Acute Angels

Tony Kushner, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes:
Part One: Millennium Approaches
(National Theatre, directed by Marriane Elliott)

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Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

Shortly into this seven and a half hour play — twenty minutes? half an hour? — I mused on Walter Benjamin, a thinker I do not know as much about as I should and his musings on the Paul Klee picture and history.

(When I was researching a chapter on John Wyndham, “Random Quest” and the film Quest for Love, I needed to know about Goethe and Elective Affinities and Paul de Man had written an essay on Benjamin’s essay on someone else’s reading of the novel, but that was too far down the rabbit hole.)

Might this unpack a way of unthinking about Tony Kushner extraordinary play? Ah, he says, having googled, Kushner already knows about the angel of history.

It is a document of a different time — always already an history play. It is set in the plague years, the early years of the HIV crisis, when AZT trials were making headway and it might just have been possible to think of living with AIDS rather than a death sentence. Reagan had been reelected (so had Thatcher) and it was necessary to overcome deep, visceral prejudice in order to gain funding and to educate.

In another part of the forest there was The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer’s (autobiographical) account of the gay communities coming together to organise itself and campaign over HIV awareness (and also As Is). Angels in America chooses a more fantastical route, like Unicorn Mountain, “The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals”, Tim and Pete and ”Was…”, leading up to the climactic (and bordering on ridiculous) arrival of an angel at the end of “Millennium Approaches”. In addition to the fantasy, Kushner is evidently aiming for a state of the nation play, via George Bernard Shaw or Arthur Miller.

I can’t imagine what it was like to see the original production, a year or so before the staging of the second half, “Perestroika”. A two hour wait was tough enough. And I have to say, it has aged better than I would have expected. Perhaps President Trump takes us back to a time of Reagan and the sense of a world on the brink of an abyss. I’m not convinced gay marriage was on the agenda in 1986, but clearly same-sex couples were living together even if they would have had few legal rights. A couple of names passed me by — big at the time but lost to history. And as I will note in the next paragraphs, Trump is a partial consequence of one of the characters of the play.

In a sense, the first play is about two couples and that character. WASPy Prior Walter (Andrew Garfield), ex-drag queen, reveals to his Jewish boyfriend Louis Ironson (James McArdle) that he has AIDS; Louis can’t handle this and thinks about leaving Prior. He is discovered crying in a bathroom by Mormon Joe Pitt (Russell Tovey), who has been lying to his wife Harper Pitt (Denise Gough) about his true sexuality. Joe, meanwhile, has been offered a promotion by his boss, Roy Cohn (Nathan Lane).

Cohn was chief counsel to Senator Joseph McCarthy in the McCarthy-Army hearings, he had prosecuted Ethel and Julius Rosenberg for treason and had been responsible with McCarthy for getting many gay people fired from government employment. In the 1970s, he was the Trump family lawyer, a formidable and aggressive litigator, who defended by going in the attack (sound familiar?). This character — along with the angel — is what has stayed with me most from the HBO adaptation is Al Pacino chewing the scenery. Lane is dialled back, thankfully, with a bit more of a nuanced performance (but it could hardly be less). He is sweary sweary and the audience find this funny. He is the devil offering Joe a pact, playing semantics, offering to be a father to the Mormon, in an almost invisible seduction. He is Not Gay — gays are losers, gays have no power, he has power, he simply has sex with men. He does not have AIDS — he has liver cancer.

The theme of fathers and sons runs through the first play; perhaps just sons as none of the characters are fathers. And there is also a mother and son, as we meet Joe’s mother towards the end, setting up part two. There is the patriarchy at work, man handing on advice, knowledge, power and wealth to the next generation, except it may all end here, in the coming apocalypse.

We also have the sense of betrayal — lovers of lovers, husbands of wives, Cohn surely of Joe. So many characters want to get out and leave — complaining that they have been out in an impossible situation, not of their making. This sense of inevitability, of predestination, of the elect and the damned connects with an ongoing discussion of guilt. Louis, in particular, has long monologues (even as part of dialogue) about Judaism and guilt, as well as the after life. The scene is set for this by the opening monologue — a funeral oration by a rabbi (played by Susan Brown, who later plays a male doctor and the Mormon mother), which also points to immigration, migration and progress, a theme which develops through the second play.

To take the play at its word as a “Gay fantasia on national themes”, it seems to be a very middle class set of characters — with doctors and lawyers. There is a single African American actor, Nathan Stewart-Jones, who plays an hallucinated travel agent and then Belize, a nurse. In the second play he is given a lot more ideological weight, but not so much here. The female roles are a little thin — with Gough’s Harper playing a hysterical, Valium popping wife who has been driven there by Joe, first leaving her alone as he works and then leaving her alone as he “goes for long walks”. (The gay demi-monde is a little cringe worthy in its representation.) As part of her hallucinations, she sees Prior, and engages in conversations with him, and this seems to be real if impossible. In the third act she appears to go Antarctica, in search of friends, a moment which perhaps plays with Robert Walton in Frankenstein.

Much of the staging involves three revolves (sorry — an awful sentence) that keep shifting locations. The staging is meant to be abstract, not realistic, but sometimes this device gets in the way. And when it all slides back, revealing the whole stage for a snow storm, the release from claustrophobia is striking.

And then, the angel.

The first manifestation, if I recall correctly, is a single feather, and then there is a burst of flames. This risked being comic rather than revelatory. But the apparition is worth waiting for — Amanda Lawrence as a kind of Annie Lennox with half a dozen assistants, actually rather sinister not utopian in tone. It seems a very deus ex machina ending, a brave perhaps fool hardy moment.

And of course, as you recall from his roles other than Spider-Man, Andrew Garfield can act — coy, camp, heart broken, tough, resigned, angry, and scared out of his wits at what May of course be a night hallucination, or may indeed be an angel in New York.

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I, Claude

Claude Cahun: Beneath This Mask (Sidney Cooper Gallery, 28 February-Saturday 6 May 2017
Latent: A Hidden History (Sidney Cooper Gallery, 28 February-Saturday 6 May 2017

Claude Cahun was born in 1894 to a French literary family and apparent became interested in art and self portraiture from an early age. After experiencing anti Semitism at school in Nantes, Cahun went to a school in Surrey and then to University at the Sorbonne. Cahun was soon moving in artistic circles, including with André Breton and Sylvia Beach, and set up home with her partner, Marcel Moore. In 1937, they moved to Jersey and were there when the Nazis invaded, becoming part of the resistance. They were eventually arrested, and sentenced to death, but survived somehow. Time in jail weakened Cahun’s health and the artist died in 1954. Malherbe was to live on until 1972 and is buried in the same grave.

The earliest photos on show here, such as Skin Head (1916), are over a century old, but look incredibly modern, perhaps because they anticipated the androgyny of fashion photography of the last forty or so years. There’s a picture from about 1920, with Cahun again as skin head, screaming, hands over ears, á la Munch. The assexuality is shown again in a picture in which Cahun wears a “I am in training – don’t kiss me” shirt along with lipstick hearts on the cheeks and holding a set of barbell weights labelled TOTOR ET POPOL — this seems to be a reference to an early Hergé comic, The Adventures of Totor, Chief Scout of the Cockshafers. A strongman in make up. A model masquerading as a man.

Masquerade recurs — two 1929 pictures have Cahun “As Elle in Barbe Bleue”, in a long dress with x’s and flowers down the front. Here Cahun is playing the (unnamed) wife from Bluebeard, who enters the bloody chamber. Elsewhere we see Cahun as Harlequin, reflected in a mirror (I think with a negative image).

Double exposures allow a dissected body — Cahun’s head in a bell jar, Cahun’s body in a tallboy, reversed in a kind of clothed 69 with Cahun, Cahun’s isolated hands, a hand in the form of a tree, arms emerging from stone… There are a couple of photographs from 1947 with Cahun smoking in a suit, stood on a slab marked PRIVATE (what?) and flanked by gravestones, holding a skull and standing next to a cat. Memento mori. Memento meowi.

As far as I can make out, these are all self portraits, although there’s no give-away cable in almost all of the pictures. Did they have timers? Or did Malherbe operate the camera? Does that stop them being self-portraits? Photographers often have assistants — as do other artists.

What I also wasn’t clear about was whether the exhibition was misgendering Cahun. There were various artists in the 1920s who dressed in male attire and changed their names. Marlow Moss springs to mind — but I’m not clear whether Moss was living as a man or as gender neutral. In the main information panel for the exhibition, we are given some biographical information about how Cahun changed their name and are told “With this new identity Cahun was able to … reject what she saw as the narrow confines of gender.”

Yes, she did.

Ahem.

Perhaps it would be anachronistic to speak of misgendering, in the same way that homosexual becomes a problematic term before 1870 or gay does before… well, it depends. It is possible that somewhere Cahun writes about their preferred pronouns. Did they have a transgender identity? A gender neutral one? A masculine one? Cahun and Malherbe chose gender neutral names rather than male ones.

In today’s terms, the exhibition deadnames Cahun and Malherbe. Again, we hover on the fringe of anachronism. And there are many cases of artists who take on a name that is different from the one they are born into and exhibitions will draw attention to that. Is that deadnaming? I’m not sure. And I wonder if the symposium attached to the exhibition, which unfortunately I missed, raised these issues?

Meanwhile, in the front sideroom and lobby are photographs appropriated — is that the term? — by Sam Vale for his show Latent.

(I should declare an interest — he is a colleague.)

Canterbury Christ Church University is home to the South East Archive of Seaside Photography, which brings together various archives including the walkies taken by Sunbeam. Vale has looked through these and found photographs of men isolated together, subjecting them to what you might call a queer gaze.

I might also refer to it as the paranoid gaze, although perhaps “paranoid” isn’t quite the right word. Before the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, sexual acts between men were illegal, that is to legislation going back to 1886 (and before that, fourteenth century anti-sodomy legislation). After 1967, it was descriminalised in certain circumstances in England and Wales. The side effect of this is limited documentation of gay life styles and the need to read between the lines. We read homosexuality into imagery — which may or may not be there.

Take Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope or Fredric Wertham’s reading of the relationship between Batman and Robin. We *know* Philip and Brandon are in a relationship but they never confess to it, they never kiss, we never see them fuck. Sometimes this becomes a location of hidden figures where we have no role models. Sometimes this becomes a witch hunt.

I can remember a picture in the archive that’s been shown a couple of times: two men lying on the beach, of different ages but both adults. Brothers? The age gap felt wrong. Father and son? Uncle and nephew? I just felt that they were lying too close together. Just as Philip and Brandon stand too close together.

So, with the possibility of misreading, the possibility of a creative misreading, a paranoid gaze — or simply the kind of gaydar used to recognise other gay men, Vale offers us moments of men, maybe gay men, hiding in plain sight. Or perhaps not even hiding. The liminal space of the seaside has an ethics all its own.

What happens in Margate, stays in Margate.

The enlargements of the pictures to isolate such details gives a feeling of surveillance and spying, adding to the paranoia. Two men standing on a balcony. Clothed man, naked man. The isolation of a hairy chest and a nipple. A right hand on a naked shoulder. A photo of a photographer taking another man’s photograph. Two men walking past each other — in memory both were looking back. Parties known to each other? Or checking out the talent?

I know Sam has been looking for other venues to show the work at — I hope he has some success.

(An example)

And Then One Day Things Weren’t Quite So Fine

The Danish Girl (Tom Hooper, 2015)

And oddly, it was only later, that I pondered which one it is.

I mean, the film is clearly meant to be about Danish artist Einar Wegener, seen fingering dresses from early on in the film, forced (not entirely unwillingly it must be noted) to wear female clothes for his wife Gerda Gottlieb’s paintings and who begins to realise that he is really she, and begins a journey to becoming Lili Elbe.

Except, it’s not taken directly from Elbe’s own diary, but rather a 2000 novel by David Ebershoff, which plays hard and fast with the truth, apparently making Gerda Greta, an American. At least some of the facts get reinstated, as far as I can see. Not all, mind. Hans Axgil (art dealer and Einar’s childhood friend) and Henrik (artist and Lili’s friend) are not real people.

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Heteronormativity Strikes Back

The politics of such films as Near Dark, The Silence of the Lambs, Hellraiser (I, II, and III), and Bram Stoker’s Dracula may be understood in part as emblematic of capital’s ongoing attempts at refurbishing its democratic facade by acknowledging the cynicism of the population while simultaneously emphasizing an ersatz liberalism, and by making use of a variety of progressive discourses current in academe that inevitably appear transmuted within the commercial entertainment industry.
Christopher Sharrett (1993) “The Horror Film in Neoconservative Culture”, Journal of Popular Film & Television,  21(3), p. 100.

A Nightmare on Elm Street Part II: Freddy’s Revenge (Jack Sholder, 1985)

Popular culture relies on repetition with difference and there is perhaps no subgenre that is quite so repetitive as the slasher – the crime in the past, the discrete/isolated setting, the gender ambiguous and curiously mobile villain and their double the gender ambiguous final girl, the increasing number of unmissed teen victims… A Nightmare on Elm Street (Wes Craven, 1984) postdates the Halloween and Friday the 13th franchises and adds a degree of the supernatural or fantastical which is not in the other franchises in the same way.*

Craven didn’t want to work on a sequel so we have a new director depicting a new family who have moved into the Thompsons’ house, including a teenaged boy, Jesse Walsh (Mark Patton). The slasher film tends to have a female protagonist — although it can take a while for her to act — on the one hand resisting the Mulveyan male gaze structures of identification, on the other hand feeding a male sadistic gaze for violent spectacle. But here — although we do sort of get a Final Girl — there’s a male protagonist who is a Jesse.

Coughs.

Freddy Krueger is clearly an equal opportunity sadist, as happy to play with Jesse as he was with Nancy; the temperature rises in the Walsh household, their pet birds pay homage to Hitchcock, a party catches fire and a swimming pool boils. Krueger increasingly seems to be an uncontrolled id, his sadism clearly sexualised. The worrying thing for Jesse is his increasing sense that he is Freddy, that he is causing the murders.

The big set piece of the film is a nocturnal wander or dream where Jesse ends up at the town’s gay bar (with a large lesbian clientele) and bumps into the bullying Coach Schneider (Marshall Bell). Schneider then forces him to run laps of the gym and take a shower; meanwhile the coach is attacked by a load of balls in his office, dragged to the shower by skipping ropes, strung up and slashed to death. Jesse finds Freddy’s glove on his hand. What is Jesse’s dark secret?

The whole is homoerotic, seasoned with BDSM and homosexual panic, with Jesse clearly as a confused teen. Frederik Dhaenens suggests that “the film deconstructs how heteronormativity
disciplines individuals who experience same-sex desires, [but] it depends upon its audiences to read this film in terms of queer resistance. Furthermore, by victimizing the potentially gay boy, it reinstates the heterosexual male as the real hero” (p. 110). Perhaps this is being over generous to the film — of the three non-normative characters one is a sadist who preys on boys, one is a serial killer and one is a teen who may be killing people or fantasising about doing so. Certainly the plot rescues the latter from the horrors of homosexuality — in the early years of the HIV crisis homosexuality is equated with death even more than usual.
Note

* As I watch/rewatch the rest, we’ll see how true this is.

Sources

Frederik Dhaenens (2013) “The Fantastic Queer: Reading Gay Representations in Torchwood and True Blood as Articulations of Queer Resistance”, Critical Studies in Media Communication, 30(2).

Christopher Sharrett (1993) “The Horror Film in Neoconservative Culture”, Journal of Popular Film & Television, 21(3).

Fifty Shades of Hamearis lucina

The Duke of Burgundy (Peter Strickland, 2014)

Towards the start of the opening credits of The Duke of Burgundy, I spotted the name of executive producer Ben Wheatley. He directed the genre bending Kill List (2011), the rather baffling A Field in England (2013), a couple of episodes of NuWho and he’s working on High-Rise. I couldn’t help but see that there was an uncanny film at work — a hidden film. On the one hand, there’s the Peter Greenaway version, which would need a Michael Nyman score, more camera tracking and an organisational system (by genus of butterfly?). On the other hand there’s the horror film,  possibly sf. Clearly the credits sequence is meant to invoke 1970s low budget movies, a sexploitation or two, maybe even a hint at Hammer. In a recurring scenario — this film is so about its repetition — the camera pans along a crowd watching a talk on butterflies and moths and, among all the woman, there are a couple of shop dummies. Autons? Cheaper than  extras? A nod toward the artificiality of it all? Or do we have a body snatchers scenario and they’re all insects? As  Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) locates and opens a body-sized chest in the house, I wondered what horror we were to find in it. Later, briefly, there was an answer (as well as a longer answer).

So Evelyn (there’s an echo of Angela Carter there) arrives at a house, knocks and is admitted, being told off by Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) for being late and for sitting down without invitation (I confess my first thought was she had not been given permission — a Pavlovian training from my own childhood).  Evelyn is set to work, cleaning the study — a space full of dead butterflies and larvae — and doing the laundry. When, as is inevitable, she fails to please her mistress, she is punished, behind a closed bathroom door, and possibly by a method that the British government recently criminalised on streaming video. If the acting seems a little off — well, think of the acting and dubbing in Dario Argento films if you haven’t (as I haven’t) seen Jess Franco films, and the fact that it is All More Complicated than you think it is.

It is obviously less explicit than that other film, Fifty Shades of Grey (2015), for the most part at least, and we would do well to avoid falling into an old value judgement about pornography and erotica. Here’s Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian:

Peter Strickland’s new film, The Duke of Burgundy, is different: it is a labour of love, whereas Fifty Shades of Grey was a labour of money.

Whilst clearly a budget of some significance was thrown at the other film, it has made pots of money and the original texts were bestselling adaptations of bestselling novels, this rather begs a question about Sam Taylor-Johnson’s artistic intentions in making the film alongside all the other crew members and the cast. Strickland, presumably, didn’t get a fee? Srsly? Whilst clearly I wasn’t a fan of that better known film, it is very easy to be snide about materials that a large female audience has enjoyed.

Obviously there are ambiguities to navigate. I’m inclining to the sense that it’s an exaggeration of the kind of materialistic relationship that many straight women enter into in capitalist society and that it isn’t necessarily endorsing it. This is not quite the same as suggesting that it’s a dramatization of the kind of abusive relationship that too many women (read: any non-consenting abusive relationship) are in or that women have the freedom to choose their sexual activities even if these are masochistic in nature (and, indeed, that’s so none of my business). Whilst clearly we could say the words Internalised Misogyny, we have a novel by a female ur-writer transformed by a female novelist adapted by a female screen writer filmed by a female director. Compare, say, Carrie (Brian De Palma, 1976), where a male novelist is adapted by a male screenwriter is filmed by a male director. It’s not my place to label, but which one seems more likely to be feminist? One of them is a female vision of (some) female fantasies and the other is a male vision of (some) female fantasies. The fact that both characters are female makes a difference.

So, whilst it has to be noted that the entire cast of The Duke of Burgundy appears to be female, Peter Strickland, director and screenwriter, is a bloke. The BDSM scenario may be a representation of female empowerment, but it’s a male vision.  Clearly the film passes the Bechdel Test, but that’s no guarantee it’s feminist. (I note, again, I have no authority to issue such a label.) At points I found myself pondering whether entomology is part of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955) and the problem of a narrative in which the abuser has apparently been “seduced” by the victim. (“She made me do it.”)

I was particularly disturbed by the sequence when the camera zooms in on the darkened crotch of Cynthia and goes on an extended fantasy riff — in both the sexual and non-realist sense — before pulling back again. Is this, I wondered, a misogynist fear of what all those women get up to when men aren’t around? Perhaps not even women, but Insect Things? Where are all the men? Victims of preying mantises?

But the actors do what they do well, and it is beautifully shot and designed the hell out of — there’s a perfume credit, a long list of butterflies and very detailed annotations of the field recordings used in the film. It deserves to do well so that BFI and Film Four investment can be repaid. To say this is a better film than Fifty Shades, however, is probably not a useful judgement; I’m not even sure that I’d be more likely to rewatch it. I do want to seek out Katalin Varga (2006) and  Berberian Sound Studio  (2012) though.

The Real Thing, Or: Love is Strangled

[I wrote this some time ago, but it didn’t seem to be published at the time]

 

Love is Strange (Ira Sachs, 2014)
Gay movies always seem to be about death. Well, maybe that’s an over statement but male gay narratives partake of a gothic that seems out of statistical probability. If it’s not HIV related, it’s suicide or a violent end. One reaches for the Kleenex far too often and not in a happy ending way. Living happily ever after is a fantasy too far, it often seems, although – I know, I know – for drama to happen bad things have to happen to good people. (But see Der Kreis)

File Love is Strange under bittersweet. Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) have lived together for thirty-nine years, one a talented if unsuccessful artist, the other a talented music teacher for a catholic school. But the marriage means that the school can no longer turn a blind eye to George’s sexuality and he is fired – meaning that they can’t afford the mortgage on their appointment. Whilst there is the option of moving to Poughkeepsie, the two stay in spare rooms (or spare bunkbeds/sofas) of friends and relatives whilst they sort themselves out.

I’ve always had a soft spot for Molina – he was Kenneth Halliwell in Prick Up Your Ears Stephen Frears, 1987), was a hoot as a habitual liar in Trust Me (Tony Dow, 1992) and is in the film of The Normal Heart (Ryan Murphy, 2014) – and Lithgow I first saw as transgendered Roberta in The World According to Garp (George Roy Hill, 1982). The relationship is absolutely beautiful, utterly credible, with a real sense of a shared history between them. The awkwardness of being put up – which rapidly turns in being put up with – is convincing, although I think Kate (Marisa Tomei) is given a bit of a thankless rôle as overly keen host and self-centered if put upon writer. The direction is leisurely, braving the chance to hold a shot for ten seconds longer than comfortable. It feels – not to be critical – that it wanted to be a theatre play. Unlike most New York comedy dramas or sitcoms this is a multiethnic New York.

At the same time as the leisurely pace we are left wanting to know more – one family crisis seems unresolved, George’s letter to the school parents is more political speechifying than plot development, a positive twist is too far in the fairy tale wish-fulfilment territory and the resolution mechanics seem unfocused. The epilogue is positive, a story arc pays off, diversity seems to thrive. But it is a sunset.

Meanwhile, I recognised John Corbett from Northern Exposure, and the face I knew but couldn’t name belongs to Ed (Darren E. Burrows) from the same programme. Game of Thrones gets a product placement, and I’m not sure I’ve seen a Dungeons and Dragons consultant credited before on a film.

All of this is certainly worth a look, although I noted this is another example of how every five years “Hollywood” notes that there is a mature audience as well as teenagers of all ages.