Tag Archives: new queer cinema

Link Dump: #29

I found The Man with Two Brains pretty disappointing and unfunny overall, but I did like the kitty in the operating room. So there you go. I also liked Sissy Spacek voicing a disembodied brain… but then again, I’d like Sissy Spacek voicing a disembodied anything.

On an unrelated note, you may have noticed a dearth of material on Pussy Goes Grrr lately. This is not a coincidence. We’ve been secretly preparing for the following kick-ass, action-packed week, to be topped off by a special celebration. Seriously, start reading for real on Monday, because it’ll blow your mind. And now, links:

In search term territory, all we have for you this week is “fuck yes” (because, uh, “fuck yes”!) and “are you dense? i am the goddamn walrus.” I just really like the fact that someone mixed up Batman and John Lennon.

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Silence, Swoon, and same-sex kisses

In Josef von Sternberg’s early, great film The Docks of New York (1928), Bill Roberts (George Bancroft) is a stoker indentured aboard a steamship gets one night at port. In that night, he saves the life of an ex-prostitute named Mae (Betty Compson), takes her to a saloon, chats her up, and eventually they mutually agree to get married. A reluctant minister is called in, all the barflies join in the celebration, and Lou (Olga Baclanova) – an old friend of Mae’s who happens to be the girlfriend of Bill’s boss – gets all sentimental and gives Mae the kiss seen above.

Baclanova, best known as the soon-to-be-mutilated femme fatale in Tod Browning’s Freaks, oozes continental sex appeal (enhanced by the silence) alongside the warmed-over desperation and loneliness she shares with the rest of the cast. In that spontaneous kiss, she follows the credo of silent cinema at its best: actions speak louder than words. No title card about sisterhood, solidarity, or wistfulness could communicate as effectively as that moment of physical contact; it says, “I’ll miss you,” and so much more. The Docks of New York is a bittersweet portrait of drifting people (literally, as they live and try to die in the water) told through gestures, actions, flesh, and smoke. In this, it anticipates the rest of von Sternberg’s beautiful career.

I’ll share one more moment I found particularly striking: while chatting with Mae, the stoker unveils a very Pre-Code tattoo along his arm. Like I said, von Sternberg writes his story through the flesh of his characters. I saw The Docks of New York courtesy of Criterion’s recent “3 Silent Classics” release, which also includes The Last Command and Underworld; it even prompted an essay by Guy Maddin, which is always worth reading/celebrating. Thank you, Criterion, to exposing me to these shimmering, silent delights.

Over 60 years later, here’s another same-sex kiss. Instead of preceding a wedding, this one follows a murder. That’s because these two young men are Nathan Leopold (Craig Chester) and Richard Loeb (Daniel Schlachet), the refined Chicagoan anti-heroes of Tom Kalin’s Swoon (1992), and they’ve just killed Bobby Franks and disposed of his body. Just like Brandon and Phillip in Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) – a film more loosely based on the Leopold & Loeb case – the violent act has brought them closer, inextricably binding their fates together as one. So naturally they share a few minutes of erotic reverie before cleaning up and leaving the swamp where they’ve left the body.

Swoon mixes the sensational “true crime” subgenre with the kinds of low-budget experimentation that were hallmarks of the New Queer Cinema in the early ’90s. I was frequently reminded, for example, of Todd Haynes’ Poison (1990), with its creative anachronisms and genre commentary, as well as Rose Troche’s Go Fish (1994), with its black-and-white cinematography and symbolic interludes. (Kalin has collaborated with Haynes and was an executive producer on Go Fish.) Swoon closely follows the actual chronology of the case, from the conception of the murder in 1923 to the donation of Leopold’s eyes after his 1971 death, but it’s interspersed with interior monologues, stock footage, dramatic reenactments, wet dreams, and even footage of amateur bird-watching.

Like Haynes’ work, Swoon sometimes reads as painfully pretentious, especially when Kalin’s ambitious, Cocteau-like conceits are undermined by the occasionally shoddy acting. But it’s nonetheless a compelling document of two different eras: first the sexually stultifying but decadent atmosphere of 1920s Chicago that helped breed the couple’s homicidal folie à deux, and then the renewed cultural freedom of the ’90s that let a new side to their story be told. Although Kalin’s visual storytelling may not be as rich and evocative as von Sternberg’s (after all, whose could?), it bespeaks a great erotic curiosity and openness, entangled with a predilection toward smugness and violence.

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Why I Love Julianne Moore

It’s just an unavoidable fact about me: I love Julianne Moore. Love, love, love, in all the ways that a cinephile can love a movie star. (Except for the creepy, obsessive, and bad ones. Not those.) She’s just one of my favorite living actresses. Why is that? you may ask. Well, hypothetical reader, you are right to ask. Because I’ve prepared an itemized list of reasons for you. First of all: she’s a redhead. (Ashley is also a redhead. This is not a coincidence.) Second and mostly of all: she’s an incredible actress.

[Image via three frames]

Moore gives such intense, nuanced performances – in so many movies, she’s the one who sticks with you. Her actions and delivery burrow under your skin and stay inside you, surfacing in your mind when you least expect it. Just look at her in Safe (1995), one of her many collaborations with director Todd Haynes. She’s Carol, a superficial California wife and mother, obsessing over the color of her new couch and whether or not it matches the rest of her interior decoration. Then, one day, her body starts fighting her. Amidst spontaneous asphyxiation (see above), nose bleeds, coughing, and more, she’s jerked out of her once-comfortable life.

Safe is a brilliant mix of caustic satire, AIDS metaphor, melodrama, and horror. It’s got a great supporting cast, including Xander Berkeley (he of Candyman) who, in one haunting scene, has totally unemotional sex with Carol at the end of a long day. But at its core is Julianne Fucking Moore and her tender, pathetic vulnerability. She’s like a struggling animal, unsure of what her body’s doing to her, eager to just get on with her life and resume her former complacency. You know the old chestnut “you have to be smart to play dumb”? Julianne Moore is smart. She was also a crucial part of Haynes’ postmodern genre revisionism in Far from Heaven (2002), and to a lesser degree in his Bob Dylan super-biography I’m Not There (2007).

Or look at her in Magnolia (1999), where she’s acting in the service of a very different kind postmodern playfulness – that of director Paul Thomas Anderson. (She also played the aptronymous Amber Waves in his porn epic Boogie Nights [1997].) In one of Magnolia‘s many storylines, she’s Linda, the drug-addicted wife of a dying TV producer played by Jason Robards, and calling her “a wreck” is a massive understatement. She ‘s wracked with guilt and quasi-suicidal desperation, and she inflicts her emotional histrionics on everyone around her – from a nurse (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to her husband’s lawyer (Nashville‘s Michael Murphy).

Like Safe‘s Carol, Linda is extremely vulnerable, but she’s also defensive. She may be plagued with self-loathing, but she doesn’t put with shit from anyone else. In a film packed with great, hot-to-the-touch performances – like a bathetic William H. Macy – Moore is a stand-out because, despite being a complete psychological mess, she retains an intimidating quality of refinement. Even when the screenplay gets a little too cutesy or pat, Moore’s performance sprawls, sneers, sobs, and threatens to collapse. In the most grandiose moments, she still feels naturalistic; this makes her the perfect cornerstone for PTA’s ensembles.

No matter what the quality or genre of the film, she brings that je ne sais Moore, that unquantifiable essence. I haven’t seen some of her more mainstream roles, like Hannibal or Next, but I’m sure they’re all the richer for her presence. And take an already rich film, like Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006), pictured above, or the Coen Bros.’ wacky neo-noir The Big Lebowski (1998), where she plays the title character’s daughter, a sperm-hunting artist.

In both of those films, she’s a minor character who’s romantically linked to the protagonist. But she doesn’t feel minor; instead, she seems to exist on a higher, more mysterious plane than Clive Owen’s bureaucratic everyman or Jeff Bridges’ stoner private eye. As she is in real life, her characters in those films, Julian and Maude, are politically engaged. They’re fully aware of what’s going on, and they can manipulate their situations to get what they want. Thanks largely to Moore’s acting, they’re not plot devices, but rather self-motivated women. So Julianne Moore’s versatile, too: she functions equally well in lead and character parts.

All of this leads me to Moore’s most recent role: as a laid-back lesbian wife and mother whose family is unpredictably changing in Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right (2010). I seriously enjoyed this movie; it literally made me laugh and cry, sometimes in rapid succession. I was so deeply invested in the characters’ relationships, and it’s because the main cast – Moore, Mark Ruffalo, and especially Annette Bening – make their shared histories, as well as the repercussions of their tenuous biological links, believable.

It’s not a big or sensational movie. Nobody’s going to die or get arrested. The worst that can happen is a series of broken hearts, which in this case is really the scariest threat of all. The film’s screenplay also deals with difficult, controversial questions of sexual fluidity. It may not always be quite successful or accurate, but Moore’s performance as Jules personalizes these issues, as they have direct consequences on the dynamics of her marriage.

In an early scene, teenage son Laser asks his moms why they watch “gay man porn.” Jules hazards an explanation: “Well, sweetie, human sexuality is complicated. And sometimes, people’s desires can be… counterintuitive…” Without being too edgy or too bland, The Kids Are All Right takes on the human drama that results from those counterintuitive complications – and by extension, the confusing and inexplicable behavior that defines families. It’s a powerful, poignant movie. And, if the stars are right, maybe Julianne Moore will win that Best Actress Oscar she so deserves. Either way, I’m grateful to her for years of beautiful acting.

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Filed under Cinema, relationships, Sexuality