On fighting the last liberal battles

I belonged to a Facebook film forum to which I’d often post links to my lists and reviews. On Friday afternoon a couple members and I had what I thought was a polite discussion about gender and sexuality and the casting of Scarlett Johannson as a transgender character in Rub & Tug, specifically about the importance of separating gender from sexuality. A poster alluded to Felicity Huffman in Transamerica. Not a good movie, I said, but at least the casting made sense: Huffman, a cis woman, plays a trans woman. Instead of decrying the “cultural Stalinism” of Hollywood, to quote a poster, let’s focus our anger at the industry’s reluctance to cast trans actors.

Yesterday morning I realized I’d been kicked off the forum; the moderator has also blocked access to him on Facebook. Perhaps other reasons led to my elimination. But if what I suspect is true, then here’s another reminder that liberals disgusted with Donald Trump who support gay marriage and may even have queer pals will turn into the most blinkered #MAGA cap wearers when they must discard a lifetime’s worth of assumptions.

Claire Denis: ‘Solitude is something very special…’

The New Yorker‘s Alice Gregory interviewed Claire Denis as the French director works on High Life, herEnglish-language début starring Robert Pattinson and André Benjamin of Outkast and set in space. Among many fascinating bits are the following:

After buying coffee and taking her seat, Denis began to talk about her mother, who had died, at the age of ninety-four, six months earlier, during the filming of “High Life.” Still in mourning, Denis seemed incapable of avoiding the topic, turning to it in many of our conversations, with little or no segue. “When she was pregnant with my little brother, she had a bad pregnancy and had to stay in bed,” Denis said. After giving birth, her mother became depressed. “I remember very well, this little boy was my son, for a long time, until she recovered and took over. I remember when she was an old lady and she would say, ‘My son, my son!’ She was really in love with her son. And I had to tell her, ‘You know, in the beginning, he was mine!’ And it’s true that at that moment I realized how beautiful it was to see a new baby born, the changes every day.”

Denis, who never remarried, also never had children. Earlier, when we spoke about the decision, or nondecision, she told me, “It was a pain, and then it was a memory, and now I have accepted it.” She added, “Maybe this is just convenient for me, but I never thought of being a mother as an accomplishment for a woman.” At the same time, “loneliness, independence, solitude—it’s heavy,” Denis said. Since her divorce, a half century ago, she has had two long-term companionships. One lasted for twelve years, and the other, with a man whom she would not identify beyond confirming that he’s “also in film,” is, as she put it, “still going on.” She continued, “It’s also heavy to be a couple, but solitude is something very special that clearly tells you at some moments, in the day or night, that if you were to die in the next moment you wouldn’t ever again see a human face.”

I’ve written about solitude — aloneness — as a queerness. Friendships and lovers offer deepening, and the work is the satisfaction.

All this, and Let the Sunshine In you should watch.

‘The Shape of Water’ takes ‘gleeful delight in torture and pain’

After mixing a second cocktail like I never do on school nights and blistering my fingertips, I endured an Oscar ceremony slightly less predictable than expected: the appearance of nonagenarian Eva Marie Saint, trim and still hardy with a grin and a quip, enlivened a somnolent evening even with the likes of Ansel Elgort and Armie Hammer shooting raw hot dogs at plebeians watching the show next door to the theater. My monkey wrench picks to win? They lost. The Academy decided an award to Jordan Peele and bowing before Guillermo del Toro’s fish man movie was enough #woke for one night.

Before the ceremony A.S. Hamrah wrote a few amusing blurbs on last year’s most acclaimed films. Here’s a few:

THE POST

When National Public Radio warns you about one of their upcoming pledge drives, they play a spot asking “if you believe democracy requires a free press.” Probably everyone listening believes that, but you never know. Steven Spielberg’s The Post is the perfect movie for those listeners, and for potential viewers who haven’t heard that newspapers, like NPR, need money to run.

The real story in this movie is how Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) got the Pentagon Papers to Washington Post reporter Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) so The Post could publish them along with The New York Times and help bring the Vietnam War to an end. Spielberg for some reason decided that part of the movie lacked drama, and made it a subplot. The Post concentrates instead on bosses. We are asked to worry about the conscience of Post editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) and the finances of publisher Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep) as her newspaper launches an IPO while she fiddles with her glasses.

CALL ME BY YOUR NAME

Call Me by Your Name’s strength is that it really does seem like the character played by Timothée Chalamet made the film himself. Who else but an actual actor-director would end his film by staring tearfully into a fireplace in winter because he’s realized he will always be separate from other human beings, even though he spent last summer having sex in Lombardy with two kind and very attractive people (Armie Hammer and Esther Garrel)? The first Sufjan Stevens song that interrupts the movie so we can concentrate on nature for a few minutes also indicates the hand of Chalamet’s Elio at work, as he remembers how beautiful it was and how nothing hurt, before he found out on that last trip that Hammer’s Oliver was going to start dancing in public to “Love My Way” again.

THE SHAPE OF WATER

Despite all the positive representation of marginalized people and the explicit condemnation of men who work for the government, the film takes a gleeful delight in torture and pain. Often morose, it livens up when Shannon is tasering the fishman or engaged in bloodletting and beatings. It is a kind of horror movie, it’s true, but those scenes overpower the film’s invocation of desperate forbidden love.

Onward to 2018!

Queering Kevin Spacey

Too young for Wiseguy, I recognized Kevin Spacey as a formidable actor after watching him play an office manager with more cunning than his colorlessness would suggest in the film version of Glengarry Glenn Ross. I wasn’t sure he coded queer onscreen until he and Judy Davis spent ninety minutes bitching in 1994’s forgotten The Ref. Three films in 1995 cemented Spacey’s eminence as Weird Villain Du Jour: Swimming with Sharks, Se7en, and, most known, The Usual Suspects, for which he won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Spacey specialized in a silken, literate menace familiar to Robert Vaughan fans. Two performances fed, lamprey-like, on the signals he sent to gay audiences. As the corrupt cop in L.A. Confidential, Spacey has a spasm of conscience after setting up a wannabe James Dean clone with a closeted assistant district attorney; although director Curtis Hanson shows Spacey dancing with a woman in his first scene, it’s too perfect, and the way Spacey plays it he puts distance between himself and her even if they would’ve sleeping together; it’s as if he’s watching himself while filing his nails. And in 1999’s American Beauty the actor allows himself to figure in a couple of sight gags that are the equivalent of the wink-wink references to secrets concealed he likes to make at award shows: neighbor Chris Cooper, playing yet another closeted man in a Spacey film, looks in horror from his window as his son Wes Bentley seems about to go down on the older man.

A leading man at last, Spacey thereafter stumbled. Like Susan Sarandon, an essential spring snapped in his acting brain the moment he won Best Actor; what came easily to him looked pantomimed. Again, gay audiences could understand the intentional nullity of a character and a performance such as the one played and given, respectively, in K-Pax; Spacey wasn’t good enough an actor to hide human feeling while at the same time quashing the queer notes, as the epistemology of the closet teaches us. Or perhaps he was good enough of an actor but not fearless enough. He didn’t get Kevin Spacey Roles again until House of Cards‘ Frank Underwood but too late: the memory of an instinctive malevolence clung to every gesture, neutering him. Better is the ring leader in Baby Driver, where Spacey figures out that, at this stage in his career, he can best show lust for another man onscreen by being as curt as possible.

By now the world knows what likely happened between Spacey and actor Anthony Rapp in 1986 when Rapp was fourteen. Spacey’s statement doesn’t deny it happened; he says he doesn’t remember it happening, which newspaper veterans will note is a non-denial denial. Michelangelo Signorile makes a couple of well-intentioned mistakes in his column denouncing Spacey. When Spacey wrote, “I choose down to live as a gay man,” Signorile scoffed, “This is the language of the enemies of LGBTQ equality, who claim homosexuality is a choice.” Choosing to live publicly as gay is a choice; indeed, choosing to come out is a choice. Nathaniel Rogers makes a point I’ve seen often:

Soon we’ll see the tired old hateful tropes come to play wherein LGBT enemies and ignorant media will equate homosexuality (which is neither good nor evil but just is… like heterosexuality) with predatory behavior and illegal activities like sex with minors.

After two weeks of revelations that have likely proved career-ending for Harvey Weinstein, Mark Halperin, and James Toback, I doubt the straight public will associate predatory behavior in which minors are targets as exclusively homosexual behavior. The Roy Moores thought we were evil before 2017. Let them think so and die.

A separate but related point: comporting oneself around the young remains a fraught topic in gay circles. The paranoia we feel is both one of the last vestiges of the closet and, I admit with regret, a necessary one. For terrified parents, how easy is it to think the predations of older men contaminated their sons. When I was eight, one of my grandmother’s closet friends, a married man who I learned years later led a double life with the wife’s consent, stopped visiting her home. We remain forever on guard around the young lest we provoke suspicions.

Jonathan Demme: ‘inventiveness and visual intelligence’ to concert films

Slate’s Sam Adams uses a just released Justin Timberlake concert picture to adduce Jonathan Demme’s genius for shooting concert performances:

But despite the victory-lap setup, Demme frames the concert as just another day on the job, especially for musicians and dancers in Timberlake’s expansive retinue. Timberlake is the movie’s center, but it often seems more interested in the people off to either side. During “Let the Groove Get In,” Timberlake strides out onto a transparent catwalk stretched over the audience, the better to show off his impressive dance moves. But when it’s his turn to hold the spotlight, Demme cuts back to the stage, framing a distant Timberlake between a horn player and a guitarist whose bodies dominate the frame, as if to remind us who’s really responsible for that all-important groove.

Adams rather too strenuously assures readers that Timberlake is a minor performer, but it doesn’t matter. Demme’s method allowed vestigial talents their moment — and why not? Flattering the performers by emphasizing their labor on stage constituted Demme’s best talent; Demme had no patience for star turns. A pity he never filmed Drake.

Best films of 1989 and 1990

drugstore-cowboy_still4

1989

Enemies, A Love Story (Paul Mazursky)
Drugstore Cowboy (Gus Van Sant)
Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee)
Mystery Train (Jim Jarmusch)
Say Anything… (Cameron Crowe)
Kiki’s Delivery Service (Hayao Miyazaki)
Henry V (Kenneth Branagh)
The Fabulous Baker Boys (Steve Kloves)
Sweetie (Jane Campion)
Chocolat (Claire Denis)

1990

Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese)
The Decalogue (Krzysztof Kieslowski)
City of Sadness (Hou Hsiao-hsien)
To Sleep With Anger (Charles Burnett)
The Freshman (Andrew Bergman)
The Grifters (Stephen Frears)
Europa, Europa (Agnieszka Holland)
Metropolitan (Whit Stillman)
Trust (Hal Hartley)
The Krays (Peter Medak)

Best films of 1991 and 1992

1991

My Own Private Idaho (Gus Van Sant)
Paris Is Burning (Jennie Livingston)
La Belle Noiseuse (Jacques Rivette)
JFK (Oliver Stone)
Naked Lunch (David Cronenberg)
Dogfight (Nancy Savoca)
The Killer (John Woo)
Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (Eleanor Coppola)
The Naked Gun 2½: The Smell of Fear (David Zucker)
Madonna: Truth or Dare (Alek Keshishian)

RUNNER UP: Poison (Todd Haynes)

1992

Husbands and Wives (Woody Allen)
The Player (Robert Altman)
One False Move (Carl Franklin)
A Tale of Winter (Eric Rohmer)
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch)
Raise the Red Lantern (Zhang Yimou)
The Crying Game (Neil Jordan)
Malcolm X (Spike Lee)
Simple Men (Hal Hartley)
Brother’s Keeper (Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky)

RUNNERS-UP: Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood), The Hours and Times (Christopher Munch), The Last of the Mohicans (Michael Mann).

Best films 1993 and 1994

Continuing my series…

1993

The Long Day Closes (Terence Davies)
The Puppetmaster (Hou Hsiao-Hsien)
A Brighter Summer Day (Edward Yang)
Household Saints (Nancy Savoca)
Dazed and Confused (Richard Linklater)
King of the Hill (Soderbergh)
Groundhog Day (Harold Ramis)
Ruby in Paradise (Victor Nunez)
The Age of Innocence (Martin Scorsese)
Manhattan Murder Mystery (Woody Allen)

1994

Three Colors: Red (Krystof Kieslowski)
Speed (Jan De Bont)
Chungking Express (Wong Kar-wai)
Heavenly Creatures (Peter Jackson)
Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino)
Quiz Show (Robert Redford)
Vanya on 42nd Street (Louis Malle)
Through the Olive Trees (Abbas Kiarostami)
Eat Drink Man Woman (Ang Lee)
Naked (Mike Leigh)

RUNNERS-UP: Nobody’s Fool (Robert Benton)

Brando is ‘going to want play it like a green suitcase’

Best Brando story ever:

Brando lived in L.A. and I had to go and meet him. I called Jay Kanter, who was a very powerful agent and studio executive, and I said, “Can you give me any hints?” And he said, “He’s going to want play it like a green suitcase.” I said, “What does that mean?” “It means he hates to work and he loves money, so if he can talk you into the fact that the people on Krypton look like green suitcases and you only photograph green suitcases, he’ll get paid just to do the voiceover….

So I go to California and I meet Marlon F—ing Brando at his house on Mulholland Drive. Myself, Tom Mankiewicz and Ilya Salkind. He and Jack Nicholson had a little compound. We rang the gate and a couple of German shepherds came down, and there’s Marlon Brando. And it was hard to talk, because this is Marlon Brando! He invites us in and we go into his house for a drink; it was late in the afternoon and we sat down and we started to talk, and we talked and talked. Finally, it was getting dark and he said: “But listen, that’s not why you’re here. You’re here to talk to me about [the role].”

He said, “Why don’t I play this like a bagel?” I was ready for him to say “a green suitcase” and he said “bagel.” He said, “How do we know what the people on Krypton looked like?” He had good logic. He said, “Maybe they looked like bagels up there in those days?”

I can’t wait for Part Two: Terence Stamp Reads For General Zod.