watching for passing trains…

Víctor Erice’s Espíritu de la colmena (Spirit of the Beehive) (Spain, 1973) is one of the rare films that managed to live up to my high expectations, but went about doing it so differently than I expected–not that I can say I really knew what I was expecting–that it kind of threw me for a loop. But it is certainly, undeniably a masterpiece and Ana Torrent, with her stillness, poignant silences and general passiveness, gives one of cinema’s great child performances.

But what I think impressed me most was the structure, which manages to be lean and economical and yet simultaneously loose and associative. Mimicking the patterns of childhood memory, each scene and sequence seems to be separate and closed off from the others (many could probably play effectively as stand-alone short films), yet Erice and his screenwriting team manage to fit everything into a progression that seems natural and logical, so much so that in some ways it comes off as a bit conventional. In all the film seems so simple, but at the same time it’s obvious how deceptive that placid, gold-toned surfaces are–hidden depths lurk beneath.

Coming on out with it…

Five years ago on the IMDb Classics Board long-time poster bkamberger hosted an extensive poll on the best LGBT films. Fast forward, and he’s at it again with National Coming Out Month Poll: Top LGBT Films, which runs until the end of the month (there’s a few days left!). As his polls usually do, they’ve generated an enormous amount of really informed lists and suggestions, quite a bit of discussion, and inevitably, some controversy (this time around it’s whether or not Pasolini’s Edipo Re should qualify. Bk has ruled it doesn’t).

Anyway, in honor of “National Coming Out Month” I’ve decided to post the list I compiled along with some additional thoughts and reflections. Mind you, I can’t claim to have any kind of extensive familiarity (yet) with queer cinema, and furthermore, I don’t claim these are necessarily the best LGBT films either. Just my personal favorites, many of which hold special importance to me.

In alphabetical order:

All About My Mother (1999, Almodóvar) is a very beautiful, even gentle film—quite a feat considering the explosive subject matter. But what I was so impressed with (and what gives it the edge over Bad Education, which I actually like a tiny bit better) is not only in the nonjudgmental portrayal of transsexuals (it depicts them as they should be—as just any other person), but also in the fairness it treats its titular character, a straight woman who is forced to come to grips with the kaleidoscopic of human sexuality. Not many films manage to be as militantly pro-gay while simultaneously refraining from falling into the trap of demonizing heterosexuality.

As far as I’m aware Avant que j’oublie (Before I Forget) (2007, Nolot) is kind of a rarity in youth-obsessed gay cinema for the simple fact it depicts a gay man and his struggles in the twilight years of his life. I don’t deny that the film is extremely bleak and extremely depressing (particularly for any gay men in the audience), but at the same time it’s also really impressive for its ruthless, unsentimental dealing with the subject matter. (More thoughts found in my TIFF coverage here.)

Ah, and with Beautiful Thing (1996) we get to the first film that played a pivotal role in my own coming out process. Well, kind of. My first exposure to the material was a magical theater experience during my return to London last summer which marked the first situation I ever really put myself in a situation where I was perceived in a public place as gay (or at least it sure felt that way!). Needless to say I fell in love with the production and subsequently bought the play and devoured it several times—but I waited a good eight months to watch the film version. And while (in my very biased opinion) some of the changes in the adaptation to the screen prevents it from reaching the same dizzying heights of the original play, Beautiful Things remains a really impressive, exceedingly touching fusion of gritty “slice-of-life reality” and romantic “fairy tale.”

It’s difficult to decipher whether A Bigger Splash (1974, Hazan) is a documentary or a fictional film masquerading as a documentary, but whatever the case, it’s a dazzling showcase for gay artist David Hockney. Kind of anticipating the 21st century reality TV craze, Hockney allowed director Hazan follow him around and film him going about his everyday life, and what was initially intended as an attempt to gain some insight into the creative process behind some of the 20th century’s most iconic paintings, also captured Hockney interacting with his friends and multiple male lovers in London during the Swinging 60’s. The film particularly focuses on Hockney’s young, beautiful and androgynous boyfriend/muse Peter Schlesinger (and on his oft-naked body); there’s also a stunning, extended male-on-male sex scene that was extremely controversial during its time that’s still rather startling in its frankness when viewed today. (My full review is at DVD Verdict).

Born in Flames (1983, Borden) is one of the few daring films that really delves into the nitty-gritty of the political implications of being “the other”—a racial minority, a female, a sexual minority—and attempts to show the ways they are all are interlinked (indeed, most of its central character fall into all three groups). It’s a tough film to pin down (I’ve come across descriptions along the lines of “socialist-feminist sci-fi fantasy’) and in just 80 short minutes there’s not enough time to explore each facet of the situation fully, but in a subgenre that tends to focus almost solely on stories of the personal, its refreshing to come across one that dares take on the political as well (full review can be found here).

Going into Les Chansons d’amour (Songs of Love) (2007, Honoré) I had no clue it was going to end up being a LGBT film (though admittedly the main draw was Louis Garrel, my biggest cinematic crush). But surprise, surprise—the male/female/female threesome of the first half of the film gives way to unexpected gay longing in the final acts. I won’t argue that the film isn’t highly flawed (I find that part of the appeal myself), but Garrel and the adorable Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet sing to each other during one of the sweetest sex scenes I’ve ever seen, and there’s a doozy of a closing line to cap it all off. (A few more thoughts from TIFF found here).

I’ve written about C.R.A.Z.Y. (2005, Vallee) and its impact on my own coming out process several times now, and don’t really feel the need to expound on it again. I’ll just reiterate yet again how this lovingly crafted, densely layered coming-out film was also one of the films that served as a major inspiration on my own coming-out process. (My full review at DVD Verdict can be found here).

The inclusion of The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1960) is my tip to the (many) instances of classic Hollywood coding homosexual characters and themes into their films. Bk reminded me how much of an impact this film made on me years ago when I was first getting into classic film, and while I can’t really claim I was even really conscious of any gay elements possibly contained within the film, I know that I cried, and I cried because I was extremely attracted to the beautiful boy who inevitably succumbs to tragedy. After all these years, it’s still one of my most tightly-held, pivotal film experiences.

To date, Happy Together (1997) is Wong Kar-Wai’s only contribution to queer cinema, and still stands as one of its artistic high points. Enough said (though further thoughts here).

I think what threw so many people about The Hours (2002) is that it asked (demanded?) a mainstream audience to grasp a world where sexuality is *gasp* a fluid concept, and that attraction, sexual or not, can spring from a variety of sources, impulses and situations. I used to love it unreservedly, but on my last viewing a few months ago some cracks started to surface—I was particularly piqued at how it unashamedly feeds into the popular “mad Virginia Woolf” myth—and yet its zipping in and out of storylines, years, and hours still manages to move me profoundly.

When I say that it really surprises me that Juste une question d’amour (Just a Question of Love) (2000) is a TV movie I don’t mean it in the sense that “oh wow, I didn’t expect TV to produce such a wonderful film,” but rather as an indication of my sense of amazement that by being made for television this film was intended for mass consumption… And yet it contains more skin and male-on-male kissing than Brokeback Mountain—I’ll know we’ve come a long way as Americans when we can accept a damn beautiful love story like this one without “see, it’s a universal love story!” bandied about as a justification. (My capsule review is here.)

Yes, Latter Days (2003) falls a little too often into cliché than one would like, but it’s still one of those early, essential films that I couldn’t shake off once I saw it (one could say it was the rumblings of reality). It’s still the best film I’ve come across dealing with coming to grips with being gay within the confines of organized religion, something that’s very dear to my heart since in many ways it’s my own story. What I wrote about it then, now almost three years ago(!), serves as testament to just how far I’ve come.

My Summer of Love (2004) has many qualities to recommend—most particularly the poetic, hypnotic atmosphere it creates—but I’ll just say that I identify with the whole “sexual attraction at the river” thing and leave it at that.

Mysterious Skin (2006) is an examination of the roots of sexuality, and goes about it rather brilliantly, creating two protagonists who share a common traumatic event (which we try and piece together for the entire film) but shows the widely divergent emotional reactions—and life paths—that can result. And I have to give a shout-out to Scott Heim’s exceedingly graceful novel, which might even be better than the terrific film adaptation it inspired. (Some brief thoughts compiled here.)

In some ways it’s rather disappointing that in Orlando (1992) Sally Potter doesn’t push the edge—on gender-bending, on homoerotic attraction, on androgyny—nearly as far as Virginia Woolf does in her celebrated novel. But other compensations abound, most particularly Tilda Swinton’s impressive balance-act of a performance, and the magnificent, magical coup found in the inspired casting of Queen Elizabeth.

Having seen it for the first time only a few weeks ago I’m still sorting out my thoughts on Scorpio Rising (1964), but the fact that Kenneth Anger accomplished so much in just 30 minutes or so just floors me—everything from exposing and exploring the obvious homoeroticism of biker gangs to the relentless fetishization of the male body and masculinity in general. And, of course, gotta love the audacity of taking a scene from a grainy Sunday school film depicting Jesus healing a blind man and splicing it with brief glimpses of naked bodies and blatant erections! It’s such a groundbreaking film on so many levels that more and more I’m becoming convinced that it’s one of the great films, queer or otherwise. (My new review DVD set of Kenneth Anger films can be found here.)

Derek Jarman’s Sebastiane (1976) is a surreal fusion of the Christian and the queer, not bothering for a moment to give an historical account of the martyred saint’s death, but imagining a completely new one, inspired almost wholly by the homoerotic iconography Sebastian has inspired over the centuries. Basically, it’s a group of sun-bronzed, oft-naked men stranded in a deserted outpost and how their sexual frustrations and desire for each other plays out (how does Sebastiane exactly manage to hold out?). The historical importance (the first film entirely recorded in Latin, the only British-made film released with English subtitles, its groundbreaking portrayal of male nudity and homosexual behavior) is only icing on the cake.

Super 8 1/2 (1993) was my introduction to the singular filmography of Bruce LaBruce and to the idea of Queercore in general. It hits from all directions with self-reflexive interviews and in-jokes, gags, parody, and self parody—and then of course there’s that rather violent film-within-a-film sequence that is seems so, so wrong, if only because it manages to be so arousing…

Y tu mamá también (2001), with its loose, casual portrayal of just spending time with a best friend, just generally experiencing life together, culminating with a kiss (and maybe more?) is a fantasy I’d bet most gay man has (I certainly do). Not a gay movie per se—I tend to think the famous kiss is probably more an action of spontaneous, in-the-moment passion than anything else—but I remember first watching it and taking pause at how I had responded to that famous final kiss the boys share.

And a few more I wish I had room for:

Bad Education (2004)
Beau Travail (1999)
El Calentito (2005)
For the Bible Tells Me So (2008)
Cote d’azure (Crustacés et coquillages) (2005)
Nico and Dani (Krámpack) (2000)
Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
Saved! (2005)
Suddenly Last Summer (1959)
The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)
Les temps qui reste (Time to Leave) (2005)

Comments and particularly suggestions are definitely welcome. Hope you had a great month!

-jesse

“lo stupore della notte spalancata”

Was watching it yet again and thought I’d share, since I can’t seem to come up with anything better these days…

Most of us movie types don’t usually string together “Ennio Morricone” and “pop song” into the same thought, but here’s the superb “Se telefonando” sung by Mina, which I’ve been listening to incessantly these days.

From Wikipedia:

In Spring 1966, Maurizio Costanzo and Ghigo De Chiara, the authors of the “Aria condizionata” TV show, wrote the lyrics for “Se telefonando”, a theme for the TV program. The famous serialist composer Ennio Morricone was asked to write and arrange the music, and Mina to sing. The encounter of Mina and the three authors took place around an upright pianoforte in a RAI rehearsal room at Via Teulada, Rome. Morricone started to repeat a short musical theme or by his words a “micro-cell” of just three notes, that he had caught from the siren of a police car in Marseilles. After a few beats Mina grabbed the sheet with the lyrics and started to sing, as if she had known the tune before. The result was a pop song with an unusual vocal range and numerous transitions of tonality, handled flawlessly by Mina.”

It’s so lovely that I was rather shocked to be informed several months after my introduction that it’s in fact a rather bleak breakup song…