The Journey to Kafiristan
The Man I Love
German filmmakers Fosco and Donatello Dubini muddle their best intentions in The Journey to Kafiristan. Using the diary of androgynous lesbian Anne Marie Schwarzenbach (Jeanette Hain), the film charts her 1939 expedition, undertaken with ethnologist Ella Maillart (Nina Petri). It is less interested in geography than Schwarzenbach’s elusive identity. Unfortunately, the wannabe-ravishing, morphine-induced images make Schwarzenbach not only an enigma, but also a bore. One bit of narration from Schwarzenbach’s diary unintentionally reveals the problem with The Journey to Kafiristan, when she says, “I don’t want an audience.”
But a movie cannot exist without an audience. Reeling 2002: The 21st Chicago Lesbian and Gay International Film Festival provides an opportunity to investigate how audiences create their movies and how movies create their audiences.
Portuguese director Joao Pedro Rodrigues offers his own ideas about the relationship between spectator and film in the Cahiers-acclaimed O Fantasma. The film opens at the turning point in the metamorphosis “beyond human evolution” of young garbage collector Sergio (Ricardo Meneses), then flashes back to sexual exploits and fetishized garbage collecting. The sex-and-garbage metaphor is enhanced by the film’s formalism (think: Antonioni misinterpreted by Cronenberg, complete with a Bressonian dog barking), but it also works to “dehumanize” its audience.
The agit-structuralism of Ileana Pietrobruno’s Canadian Girl King proves equally problematic. A drag-king pirate adventure, Girl King connects gender, movie-watching, and the audience’s polymorphous desires, inspired by the allure of its cross-dressing cast. However, the constant agit-porno and found-footage digressions lack sensual rigor. The pretentious, rather than hot, graphic sex in O Fantasma and Girl King betrays Queer viewers, making gay lovin’ a safely intellectual experience, something to talk about over drinks when the movie is over.
If only through its emotional investment in John Dugdale’s photography, video documentarian Karen Murphy’s Life’s Evening Hour exposes another relationship between spectator and spectacle. Dugdale, who lost much of his eyesight due to an AIDS-related illness, found hope through faith and art. By recontextualizing Dugdale’s photography in the video image and the documentary’s rhetorical structure, Murphy recreates her own response to Dugdale’s photography. At one point, Murphy juxtaposes Dugdale’s earlier fashion photos and nudes with his eyesight-impaired work, suggesting his artistic growth, from presenting the body as a sex object to the body as “a casing for the soul.”
Reconciling the soul/body dichotomy is of particular importance for Queer artists and audiences, especially in the post-Gay Lib AIDS-era. Thorn Grass, a short video by Jasc, meditates on complex identity issues through an imaginative method. Jasc’s technique honors the life of transgendered Navajo teen Fred Martinez, the victim of a brutal hate-crime. Narration “from beyond the grave” gives new meaning to a series of video images (landscapes, plants, masks), challenging the significance of gender and all things material.
The Native American Sherman Alexie, writer of Smoke Signals, also deals with race and sexuality, and synthesizes indigenous and modernist aesthetics, in his directing debut, The Business of Fancydancing. The death of a childhood friend brings author Seymour Polatkin (Evan Adams) back to his reservation, where he’s confronted with the failure of sexual transgression to transcend the cultural and racial background he exploits in his writing.
Jeff Jenkins’ Play Dead illustrates that Queer people are as open to pop exploitation as straight: high school geek Dale (Nathan Bexton) has his way with corpse of his classmate crush, jock Raymond (Jason Hall). Bexton’s disarming self-consciousness as a performer was poignant in Gregg Araki’s Nowhere, but here is made to fit Jenkins’ smarmy mood. Play Dead makes light of rape and exploits gay frustration. Jenkins’ sarcastic use of Morrissey’s heartbreaking cover of “Moon River” only reminds us that Morrissey’s “Boy Racer” already provided a blazingly definitive and disturbing interpretation of Jenkins’ themes.
To varying degrees, many films at Reeling 2002 equate the ways Queer people build social identities through pop culture and movie-going, with the phenomenon of extended gay “families.” A mother-child/pop star-fan relationship forms the psychological core of Todd Stephens’ Gypsy 83. Gypsy’s (Sara Rue) mother abandoned her husband and child to become a star in 1983, when Gypsy was in third grade. Now, Stevie Nicks-obsessed Gypsy wants to become a star too, so she and her gay-goth, 18-year-old best friend, Clive (Kett Turton) hit the road to attend a Stevie Nicks lookalike contest in New York City. I admit to crying at the end, recognizing adolescent angst in Turton’s Robert Smith-inspired mannerisms. Unfortunately, the characters’ barrage of exposed secrets is as false as their pop passions are piquant. (My own passion was indulged by the appearance of Karen Black in a small role.)
Other films offer an extended view of “family” through various communities. Everett Lewis’ Luster captures the unappealing cut-and-paste nihilism of ‘zine-and-sk8er culture. Dennis Cooper is clearly the inspiration for Lewis’ s&m existentialism: imagine Cooper with a happy ending, granted at the expense of one character’s suicide. During a weekend of sexual experimentation and “true love,” the film’s gay, lesbian, bi, and curious (and pasty-white) denizens rage against the L.A. pop-cult machine, as hopelessly as Lewis and Cooper themselves.
Corporate pop culture hedges on its all-inclusive promise in Ludi Boeken’s Britney Baby, One More Time. Co-starring Mark Borchardt and Mike Schank, the subjects of American Movie, Boeken’s film is most effective when subverting that documentary’s classism, as Borschardt and his crew shoot a TV spot with a cross-dresser posing as Britney Spears. Robert Stevens (playing himself as drag-alter-ego Angel Benton) joins Borschardt’s white-trash film-geek group after corporate homophobes take away her backstage pass to a Britney Spears concert. This unlikely extended family comes together through their pop dreams, as they achieve All-American fame and fortune.
The multi-culti, pansexual cast of Rikki Beadle-Blair’s British TV series Metrosexuality dream of transcendence through the many forms of love. Beadle-Blair creates a giddy, campy soap-utopia. The pop colors, dance-music score, and variety of races, ages, genders, vices, and sexual orientations on display in the film’s split-second montage create a subversively sexy surface: at first, it’s a like a commercial for Queerness. Then, Beadle-Blair soars into rap numbers and pop soliloquies, soulful explosions of advertising and pop meanings. Beadle-Blair updates the inspiring historicism and gospel-impulse take on activism of his screenplay for the overlooked gem, Stonewall (1995).
Which brings us back to Anne Marie Schwarzenbach. In Carole Bonstein’s informative documentary A Swiss Rebel: Ann Marie Schwarzenbach 1908-1942, perhaps the most important thing learned about Schwarzenbach is how badly she did, indeed, want an audience. A radical thinker, writer, and activist who unsuccessfully fought Fascism in the 1930s, Schwarzenbach also grappled with morphine addiction and paralyzing insecurities. Searching for the mother love she didn’t receive at home, Schwarzenbach projected her insecurities onto her intellectual contemporaries and the foreign lands to which she escaped. She hoped to find and sway her audience with her often startling insights.
Only two films at the Reeling 2002 Festival achieve the kind of spiritual and political catharsis articulated by Schwarzenbach: S. Leo Chiang’s Safe Journey and Stephane Giusti’s The Man I Love resolve spectator and spectacle, body and soul, individual and community. The short, Safe Journey, filmed in beautifully gold-and-emerald-toned 35mm, links the fates of two characters, a gay homeless white Kid (Jay Michael Ferguson) and a gay Asian Man (Dennis Dun) going blind. Initially crosscutting between scenes of their grueling loneliness, Chiang eventually brings their fates together: light cuts through the darkness. Chiang’s spiritual formalism inspires an imaginative faith. The last shot lingers on the sign of both characters’ devotion, a figurine of the Buddhist goddess of compassion. The image unites the two characters, and filmmaker and audience, through cinematic contemplation. Only the shared compassion of filmmaker and audience could create this film. Chiang, who directed this short while earning his MFA at the USC School of Cinema and Television, emerges as the filmmaker to watch from Reeling 2002.
The very best of the Fest was Giusti’s 1997 French television feature The Man I Love, which anticipated the musical mise en scene of Olivier Ducastel and Jaceques Martineau’s Jeanne and the Perfect Guy and The Adventures of Felix. The existential freedom and choreographed grace of Giusti’s film space is thematically integrated with the film’s coming out, love, activism, and AIDS narrative. The two lovers, Martin (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo) and Lucas (Jean-Michel Portal), and Martin’s mother (Vittoria Scognamiglio), find a church that will marry Martin and Lucas. During the trip, they sing a Socialist anthem. Signifying Queer life in the AIDS era as one of hope and possibility, the final shot trucks away from Lucas riding a bicycle. It ends the film where The Adventures of Felix begins. Plus, it pays tribute to Martin—and all those lost to AIDS—by reminding us that Lucas/Portal does, indeed, look hot in Martin’s striped shirt. At last: a movie that leaves its audience reeling!