Videovista have my review of Simon Pearce’s Shank, a gay indie film that attempts to challenge the tendency of these films to be all about smug middle class people. The film makes some interesting moves and has some rather strange sexual politics floating about in it but none of these possibilities ever materialise into anything concrete, leaving a lot of potential and very little substance.
One of the joys of discovering other cultures is realising, in a somewhat Whiggish manner, where they stand on the public debates that fill the public sphere of one’s own country. What are their attitudes towards gay marriage? Do they still assume that everyone will get married and have kids? Do they have a similar intolerance for racism? More often than not, particularly in the West, this is simply a matter of chronology : Some places are ahead of ‘the times’ while others are ‘behind’ them. However, leave the gilded circle of what was once Christendom and you find cultures with attitudes so different to ours that they actually shed some light on the buried assumptions of our own debates.
One such culture is that of Thailand. Thailand’s attitude towards gay rights is genuinely fascinating. Since the military coup of 2006, Thai government has been edging closer to using a third gender for administrative purposes. A third gender designed to accommodate the Kathoey, a caste of Thai society that we tend to refer to either simplistically as transwomen or, with the teeth grinding that accompanies potential political incorrectness, ladyboys. In truth, “Kathoey” is a much broader category than male-to-female transsexual. Originally, it was coined to describe intersexuals but since the mid 20th Century onwards, it has come to designate everything from post-operative transsexuals to effeminate gay men. This category of person has existed for a long time in Thailand and, thanks to Buddha’s teaching of tolerance, they are not mocked or physically attacked in the way that TG people can be in the West. However, they are also victims of terrible discrimination and frequently find themselves working in the ‘entertainment’ industry because people refuse to hire them for other jobs. Even if they are university graduates. I mention the Kathoeys as, for a long time, the Kathoeys served to mask the existence of Thai homosexuality. In Thai culture, sexuality is defined largely in terms of gender and the idea of two masculine men having sex or a relationship simply did not figure. It was not a common mode of identity. Indeed, in the late 70s there were only ten gay entertainment venues in the Patpong area of Bangkok. A decade later, there were over a hundred such places spread out across the country. In a sense, homosexuality – as we in the west understand the word – only really appeared in Thailand in the 1970s and since then it has attracted more than its fair share of ill-treatment from officials who are more than happy to crack down on a new mode of being.
It is against this rather alien and seemingly conflicting set of cultural attitudes that Apichatpong Weerasethakul makes films such as Tropical Malady (a.k.a. Sud Pralad), a lusciously atmospheric film comprising a a beautifully chaste love story and a fable in which one of the young men turns into a tiger.
In 1975 the Nigerian author and critic Chinua Achebe gave a lecture that sent shock-waves through the literary community. In this lecture, he suggested that the depiction of Africans in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) was more than sufficient to label not only the text but also its author as racist. While Achebe would later soften his position by suggesting that his interpretation was only one of many and that his reading in no way invalidated all of the laudatory readings cooked up by admirers of the work, the damage was done. Over thirty years later the spectre of racism still hangs over Heart of Darkness, provoking the feeling that however glorious the novella might be, it may well be a reflection of a by-gone age with values not quite the same as ours but which we are willing to put up with for the sake of what is good in the work. In fact, introductions to contemporary editions of the work bend over backwards to stress Conrad’s anti-colonialist credentials.
However, Achebe’s “An Image of Africa : Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’” actually addresses this issue by discussing Conrad’s layered approach to narration. Conrad gives the story not one but two narrators; Marlow who recounts his curious experiences in the Congo and a shadowy figure who is telling us about Marlow telling the story. By insulating himself so carefully, Conrad seems to be insulating himself against the language and the opinions of the story. It is not Conrad who speaks of ‘buck niggers’ but Marlowe and his chronicler. However, Achebe’s critique stretches much deeper than merely cataloguing all the uses of racist language and stereotypical depictions of Black people. In fact, his piece is at its most powerful when it is talking in the abstract about the technique that Conrad uses to project fears onto an entire population. This is a technique that is still in use today and it is just as problematic as can be seen in films such as William Friedkin’s Cruising (1980) and Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible (2002).
Jarman the icon. Jarman the experimentalist. Jarman the punk. Jarman the queer. Derek Jarman’s adaptation of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II was made three years prior to his death from an AIDS-related illness. It is not only his most politically outspoken film, it is also the film that brings together the various strands of his career : It is a radical interpretation of an Elizabethan play, It is shot with all of the stylised pomp and careful staging of a 1980s music video and it speaks directly to the gay community’s history of oppression at the hands of self-righteous British establishment.
Videovista has my review of Lucio Fulci’s Quella Villa accanto al Cimitero.
What surprised me most about this film was how genuinely weird it was. By the early 1980s, the Italian film industry was doing a pretty god job of milking the ideas from successful genre films. In some cases, they even released unofficial sequels to American films such as Night of the Living Dead (1968) and even Terminator (1984) – more about which can be found in the interesting if rather bizarre videologs put out by The Cinema Snob – Fulci was very much a part of this tradition and The House by the Cemetery was a part of a series of zombie films he made. However, with little money and much repetition of subject matter, these Italian exploitation films had to find someway of getting themselves noticed and this seems to have spawned a culture of genre-bending where ideas were crammed together in interesting ways regardless of whether or not they made sense.
This hot house of creativity stands in stark contrast with the stagnant and moribund culture of gay indie cinema. As proof, Videovista has my review of Chip Hale’s Mulligans (2008). A review which marks round 273 in my on-going battle with TLA Releasing.
So far, Cinematic Vocabulary has focused upon isolated cinematic scenes. The reason for this is that, while matters of style and technique impact upon entire films, it is frequently easier to isolate these aspects of a film by filtering out issues of narrative and characterisation that tend to function more on the level of entire films than on that of individual scenes. However, as with atoms and tables, there is a point where the small things come together to form something recognisably large. This column is about how a series of scenes can link up in order to form a part of a wider thematic arc.
A few months back, I wrote about Olivier Assayas’ Demonlover (2002). Intrigued by the cerebral and somewhat extreme piece of French film-making, I tracked down the best known of Assayas’ works, Irma Vep (1996). Set behind the scenes of a fictional remake of Louis Feuillade’s silent era crime pulp Les Vampires (1915), Irma Vep casts Hong Kong martial arts veteran Maggie Cheung as herself playing the titular Irma Vep character. Much like Truffaut’s Day for Night (1974), Irma Vep uses its film-within-a-film structure to comment upon the nature of film production in general and the health of the French film industry in particular. The result is a hugely rewarding film filled both with touchingly funny moments of human frailty and insightful critiques of what French film has lost and where it should be heading.
*Please Note – This Piece is Full of Spoilers*
There are ideas that seem to be of a certain place and time. Call them icons, if you will. One of the most powerful icons of the early to mid twentieth century is the femme fatale. Born of a cultural climate where gender was not divorced from sex and where women were expected to be virginal and submissive, femme fatales rejected this essentialist vision of gender by being sexually aggressive, socially independent and more than willing to use their sexual wiles to render men subservient to their own desires and goals. Decades after the arrival of the contraceptive pill and miles down the road towards sexual equality, you could be forgiven for thinking that a society such as ours has outgrown the need for bold cinematic challenges to our understandings of gender. Indeed, nowadays the femme fatale seems like little more than an anachronism; as out of place in the modern world as a cockney spiv might be in pre-Credit Crunch London. However, even the most liberal of societies falls into lazy thought patterns, habits of conception that need to be re-examined lest they go stale, rot and become oppressive dogma. Swedish Vampire film Let The Right One In (2008) is a film that rides out not only against popular theories of gender, but also against the commonly held belief that children are innocent, pliable creatures who need to be protected from adults. It does so by rejuvenating and reinventing that most iconoclastic of icons, the femme fatale.
Videovista has my review of Sean Abley’s Socket. A film that is not only a work of indie SF, but also of indie gay cinema.
The film itself is not particularly interesting or worthy of note (much like Rocco DeVilliers Pure Race , which I also reviewed) except when you consider how close the film came to being genuinely interesting and how spectacularly it failed. I am only linking to the review as I think that the failures in Socket point to a rather intriguing cultural battle going on at the heart of gay cinema at the moment. If you doubt this, bear in mind that Brockas’ last film Boy Culture (2006) was shown at the 2008 London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival. Which is a piece of programming on a par with screening Confessions of a Shopaholic at Cannes.
See also my recent review of Jacques Nolot’s Avant Que J’Oublie for a real piece of gay filmmaking.
It is difficult for me to articulate quite why it is that I adore Jacques Nolot’s Avant Que J’Oublie (2007), or Before I Forget as it is known to English speakers. Ostensibly your typical French drama about middle class angst, alienation and spiritual decay, the film deals with an ageing gay man who looks back over his life with considerable bitterness as he considers all the things he lost and all the things he failed to gain. However, while filled with negativity about his own past, the central character Pierre (played by Nolot) is gripped by terror when he thinks about the future as his health dwindles, his sex drive sputters and his days come to be consumed by talk of money, food and how he will most likely die alone. There are hundreds of films that deal in exactly this kind of bourgeois malaise and many of them leave me completely cold. What makes Nolot’s films so special is that, unlike many dramas that aim for the universality of human emotions while achieving only the generic, Nolot’s films are specific. They carry the specificity that comes only from the autobiographical and it is the candour with which Nolot describes his life that makes his films so uncomfortable and yet so utterly compelling.