What I like about Cowley’s instrumentals is how their bleeps and spiky melodies evoke a chintzy anonymity — the anonymity of sex in The Anvil; I can smell the sweat and mung. Reviewing Patrick Cowley’s journals, “a voraciously readable historical document” released at the same time as a comp called Mechanical Fantasy Box, Rich Juzwiak captures a period in gay life that looks like the long British spring of 1914 before Franz Ferdinand fell victim to an assassin’s bullet:
To hear him tell it, Cowley was enthralled by the sex he was having—so many great asses, so many great cocks, and such prowess. “I could never take the fuck I give,” he brags. In addition to the graphic sex, his writings contain sprinklings of romance and momentary ambivalence regarding his fast lifestyle (“The churning, crowded heat of men in a sexual banquet crowds in on me and the forced-by-circumstances emotion-lacking atmosphere drives me away”). There’s also a real sense of the brotherhood that the ritualistic scene could foster for a lapsed Catholic like Cowley: “I’m on my knees worshipping Phallus. All around me are the other similarly engaged. I feel the one-ness of our activity. Silent yet all things understood.”
A child when the AIDS panic swept Florida, I learned to cordon off my sexuality from the rest of my life. Then my uncle died of HIV complications a year before New England Journal of Medicine published an article suggesting the benefit of antiretroviral therapies. Fear, trembling, and panic — they trail the god of war. To have survived this era doesn’t fill me with gratitude so much as expose a hollowing. I could never return to a past as unfamiliar to me as the Romanov court.
The natural light in Pedro Almodóvar’s eighth collaboration with Antonio Banderas has a fullness, especially when cinematographer Jose Luis Alcaine focuses on the deep greens of trees in gardens and the dust-caked sunlight of rural Spain. The choice makes sense for what publicists and the director himself have called his most autobiographical or, worse, “personal” film, and, perhaps as a result, what is a second-tier effort from an artist for whom the diminishing returns of outrage haven’t yet produced material adequate to his talents. You’ll have a good time watching Pain and Glory: it offers ample pleasures, visual and performative, especially a marvelous Banderas turn. But it’s not as poignant as Almodóvar thinks: He’s coasting on the assumption that the audience thinks, “Haven’t the last thirty-five years of our shared lives been wonderful?”
The first, rather hamhanded shot of Salvador Mallo (Banderas) sinking to the bottom of a swimming pool suggests a return to amniotic immersion. Invited to a restored screening of one of his classics (Sabor) and not doing much else thanks to a creative block, the ailing Salvador revisits moments from his past. He reconciles with his pugnacious former leading man Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia), who returns the favor by getting him hooked on smack. In Salvador’s hazes he sees visions of his past: his mother Jacinta (Penelope Cruz) and the village women singing a tune while doing the washing riverside; a white-washed cave in which his father insists they live; the handsome laborer (César Vicente) whom he teaches to read and write. A dig into Salvador’s computer files unearths an unpublished monologue that Alberto insists he deliver before an audience. Wouldn’t you know that this monologue eulogizes Salvador’s adolescent affair with Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), who happens to be sitting, devastated, in that audience? Of course! This is an Almodóvar film.
The distancing device, used to exemplary effect in 2004’s Bad Education, of employing narrators within narrators to share the director’s most personal moments mitigates the bathos. Otherwise Pain and Glory is a surprisingly unconvoluted — in every sense — valentine from Almodóvar to his audience for sticking by him for thirty-five years (Almodóvar’s first serious American screenings took place at what was then the Miami International Film Festival). Manipulating eyes the color and shape of burned almonds, Cannes Best Actor winner Banderas gives a performance of intense warmth; despite his ill health and languor the intelligence and wit of Salvador comes through. A quiet reunion with Federico — two ex-lovers who may or may not have another chance at possible happiness — is a master class in generating romantic frisson.
The rest of Pain and Glory hews to the usual pattern of a director getting misty-eyed about his golden youth. The last forty-five minutes consist of one character after another expressing his or her gratitude for what Salvador’s done for them: Alberto and Federico are enough, but does adoring minder Mercedes have to light incense too? Fans of Cinema Paradiso will award it a more generous reception. Which is why Almodóvar must be grateful Julieta Serrano plays Salvador’s aged mother, seen in flashback. According to Salvador’s memories, she told him he’d been a disappointment as a son, hadn’t fulfilled her wishes. In these scenes set in a hospice and Salvador’s museum-like home (albeit “museum with Almodóvar as designer/curator”), Serrano shows such good sense and simplicity playing this dying woman that Pain & Glory stops for her; I might even claim that it honors its title. Every film made comprises a series of inevitable decisions about choices. To walk out of Pain and Glory is to wonder how a movie about Jacinta — a renowned filmmaker’s mother — might’ve played.
Portions of this review appeared in a blurb for Miami Film Festival’s GEMS series.
Programmed as an autumnal amuse-bouche before the rigors and glories of the full-blown event a few months hence, Miami Film Festival’s GEMS offers four days of films starting with tonight’s screening of Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory. Beside the South Florida debuts of the Eddie Murphy blaxploitation comedy Dolemite Is My Name and the dramatization of the clash between Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) and Francis (Jonathan Pryce) called The Two Popes, GEMS will also show Noel Baumbach’s Marriage Story and Céline Sciamma’s Cannes-winning Portrait of a Lady on Fire.
The festival screened a few offerings for me, a couple of which I reviewed below.
In descending order… Continue reading
With gay men of means offered a buffet of mating options in the twenty-first century, film has had trouble catching up. Marriage versus eternal bachelorhood, each tinged with resignation, is the post-plague binary that many of us reject. End of the Century, however, plays with time and some space to show how these options do little to change a man’s essentials. That Argentinian writer-director Lucio Castro succeeds in a film a little less than ninety minutes long impressed me. Castro’s film treats antecedents like Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and Andrew Haigh’s Weekend as unfinished if not unrealized: End of the Century examines how desire can underpin, nudge, or sand down domesticity. Continue reading
When Virginia Woolf changed my writing life in my senior year of high school, the biographies mentioned her largely platonic, paternalistic, often wearying, but genuine friendship with her husband and publisher Leonard Woolf. The cult of Bloomsbury still exercised enough pull to merit a few paragraphs on Clive Bell, Lytton Strachey, Virginia’s sister Vanessa, and her bisexual lover Duncan Grant. Satellites like T.S. Eliot and E.M. Forster got dutiful nods. But diarist, best-selling novelist, and poet Vita Sackville-West received curt, almost embarrassed attention. The inspiration for Virginia’s cheeky time-traveling ominsexual masterpiece Orlando, Sackville-West was also Virginia’s lover during the most fecund period of her artistic life.
Vita & Virginia, which covers this period, follows a hallowed film tradition about novelists: unable to depict interiority, it treats the lives as if they mattered as much or more than the fiction. It’s a confoundingly literal movie about a writer whose fiction poked fun at her pompous contemporaries* and a writer who after two stilted early novels eschewed literalism, respectively. Continue reading
Sexual coming of age stories will never lose their luster for directors; This is Not Berlin‘s takes place in Mexico City, 1986, where teenagers, long-haired Carlos (Xabiani Ponce de Leon) and best friend Gera (José Antonio Toledano), chafe under their parents’ expectations. Gera’s older sister Rita (Ximena Romo) seems like she knows the way forward: she sings in a band that’s a combination of Missing Persons and Echo and the Bunnymen, if the ears can absorb such a combination (the size of their hair suggests the follicles had no trouble). Motivated out of a sense of impishness, she introduces them to underground club Azteca, run by Nico (Mauro Sanchez Navarro). They’re supposed, to quote the great George Clinton, dance their way out of their constrictions, but formidable constrictions they remain. Guys kiss! “Is this a gay bar?” Carlos asks. “It’s an everything bar,” Rita says.
With the help of Alfredo Altamirano’s cinematography, writer-director Hari Sama makes Azetca alluring and decadent, and the colors of her palette reflect the violet sensibility that Carlos is learning to manipulate. He may not be gay, but in this scene he quickly figures out how seeming so will help (audiences familiar with Eleanor Henderson’s 2011 novel Ten Thousand Nights will grasp the connections between hardcore and homosexuality). Nico, for instance, projects an sexual ambivalence that’s all the more refreshing for being presented as a statement of fact instead of the basis for the usual handwringing. “This is my past, this is my present,” Nico says to Carlos when showing him his stash of gay porn. Notably absent – again, refreshingly – is a mention of the future. When you’re young and experimenting with what Michael Chabon in The Mysteries of Pittsburgh called your sexual chemistry set, you accept the risk that you may blow yourself up. Insofar as This is Not Berlin presents a grim future, Philippe (Sidney Robote) embodies it, reminding the young men and women that a virus out there for which no cure exists is killing gay men.
How marvelous — what a relief — that directors like Sama have looked for the queer stories in earlier decades. Although a muddled last act prevents This is Not Berlin from being a full triumph, there’s enough in this dizzy, vibrant film to sustain repeated viewings. It has an authentic grungy look, as if the camera peered through a mezcal haze. And isn’t adolescence its own haze?
Portions of this review appeared in an earlier blurb for the film’s Miami Film Festival appearance last spring.