Tag Archives: Film

The Boys in the Band

 

Boys in the Band

[Originally published on Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

Some years ago, while staying up till the wee hours while organizing something or other, I turned on the TV and flipped channels till I could find a good movie to keep me entertained while I worked. I happened to catch the beginning of a film that I’d never heard of before that night, and it turned out to be a milestone in gay-themed filmmaking, a cult classic that alternately (and sometimes simultaneously) delighted and appalled New York theatrical audiences in 1968 and then moved to the screen in 1970. That film was The Boys in the Band.

Written by gay playwright Mart Crowley, the play attracted celebrities and the New York in-crowd nearly instantly after it opened at a small off-Broadway theater workshop in 1968. The cast of nine male characters worked together so successfully that the whole bunch of them made the transition to the screen in 1970, which is nearly unheard of. Crowley had been a well-connected and respected but poor young writer when his play became a smash in 1968. While still a young man, he knew how the Hollywood game was played and how to jockey his success into control over the casting of the film. Working with producer Dominick Dunne he adapted his script into a screenplay and watched director William Friedkin, who also directed The French Connection and The Exorcist, lovingly keep the integrity of the play while opening it up and making it work on the screen.

It’s hard to believe that the play opened off-Broadway a year before the Stonewall riots that set off the modern-day gay rights movement in New York and then swept across the country. The characters in the play, and the whole play itself, are not incidentally gay—the characters’ behavior and the play’s content revolve around their homosexuality. For better or worse, the characters play out, argue over and bat around gay stereotypes: the drama queen, the ultra-effeminate “nelly” fairy, and the dimwitted cowboy hustler (a likely hommage to the cowboy gigolo Joe Buck in the 1965 novel Midnight Cowboy, which was made into a remarkable film by John Schlesinger in 1969). The play also features straight-seeming butch characters who can (and do) “pass” in the outside world, and a visitor to their world who may or may not be homosexual himself.

The action takes place at a birthday party attended only by gay men who let their hair down and camp it up with some very arch and witty dialog during the first third of the film, then the party is crashed by the married former college pal of Michael, the host. A pall settles over the festivities as Michael (played by musical theater star Kenneth Nelson) tries to hide the orientation of himself and his guests. That is, until the party crasher brings the bigotry of the straight world into the room, and Michael realizes he’s doing nobody any favors by keeping up the ruse. During the course of the evening he goes from someone who celebrates the superficial and who has spent all his time and money (and then some) on creating and maintaining a reputation and a public image, to a vindictive bully who lashes out at everyone and forces them all to scrutinize themselves with the same homophobic self-hatred he feels. He appears at first bold and unflinching in his insistence on brutal honesty, but he goes beyond honesty into verbal assault, while we see reserves of inner strength and dignity from characters we had underestimated earlier in the play. Though The Boys in the Band isn’t the masterpiece that Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is, I see similarities between the two in the lashing out, bullying and name-calling that alternates with total vulnerability and unexpected tenderness.

The self-loathing, high-camp hijinks, withering bitchiness and open ogling made many audience members uncomfortable, a number of homosexuals among them. Some felt the story and the characterizations were embarrassingly over-the-top and stereotyped. They thought that having the outside straight world peek in and see these characters up close would only make them disdain homosexuals even more. This is a legitimate criticism; the nasty jibes, pointed attacks, and gay-baiting that goes on among and against gay characters here is the sort of in-fighting that could encourage bigots to become more entrenched in their prejudices when seen out of the context of a full panorama of daily life for these characters.

However, the play and film were also groundbreaking in that they depicted homosexuals as realistic, three-dimensional men with good sides and bad. Even as we watch one character try to eviscerate the others by pointing out the supposedly gay characteristics that make them appear weak and offensive to the straight world at large, there is also a great deal of sympathy and empathy shown among the characters under attack, and even towards the bully at times. Sometimes this tenderness is seen in the characters’ interactions, and sometimes it is fostered in the hearts of the audience members by the playwright. He has us witness people behaving badly, but we recognize over time how fear and society’s hatefulness toward them has brought them to this state.

These characters may try to hold each other up as objects of ridicule, but the strength of the dialog is that we in the audience don’t buy it; with each fresh insult, we see further into the tortured souls of those who do the insulting. We see how, as modern-day sex columnist Dan Savage put it so beautifully in an audio essay on the public radio show This American Life in 2002, it is the “sissies” who are the bravest ones among us, for they are the ones who will not hide who they are, no matter how much scorn, derision and hate they must face as a result of their refusal to back down and play society’s games. Similarly, to use another theatrical example, it is Arnold Epstein, the effeminate new recruit in the Neil Simon 1940’s-era boot-camp play Biloxi Blues, who shows the greatest spine and the strongest backbone in the barracks when he does not hide who he is, and he willingly takes whatever punishment he is given stoically and silently so as not to diminish his honesty and integrity or let down his brothers in arms.

The situation and premise of The Boys in the Band are heightened and the campy drama is elevated for the purposes of building suspense, rather like the action in a Tennessee Williams or Eugene O’Neill play, where the uglier side of each character is spotlighted and the flattering gauze and filters over the lenses are stripped away dramatically as characters brawl and wail. The emotional breakdowns are overblown and the bitchy catcalling is nearly constant for much of the second half of the film, which becomes tiresome. However, the play addresses major concerns of gay American males of the 1960s head-on: social acceptability, fear of attacks by angry or threatened straight men, how to balance a desire to be a part of a family with a desire to be true to one’s nature, monogamy versus promiscuity, accepting oneself and others even if they act “gayer” or “straighter” than one is comfortable with, etc.

It is startling to remember that, at the time the play was produced, just appearing to be effeminate or spending time in the company of assumed homosexuals was enough to get a person arrested, beaten, jailed or thrown into a mental institution, thrown out of his home or job, even lobotomized or given electroshock therapy in hopes of a “cure.” In 1969 the uprising at the Stonewall Inn in New York City’s Greenwich Village by gay men fighting back against police oppression was a rallying cry and gave homosexuals across the nation the strength to stand up for their rights and refuse to be beaten, threatened, intimidated, arrested or even killed just for being gay. However, anti-gay sentiment in retaliation for gays coming out of the closet and forcing the heterosexual mainstream to acknowledge that there were homosexuals with inherent civil rights living among them also grew.

Cities like San Francisco, Miami, New York and L.A. became gay meccas that attracted thousands of young men and women, many of whom were more comfortable with their sexuality than the average closeted American homosexual and who wanted to live more openly as the people they really were. There was an air of celebration in heavily gay districts of these cities in the 1970s and early 1980s in the heady years before AIDS. It was a time when a week’s worth of antibiotics could fight off most STDs, and exploring and enjoying the sexual aspects of one’s homosexuality (because being a homosexual isn’t all about sex) didn’t amount to playing Russian Roulette with one’s immune system, as it seemed to be by the early to mid-1980s. Indeed, of the nine men in the cast of the play and the film, I was shocked and disturbed to learn that five of them (Kenneth Nelson, Leonard Frey, Frederick Combs, Keith Prentice and Robert La Tourneaux) died of AIDS-related causes. This was not uncommon among gay male theatrical professionals who came of age in or before the 1980s. The numbers of brilliant Broadway and Hollywood actors, singers, dancers, directors and choreographers attacked by AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s is staggering.

When the film was made in 1970, all of the actors were warned by agents and others in the industry that they were committing professional suicide by playing openly gay characters, and indeed, several were typecast and did lose work as a result of their courageous choices. Of those nine men in the cast, the one who played the most overtly effeminate, campy queen of all (and who stole the show with his remarkable and endearing performance) was Cliff Gorman. He was a married heterosexual who later won a Tony playing comedian Lenny Bruce in the play “Lenny,” which went on to star Dustin Hoffman in the film version. Gorman was regularly accosted and accused of being a closeted gay on the streets of New York by both straights and gays, so believable and memorable was his performance in The Boys in the Band.

The play is very much an ensemble piece; some actors have smaller and more thankless roles with less scenery chewing, but it is clear that it was considered a collaborative effort by the cast and director and that the enormous mutual respect and comfort of the characters with each other enriched their performances and made the story resonate more with audiences than it would have otherwise. The actors saw the film and play as defining moments in their lives when they took a stand and came out (whether gay or straight) as being willing to associate themselves with gay issues by performing in such a celebrated (and among some, notorious) work of art. When one of the other actors in the play, Robert La Tourneaux, who played the cowboy gigolo, became ill with AIDS, Cliff Gorman and his wife took La Tourneaux in and looked after him in his last days.

In featurettes about the making of the play and the film on the newly released DVD of the movie,  affection and camaraderie among cast members are evident, as is a great respect for them by director William Friedkin. Those still alive to talk about it regard the show and the ensemble with great love. As Vito Russo noted in The Celluloid Closet, a fascinating documentary on gays in Hollywood which is sometimes available for streaming on Netflix, The Boys in the Band offered “the best and most potent argument for gay liberation ever offered in a popular art form.”

According to Wikipedia, “Critical reaction was, for the most part, cautiously favorable. Variety said it ‘drags’ but thought it had ‘perverse interest.’ Time described it as a ‘humane, moving picture.’ The Los Angeles Times praised it as ‘unquestionably a milestone,’ but ironically refused to run its ads. Among the major critics, Pauline Kael, who disliked Friedkin and panned everything he made, was alone in finding absolutely nothing redeeming about it. She also never hesitated to use the word ‘fag’ in her writings about the film and its characters.”

Wikipedia goes on to say, “Vincent Canby of the New York Times observed, ‘There is something basically unpleasant . . . about a play that seems to have been created in an inspiration of love-hate and that finally does nothing more than exploit its (I assume) sincerely conceived stereotypes.'”

“In a San Francisco Chronicle review of a 1999 revival of the film, Edward Guthmann recalled, ‘By the time Boys was released in 1970 . . . it had already earned among gays the stain of Uncle Tomism.’ He called it ‘a genuine period piece but one that still has the power to sting. In one sense it’s aged surprisingly little — the language and physical gestures of camp are largely the same — but in the attitudes of its characters, and their self-lacerating vision of themselves, it belongs to another time. And that’s a good thing.'” Indeed it is.

 

[Originally published in August, 2014]

Eight Days a Week: On Tour with The Beatles

Tonight I indulged in an evening of nostalgia inspired by a viewing of Eight Days a Week: The Touring Years, the satisfying and enjoyable new documentary about  directed by Ron Howard. Though no one can doubt Howard’s ability to present stories with energy and enthusiasm, I have often found his films too mawkish and obvious for my taste. Happily, it turns out he has a knack for creating a crackerjack musical documentary. He’s put together a jaunty but detail-rich story with the full cooperation of (and incorporating recent interviews with) living Beatles Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, and with help from the widows of John Lennon and George Harrison.

Growing up during the 1960s and being steeped in Beatles music from birth, as I was, I have always seen The Beatles as my band and my musical family members, and I’ve viewed their music as a personal treasure that I just happen to share with the world. This film brings back the best moments of my childhood, reminds me of just how fresh and delicious their music was (and still is today). This documentary is a bright, shiny reminder that no, their power, talent and influence haven’t been overblown: they really were that good and that important to world culture in the 1960s. There was an open lightheartedness and sincerity about them which this documentary displays lovingly, but without treacly reverence or false heroism. They were a force to be reckoned with, but what they wanted most of all was not to be legends to millions of young girls or to worry about what their cultural legacy would be years hence; they just wanted to create really great music and bring joy. And they did.

As meaningful as my own relationship with The Beatles’ music feels to me, I know that I share my all-time-favorite band with a literal billion other people who love them, too, and this film makes that clear: the enormity of Beatlemania, the record-breaking crowds that showed up to see them, hurled themselves into fences and onto stages, and even broke through doors and windows to get to them are all on display here. But the nature of The Beatles’ electrifying and original music, as well as their enormous personal charisma and warm connection to each other and to their fans, is that we feel an intimate connection to them and to their music. After all, their songs have been part of our personal soundtracks for over a half-century. This film makes their charisma, their discipline and their energy feel fresh and palpable, and the large amounts of color footage and clever use of still photos and black-and-white film, along with surprisingly well restored audio tracks, makes them feel breathtakingly contemporary.

The Beatles were joyful, bracingly honest, and so cheerfully rowdy that they turned all stereotypes of British primness upside-down. They were also egalitarian, working class and, when it came to race, colorblind. In Eight Days a Week, Whoopi Goldberg, who has been a huge Beatles fan since childhood and who saw them at Shea Stadium when she was a girl, says in this film that when she saw and heard The Beatles, she felt like they were her friends, that their music spoke to her, that she didn’t feel like an outsider when she played their records. She felt like they would welcome her into their world if they knew her, which was unusual and deeply touching for a young black girl to feel about a group of white English guys in 1965. And she was right; when they went to the South, they were told they could only perform to segregated audiences, and they refused. They put an antisegregation rider into their contract, and once they broke the color barrier at their concerts, those stadium concert venues stayed desegregated for other performers who came after them. When they decided to augment their recordings with an outside keyboardist near the end of the band’s life, they chose megatalented black funk star Billy Preston to play keyboard for them, creating those iconic keyboard solos in songs like “Get Back.” You can see Preston, who was the only non-Beatle ever credited for performing on any of their albums, performing with them at the end of the film as they played their last-ever live concert together on the top of their office building, as can be seen in the concert film made of their final album together, Let It Be.

Those of us who were born in the 1960s grew up with Beatles music being a constant presence in our lives, and we who were most deeply touched by them can still sing dozens, even hundreds of their songs by heart, so catchy and fresh and powerful were their tunes, their lyrics and their arrangements. (And the documentary makes clear that they owed a great debt of gratitude to producer George Martin, who died this year and to whom the documentary is dedicated.)

To the people of the United States who were introduced to the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show and on the radio in early 1964, The Beatles seemed to come out of nowhere and to be overnight sensations. Of course, we all know now that they’d spent years honing their craft in the underground bar in which they were discovered in Liverpool, The Cavern, and in the seediest nightclubs of Hamburg, Germany, where they polished their performance skills, practiced and performed for up to eight hours a day, and all slept in one room together with their shared bathroom down the hall, like brothers. By the time they came to the U.S., they saw each other as brothers, as the film makes clear.

The overwhelming, relentless, exhausting quality of their life on the road is displayed and narrated by The Beatles themselves in this film, but their resilience, wit, energy and powerful loyalty to each other are also evident. The excellent footage and recordings, some only discovered recently after the filmmakers put a call out to Beatles fans via social media, are masterfully arranged and edited, and despite the extremely public nature of their lives and careers, the film feels quite intimate at times.

Ron Howard is known for being somewhat obvious and superficial in the way he treats historical subjects, and that holds true here: there are few, if any, surprising facts or original insights in this film, though hearing Paul and Ringo (and George and John, in long-ago interviews) recount their stories with some pleasure is a treat. In Eight Days a Week, Howard does what he is particularly good at, and that is creating an energetic, buoyant piece of visually attractive entertainment (with enormous help from talented editor Paul Crowder) that feels immediate and real, and that leaves the audience feeling hopeful. I saw it with a full house of people aged 18 to about 80, and the college-aged people laughed at and delighted in the Beatles’ talents and antics at least as much as those of us who have been listening to Beatles music for 50 years or more. The college students in the audience were the first to break into applause at the film’s end.

If you love The Beatles as I do, make sure to stay seated throughout the end credits so you don’t miss the huge bonus at the end of the film: a newly restored, half-hour-long edited-down version of their 1965 concert at New York’s Shea Stadium, which was at that time the largest rock concert in history. Their fan base was so enormous, and the risk to safety from the huge gatherings of fans was so great, that their U.S. tours eventually had to take place only in giant stadiums. Indeed, police forces across the U.S. were regularly overwhelmed when The Beatles came to their cities, so unprecedented were their appeal and the enormity of the crowds they attracted.

During the Shea Stadium concert Paul and Ringo say they couldn’t hear a thing over the deafening noise of the crowd; Ringo had to stay in sync with Paul and John by watching them for visual cues, primarily by watching their hips. Concert footage shows what enormous stamina and determination were necessary to perform on that scale and at that pace for years on end. Every day meant hours of being rushed through hordes of screaming fans who were trying to bash in their car windows; being dragged around to photo shoots or film sets; being grilled by reporters; having perhaps 90 minutes at a studio with George Martin to test out a just-written song and bring it to full fruition on tape; and then going off to play a concert. The lack of private time was wearying. In between all the very public appearances, they would often be stuck together in a hotel room to avoid having their hair snipped and clothes ripped away by mobs of fans should they go out in public. This film shows the weariness and joylessness that this kind of life ultimately elicited, and makes clear why they decided to stop touring in 1966 and spend all of their remaining energy writing and recording rather than touring for their final five albums together.

While my lifelong love of The Beatles keeps me from being impartial in evaluating this new documentary, I can say that I felt it captured their spirit, freshness, talent and liveliness in a more visceral and emotionally stirring way than any other documentary I’ve seen about the band, and that I’ll be able to hear and enjoy their music in a deeper and even more appreciative way as a result. Many thanks to Paul and Ringo and Ron Howard for making this lively, lovely appreciation of The Beatles’ early years possible.

The Revenant: Revelatory and Remarkable

revenant

At the core of this grim film about pain, loss and revenge,  The Revenant is a story about steel-cored adventurers whose every day is full of extreme but self-imposed hardships. This film, a fictionalized account of the story of actual 19th century fur trapper Hugh Glass, shows better than any other the brutal conditions under which fur trappers lived on North America’s frontier. Nature is a living, breathing, bloody-clawed character in this film, as much a part of the cast as Leonardo DiCaprio or Tom Hardy. Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography is stunning: he captures both nature’s grandeur and man’s brutality in this film.

Stories in which characters face extreme adversity allow actors to emote more dramatically, showing not only their acting ability but also their willingness to suffer for their art. When an epic is directed, shot, acted and edited this masterfully, the arc of the story, the flow of action, the building of character and the depth of each loss all reverberate more intensely within the viewer’s heart.

The Revenant overflows with evident extremes: constant cold (which left the actors courting hypothermia and frostbite more than once); bloody brutality; heaving, spitting, screaming vengeance; terrifying physical danger; a highly protective mother bear; hand-to-hand combat between invading white trackers and indigenous Native Americans; horses undergoing the worst possible disasters; even creatures seeking respite in the dead bodies of other creatures. It is to the great credit of the cast, and DiCaprio and Hardy in particular, that these characters feel not like strutting caricatures of good and evil but like actual human beings.

The scenes involving closeups that show flickers of the subtlest emotions are as thrilling as those involving CGI bears, horses or eviscerations. Hardy is almost unrecognizable, not only because of the facial hair and prosthetic scalped pate but also because of his quirky accent with its unexpected twangs and turns. His character is thoroughly unlikable, but also so uneasy that we can never trust ourselves to know him or anticipate his next move. Despicable as his actions may be, his motivations are clear, yet he leaves us perpetually off our guard. This keeps this long, intense movie from sinking under the weight of his character’s badness. In a year that also saw him give laudable performances in Mad Max: Fury Road and in Legend, the brutal but entertaining story of London’s deranged mobsters Ronnie and Reggie Kray, Hardy’s stunning portrayal of brooding, bloody John Fitzgerald in The Revenant is a career highlight.

After giving so many fine performances in his long career, Leonardo DiCaprio truly earned his Oscar for The Revenant. I was first moved by him when he was a talented teen giving stunning performances in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? and This Boy’s Life.  With the exception of Titanic, which I thought elicited some of his and Kate Winslet’s worst performances, I’ve watched his career unfold with great pleasure. His role in The Revenant has all the Oscar-friendly elements—the physical hardship, extremes of pain, fear, loss and vengeance—but it also requires that we utterly believe in the living, breathing reality of his character’s plight, and that we want to stay with him through each new horror despite our own great discomfort.

If the story were just about a wronged man seeking vengeance, we might grow tired of the chase or grow to hate the man who seeks revenge, but this long saga, which focuses heavily on DiCaprio during long solitary scenes, lets us feel and sympathize with the reasons behind his vengeance. We sense his great pain, his loss and his essential decency because Leo insists that we do. DiCaprio’s character must impress us with his fortitude and his ability to surmount the nearly insurmountable, time and time again, but in order to care about him we must be constantly reminded of his vulnerability, and no actor today is better able to display alternating vulnerability and quick-on-his-feet mental resourcefulness than Leonardo DiCaprio.

Director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s treatment of the story incorporates scenes of silent, lyrical natural beauty in the sweeping manner of director Terrence Malick. The two share the ability to step back from an engrossing, intense situation and remind us of the environment in which it takes place, allowing the audience to breathe. They let us rebalance ourselves to better evaluate the mental states of the characters to whom we feel so closely drawn. These directors share a penchant for magical realism and sensual naturalism, something that was evident in Iñárritu’s award-winning direction of the fantastical (and Oscar-winning) film The Birdman. That film was alternately claustrophobic and expansive, with the most explosive and off-putting scenes taking place within the confines of a theater, and the true expression of the main character taking place during bursts of real or imagined flight. In The Birdman, Iñárritu allows us to believe that a man can feel trapped and caged while alone in a barren landscape or free to fly while sitting cross-legged in a tiny theater dressing room, his mind miles away from his levitating body.

The Birdman threatened always to drift away into the realms of the irrational while simultaneously forcing the audience and the characters to face life’s real limitations and gravitational pull. The Revenant explores what it’s like to be bound to earth by pain, determination and oppressive nature while being urged forward by elements of the indomitable human spirit that are eternal, ineffable and stronger than gravity: one human being’s love for another, and a determination that even death might be conquered in order to honor and hold onto the spirits of those whom we have loved and lost.

Only the Shadows of Their Eyes

I just watched the last 15 minutes of Midnight Cowboy, a movie I have admired for decades and seen a half-dozen times, but which brings me pain each time I watch it. It’s one of those films that I cannot turn away from if I happen to run across it while changing channels, so powerful are the performances and so unflinching is the focus on captivating yet repellent characters.

Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight are natural, believable and awkwardly honest in their roles (which are among the finest performances of their careers); John Schlesinger‘s direction is unflinching and powerful. Schlesinger was unwilling to turn away from the sorts of intimate, painful moments that other directors tend to cut away from in order to soothe audiences and tie up loose ends. He avoided palliative measures, trusting his audiences to handle the pain and unfairness at the heart of his characters’ worlds and sit with their devastation and disappointment even as the final credits rolled by.

The film begins with what sounds superficially like an upbeat tune with an ambling gait, the song “Everybody’s Talkin‘” sung by Harry Nilsson. The song, which won a Grammy and was a million-selling single in 1969, is deceptive; listen to the lyrics and you’ll see it’s about an overwhelmed man who can’t handle or comprehend the needs and conversations of the people around him  and longs to move far away to a place without cares, “somewhere where the weather suits my clothes.” He sings:

Everybody’s talking at me
I don’t hear a word they’re sayin’
Only the echoes of my mind

People stopping, staring
I can’t see their faces
Only the shadows of their eyes

It’s easy for the casual listener to notice only the upbeat qualities of the song and the positive fantasies of the young man as he imagines himself moving lightly through the better life that awaits him:

Banking off of the northeast winds
Sailing on a summer breeze
And skipping over the ocean like a stone

The song suits the story of handsome but none-too-bright young Texan Joe Buck (played by Jon Voight) who leaves Texas in a hurry and moves to New York convinced that he’ll be a big success as a gigolo wearing his cowboy hat, boots and pretty-boy grin, and as he walks around Times Square in his fringed leather jacket he seems to be just a sweet, overgrown, oversexed kid. And he is, at first. Full of hope and confidence but leaving a disturbing and misunderstood past, he soon becomes overwhelmed like the man in the song. He longs to escape his life, first running to New York, then to Florida with his friend Rico (played by Dustin Hoffman). But in this story, there is no easy, rambling way through life or around trouble, and there’s no way for Joe to stop the cascade of horrible lessons that come with being too trusting, hopeful and needy while living among broken, wary people.

Midnight Cowboy is an exceptional film which captures the disturbing power of the fine novel by Leo James Herlihy upon which it’s based. Indeed, the movie, the only X-rated Best Picture Oscar winner ever, was a huge critical success despite its reputation for grim, mature subject matter, and it won Oscars for best picture and best direction. While the story is gritty, it isn’t by any means pornographic; the X rating was misleading. But the story is adult in nature, ultimately cynical, tragic and hopeless. The main characters are hustlers, professional liars at the bottom of society who are not very bright and are willing to take advantage of people in pain. Yet the story is told in such a way that, although we cringe when the principal characters harm themselves and others, we cannot help but feel our own hearts break as we watch their hopes go down in flames.

So why do I come back to this film, and why do I love other devastating Schlesinger films about unrequited love and loss (like his beautiful, faithful adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd and the 1971 drama Sunday Bloody Sunday with its exquisite performances by Peter Finch and Glenda Jackson) and of moral decay (like Marathon Man) so much? I suppose it’s because Schlesinger was a masterful storyteller who managed to focus  on difficult, broken and fearful people, people on the edges of society, people who are willing to live in shadows. He let us watch them lash out at others in desperation, flail and grasp for meaningful connection with other people, and then have to live with their losses and failures. There are few redemptions in Schlesinger’s stories, but there is great humanity. Schlesinger helped viewers get under the skin of his characters and understand their pain without whitewashing their behaviors or putting them on pedestals. He loved flawed people and stories full of heartache, and he made a career of getting the intelligentsia to peer more closely at and care for stories about the very people those same people might cross the street to avoid in their daily lives.

Schlesinger, who was gay, incorporated homosexual themes into several of his films and teleplays, sometimes portraying gay men as self-loathing (as he did in a disturbing scene in Midnight Cowboy) but also including one of the first depictions of a successful, honorable, well-adjusted professional homosexual man in modern cinema (in Sunday Bloody Sunday). He treated his characters’ sexuality with the same straightforwardness he showed toward their other characteristics; it was simply another facet of their lives. This matter-of-factness, which made Sunday Bloody Sunday particularly advanced for its time, was part of a wave of naturalism in film also seen in the work of other important directors of the late sixties and seventies such as Martin Scorsese, Mike Nichols, Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, Sidney Lumet and Peter Bogdanovich.

It may seem odd that some human beings (like me) seek out stories of loss, failure and emotional pain like this one both as forms of entertainment and as cathartic experiences. Such films shine a light on the human condition and help viewers like me to understand and empathize with the misbegotten and seemingly cursed people of the world in a way that feels especially visceral and real. Films like Schlesinger’s are, however, at enough of a remove that film lovers who appreciate a good dose of angst with their drama can feel safe sidling up to the misfits, losers and dangerous people who inhabit the underworld that Schlesinger created. There’s a voyeuristic thrill at getting so close to the people and emotions that scare or excite us, followed by a shock when we realize how close they are to ourselves.

A Very Big Adventure

Nearly thirty years ago Tim Burton directed his first full-length film and began his long association with composer Danny Elfman, who up till that point was best known as the frontman for the fabulous New Wave band Oingo Boingo. The 1985 film was the cult favorite Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, which was based on the character Pee-wee Herman created and portrayed by Paul Reubens. Reubens had been doing live stage shows based around the character since 1980. The film is a visual and auditory delight, full of supersaturated color, whimsy and wonder and set to Elfman’s terrific score. This Rube Goldberg-machine-like sequence featuring a rousing tune by Elfman is particularly memorable.

The film proved so popular that CBS approached Reubens to reprise the character in a television show, Pee-wee’s Playhouse. While it was created to engage and entertain children, it had a large adult fan base as well, and the show ran for five years. The opening theme to that show was written by Mark Mothersbaugh, frontman for the group Devo, and was sung by Cyndi Lauper.

The Times of Harvey Milk

milk

[Revised from an article originally published on Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

In 1978, San Francisco mayor George Moscone and San Francisco’s first openly gay city supervisor, Harvey Milk, were assassinated by Dan White, another San Francisco supervisor. Dianne Feinstein, now a U.S. Senator from California, was president of the board of supervisors; she witnessed the aftermath and announced the tragedy to the press, and rose to the position of mayor of San Francisco as a result of the assassination.

I remember the time vividly. When I was a young girl, I had met George Moscone, then a California state senator, at a Democratic party rally I attended with my mother, and I was starstruck to meet someone whose face I had seen smiling on our television during nightly newscasts. Beyond the fact of his familiarity was his personal charm; Moscone was energetic, charismatic and bigger than life. The assassination was shocking, happening as it did at the hands of a coworker of both of the victims, an attractive and clean-cut fellow whose blind rage inspired a dramatic and highly publicized trial in which killer Dan White was convicted of manslaughter, the lightest possible charge against him, based in part on the fact that his attorneys said he’d gone temporarily mad because of the large quantity of junk food he’d consumed prior to the crimes. This “Twinkie defense” outraged people across the country and inspired a change to California criminal law.

The murder also inspired the creation of an odd and controversial work of art by one of my favorite Bay Area artists, sculptor Robert Arneson (who received his Master of Fine Arts degree from my alma mater, Mills College). In 1980 Arneson was commissioned to create a work to memorialize Moscone in San Francisco’s new Moscone Convention Center. It is a mystery to me why the Arts Commission would ask a sculptor as famously irreverent and outrageous as Arneson, who had made a name for himself sculpting wild and ridiculous ceramic self-portraits, to commemorate someone who was best remembered for the brutal and horrible circumstances of his death. The bust of Moscone was done in Arneson’s usual style, which is to say it was bold, disturbing and unflattering, and, most shocking of all, it was placed on a large pedestal which commemorated the circumstances of Moscone’s murder. Arneson was asked to change the work and refused, nor would he consent to have the sculpture displayed with the pedestal art hidden. He returned the commission he had been paid for the piece and resold the sculpture. It is powerful and arresting, singularly disturbing and unlike any official commemorative sculpture I have ever seen.

At the time of the murders, the greatest attention was given to the killing of the mayor; I was aware that another supervisor who was openly gay had also been murdered, but in the general news of the time my memory is that most Bay Area news media treated that as a decidedly secondary part of the story. Since then, however, little has been said or written about George Moscone that most people, even in the Bay Area, would know much about; few would remember much about him beyond his having been murdered and having had a San Francisco convention center named for him, while Harvey Milk has inspired a very successful, Academy Award–winning documentary, “The Times of Harvey Milk” and is the subject of “Milk,” a moving and important biopic by director Gus Van Sant starring Sean Penn as gay rights pioneer and civic reformer Harvey Milk, which won Penn his second Academy Award for the Best Performance by An Actor in a Leading Role. What makes Milk worth such attention and even adulation is of course not the nature of his death but the powerful story of his life and what he did with it during his 48 short years.

The quality of biographical films is often limited by the fact that they are usually conceived of as propaganda of some sort and are meant to elicit certain strong feelings from the audience. Biopics like “Ray” or the disappointingly inaccurate film “A Beautiful Mind” are crafted to make heroes of those they lionize and as a result their realism and subtlety are compromised and the truth is often completely distorted. The best among them may feel stilted or fake at times but may still provide opportunities for actors to make a deep impact on us by presenting audience-manipulating lines of emotionally fraught dialog and fake scenarios built on half-truths with a candor, vulnerability and freshness that transcends the stale, set-up quality of the stories that comprise the film. “Milk” is one of the better biopics, but it still suffers from a prefabricated, lionizing, misty-eyed mindset. However, Sean Penn’s performance as Milk is so heartbreakingly lovely, naturalistic and moving that I can highly recommend the film despite the weaknesses in the script and direction. It is worth seeing in order to learn the remarkable story of the man, who was so incredibly brave, and to see how, in the hands of a truly masterful actor, even a flawed script can be burnished until it breathes and glows.

Harvey Milk spent only a few short years in San Francisco, but during that time he proved himself to be a masterful manipulator of the media and an inspirational force against anti-gay bigotry. A remarkably effective community organizer, he helped the budding gay rights movement to solidify and strengthen not only in San Francisco but throughout California, which galvanized gay activists across the country and coaxed gay and lesbian people nationwide to come out, stand up for their civil rights and prove to the world in general, to people both gay and straight, that honest, openly gay people could live fulfilling, successful lives. Milk said, “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet also destroy every closet door in the country.” As a tireless, charming and articulate man with an understanding of the concerns and needs of the more conservative elements of society (he had, after all, been a closeted insurance salesman and upstanding member of the establishment for many years in New York), he was particularly well-suited to the role of cross-over politician, making friends among Teamsters and drag queens alike.

While the documentary “The Times of Harvey Milk” is perhaps the better picture in showing a more accurate portrayal of the man, “Milk” will be seen by many more people and will leave a vivid impression on the world in a way that a carefully made but less popular documentary could never do, and for this I’m grateful to Gus Van Sant and Sean Penn for giving life to such an important figure in the history of civil rights in the United States.

city hall

Sean Penn (right) at San Francisco City Hall in a scene from “Milk”

Throughout “Milk” are many scenes of the beautiful San Francisco City Hall, the gorgeous beaux-arts building that is an elegant centerpiece and a virtual wedding cake of a civic building, but also the scene of the horrific murders of Moscone and Milk. I was married in San Francisco City Hall in 1990 (as Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio were in 1954—I figured if it was glamorous and gorgeous enough for them, it was good enough for me), and several of my favorite photos from my wedding day were taken on the same steps and in front of the same doors that appear repeatedly in the film. I was married on the first day of summer, and the week of the summer solstice has been designated Gay Pride Week in big cities across the country ever since world-changing riots were held by angry gay citizens in protest after the arrest of gay patrons of the Stonewall Inn in New York City on June 28, 1969. (When in Manhattan, it’s worth a detour to stop by the Stonewall on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village, as my daughter and I have. It’s not often one can stand at an epicenter of seismic social change.)

It is in part due to the efforts of Harvey Milk and his supporters that such celebrations and artworks were socially acceptable in a San Francisco civic building twelve years after Milk’s death. Another proof of his continuing influence was the presence of an ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) rally which took place just outside the building on my wedding day. We in the wedding party stood behind the line of police officers who were all dressed in riot gear (all except police chief Frank Jordan, later the mayor of San Francisco, who wore his standard uniform), each of them looking grimly beyond his shield and baton at the loud but peaceful protesters outside. We who stood behind them felt we were on the wrong side of the law, so to speak. I would have preferred to be standing in my purple wedding suit outside the building alongside the green-haired protester wearing the Butthole Surfers T-shirt, but we had to wait our turn inside the building to be called to marry.

There was great pleasure in feeling solidarity with our LGBT sisters and brothers on a day when my then-husband and I celebrated our heterosexual union. Since then, laws in nearly 20 states have changed to allow the legal marriage of homosexual couples, and every time another state takes a big step forward toward marriage equality, I think of Harvey Milk and the important place he had in the early days of the struggle that has brought us so much closer to true equality for people of all sexual orientations. I think also of the fact that, over thirty years after his death, so many virulently bigoted people still feel free to spew their nonsensical hatred toward our gay brothers and sisters and to vote to keep them down. We must act up and speak up for each other, even if we are lucky enough not to have to fight this fight personally every day. As Harvey said, “Hope will never be silent.” We must never let it be.

The Robin Hood of the Art World

poster

[This article originally appeared on Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

Is graffiti art? And if it is, is the defacement of others’ property ever justifiable in the service of art? When is graffiti (or “guerilla art,” or “street art”) okay? When it says something meaningful? When it’s well done? When it’s pretty? When famous people say it’s art?

Let’s suggest for a moment that it’s always wrong to deface others’ property. After a graffiti attack, once a property has already been defaced, is there ever a justification in leaving the defacement/art in place? What if it’s really great-looking, astonishingly intricate, brilliant in its message: would those circumstances justify the illegal (and some would say unethical) action that created it?

These are important questions to consider when discussing or viewing graffiti art or “street art,” and a documentary that addresses them would be fascinating. However, Exit Through the Gift Shop, the excellent new documentary on street art, doesn’t address any of them. And it doesn’t need to. Subtitled “The world’s first Street Art disaster movie,” it’s a fascinating film on its own merits, even though it leaves the ethics of all the principal characters in the film essentially unexplored. The film itself may be at least in part an elaborate hoax. If it is, it’s still worth seeing.

The most famous graffiti artist in the world, and certainly one of the most talented, is a Briton who goes by the pseudonym Banksy. Banksy is a wily and elusive character who has been creating graffiti art, first in England and then internationally, since the early 1990s. He began as a common tagger but after too many run-ins with the law, he decided he needed to develop a new style that would allow him to prep a public outdoor space, create his art as quickly as possible, then disappear before cops could show up and arrest him. He developed a system in which he created a series of stencils, then smuggled them to various spots around Britain and used one or more of them to build up intricate and often sophisticated images, sometimes adding freehand strokes to the stenciled areas. His pieces often feature wry comments spray-painted next to or within the images. Subjects have ranged from small single-color rats (a frequent motif) to huge murals of policemen in riot gear dancing with daisies. He’s often created life-sized people or animals, including policemen kissing each other and children in surprising situations. His messages are usually usually anti-war, anti-capitalist or anti-establishment.

Over time, Banksy’s wit, talent and cleverness at hiding his identity made him a cult figure, and his art became so desired and in such great demand that people began removing his works from walls, cutting chunks out of tagged buildings and selling them at auction, even on eBay. He has created a number of pieces on canvas as well, and they now sell for grand sums at no less august an institution than Sotheby’s.

Banksy often paints works that mimic the style and subject matter of old masters but which show clever twists, such as a 17th century village scene in which the buildings are covered in modern graffiti. He has repeatedly smuggled his paintings into major art galleries such as the Tate in London and New York’s Museum of Modern Art and Metropolitan Museum, then hung each piece, complete with fancy frame and descriptive placard, among famous masterpieces. Sometimes museums have taken weeks to discover the subterfuge before removing his works. In 2005 his version of a primitive Lascaux-style cave painting depicting a human figure hunting wildlife while pushing a shopping cart was hung in the British Museum. When it was discovered, the British Museum, home to such important pieces as the Rosetta Stone and the Parthenon’s Elgin Marbles, wisely added Banksy’s painting to the permanent collection.

Despite his remarkably varied artistic talent, Banksy fits well into the graffiti artist or “street artist” genre because of his guerilla-style illegal forays into public places, which he then vandalizes, albeit wittily and with great skill, leaving evidence of his cunning alongside artistic talent. Many street artists have more swagger than technical skill, and the “Screw you, society!” anarchic message their graffiti announces to the world is usually more compelling than the actual art they produce. Banksy is not unusual among graffitists in his desire to remain anonymous and avoid arrest for his illegal activities, but he does show particular skill, subtlety and cleverness.

Some of his ruses, such as cutting a red British telephone box in half, reassembling it and welding it so looks as if it’s been hacked in two and bent, and then burying a hatchet in it, take not just daring and skill but some major resources to create, transport and maneuver into place. For fun several years ago, he counterfeited a million pounds worth of British currency with the face of Princess Diana taking the place of Queen Elizabeth II, but the results were so believable that attempts to spend the faux currency were all too successful, and he ended up with boxes of funny-money that he didn’t dare distribute for fear of being prosecuted for a federal crime.

Banksy’s story is perhaps the most compelling one in the world of graffiti art, but it takes an unexpected back seat to the story of his videographer in the Banksy-made film Exit Through the Gift Shop. The documentary made a splash at the Sundance Film Festival in January and is packing arthouse cinemas around the world just a few months after its debut. The gist of the story is this: In the 1990s, Thierry Guetta, a French-born entrepreneur, ran a successful LA clothing boutique which sold vintage rock-and-roller and punky clothes which he bought for almost nothing in scrap bundles and sold for obscenely high prices. On the side, he began obsessively videotaping everything, including the illegal activities of his cousin, a French graffiti artist who made small mosaics based on bit-mapped Space Invaders videogame characters. His cousin, who called himself Space Invader, allowed Guetta to film him gluing his guerilla-art mosaics around Europe and America, and Guetta’s videotaping obsession finally had a focus. He started documenting almost all the top players in the street art movement to the exclusion of doing almost anything else throughout the 1990s and most of the 2000s.

One artist who allowed Guetta constant access was Shepard Fairey, first famous for spreading over a million images of Andre the Giant‘s face on stickers and posters around the world, all atop the word OBEY, as if he were the ubiquitous Big Brother of Orwell’s distopian classic 1984. Later Fairey became famous for the red and blue poster of Barack Obama above the word HOPE that becames an official image of Obama’s campaign and has since been endlessly parodied. Fairey is now being sued by the Associated Press because he didn’t have permission to use the AP photo he based the poster on. A likeable guy who gets around, Fairey had become friendly with Banksy. Fairey was impressed after seeing Guetta’s obsessive compulsion to document graffitists and Guetta’s willingness to put himself in harm’s way and spend his own money and time helping Fairey and other street artists create and hang their work. According to the documentary, he felt Guetta could be trusted to meet and even videotape Banksy when Banksy came to Los Angeles. Guetta proved himself an extremely willing, friendly and helpful assistant, driving Banksy around, showing him the best public walls on which to ply his craft, and making his life and his art easier. Banksy soon allowed Guetta to film him at work, trusting that Guetta would keep his identity safe, which he did.

Here’s where the questions of who is an artist and what is art get confused. If you want to keep the upshot of the documentary a mystery, you might want to skip the next three paragraphs.

Eventually, Banksy felt it was time for Thierry Guetta to edit his huge collection of Banksy videos into a documentary, something Guetta had said he would eventually do but for which he had no training or experience. According to Banksy, after six months Guetta had cobbled together a headache-inducing, chopped-and-diced fiasco of a film without any narrative at all, a barrage of undifferentiated random images from his thousands of uncataloged videotapes of Banksy and other graffiti artists. Upon seeing this mess, Banksy suggested that Thierry give over access to all the videos and Banksy himself would create a movie out of them. To distract Guetta, Banksy suggested that Guetta should go off for six months and create art of his own and then have a little show. This made some sort of sense; the videographer had started doing some stencils of himself around LA and signing them MBW, which he said stood for Mr. Brainwash. Banksy thought Guetta would have a small vanity show someplace and the distraction would get him out of Banksy’s hair while Banksy put together a reasonable documentary out of Guetta’s frightening mishmash of videotape.

However, Guetta, now consumed with the idea that he was an artiste who could make a fortune and have a giant, splashy, expensive solo show that would wow the world, mortaged his house, hired a cadre of actual artists, prop designers and contractors, and rented a huge, expensive space in downtown LA. He told other artists to make largely unattractive knock-offs of Andy Warhol-style pop art pieces and spray painted silkscreen images of pop culture icons, claimed and signed them all as his own work, and relentlessly hyped himself around LA as the next big thing. Seven thousand people lined up to see Mr. Brainwash’s opening and his hundreds of derivative paintings, many of them created by others with almost no or no input from Guetta at all.

LA loved him. He sold a million dollars worth of “art” in two weeks. So many people flooded the gallery that what had been expected to be a two-week show stayed up for two months. Madonna asked him to create a Warholesque image of her for her latest greatest hits album. Mr. Brainwash has his first New York show this spring. And the joke was on Banksy. Or was it? While it illustrates the phoniness of the art world that he’s always reviled and parodied, a significant contingent of art world critics and followers believe they recognize the clever guiding hand of Banksy himself behind this cynical, clever and amusing film; they believe he put up the money for Guetta’s show and is using Guetta as a frontman for his ruse.

Whether this is a clever con or simply a wild situation that spun out of control while Banksy was distracted by the editing down of Guetta’s archive of tapes, it is a perfect illustration of the sort of art world nonsense Banksy has always opposed. Banksy has staged it as the story of an authentic (if anarchistic) hermitic artist who hides out among us and goes by a pseudonym vs. the faux-artist con-man entrepreneur with little if any talent for art and no insight into what makes it good, important or inspiring. Even when Banksy has created art meant to be sold to the throngs angling to pay real money to own a genuine Banksy, he has happily bitten the hands that feed him.

In 2007, Sotheby’s auction house auctioned off three of his pieces for a total of over £170,000; to coincide with the second day of auctions, Banksy updated his website with a new image of an auction house scene showing people bidding on a picture that said, “I Can’t Believe You Morons Actually Buy This Shit.” In his quest to meet and videotape all the bright lights of the street art movement, Guetta, on the other hand, became so hungry to be seen as a creator and star rather than part of the supporting cast of the art world that he created a huge show out of nothing but borrowed money and chutzpah, and, horribly, pulled it off.

The question of whether what guerilla street artists do (trespassing and defacing property that is not theirs) is ethical or justifiable is never addressed in this film. That’s understandable; Banksy is an outlaw hero who probably sees himself as akin to Butch Cassidy or Robin Hood, someone who points out the flaws in the system in an outrageously public way while remaining essentially invisible, only popping out often enough to build his legend and prove his existence. There’s no reason why such a person would want to draw attention to the dark side of what he does, especially when he doesn’t appear to recognize any darkness in it.

A film this cleverly and entertainingly made adds to his allure and stature while presenting his actions in the best possible light. Without ever explaining or justifying himself, he wangles his way into the audience’s affections and makes the story unfold in a way that builds sympathy for the characters, all of whom are literal outlaws. We find ourselves rooting for them to get away with their trespasses without ever feeling like we’re being manipulated or spoonfed with obvious and unnecessary explanations or justifications. Banksy really knows how to tell and sell a story, and, like a sleight-of-hand master, how to distract us from many of the important issues without our stopping to think, hey, what about the elephant in the room?

Speaking of which, there’s a great scene in which Banksy places an actual live elephant in the middle of a gallery show in order to prove a point. Of course, the point is lost on the media; they report that PETA (and LA Animal Services) didn’t like him painting an elephant with children’s facepaints and putting it on display, which is indeed newsworthy, but they seemed to have no concern with what the point of his painting the elephant was. This example of his disdain for people who don’t think about the meaning or point of art is astute, but it also shows his arrogance in thinking that, because others don’t share his sophisticated ideas and opinions on art, their own tastes, questions and concerns about what he does and how he does it are not just debatable but abominable proof of their philistinism. While I share his disappointment that people are so happy to accept pop culture simplifications of art rather than develop opinions of their own, I find his open contempt for people who don’t share his worldview distressingly self-absorbed and arrogant.

Banksy shows himself to be a witty and articulate man, both via his art and in the speeches he makes to the camera in this documentary. He speaks and gesticulates while wearing a dark hoody that obscures his face and and has his voice altered digitally. He could have been interviewed off camera and had the documentary’s narrator Rhys Ifans, the dryly entertaining Welsh actor, repeat his words to ensure that nobody could recognize his speech patterns or accent, but Banksy clearly enjoys scooting out of the shadows just a bit, providing blurry-faced proof of his escapades to the world via Guetta’s videos, letting people hear his accent, albeit in altered form. He is playing with his anonymity here, heightening the drama yet again, just as he does in his art, working the darkness and spray cans and stencils until he’s constructed a shadowy version of himself that he can carefully control access to.

Banksy appears to have a strong system of values (often fine ones, like looking out for the little guy and avoiding governmental tyranny), but seems to have little respect for the rights of others whose values differ (such as those who own property which he would like to cover in examples of his self-expression). This places him squarely alongside other heroes of the anarchistic British punk movement who have determined that destruction and defacement of things that they don’t value is justification enough for ignoring laws which seek to respect property and and which respect the needs of a society based on the rule of law.

In an attempt to focus attention on exploitative flaws in the capitalist system, socialists or, even further to the left on the political spectrum, anarchists like Banksy sometimes feel justified in ignoring property rights entirely, saying they are an artificial and damaging construct which enslaves the poor and empowers the rich, thus denying basic human rights and dignity. If you believe that an entire system is wrong, it can be tempting to determine that you will no longer acknowledge its rules or its power over you and decide to do things your own way. But just as unfettered capitalism can lead to great selfishness and a lack of awareness or concern for the needs of others, unfettered socialism can lead to societies which refuse to give incentives or rewards for exceptional efforts or remarkable talents, and which can be perverted into unhealthy organisms which stamp out originality or innovation. Fortunately, hybrid societies with capitalistic bases and strong (though imperfect) social safety nets exist in several nations around the world. They show that a respect for the innate worth of every individual and the responsibility of society to look after its weakest members can be balanced with respect and recompense for exceptional talent and effort. They also show that respecting a person’s property rights is an important component in respecting the person herself. No nation balances these opposing needs perfectly, but it is encouraging that millions around the world still strive to perfect their systems.

A healthy and safe hybrid society runs on respect for all the people in it, as well as for their legally-obtained possessions. And while Banksy has often shown himself to have a certain integrity, pointing out flaws in the art world and questioning the values of modern society, he has also shown a willingness to profit (sometimes enormously) by engaging in the same art world he mocks. To have true integrity, one could argue that he would have to turn down chances to make money off his art, but by selling works directly through Sotheby’s, even as he mocks the process, he has become a part of the system he claims to disdain. On the one hand, I want to see someone so talented and original, someone of his wit and insight and great skill, benefit from his ability and be able to make a good living as an artist. On the other hand, it saddens me to see him revel in becoming rich off the sale of his own private possessions while feeling no compunction about messing with the possessions of others and mocking the owners in the process. He then makes those whose property he has vandalized look bad when they seek to remove his art, even though, if they leave it in place, they give a message to all graffiti artists and other vandals that if you’re famous and clever or do a good enough job at it, the rules of respecting other’s space and property no longer apply.

A society which makes exceptions for disrespect of property and laws of trespass invites evisceration of the social compact. Sad as I am to see some of Banksy’s work disappear, I cannot blame the owners of the defaced spaces for showing their resolve not to let themselves become victims of vandalism, even clever or attractive vandalism, without a fight. Furthermore, Banksy knows that much of his work will be defaced or destroyed; he has chosen his medium and locations for precisely this reason. The impermanence makes seeing it as quickly as possible imperative, and that makes him an extra hot commodity and burnishes his oppressed outlaw image. It makes him a romantic figure of brash mystery.

Banksy can act as cynical about the superficialities of the art world as he wants, but he’s making huge sums of money off that very world nowadays, so he’s benefiting from the system he finds so corrupt. His hands aren’t clean, either.

Judi Dench and the Lost Child of Philomena Lee

Philomena

Judi Dench is a nearly universally admired British actress who can be relied upon to add dignity and dry humor to any production. Dench, who was born in 1934, has long been a celebrated Shakespearean actor, but nowadays she is most recognizable to millions of Americans after having played M in recent James Bond films.

Dench was the star of several popular British television series, but she first knew success on the stage in productions like Cabaret in London’s West End in 1968, as well as in serious Shakespearean roles. When she became the first female incarnation of M in the James Bond film series beginning in 1995, she became known to a wider assortment of international filmgoers. Winning an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for playing Queen Elizabeth I in 1998’s Shakespeare in Love made her at last recognizable to the average American film-goer.

Judi Dench often plays unsmiling, all-knowing, uncompromising women who cannot be fooled, but in her Oscar-nominated role playing Philomena Lee in Stephen Frears’s film Philomena, she gives a unexpectedly soft, poignant and sympathetic performance that displays her versatility and range. The film is based on the true story of Philomena Lee, and Irishwoman who became pregnant as a teenager in 1951 and was sent to a remote Irish abbey during her pregnancy. There she was forced by nuns to work as a laundress alongside other unwed mothers, and was made to stay on working at the laundry without pay for four more years as penance for the sin of having had premarital sex, and to pay the abbey for the costs of caring for her during her pregnancy.

The practice of locking up young unwed mothers in what were known as “Magdalene asylums” or “Magdalene laundries” was common in Ireland and Britain in the 19th century, and it spread to other European countries and to the U.S. and Canada. The practice lasted well into the 20th century. The last Magdalene asylum in Ireland was in operation until 1996. At these workhouses girls were sometimes beaten, often locked inside against their will and sometimes forbidden to leave even after they became adults.

The Catholic Church enjoyed free labor from these women, and embarrassed parents of unwed pregnant teens were often so relieved to avoid the public shame of having their daughters’ sins paraded before society that many abandoned their children to the Magdalene sisters forever. Families often told neighbors and friends that their daughters had gone to live with family, or emigrated, or even died, all in an effort to save themselves from shame and social ostracism.

While these teen girls worked long hours in steamy laundries, their children were watched over by nuns in nurseries. At the abbey where Philomena lived, children were often adopted out to American married couples who sought children in return for generous donations to the abbey. Philomena’s much-loved son was adopted by an American couple and taken away without warning one day while she was working. She had no chance to say goodbye, she had no idea that her little boy had been flown to America, and she was not told that his named had been changed.

All her efforts to learn what became of her son were rebuffed by the abbey, which destroyed her records and denied knowledge of her son’s name and whereabouts. Ashamed by her plight but desperately sad to have lost her son, Philomena sought him secretly for a half century without luck. Finally, she enlisted the help of Martin Sixsmith, an out-of-work journalist and former government advisor to the Labour Party. Martin and Philomena traveled to America together and learned extraordinary things about Philomena’s son and the abbey’s deceptive practices. Their story of their adventure together was published by Sixsmith in 2009 in his book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, described by the L.A. Times as “a serio-comic travelogue full of heart-rending discovery and the triumph of forgiveness over hate.”

Previews made it look like a manipulative tear-jerker about a naive old lady with a can-do attitude and a big heart, the sort of story that could turn sickly-sweet in under a minute. Happily, it stars Judi Dench and satirist Steve Coogan, two actors famous for their droll, whip-smart performances, and it benefits from the tart and clever writing of Coogan, who coauthored the screenplay. He is known for his cynical, sarcastic portrayals, and he shows his dark wit in films like The Trip and Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story. In England he’s well known for his most popular creation, a character named Alan Partridge described as “a socially awkward and politically incorrect regional media personality.”

I knew better than to expect mindless, treacly antics from Coogan or from director Stephen Frears, whose smart, often dark films include Dangerous Liaisons, My Beautiful Laundrette (which starred a young Daniel Day-Lewis), Prick Up Your Ears (with Gary Oldman) and The Grifters (a dark little masterpiece with John Cusack, Annette Bening and Anjelica Huston). Frears has no fear of difficult subjects or ugly moments. Weighing all these facts, I put aside my worries that this could be a manipulative little feel-good flick. Happily, I found it a movingly acted film about an unworldly, seemingly simple woman who turns out to be more complex and determined than people expect.

The battle between the jaded, antireligious cynicism of Martin and the every-day-is-a-gift devout positivity of Philomena is at the core of the film, but Dench’s portrayal shows the spirited openmindedness of our seemingly old-fashioned heroine. Her sense of hopefulness and appreciation for small kindnesses is nicely balanced by exasperation with Martin’s dour, dark, angry worldview. He is not won over by her endless sweet simplicity, but he is moved by her because he recognizes that she has insights into people and situations that he, with all his experience and inside information but lack of empathy, misses.

Martin recognizes that Philomena’s story is a door into a huge and devastating world of widespread, long-term institutional abuse of the most vulnerable among us: abandoned, pregnant teen girls and small children. He sees that she has a power to connect with people that he lacks because he is often closed to anything but the fulfillment of his own expectations and prejudices. The journey they take together becomes more tangled and difficult than they expect, and it becomes more personally engaging and meaningful than Martin could have guessed.

[Originally published on Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

Capote

Capote

[Originally published on Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

“My major regret in life is that my childhood was unnecessarily lonely.” –Truman Capote

The Truman Capote I grew up watching and reading was the Capote who appeared, usually drunk or drugged, odd but always interesting, on afternoon and evening talk shows, spinning stories about the fabulously famous and wealthy crowd with whom he ran. He was a professional personality by the time I was aware of him, but I also knew that he’d written much-admired stories that had been turned into very famous and popular films. I knew that my mother admired his work, and that he had written “A Christmas Memory,” one of the most beautiful, understated, tender stories I’ve ever read. The fact that it was based in his own experience made it all the more lovely to me. I felt sad for and protective of him at a young age, because I knew that the man who had written that story had been a tender and hyperaware child, like I had, and had seen the fear and pain in life as clearly as the joy and the secret beauties of it.

My mother taught “A Christmas Memory” to her high school English students for many years and she introduced it to me when I was about ten. I was completely taken with this story of a young boy abandoned by his parents and living with his disapproving southern aunts. This boy’s best friend was the childlike old-maid cousin with whom he also lived, a woman who flew handmade kites with him and took him to buy moonshine whiskey from Mr. Haha Jones so they could make their annual batch of fruitcakes, one of which they sent to President Franklin Roosevelt every year. Capote had taken the littlest details and moments in what others might see as an unexceptional situation and spun them into a rich and compelling story, simple and straightforward but with every word in place, every emotion sparely but elegantly woven into the words. I think it’s a short masterpiece; it is perhaps my favorite short story, and the one I’ve read more often than any other.

It was immediately clear to me that Capote got the tone, the subtleties, the story, and the total devotion of the characters for each other exactly right. That he was the model for the boy Dill in his friend Harper Lee’s story To Kill a Mockingbird, a novel that I find close to perfect, made him all the more special to me. I have read and reread “A Christmas Memory” to myself and others most of the Christmases of my life, and cry as regularly as clockwork when I come to the last bittersweet page. This was a man who clearly understood loss and loneliness, and who understood empathy and tender connection to another like few writers I’d come across. There was something beautiful and tender and true in him and in his art that I, and millions of other people, were drawn to, and wanted to believe in.

When Capote died in 1984 among swirling stories of long-term drug and alcohol abuse, he also left behind him a parade of disaffected friends who felt he’d used and abused them, that he’d betrayed their friendship and their secrets in order to steal their souls so that he might make not only his party anecdotes but his writing come to life. He had been such a wildly successful New York socialite, courting and collecting the loveliest, richest, and most prominent socialites as his “swans,” as he called them, for years. He hosted the New York social event of the decade, the famous and successful Black and White Ball, in 1966. Best-dressed list icons like Lee Radziwill and Babe Paley attended parties with him and had him to their summer homes, traveled with him and relished his delicious gossip. He wangled his way into the hearts of dozens of people who felt he understood them intimately and would respect and love them not only despite but because of their foibles. When he wanted to be charming, nobody could outcharm him. He made people of all types and of any social standing believe he loved them for the tender, misunderstood people they were inside their suits of shiny invincibility; they felt not only understood by him but safe with him. And then he spilled out their secrets for everyone to see.

For years he gathered their lives into his short stories and promised a splendid, insightful book to his publisher, talk show hosts, and the world, and we all waited with bated breath, knowing that when Capote had the time to build a work, like In Cold Blood, he would carefully piece it together just so and make the wait worthwhile. He had shown his mastery of the short story form very early in life, and, when sober, he was an insightful and entertaining fellow. He was also extraordinarily catty when he wanted to be, and, when one wasn’t on the receiving end of that acid tongue, he could be shockingly funny. But his charm was so extreme and his magical power of diverting attention from the things that everyone should have known that he was a sponge who missed no details, a writer first and foremost, insightful and ruthless when exposing the hidden motivation, the raw nerve.

So he gathered his swans’ secrets and then poured them out onto the page with such clarity, and so little effort at concealing the identities of his characters’ inspirations, that he immediately and permanently drove most of his friends and their associates away and turned their feelings for him from indulgent and loving exasperation to anger, fear, and resentment. To learn of how almost all the doors of society slammed on him one by one after he had been the toast of New York, the shining star of literary society, was to feel that, no matter how much he deserved what he got, it was still a terrible shame, that there must have been some mistake somewhere, some misunderstanding.

Knowing his downward trajectory during the last 15 years of his life makes “Capote,” the outstanding new film about his years researching and writing In Cold Blood, even more riveting. The film constructs, with not one extraneous scene or unnecessary bit of dialog, an understanding of his place in literary society, and his chameleon-like ease at blending into the lives of the people whom he wanted to capture and luring them into trusting him with their lives and stories. His ability to say exactly what a publisher, a murderer, his lover, his oldest friend wanted to hear in order to court their love or trust, and seem to mean each word he said, is juxtaposed rivetingly with his ability to cut them off at the knees, dismiss them, insult them, or ignore them when their needs don’t suit his. The performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman is astonishing, not only because his impersonation of Capote’s strained, high, tiny voice and his fussy mannerisms is so remarkably good, but because he moves effortlessly between charm and seemingly endless empathy to self-absorption of enormous proportion so smoothly and naturally. We both admire and revile him. In their roles, excellent actors Chris Cooper and Catherine Keener show indulgence and affection for him, as well as wariness and disgust with his deceit of others, of them, of himself. The script is often spare and the pacing, while perfect, is never rushed; what is not said by the characters is as important and full of meaning as the well-crafted dialog. We learn just enough about any character, any situation, to be able to piece together what its meaning will be to those involved. His actions and the reactions of others are carefully calibrated so that we are never in the dark as to what is going on or how his actions will reverberate, but we are trusted to be able to let the story build in our minds; the writer, director, and actors don’t spoonfeed us but deftly piece the feelings, words, and actions of the characters together so that the story builds and intermeshes exactly as it should. This is how a subtle story should be told.

My Architect: A Beautiful Documentary

architect

[Originally published on Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

Louis I. Kahn (1901-1974) was one of the 20th century’s most influential and well-regarded architects. He designed such important structures as the Exeter Library at Philips Exeter Academy, and the Capital Complex in Dhaka (Dacca), Bangladesh, and his work was revered by high-flying architects such as I. M. Pei, Philip Johnson, and Frank Gehry. But his habits of overwork and overextension, bidding for too many projects and becoming obsessive about his all-consuming passion for architecture, led him to die of a heart attack, bankrupt and alone, in a Penn Station bathroom as he was on his way home to Philadelphia from New York. When he died, he left not only a wife and their daughter, but also a mistress and his second daughter, as well as a second mistress and his third child, his 11-year-old son, Nathaniel, who made a beautiful documentary about his father, “My Architect: A Son’s Journey.”

Nathaniel Kahn’s documentary visits and discusses the works of his father, some of which Nathaniel had never seen before, and shows the emotional and artistic impact that Louis Kahn and his work made on others, both architects and clients. But more than being a simple homage to his father and his works, the film shows Nathaniel’s search to understand his secretive, mysterious father’s compartmentalized life and to strengthen his connection to the father he lost so early. Louis Kahn’s charisma and charm, his love for his children and the feelings of great love and loyalty he engendered in the women in his life are all made clear, as are his self-absorption, his need to make every commitment in life secondary to his commitment to his work, his flashes of arrogance, and his lack of empathy for others. The question which underpins the whole film is whether the gifts of an artistic genius whose work engenders tears of appreciation from his clients and fellow architects can justify his remote, selfish, and disconnected life.

To his credit, Nathaniel Kahn doesn’t try to answer any of these questions once and for all; he interviews his two half sisters and talks with his mother, who still nurses the belief that Louis Kahn was about to leave his wife and come to live with Nathaniel and his mother before he died. He asks difficult questions and presses his mother to be honest about his father’s failings and selfishness. The responses are at times surprising and always sad and touching.

Although he admires his father’s work, Nathaniel Kahn doesn’t like every one of his father’s buildings. As he makes his pilgrimage to each one, he asks the people who live with and use the buildings how they feel about them, and admits when he finds one cold or impractical. When he visits the Exeter Library or the Institute of Public Administration at Ahmedabad, India, or when he goes to Bangladesh and sees how the Capitol and Parliament Buildings in Dhaka are enjoyed and made into the center of life for the local people, he is clearly moved. Sometimes the technical mastery of his father’s work, its appropriateness in shape, form, and function and its original and spare use of light and materials awe him, and we see him surprised and touched by the effect that his father’s work had on others.

It’s difficult to express what makes this film so watchable, moving, and fascinating. I suppose it boils down to three things I find endlessly illuminating: artistic masterworks, biographies of unusual and influential people, and bad family dynamics. This documentary is worth watching on any of those counts; as a work of art encompassing all three, it’s extraordinary.

I found a lovely site with beautiful photographs of Louis Kahn’s work; do check out “The Works of Louis I. Kahn: A Visual Archive by Naquib Hossain.” Hossain describes Kahn’s work elegantly as “A purposeful knot of complements and contradictions in a rich fabric of brick, mortar, and concrete, woven to being by natural light.” “My Architect” is a purposeful knot of complements and contradictions, too, and a lovely work of art in its own right.