poor image, etc.
The event was further hindered by a few too many technical glitches, a canceled performance, and dull digital copies, and one could just as easily deem these to be the very embodiment or essence of the themeand thus, ironically, an accurate representation of it. The loose curatorial rationale lent itself to a collective desire to dream up alternate approaches, which ultimately points to the pregnant possibilities of the premise and the potency of physical presence inside the cinema. Despite its flaws, the program was not devoid of interesting work, and it included just enough gems to ensure that viewers stuck with it: videos like Richard Serra and Nancy Holt’s Boomerang (1974), John Smith’s still raw and poignant Dirty Pictures (2007), Hito Steyerl twenty-eight-second punchy one-liner, Strike (2010), and Shuji Terayama’s sensual 1977 screen-ripper An Attempt to Describe the Measure of a Man.
But by and large, the festival’s main thrills were to be found elsewhere, especially in the profiles on American artist and experimental filmmaker Luther Price (also a hit at last year’s Whitney Biennial); Paris- and Frankfurt-based, German Super 8 artist Helga Fanderl; and a trio of Croatian directors, Petar Krelja, Zoran Tadić, and Krsto Papić, whose films were shown in prints and digital restorations from the Zagreb Film Archive and Oberhausen’s own collection. Among the standouts of the last group were the utterly endearing 1971 documentary Let Our Voices Be Heard Too, about pirate rural radio stations across the Croatian countryside, and A Little Village Performance (1972), Papić’s portrait of a tiny town’s inaugural beauty contest, which includes some amazingly excruciating and earnest singing performances, unsavory bumpkin stand-up, and, to cap it off, the glummest beauty pageant ever. In just under twenty minutes, the film recalls the raw, awkward wonderment of Jean Eustache’s terrific pageantry two-parter La Rosière de Pessac, from 1968 and 1979.
Helga Fanderl, Geburtstagsfeier (Birthday Fire), 2004, Super 8, black-and-white, 1 minute.
The prolific Fanderl—she’s made upward of six hundred films to date—bestowed a beautiful calm upon the festival with her sublime silent miniatures, radiant in both black-and-white and color. The first program included a selection of Super 8 films made between 1992 and 2009; furtive glimpses of a polar bear taking a plunge, of a lover’s sexy smile, of a still life that breathes and fidgets with vitality, of fireworks exploding near the Eiffel Tower, all rendered with startling immediacy enhanced by the whirring sound of the projector placed at the back of the cinema. Like sketches in a notebook, these shots bore the detectable hand of the artist, as well as her curious and generous vision of the world, surging with sensuality and materiality. Her Mona Lisa (2000) could have been the signature work in the “Flatness” program: a portrait of tourists crowding Leonardo’s iconic painting in the Louvre, their flip-screen digital video cameras multiplying the beguiling muse in a prescient state of mise-en-abymes.
The main event at this year’s festival, however, was, without a doubt, the focus on Price, co-organized with the artist by Light Industry’s Ed Halter. Consisting of three programs of Super 8 and 16-mm films, including an ultrarare double projection of his infamous Sodom, plus a midnight “secret” screening of Clown in a concrete bar located in an unused corner of Oberhausen’s Bahnhof, Price’s films were loud even when silent, eloquent in their bravery and abrasiveness. (He often abrades the celluloid’s sound track, as would an engraver.) Above all, they were vibrantly, resiliently, if painfully, alive. Psychological and aesthetic repair are threaded through the films, with trauma and turmoil branded into their imagery as much as their material, cancerous and uncontained. Disarming in their candor and obsessive rehearsals, they cut to the core and reveal an artist whose love of cinema has given him the strength to deal with the cruelty of life. A portrait of his mother reveals his admiration for Sirkian melodramas, for a Bette Davis or Barbara Stanwyck–like glamour that defies reality’s vulgar truths. Standing before the ocean in a billowing emerald dress with matching necklace, her hair tied behind a butterfly-printed scarf, and wearing canary-colored sunglasses, Price’s mother transcends home-movie status. With emotional and formal intensity, intimacy and abstraction, Price’s films rendered flatness an implausible state for those of us who turn to the art of cinema for meaning and mystery.
The fifty-ninth International Short Film Festival Oberhausen ran May 2–7, 2013.
Tinatin Gurchiani, The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear, 2012, digital video, color, sound, 97 minutes.
“MEMORY IS WHAT WE RECORD IT TO BE,” filmmaker Peter Wintonick said at the conference of the eighteenth “It’s All True” (IAT) documentary festival. No one understood this better than Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov, whose montages extolled the Bolshevik revolution. In collaboration with the Austrian Film Museum, the festival, with over eighty titles reaching five Brazilian cities, staged a Vertov retrospective, comprising early newsreels, shorts, and seven full-length films.
From reverse to stop-motion and concealed camera positions, Vertov embraced cinema’s ability to awe and to estrange. In A Sixth Part of the World (1926), his kaleidoscopic vision spans modernizing cities and the Siberian taiga, with machinists, huntsmen, and shamans made to embody the Soviet nation’s latent energies. At the end of his first feature not made of found footage, Kino-Eye (1924), Vertov cuts away from young pioneers to a circus elephant in Moscow. His digressive art later influenced Chris Marker and Jan Švankmajer, among others.
Vertov wanted to capture political reality. Similar ambition fuels Jango (1984), by Brazilian director Sílvio Tendler, also honored with a retrospective. A historical documentary, Jango, a nickname of Brazil’s president João Goulart (1961–64), is elegiac in tone, but critical in its destabilization of the coup that deposed him. Mistrusted by the United States and antagonized by the right-wing military, Goulart is evoked as a candidate popular with the base and committed to agrarian reforms. His subsequent exile in Uruguay shows him a marked man. Weaving archival material and interviews with the junta generals, Tendler captures the conspiratorial atmosphere that surrounds Goulart against the background of the Cold War.
A number of festival offerings touched on the fall of the Soviet bloc, including the international competition winner, The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear (2012) by Tinatin Gurchiani, and Private Universe (2012) by Helena Třeštíková. Třeštíková’s chronicle, begun in 1974, tracks a Czech family over four decades. Minutely recorded personal triumphs—a child’s first tooth, a new Trabant car—set up a comic tension with historic events and popular culture, shown via old television clips. The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear is communism’s bleak coda, with Georgian youth—a boy who recalls bombings, a girl who confronts her absent mother—among the haunted protagonists. In place of Vertov’s depersonalized cosmic cine-eye that stressed the collective, Gurchiani and Třeštíková use the camera as a social microscope to celebrate the individual.
Among the festival highlights was American director Alan Berliner’s First Cousin Once Removed, 2013. Screened in the special program, Berliner’s collage-like film depicts his cousin, renowned translator Edwin Honig, who’s succumbed to what Berliner calls a “poet’s Alzheimer’s.” By turns pointedly lucid and oblivious as to the identity of those around him, including his two adopted sons, Honig displays an increasingly tangential attachment to his past that redefines what makes us human. The specter of language, at times reduced to childlike cooing and grunts, haunts the film. The found footage of Honig reading his poetry is mute, an apt metaphor for the impossibility of a filmmaker’s adequately capturing reality. Montage not only is Berliner’s method of discovering a storyline in the editing room, but also stresses his belief that, in the end, any portrait—committed to memory, or on film—remains fragmentary.
Sensory memory and language also lie at the heart of Israeli filmmaker Avi Mograbi’s captivating Once I Entered a Garden (2012). In the film, Mograbi accompanies his former Arabic-language teacher, Palestinian Ali Al-Azhari, to Saffuriyeh, a village from which Al-Alzhari’s family was expelled in 1949. Though not clearly linked, the Super 8 and 16-mm clips, and an unknown woman’s love letters read in voice-over, function as a collective memory. By recalling the aura of Beirut threatened by war, they echo Al-Alzhari’s displacement.
In a striking scene, Al-Azhari’s young daughter, Yasmin, from his marriage with a Jewish woman, flees the playground in Saffuriyeh (now Zippori) whose sign forbids foreigners to enter. Yasmin fears the law that pronounces her race non grata, but returns to stir the earth around the sign. Al-Azhari notes that “foreigners” is misspelled, a double dismissal. In an earlier scene, perusing old family photos, he acknowledges the psychic comfort that Mograbi derives from seeing his deceased father as a victim rather than aggressor. He would have thought the same had it been his father. The dialectical moment, one of many in this deeply self-reflexive film, captures memory as a construct that is multifaceted yet necessarily incomplete.
The eighteenth edition of É Tudo Verdade (It’s All True) first ran April 4–14th in São Paulo; it will reprise August 20–25 in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.
Sarah Polley, Stories We Tell, 2012, color and black-and-white, sound, 108 minutes.
THOUGH STORIES WE TELL is Sarah Polley’s first documentary, it continues a theme explored in depth in her two features, Away from Her (2006) and Take This Waltz (2011): the pitfalls of married life and third-party complications. The conjugal couple in question in Stories We Tell is Polley’s own parents, the outsider a man who lived three hundred miles to the north of them. To unravel the mystery of her very origin—which is rooted in the mystique surrounding her charismatic mother, Diane, who died when she was eleven—Polley interviews family members and Mom’s former friends and colleagues. Gracefully commandeering and assembling her project’s many layers, Polley goes on a psycho-archaeological dig that avoids solipsism through meticulous reporting and structural cleverness.
Polley, who began her career as an actor (she’s best known for 1997’s The Sweet Hereafter), appears intermittently throughout Stories We Tell, often at a soundboard, gently instructing her father, Michael, who is recording a narrative of his life with Diane in the third person. At other times, she is seen but not heard, interrogating her four older siblings from offscreen. “Who fuckin’ cares about our family?” one sister snarls during the film’s opening minutes. It’s a valid query, one that Polley may have included preemptively, anticipating the resistance of the skeptical moviegoer wearied by the seemingly interminable supply of shoddy, personal documentaries.
Yet what Polley unearths about her parents quickly makes viewers invested in them. Both actors, Michael, a British transplant, and Diane met in Toronto’s theater scene in the 1960s; he abandoned performing to work for an insurance company after they started having children. In his sit-down interviews with his daughter, Michael, chain-smoking and wearing hearing aids in both ears, reminisces with alarming candor about his shortcomings in the marriage: “A night with a dead wombat might be more exciting than a night with me after twelve years.” He later admits that he encouraged his vivacious wife, who floats throughout the film as a beautiful, dead ghost, to take a lover—which is just what she did while acting in a play in Montreal in the late ’70s.
Viewers may wonder whether the relationship trajectory of Polley’s parents inspired that of the married couple who have regressed fully into sexlessness in Take This Waltz, which she also wrote—a fact/fiction divide that drives much of Stories We Tell. Calling attention to the ever-porous boundary that separates true from false, Polley presents the recapitulation of her mother’s affair (and its effects on Polley’s family) as a chronicle that varies widely depending on who’s speaking. Highlighting the vagaries of memory—and how these discrepancies shape or corrupt the official record—is nothing new in documentaries. Yet Polley destabilizes verities even further by including Super 8 footage of her parents and her mom with her paramour that I was convinced was authentic, decades-old documentation but that is later revealed, quite unostentatiously, to be staged reenactments. It was at this moment that the title of another first-person project—Yvonne Rainer’s—came to mind: Feelings are facts, a deceptively simple declarative sentence that Polley cannily parses.
Stories We Tell opens in New York on May 10 and nationally on May 17.
David Lynch, Wild at Heart, 1990, 35 mm, color, sound, 125 minutes. Perdita Durango and Sailor Ripley (Isabella Rossellini and Nicolas Cage).
BAMCINÉMATEK’S INGENIOUS PROGRAM “Booed at Cannes,” which kicks off a week before the year’s most prestigious cine-orgy commences in the Côte d’Azur and ends three days before it, presents fifteen films, spanning 1953 to 2004, that share a particular badge of ignominy: They were all received hostilely at the festival. Paradoxically, this initial disgrace seems only to have ensured the films’ later placement in the cinema canon; many titles in the BAM lineup, such as Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Gertrud (1964) and Robert Bresson’s L’Argent (1983), have long been regarded as masterworks. But has the true era of the succès de scandale at Cannes ended? Is it a greater insult today if a film isn’t booed?
During my time as a regular festival attendee, from 2005 to 2012, I’d estimate that nearly 70 percent of the titles that screened in Competition—those vying for the Palme d’Or—were booed (or worse). By now, the excessive booing at Cannes, at least at the press screenings, reflects neither a diminishing quality of films selected nor an increase in the lack of decorum (well, not entirely) but something far more banal: tautological ritual. One boos a film at Cannes because one is at Cannes and booing is what happens there. Wanting to participate in this tetchy convention often reveals behavior more masochistic than sadistic: Two years ago, a colleague, rather than leave a film he despised very early on, stayed through all 127 minutes of it just so he could join the chorus of boos at the end. Sometimes, though, the vicious responses are genuine manifestations of near-pathological rage at the filmmaker, as I witnessed in 2009, when Lars von Trier, whose Antichrist had screened the night before to a din of jeers, was booed—at his own press conference.
But perhaps no form of Cannes booing is more aggressive than that used to express displeasure with the choice of Palme d’Or during the closing-night awards ceremony. On rare occasions, heckled directors will return the insult: Infamously, Maurice Pialat had this to say to those who jeered when his Under the Sun of Satan was announced as the festival’s top-prize winner in 1987: “If you don’t like me, I don’t like you, either.” David Lynch, who has the distinction of being the only auteur with two films in the BAM series, simply smiled goofily as the Grand Théâtre Lumière erupted in boos after he mounted the stage to accept the Palme d’Or in 1990 for Wild at Heart—the director’s fifth film and his first to premiere at Cannes. Two years later, Lynch’s next movie, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, would debut at the festival, receiving no prizes but plenty of hisses.
The latter film, even more maligned by US critics (who by and large despised it for not being exactly like the short-lived Lynch TV show for which it was a prequel) when it opened in August 1992, stands as the title in the BAM showcase that benefits the most from revisiting. Recounting the last week in the life of troubled high-school homecoming queen Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), Fire Walk with Me bears many of Lynch’s trademarks: the sinister qualities of small-town life, blonde and brunette protagonists, the porous boundary between dream and waking. But Lynch had never before created—or extended such empathy toward—a heroine as haunting or haunted as teenage Laura, tormented by years of unspeakable abuse. She is the blueprint of abjection and bifurcation for Betty Elms/Diane Selwyn, the fractured lead character in Lynch’s supreme achievement, Mulholland Drive—for which he would be awarded best director at Cannes in 2001.
“Booed at Cannes” runs May 8 through 23 at BAMcinématek.
NO SUCCESS STORY comes without some wrinkles. Over the course of its two-decade existence, Hot Docs built a reputation among Toronto festivalgoers as a more audience-friendly alternative to the overwhelming, all-consuming behemoth that is the Toronto International Film Festival.
But now that it too has been supersized—it’s become the continent’s largest showcase for nonfiction filmmaking—Hot Docs has inherited some of the issues that go along with any increase in girth and prestige, like fast-disappearing tickets for screenings with big-star guests. To be fair, Hot Docs’ notion of a visiting A-lister is less likely to be Hollywood royalty than Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss, the zealot-baiting scientist celebs featured in The Unbelievers, an admiring lecture-tour doc that premiered at the festival. But with 205 titles on offer during its eleven-day run (it ends May 5), the bounty can be daunting.
Along with international premieres of recent Sundance doc-competition highlights like After Tiller—Martha Shane and Lana Wilson’s sensitively rendered portrait of the last four American doctors performing late-term abortions—the program bursts at the seams with new works by Canadian filmmakers and contemporaries from elsewhere in the world. Any viewer who dares take a broad sampling of Hot Docs’ array of polemics and exposés on every conceivable cause and crisis—as well as the innumerable personal narratives and profiles with inspirational intentions—risks catching a case of compassion fatigue. That may be why the least classifiable titles often prove to be Hot Docs’ most memorable.
When it comes to displays of exuberance and eccentricity, few of the new finds can match the oddball wonders contained in the retrospective on Les Blank. Hot Docs had already named the veteran chronicler of all-American weirdness as the recipient of its annual achievement award before his passing at the age of seventy-seven in April. The three programs of short and mid-length works teem with the joie de vivre that he brought to his portraits of musicians both famous (like the titular subject of Dizzy Gillespie) and undeservedly obscure (bluesman Mance Lipscomb in A Well Spent Life). Indeed, despite the fame Blank earned for his account of Werner Herzog’s grueling trials in Burden of Dreams (1982), the title of an earlier celebration of New Orleans serves as a better indication of the filmmaker’s modus operandi: Always for Pleasure.
Peter Mettler, another filmmaker receiving special attention at the festival’s twentieth anniversary edition, displays a similar degree of dedication to his own pursuits, which typically involve globe-spanning quests not so much for Herzog’s fabled “ecstatic truth” but for transcendence itself. Gambling, Gods and LSD (2002), a three-hour essay film that examines some of the ways our species seeks out higher states, represents an apex for Mettler’s intellectually adventurous and visually sumptuous reworking of nonfiction tropes.
A combined quest for sexual liberation and ecological salvation is what drives the idealistic young libertines in Fuck for Forest, the most confounding and compelling new entry. Michal Marczak’s film shares its name with its subject, a Berlin-based “eco-porn” collective whose online fund-raising activities are of a distinctly polyamorous nature. They’ve managed to raise nearly half a million euros via their pay porn site, and their big problem now is trying to find a recipient willing to accept their unconventional form of help.
Mo’ money mo’ problems is an apt refrain for other Hot Docs subjects. Mika Mattila’s Chimeras juxtaposes the careers of two figures in China’s contemporary art scene: a young photographer named Liu Gang and the far more established Wang Guangyi. As a founder of the political Pop art movement that emerged in the wake of Tiananmen, Wang seems understandably conflicted at having become a symbol of the wealth and glamour associated with the current boom. Challenging matters of art and commerce are equally pertinent to the lives of the Americans in We Always Lie to Strangers. Eschewing the condescension typically directed at the Bible Belt showbiz town, directors A. J. Schnack and David Wilson have fashioned a surprisingly empathetic study of Branson, Missouri, and the people who provide its patriotic brand of family-friendly entertainment. Alas, not even the haven of the Osmonds and Yakov Smirnoff has been immune to the effects of the recession. Having spent five years working on the film, Schnack and Wilson are able to chart many of the socioeconomic and cultural shifts that threaten to tarnish the town’s reputation for razzle-dazzle. It’s a good thing these folks have so many sequins at the ready.
The Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival runs through May 5, 2013, in Toronto.
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN BOOKENDED the decade that saw the release of his back-to-back box-office hits The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973) with two infamous queer landmarks, each released around the time of a seismic change in gay history. The director’s 1970 screen adaptation of Mart Crowley’s hit 1968 off-Broadway play The Boys in the Band, about a gathering of gay male friends at an Upper East Side apartment for a birthday party, opened less than a year after Stonewall. To many newly politicized homos, Crowley’s work on-screen, with its sobs, self-loathing, and desperate pleading for tolerance, now seemed pitifully retrograde.
Some of those put off by Boys may have been among the enraged gay and lesbian protesters who disrupted the shooting, in the summer of 1979, of Cruising, a thriller about an NYC cop (played by Al Pacino) who must go undercover as a leather daddy to solve the murders of gay men active in s/m. A year after the February 1980 release of Cruising—still unparalleled in Hollywood cinema for its raw, explicit man-on-man action—the first cases of AIDS in New York City were reported.
To watch The Boys in the Band and Cruising—BAMcinématek is presenting both on May 3 as part of its “Friedkin 70s” series—decades after their initial release is to reflect on revisionism, the trajectory of the LGBT rights movement, and nostalgia. (Friedkin himself does so in his memoir, The Friedkin Connection, the recent publication of which occasions the BAM series.) Viewed today, The Boys in the Band can grate with its unrelenting, shrill self-consciousness: Party host Michael (Kenneth Nelson) poses endless rhetorical questions (“What’s more boring than a queen doing a Judy Garland imitation?”); limp-wristed guest Emory (Cliff Gorman) falls back on his standard rejoinder—“Oh, Mary, don’t ask”—three times too many.
If some viewers now, as then, cringe at what, though certainly well-intentioned and heartfelt, plays like pink-face minstrelsy, certain aspects of Boys endure for their authenticity and poignancy. The opening minutes of the film, to the sunshine-pop sounds of a cover of “Anything Goes” by Harpers Bizarre, feature a brief, buoyant episode set in the West Village redoubt Julius’. (Stills from this scene proudly adorn the back room of the legendary gay bar on West Tenth Street today.) Hauntingly, Boys also serves as a kind of memento mori: Of its nine cast members, all of whom reprised their original stage roles, five would die of AIDS.
It is precisely the vérité aspect of Cruising, filmed in actual Meatpacking District s/m clubs like the Mineshaft and the Anvil with real habitués, that gives the film such potency. As Friedkin explains in his memoir: “We were allowed to film everything that went on in the Mineshaft, with no restrictions. The club regulars were paid as extras, since no Screen Extras Guild members could be asked, nor would they be able to simulate what took place there.” Friedkin shows, with absolutely no judgment, sexy, stygian pleasure domes where men deep kiss, engage in nipple play and flogging, suck each other off, and fist-fuck. At the time of its release, many critics agreed with the gay protesters, who argued that Cruising equated same-sex desire with insatiable homicidal urges; Vincent Canby of the New York Times called it “a homosexual horror film.” But in the years since, the film has been embraced by many queer scholars (and filmmakers: James Franco and Travis Mathews’s Cruising-inspired Interior. Leather Bar. premiered at Sundance in January). In 2007, the year of Cruising’s DVD release, D. A. Miller wrote, “Even to let us see the ‘sexual’ in the ‘homosexual’ to any extent, let alone as copiously as Friedkin has done, is a territorial conquest worthy of Cortez.” Speaking of territorial conquest, Cruising also depicts a radically changed far West Village, where the only things getting sucked today are artisanal ice pops purchased at the High Line.
“Friedkin 70s” runs May 2–7 at BAMcinématek in New York.