--Gay marriage. The reports and footage from S.F. and my reliably liberal hometown of Portland (and, intermittently, those unlikely non-metropolitan regions of New Mexico and New York) give me a nice, unusual feeling of being present at a momentous time in world history, one of those rare periods when something actually changes for the better and there’s a radical shift forward in the public consciousness. This may happen only once in a lifetime, and never as often as general complacency or steps in the wrong direction. I suppose most gay people know from one experience or another that the world isn’t understanding, reasonable, or kind as a baseline; only when properly coaxed, cajoled, and pleaded with does it come to those states of mind slowly, gradually, and reluctantly if at all, and for once it’s happened in a major way for the queer folks.
As befits my usual guarded, glass-half-empty way of looking at things, however, I’m trying not to be too excited. This definitely feels like something that, rather than spreading into joyful nationwide tolerance and acceptance, could be snatched away from us with no notice. I feel I can’t put all of my politically engaged eggs in this particular basket; any setback will almost certainly be temporary, but I have to be emotionally and logistically prepared for them, all the while remaining at the ready to do my part in electing that apparently well-intentioned but obviously game-playing only-viable-presidential-candidate, John Kerry. I’m like Woody Allen winning his Oscars for Annie Hall (yeah... exactly like that) but not showing up to collect them because (to paraphrase), “If you accept it when you say they’re good, you have to accept it when they say you’re no good.” Part of me wants to rush down to Portland and carry Jason over the nearest threshold, even if in the end it’s only a symbolic act that carries no legal weight; another part of me doesn’t think it could handle being, together with the love of my life, the recipient of that precious piece of paper, with all its significance, only to have it arbitrarily voided or revoked by the weak-minded and mean-spirited.
What’s completely unequivocal is that I’m overjoyed for those who are taking advantage of this strange new way of being treated like more than second-class citizens, and I’ll do everything I can as a politically engaged citizen- with my vote, with my words, with my political donations of time and money- to ensure that this new, real recognition of the real bonds between them is something more than momentary.
--Strange dominoes falling subsequent to the opened floodgates of same-sex marriage: I already knew that the Bushes have to pretend to be “traditional” (gay marriage is apparently “shocking” in the way dead and maimed Iraqi citizens and American soldiers on a daily basis at an incomprehensible cost to our country’s morale and economy are not, if we’re to believe the words of Mrs. Bush) to keep the country, particularly the Midwestern working classes, divided; that’s the way Republicans prefer it. I already knew that Falwell, Concerned Women for America, et. al were illogically defensive, wrongly possessive, and often merely spiteful about “their” ever-evolving institution. The real surprise is that, in my view, the most asshole-looking public figure right now is conservative gay commentator Andrew Sullivan.
There was a time during my younger years when, much as I disagreed with some of Sullivan’s specific beliefs and arguments, I had a great deal of respect for him (similar to my still intact relationship with Camille Paglia). As a conservative gay man, he was unpredictable, seemingly uncategorizable, threw people’s radar off, didn’t toe party lines, and appeared to be an independent thinker of the sort I found (and still often find) lacking in the queer community, the kind that at their best will acknowledge intracommunity issues such as sexism, racism, and classism while simultaneously pressing for intercommunity understanding between people of all sexual orientations. I like anomalous gay people; they stretch the boundaries of perception much further than those docile Queer Eye guys. The African-American community has its Chris Rocks and Spike Lees- figures who aren’t afraid to call their “own people” to task when and where it’s called for- and I think the queer community needs a diversity of critical thinkers, too.
But then, in an apparent frenzy of post-09/11 knee-jerk fear-patriotism, he voted for Bush, a decision he rather bombastically blathered on about in his blog (which seems to be his main outlet these days since his Salon column disappeared without a trace). Now that Bush has endorsed the petty Constitutional amendment that would explicitly exclude same-sex couples from the institution of marriage, Sullivan (according to his blog) feels betrayed. If Andrew Sullivan cared at all about civil rights for queers- or at least if he wasn’t fully prepared to be let down hard- he should never, not even for the briefest moment, have considered voting for Bush. And there’s even a full-on confession amidst the whining that Sullivan “knew this was coming”... We have Mr. Sullivan to thank for one more vote and some very impassioned, not to mention continual, public endorsements in favor of the current administration. His vote and his flag-waving, reactionary, anti-liberal, pro-war propaganda in support of this clearly antigay President were a mistake, and he was a fool not to see it from the very beginning of the 2000 election. If you don’t want to be stabbed in the back, don’t vote for someone who was clearly never going to show any more insight into the existence and rights of queers than he ever has for this nation’s working classes, poor, and armed forces. When you sleep with dogs, you wake up with fleas.
--Bertolucci’s The Dreamers is easily my favorite film so far this year (I know I’m being hasty- it’s only March- but this is the one to beat), and it’s a pinnacle in the improving oeuvre of this great Italian director (a peer of Antonioni and Olmi) since he began rising from the post-Sheltering Sky ashes with the very good Besieged in ‘98. The Dreamers, like the French New Wave films to which it pays tribute, is a very simple, even general story- a trifle, really- into which Bertolucci breathes life via sensuality and vivacity of both form and content with markedly more grace than his legendary but problematic Last Tango in Paris, the last Bertolucci film much remarked upon for the explicitness of its characters’ erotic bonds.
But this time, sex and movies are, according to Bertolucci, inextricably linked. Our fierce yet naive love triangle consists of Matthew (Michael Pitt), an American in Paris, and Theo and Isabella (Louis Garrel and Eva Green), twin siblings and political radicals. They meet in 1968 through the mass protests against Henri Langlois’s dismissal from the Paris Cinematheque (a fascinating event also delved into in the supplementary portion of the recent, great DVD edition of Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel series), and their mutual, obsessive love of cinema leads them to while away the days at Louis and Eva’s luxurious flat while mom and dad are away, goading each other through movie trivia into ever more intense psychosexual games and arguing politics between transgressions. The three, with their shared, obsessive love of film, their bewildering and irresistible sexual friction (or should I say polysexual- the film doesn’t once indulge in the homophobia you might expect when it’s two guys and a girl, but rather teases us with the hints and possibilities, the openness of the situation), and a basic youthful interest in the world around them, become each other’s grindstones; their painful and exhilarating time together, their adventures and misadventures, are a process through which they consciously or unconsciously seek both experience and identity.
The film will seem particularly charming to cinephiles for its luscious aural and visual references to the beloved films of the politically turbulent but cinematically vital time: Bertolucci’s Cinematheque selections are clips from Band of Outsiders, Breathless, Mouchette, bits of Keaton and Chaplin, Queen Christina, even Freaks. I was also personally quite chuffed with the incidental cultural debris of these endearing, curious kids: Susan Sontag’s Trip to Hanoi and Death Kit, Barthes’s Elements de Semiologie, the La Chinoise poster and reckless Little Red Books and Chairman Mao iconography, the Hendrix vs. Clapton debates.
Of course, this being America, what little coverage most media outlets have seen fit to grant The Dreamers has been in the shocked/prurient vein, but the NC-17 sex in the film is exactly right. There is an abundance of nudity and sexual contact (including intercourse), but it’s too real and too vital to what’s happening between Matthew, Theo, and Isabella to ever seem gratuitous, sensationalistic, or dumb. Actually, idiocy and exploitation surrounding sex crops up much more regularly in dull, regressive American films involving the subject (Threesome or Swept Away, anyone?). Bertolucci’s camera never lets us forget that the sex we’re seeing has a resonance for those engaged in it; even in the throes of passion, the characters don’t lose their identities, their emotional gravity, on the screen- and it doesn’t bother to place arbitrarily rigid barriers between the fact of people making love to each other, the fact of their arguing about Maoism and the Cultural Revolution, or the fact of their discussing the cinema as if it were perhaps the only sacred thing.
--I finally got round to enjoying a great surprise Christmas present from my pal Jamie S. Rich (who always gives the very best Luke Haines-related gifts; he once gave me an incomparably cool book, Baader Meinhof: Pictures on the Run). The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family, a biography by Mary S. Lovell, is the most recent account of the four siblings of the mid-twentieth-century English aristocracy (and their lesser-known brother and sisters, their father and mother, their lovers and spouses, etc) catapulted to newfound worldwide notoriety last year (in my head) by the Luke Haines song, “The Mitford Sisters”- some of them are right, some of them are wrong, but as a group they’re emblematic of deep-seated, disturbing political ambivalence and divided loyalties, not to mention a blotch on the aristocracy any way one looks at it; these would seem the prime reasons for inclusion in the Haines Hall of (In)Fame(y).
Lovell includes a family tree and traces the Mitford family’s origins in the royal house of Redesedale, but all that is informative and useful enough while the reader waits to get to the good bits, i.e. those involving Nancy, Diana, Jessica (“Decca”) and Unity Mitford, the four most famous and galvanizing members of the clan. Only Nancy, the eldest, achieved fame the “proper” way, without too much political or personal scandal, as a gossipy zeitgeist-novelist, a sort of female Evelyn Waugh (her Pursuit of Love is regarded by Lovell as a sort of companion volume to Brideshead Revisited). Diana, the next down the line in age, had a practically lifelong love affair/obsession with her eventual husband Oswald Mosley, a politician who became the figurehead of British fascism in the 30s and never lived down his rumored and actual dealings, mostly conducted through Diana, with another, more horribly successful, German fascist leader of the time. Diana’s loyalty to Mosley knew no political or humane conscience- she spent a good chunk of WWII under horrible conditions in Holloway Prison after being informed upon by Nancy, who felt her sister was a traitor to England- and Lovell captures the sick but undeniable romanticism of Diana’s blind devotion. Unity Mitford was the black sheep of the black sheep; the youngest of the Four Famous Ones, she was introduced to fascism by Mosley and Diana in her teens, fell for it head over heels, fled to Germany to join the Nazis as quickly as she could, and was a fanatical devotee and close personal friend of Hitler’s by her early twenties. On the day Germany declared war on England, Unity shot herself in the head and was conveyed back to England by her family, where she spent the rest of her life quite mentally and physically ill. For all the book’s richness of detail, Lovell’s tone is evenhanded and fact-based; however, it’s almost impossible not to see Unity’s story as a sort of cautionary tale or (much too real) fable, a revelation of fascism’s impossibly dichotomized worldview (“the insane will bring order through threats and force”).
No-one comes off squeaky-clean, but the heroine of the book is Decca, a more or less pragmatic and flexible leftist who spent her teenage years fighting tooth and nail with her beloved sister Unity over the merits of Communism vs. the horrors of fascism, ran away with a distant cousin, the politically engaged and astute angry young man Esmond Romilly, married him, and promptly set about “ruining” her life, renouncing her aristocratic roots and devoting all her time and energy to the causes (which she saw as humanitarian) that she believed in. She followed Esmond to Spain for the civil war, moved to Canada and then America, lost Esmond in WWII, met and married an American Jewish lawyer, lived on both coasts, raised a family, did her part to kick against McCarthyism- all of this while actively involved in and employed by leftist labor/civil rights causes on an everyday basis- and eventually wrote the celebrated, Naderesque best-selling book, The American Way of Death.
Of all the fascinating people and events Lovell exposes us to with her unflappable British-observational demeanor, I found Decca and Esmond’s story to be, if not the most jaw-dropping and revelatory, by far the most moving. Nancy and Diana’s romances are also touching in their own way, but it’s because they were failed or masochistic; the former was a born spinster who gave her heart to men who were gay or aloof, while the latter’s relationship with Mosley is tainted by her reckless, even gleeful self-effacement and the cruelty the couple stood for, however indirectly. But Decca and Esmond were two peas in a pod, Robin Hood crossed with Bonnie and Clyde; they ran away from privilege, they never looked back, they made each other happy (they’re among the very few people covered by the book who seem to have much of a taste for or even knowledge of what happiness is). They knew exactly what they wanted- each other, justice and liberty for all people, a good laugh every now and again- and went for it without reservation (persistence and confidence, if nothing else, are a unifying Mitford quality). Esmond disappears too early in the book, a tragedy that, for me, lingered to the end; I found myself wondering what life would’ve been like for Decca and what the history of progressive movements in America might’ve looked like had he, with all his energy and outspokenness, survived the war. The death of just that one benevolent, insightful, loving person gives proper perspective to the grandiosity, celebrity, and glamor that ran through the lives of these four indelible sisters. The trappings of fame and even of notoriety can be grafitying and beneficial, but they’re no consolation for the hole left by a soulmate lost forever.
--It made for a very odd double feature, but since Criterion released Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest and Barbet Schroeder’s Maitresse on the same day and both discs arrived in the same shipment, I watched them back to back.
Bresson’s film, from 1950, is beautiful simplicity- the beauty of simplicity- manifest, right down to its ultra-spare black and white compositions (aided by cinematographer Leonce-Henri Burel) and awesome, radically pared down sound design. It’s follows a young Catholic priest (Claude Laydu), whose parish consists of a small town full of halfhearted believers, whose faith is obscured by the people around him and his own religious bureaucracy, who’s given no grand task for God but somehow suffer for the small light he tries to bring to the lives of his stubborn, broken parishioners- through his apparently thwarted life and very premature death. Yet for all its somberness, steadfastness, and sobriety, the film is very uplifting (I believe this will be the experience of any viewer, religious, agnostic like myself- and, according to commentator Peter Cowie, Bresson- or even atheist, approaching the film with their mind properly open. It’s hardly propaganda for the Church). The story Bresson has chosen is about the removal of the extraneous for the purpose of grace and purity, and this is also his filmmaking style; in the tradition of Dreyer and what would later come to be associated with Bergman, there is a steady, quiet, spare, contemplative quality to the film that redefines asceticism from deprivation to liberation. Susan Sontag, in her essay “Spiritual Style in the Films of Robert Bresson,” wrote, “Bresson’s films renounce ‘the beautiful.’ None of his nonprofessional actors are handsome in an outward sense. One’s first feeling, when seeing Claude Laydu, is how plain he is. Then, at some point or other, one begins to see the face as strikingly beautiful,” and it’s true; Robert Bresson creates more, much more, through working much less. Every element of image and action is chosen carefully and honed to an exactitude possibly unmatched in conception, not even by the precision-mad likes of Stanley Kubrick. Bresson is a cinematic alchemist of the highest order.
Schroeder’s film isn’t nearly so unique or extreme in its style, though there is a certain postmodern starkness and stateliness in its pacing, visual composition, and editing (the color cinematography by Nestor Almendros- one of the very few legendary technical artists of the cinema who also happened to be gay- lends a clear, bold immediacy). What Schroeder puts in front of the camera- very matter-of-fact, very graphic sadomasochism- was rather shocking for the the time (Maitresse was released in 1976). S&M is almost always a sensationalistic, exploitative, easily-pushed-button sort of topic, one that seems to draw the interest of people who don’t actually bother to learn anything at all about it (at least in the films we’re used to on this side of the pond; Body of Evidence or Exit to Eden, anyone?). Those are trespasses Schroeder can’t be accused of; in the interview included on the DVD, he actually speaks about achieving the appropriate physical distance between the squirm-inducing actions (most memorably a masked and bound man having his genitals “pierced” to a board), and the camera so that it would be neither too clinical (wide shots) nor too hung up on its own shock value (close-ups, which are truly unimaginable for some of the scenes).
Though its sexual images will be such a novelty to all but a very few viewers that they’ll be remembered much longer any others from the film, Maitresse is not, in fact, a “film about S&M.” Instead, it’s a film about the way S&M complicates the relationship between the “mistress” Ariane (Bulle Ogier), whose cozy, tastefully appointed Parisian flat includes in its modern conveniences a state-of-the-art dungeon, and Olivier, a slacker/smalltime criminal (Gerard Depardieu, whose casually sexy presence here affirms the roots of his legendary but puzzling Continental-heartthrob status, stars as Olivier). Their affair begins literally over a client, after Ariane bemusedly catches Olivier and a buddy in crime after they’ve stumbled into her dungeon during a botched robbery attempt, and recruits him for his anatomical ability to more expediently service her current appointment. It’s a strange sort of love at first sight, but that’s exactly what it is. What ends up being at issue between Oliver and Ariane isn’t any feeling or judgment directly related to what she’s doing, specifically, but the logistics, the business end, the time and emotional energy expended on her business and her clients and Olivier’s reaction to feeling neglected. It is, unexpectedly enough, a screwball-comedy plot: When a woman’s ambition for her career makes a man feel excluded or threatened, how to reconcile the love between them with her self-actualization? And in what way, on what level, is Olivier and Ariane’s lighthearted attempt at the film’s conclusion to physically-allegorically answer that question- their question, relevant to their lives- really different from the questions asked and answers physically-allegorically sought by Ariane’s clients?
It’s helpful to remember that before Schroeder’s camera found and immortalized it for a culture that, pre-AIDS, was ready to discuss sex and sexuality (there are few better examples of sexuality without sex than we see in this film) openly in a way we may never see again in our lifetime, the practices we see in such minute detail throughout have been going on for a very, very long time, probably almost as long as people have been having “normal” sex. What Maitresse reaches for is a perception of (consensual, adult) sexual deviancy as something other than a moral issue, something that is unavailable and immune to the judgments or endorsements of outsiders, something the understanding of which has a value beyond the sharp physical and mental clarity (or reconciliation of the physical with the mental) apparently found by directly complicit parties. Even if one finds it impossible to directly relate to the actions taken or asked for by Ariane and her clients, it’s not a psychologically or emotionally difficult thing to understand, not any more so than Olivier and Ariane’s climactic joyride at the end of the film. We all have our varying degrees of balance and imbalance, and our options for setting ourselves right may be stranger, more numerous and varied, and perhaps not so damaged or destructive, not really, as our initial impressions might lead us to believe.
More enjoyable Webland reading on Diary of a Country Priest here.
--Whilst idly poring through the old music library (what would I do without it?), I found myself dusting off for my listening pleasure some “lost” tunes from a happier time in pop, a handful of nineties-era anomalies from also-ran bands that either burnt out or never set the world ablaze to begin with. Stuff like Salad’s “A Man With a Box” (from their 1995-vintage Drink Me album) and Ultrasound’s “I’ll Show You Mine,” easily their best song, one of the best singles of the nineties, and a track that failed to even merit inclusion on their oddly uneven flop debut (and only) album, 1998’s Everything Picture.
“A Man With a Box” has soft quasi-martial drumming for the verses, a beautiful keyboard/organ interlude, and a very sly, maybe allegorical decade-by-decade take on the twentieth century (sample: “In the 1960s/Man with a box opened up/In the 1970s/Man with a box drained his cup/In the 1980s/Man with a box came alone/In the 1990s/Man with a box wrote this song”). It’s the best song on an album that’s only so-so, despite also including the fine “Motorbike to Heaven” single.
Where Salad’s fine tune slinkily insinuates itself, “I’ll Show You Mine” is aggressively anthemic. It holds onto the concept of “make love, not war” but disposes of the placid, benign hippie associations of that hackneyed phrase, reveling in the erotically-tinged openness it rightfully should imply. “I’ll show you mine, if you show me yours/All that we have is each other/There’ll come a day when we’ll light the way/We’ll take it all, come on and take the best of me.” It’s sort of my coincidental gay-marriage theme; the triumphal association is easy enough to make.
These bands were not Pulps or Suedes. I didn’t follow their every move, have never read their interviews, have no clue what the name of Salad’s singer is and can only tell you the name of Ultrasound’s vocalist because he was a very fat man who nicknamed himself “Tiny,” and am not entirely sure what happened to either group except that they broke up years ago and no-one seemed to care.
I know there are a scattered few out there who also heard these songs; maybe rediscover them every so often, and get that same feeling- I don’t want to call it nostalgia, rather consolation or hope- that there is beauty, passion, and profundity in the world, always; sometimes you might have to find it in a low-selling, unheard-of 3-song CD single lying at the bottom of the bin. If life is unfair, the pop charts are more lifelike than anyone would ever give them credit for. Their endless, churning, unforgiving mechanism make pop and showbiz something with higher stakes than most indie-rock complainers ever really acknowledge, something quite apart from its normal associations with frivolity, leisure, and disposable pleasure. Pop is not what it is without the print/web media, without the radio, without MTV, without the mass audience. Pop is a harsh mistress, indeed; the best of any artist or performer is hardly guaranteed to be rewarded with attention, acclaim, or an audience, even if it’s close to the best there is. Obscurity is a punishment that the little rescue mission I’ve related here can only seem, for a few transported minutes, to alleviate.
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