Friday, May 31, 2013

Girls who are boys, who like boys to be girls...

Where does one begin? Peaches Does Herself is a German concert movie of Peaches. Written by, Directed by and starring Peaches. But how does one describe this experience?

Normally, I skip the Face the Music program of films at SIFF each year, but Peaches Does Herself was described as the queerest film in the festival. As it turns out, I knew exactly one Peaches song prior and still know little to nothing about her, but it didn't matter. I enjoyed the music and most of all, I loved her persona. Her sexuality was on display and was not only unapologetic, but read as loud as if it were a billboard with "fuck normalcy and judgement, this is who I am" in bright pink neon.

To give an overall impression of the film, I've decided just to lay out what happens along with stills. I suspect that is the best I can do for readers to decide whether this is something they should seek out. The film begins in Peaches' bedroom and after the dancers climb through a giant vulva in her bed a very pink clad orgy ensues.

Then there are confrontations and several more numbers that lead to Peaches having an operation that enhances her breasts and gives her a huge penis. And then, Peaches finds love.

So Peaches gets married married, but it doesn't last. Finally Peaches is alone with an exploded penis and popped boobs. But during this narrative of sorts are some great songs, pretty boys, girls, girly boys, gently girls, dancing, the Naked Cowgirl, giant vulvas, and so much more.

And the only song I knew by Peaches before only appears as she bikes away into the streets of Berlin, singing "Huh? What? Right. Uhh.... Fuck the pain away... Fuck the pain away..."

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Grrrls in front

I cannot write about The Punk Singer like it is just another SIFF documentary. I always try to look at cinema analytically, but this movie became personal and by the end, I was cheering for all that Kathleen Hanna has done and will do.

There was a period of time when music meant something. In the 80s, I was crazy about Duran Duran which took me to Bowie, The Culture Club... Later Guns n' Roses were huge and I had a metal phase, but after high school, I didn't connect with music the way I did at 15. In college, what spoke loudest was cinema. And this totally makes sense. It was the beginning of the New Queer Cinema and while those movies didn't make it up to Anchorage until years later, the impact on cinema was immediate. It wasn't until probably 1995 when I was finally seeing the movies by Gus Van Sant, Gregg Araki, Todd Haynes, and so on, but it was still in the movies where I was finding the stories that spoke to me. The cinema is where my adult identity was formed.

But this all happened in the absence female voices and narratives. The Punk Singer makes me want to go back and time and discover the Riot Grrrl bands during college, instead of hearing about the movement years later and pick up and move to Seattle then, instead of in 20004. However, what was most surprising was the strong identification with Kathleen Hanna. She is only two years older and the series of events that brought about Bikini Kill felt like a parallel universe. About the time I settled into the film as an observer, the narrative progressed to describing Hanna's neurological issues that again, were familiar in that I had personally experienced most of them, although my neurological symptoms began years before Hanna became ill.

So this isn't much of a movie essay and more of a personal one where I second guess my life choices. I understand the need to save face by quitting music before anyone really can see just how sick you are. Seems I've been avoiding forming relationships in an effort to maintain the appearance of health. I don't much like to admit to the bad days that are nearly equal in number to good ones. Had one today that began with an inability to wake up followed by an entire day of not being able to think clearly or motivate myself to do much more than reading news headlines. Maybe tomorrow, my head will feel clear and my old self will return.

So to wrap this up, The Punk Singer was a moving portrait of the figure at the center of the Riot Grrrl punk movement of the 90s. The movie really is very clear on how feminist these bands were and the cultural response. And while these bands are no more, there is still a need for women's voices to loudly call out misogyny is all of its forms and tell the men to move to the back.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Key of Life

I love Japanese cinema. And probably in part due to the Seattle International Film Festival, I discovered that contemporary, non-genre cinema from Japan can be amazing and film festivals are the only places to find these films. Sure some Japanese movies make it to the theaters each year, but these tend to be horror movies or Anime. We don't get many opportunities to see the other types of movies that are made in Japan.

Key of Life is surprising because it really shouldn't be good. Any plot synopsis that essentially claims it's like Trading Places in Japan, except Dan Aykroyd has amnesia, does not sound promising. So I honestly don't know how director Kenji Uchida pulled this off.

There are three characters, Kanae is a successful and very detail oriented business women who decides to get married. So she puts her wedding day on her calendar and informs friends, family and colleagues of the impending date. The only problem is that she hasn't met the groom just yet. But she's given herself 4 weeks to meet him and another 4 weeks to get to know him. Sakurai's acting career hasn't exactly taken off. He lives in a dingy apartment and is behind on his rent and has no prospects for making money, so he attempts to hang himself. Although this doesn't have the intended consequences and so he goes to the public bath. And finally, Kondo enters the picture. He is an assassin and because of his line of work, is extremely meticulous, but also necessarily socially isolated. Kondo unknowingly enters Sakurai's life when at the public bath, cleaning up after a job, he slips on a bar of soap and is knocked unconscious  His locker key lands in Sakurai's hand and they switch lives when Kondo wakes in the hospital with no memory of who he is and only has the contents of Sakurai's locker to inform him about his identity.

The movie that unfolds is somewhat predictable, at least at first, but is also very smart in the way it uses genre. Sasato Sakai, plays Sakurai as if Key of Life is a farce. The comedy is very exaggerated in many of his scenes, but Teruyiki Kagawa plays Kondo very straight. Although, he has no memory of being an assassin, he enters Kakurai's life as if he is in a noir mystery that he must get to the bottom of. And so Kondo goes to work figuring out the sad realities of Sakurai's existence, even finding the rope that was used in the suicide attempt. Meanwhile, Sakurai is attempting to fill Kondo's shoes as an assassin and eventually needs help getting out of his new found life of crime.

Having some experience with Asian farces, I was concerned at the onset of Key of Life, but by the end, I was won over. The characters are extremely likable, and plot has some surprise twists and turns, and I loved the romantic turn at the end. It looks like Film Movement is distributing this film, so maybe there is a chance of Key of Life finding an audience in the states.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

The James Franco Gay Bar movie

The short film, In Their Room: London from director Travis Mathews is an experimental film simply observing gay men in the privacy of their own rooms. It shows probably 10 men grooming, sleeping, dressing, undressing, searching the internet for hook-ups, showering, even using the toilet.

I don't really have much to say about this film. It gives a glimpse into a diverse array of lives. But really, those lives aren't all that diverse. Mostly white and mostly bearded, engaging in very similar activities. I guess this makes a few men stand out. Like the man pictured above, surrounded by images of Morrissey as he applies make-up, the elderly cross-dresser, and the black man do stand very separate from the others, despite the fact that they are all engaged in very similar activities. Perhaps in privacy we reveal our shared, humanity as many engage in the grooming rituals dictated by a shared culture?

The most frustrating aspect of In Their Room: London was the lack of time devoted to any one individual. This may reveal my frustration with the male gaze, but I wanted more time with each individual. I wanted more than an often silent snapshot of these lives, one can find that in a photo essay, but a documentary portrait. I wanted to know each man and see the world through his eyes, not just gaze upon him. In that way, In Their Room may be a revealing project, but one with certain frustrating imposed limitations.

INTERIOR. LEATHER BAR. is also very much an experimental film long referred to as the James Franco Gay Bar project. Franco collaborated with director Travis Mathews conceiving of a film exploring the 40 minutes of film cut from Friedkin's Cruising. Those 40 minutes were filmed in an actual New York City gay leatherman's bar and included shots of un-simulated gay sex. Initially, this project was about an attempt to recreate, or re-imagine that lost footage.

INTERIOR. LEATHER BAR. not at all that film. Introduced by director Travis Mathews, he was clear to explain that imagining that lost footage was only the starting point for this film. It is instead a film about straight actors comfort with playing gay male roles. And the film is an intellectually fascinating examination of masculinity and homophobia.

The film focuses on James Franco's friend, Val Lauren, who has agreed to play Al Pacino's role in this project. Val voices his concerns about the project immediately. He doesn't understand his friend's interest in it, but agrees to it because he trusts Franco. We follow along as Val discusses the project, shares reservations, and generally bonds with the other actors on set who are equally in the dark about what is expected.

Really, the actors didn't seem to have much to fear. Travis hired plenty of gay men who donned leather and looked the part of men in a 70s leather bar, but probably didn't go to the extremes that Friedkin's cast might have witnessed. Mostly, the guys were expected to dance with each other as more explicit activity happened around them. In a few cases, one of the presumably straight actors would be asked to use a wooden paddle on a man, but they're limits were totally respected concerning any sexual interactions on the set. Really, the film was more interested in watching how the guys maintained a professional demeanor at times when they were not entirely comfortable with real gay sex happening. And the outcome was surprising.

Val was obviously uncomfortable, even when not in character, but by the end, he was obviously not only more comfortable with the project in general, but specifically more at ease with the gay men in the cast. He even approaches a couple that had sex on camera to let them know that their scene was beautiful in the way you could see the love they feel for one another.

INTERIOR. LEATHER BAR. is not a film for everyone as it is neither documentary or a work of fiction, but rather an acting project that is most interested in the new world that young actors are in today. What the film seems to be asking is just how comfortable men are today with gay roles and acting with out gay men. And this film suggests that while not everyone started out totally okay with the gays, the men were quick to adapt. Our culture seems to be changing right infront of us and that is what this film captures.

An aside. I still hope that those lost 40 minutes of Cruising are unearthed. Actually, I've never seen Friendkin's film, but am eager to today. Cruising undeniably casts the gay leatherman's culture in a very homophobic light, but today, I see the film, especially the unseen footage, as historically important. Today, the gay leather bars are all but gone. Thanks to the AIDS epidemic and the migration away from bar culture in general due to grindr, the leather scene is quickly disappearing. I should have bought a drink in a leather bar back in 1998 when I had the chance.

SIFF 2013: Concussion

The simplicity of the plot synopsis, does not do justice to the film's emotional complexity. Abby, played masterfully by Robin Weigert, is overwhelmed by a sense of isolation and alienation despite living a good life with a family that she loves. At the beginning of the film, Abby is losing her temper with her two children as her wife of 20 years is trying to get Abby to the emergency room with as little drama as possible. Kate chastises Abby for shouting at the kids. Abby, holding ice to her head with blood matted in her hair after taking a softball to the head, is very relatable in her anger and marital dissatisfaction. From that moment forward, Abby begins a journey to discover what is missing and this takes her into a world of high class, lesbian call girls.

Concussion is about an emotional reality of long-term relationships that doesn't often find a voice in this culture. Following in the footsteps of The Kids are All Right (2010), Abby and Kate are another upper class, lesbian couple with problems in their relationship that are universal to any relationship that spans two decades. The problems of the decline of lust and passion can erode the bond of any relationship and as talk of 'lesbian bed death' has hinted at, this need for sexual variety is probably even stronger for women than for the sex that sexual wandering has been attributed to.

This is a wonderful film with so many unexpected moments and emotional truths buried within, that without such a strong lead actor, Robin Weigert, likely would not succede. She conveys so much without the need for dialog. She can simply convey the feeling of emptiness when going about her daily chores. This really is an examination of depression, mid-life crisis, and relationship turmoil that hopefully will find an audience. It has been picked up for distribution by RADiUS, an arm of the Weinstein Corporation, so watch for this in the fall.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Every new technology is expensive, and sooner or later every new technology gets into bed with lechery.

The Seattle Independent Film Festival has landed, again. I don't have the time or money to attend this year, but just cannot stay away. And I started off my festival with a Peter Greenaway film, Goltzius and the Pelican Company

If I were forced to pick just one film as my favorite, it would be Peter Greenaway's 1996 motion picture, with the emphasis strongly on picture, The Pillow Book. After I assumed that his other works would similarly resonate, but was so very, very wrong. Since, I've developed a bit of a love/hate relationship with Greenaway's cinema having been completely confounded by a few, respecting others, completely disgusted and repulsed by one, occassionally bored, but then completely charmed and delighted by the previous film seen at SIFF in 2009, Rembrandt's J'Accuse. I wasn't sure I was up for the Greenaway gamble, but when a pair of free tickets landed in my lap, I couldn't stay away.

With Goltzius and the Pelican Company, Peter Greenaway has liberally embellished the story of Hendrick Goltzius's voyage to Italy in 1590. In this bit of revisionism, Goltzius and his entourage of artists, craftsmen, and players accompanied by their wives, pay a visit to the Margrave of Alsace. There a bargan is made. In exchange for entertaining the Margrave's court with a collection of bawdy Biblical stories, Goltzius would receive the funds for a printing press and be able to create an illustrated version of the Old Testament and the works of Ovid. What follows is the performance of a series of biblical tales that embody six sexual taboos: voyeurism, incest, adultery, corruption of youth, prostitution, and finally necrophilia. 

So much about Goltzius and the Pelican Company is familiar to Greenaway disciples. It has neo-classical sensibilities, but it is completely modern in message and execution. As with its predecessors, sets are elaborately constructed and carefully framed, with most shots perfectly symmetrical. This is layered with scrolling text, framed images, titles, creating a absorbing and often overwhelming amont of contectual information to digest. This constant barrage of imagery is so classically beautiful, that I tend to forgive it for not being completley digestible upon first viewing. I've grown to expect to only get an outline of the work in a first viewing, but find I am so taken by the sound and look of Greenaway's cinematic canvas, that I don't mind never feeling that I have delved much beyond the surface meanings of his texts. The surface is sure a lovely to gaze upon. 

But it is easy to descern that there is much below Goltzius's surface. As the players act out the biblical stories, the impact on the court and Margrave put into motion a series of events that equal the immorality and lack of decency.  By the end, Lott's seduction at the hands of his daughters is one of the least provocative theatrical presentations. Once the scholars and law makers start to collide in their interpretations and debates about the truths behind Goltzius and companies liberal interpretations of the biblical tales... well, things get really interesting.

One final note on this work. I've long appreciated the classical beauty of Peter Greenaway's compositions, but while the movies are often very erotic, I have never found the films to be. Something is different with Goltzius and the Pelican Company. There is something very erotic and seductive about this film. Maybe that says more about this viewer, than the film, but I'm suspicious that it might be due to the decision to include not just full frontal nudity and simulated sex, but nudity from actors with erections. For this reason, I do not expect this film to find distribution, so catch it at a festival before it is buried deep somewhere. 

Monday, May 20, 2013

The vampire's kiss

Recent cinematic incarnations of the vampire are completely infatuated with the romance of the mythologies of immortal being that's only vulnerability is daylight, but all but forgotten is the inherent horror of an unliving creature with an all encompassing thirst for human blood. Kiss of the Damned enriches the eroticism with a healthy serving of horror. Xan Cassavetes pays homage to of the vampire movie of long ago. From the opening shots of something primal and hungry rushing through the night, until the screen is splashed in red in a sequence that has more in common with the B-movie or the erotic horror movies of Europe during the 1970s than the blood sucker that have become all too common place at the movies.

The scales began to tip away from the horrific in the 1980s, with Anne Rice. In her novels, the emphasis was placed on the homo-eroticism inherent in the vampire's kiss, which seemed more often to result in the gift of immortality and enduring companionship (domestic partnership?), then a frightfully alluring promise of death. At the time of the novels, the AIDS epidemic was raging in gay communities and fundamentalists pointed the epidemic as evidence of judgement from the almighty, so it isn't surprising that parallels were drawn between the world of Rice's gay vamps and the mysterious gay cancer.

Then as Lestat and Louis faded from the cultual consciousness, the Twilight series arrived. Except the overt homoeroticism was replaced with chastity. Bella was seduced by the teenaged vampire, but Edward refrained from giving in to Bella's desire and thus they abstained from not just the sexual act, but also Edward did not drink from her. Well, they abstained from both until marriage when one act necessitated that Bella be granted the dark gift of immortality to prevent the permanence of her human death in the bizarrely sexless erotic world of Twilight.

So the vampire of old has become either a tragic story of gay life or a romanticized fantasy of teenage lust and abstinence. In either, gone is the inherent the horror of an undead thirst for blood. Kiss of the Damned capitalizes the horror of the vampires erotic allure.

Djuna is staying at a summer estate, a vampire safe house of sorts, when she attracts the eye of a young writer. This culminates in some late night movie rentals, where as things start getting really exciting, Djuna pushes Paulo away with little explanation except something about a rare medical condition. You know the one. It is evident by her pale complexion and the tendency to burst into flames if caught out in the daylight.

But Paulo will not stay away. In one of the most erotic moments of the film, Djuna refuses to unlatch her door and so must resort to attempting to devour each other through that three inch gap. And so, Djuna gives up fighting the inevitable consummation, but takes extreme precautions, asking Paulo to chain her up so she will not be able to feed upon him during coitus. And the next time they wake, Paulo  is also a vampire.

But the new vampire NRE is quickly diminished by the arrival of Mimi, Djuna's sister. Unlike Djuna, Mimi has absolutely no qualms about feeding on humans. Mimi goes out every night to lure very eager and willing victims into offering their flesh, but she is really only after their blood. Mimi in not exactly the role model Djuna wants around while she is still teaching Paulo the ways of ethical vampirism. And thus, there is plenty of conflict and virgin blood to keep things exciting. Kiss of the Damned provides numerous sexy vampires in anachronistic clothes with European accents and places primary emphasis on what has always been central to the appeal of vampires. They are mysterious creatures of the night with the power to allure helpless human victims to their untimely death. This is why the vampire is both a creature of horror and that of romance novels. Xan Cassavetes got the tone exactly right, bringing to (un)life a gothic and bloody S&M fantasy. I approve.