A 2021 Film Journey: Days 158 – 160

It is catchup weekend for me. I have been keeping up with my movie watching, but writing has been a bit too much for my brain to handle lately but I am hopeful that this weekend I will be able to work through my backlog and get back on schedule. In service of that my viewings for these days were preplanned such that I could write a single post instead of three individual posts.

The Documentaries of Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman

The Criterion Channel has a large subsection of their LGBT films dedicated to the documentaries of Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. The titles included intrigued me enough that I decided to dedicate a few days to watching them. While they are predominantly composed of talking head narratives, each has its own niche.

The Times of Harvey Milk (1984, Dir. Rob Epstein)

Remembering Harvey Milk on His Ninetieth Birthday | The Current | The  Criterion Collection

While Jeffrey Friedman was not a part of this film, the Oscar winning documentary by Epstein felt like an important place to start when looking at these films. Made six years after the assassination of first openly gay man elected to public office, The Times of Harvey Milk is a documentary created by people who were still grieving the man they admired and loved. This passion is what elevates the documentary beyond the standard story telling techniques into something special.

Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt (1989, Dir. Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman)

Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt (1989) review by The Documentalist

The second consecutive film to win the Oscar for documentary feature is a film very much of its time. Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt had an extremely important purpose in 1989. Eight years into AIDS epidemic, due to malpractice from the Reagan administration tens of thousands of people are dying of the disease annually. Puritanical values of the country at the time earned the victims of the disease little respect. Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt attempted to address the later issue by humanizing the victims by having the loved ones eulogize them. This goal leaves the film to feel dated despite having some moving moments.

The Celluloid Closet (1995, Dir. Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman)

The Celluloid Closet | OUTtvGo

The final film from this collection that I watched is easily the most niche of the lot. Fortunately, I – as a queer lover of classic cinema – am the exact target for the film’s topic. The Celluloid Closet is an exploration of Hollywood’s depiction of queer people through the eras of the studio. Narrated by Lily Tomlin, the documentary becomes a who’s who of openly queer actors discussing the snippets of film that gave them hope when searching for representation. The film wont be for everyone, but for people like me who are the target market, it is a wonderful watch.

A 2021 Film Journey: Day 157

I am not sure what happened such that after 4 months of not missing a movie or post once I have been largely unable to keep up in the following 40 days. I am at least caught up on viewings if not posts, and I will be doing my best to play catchup starting with this post today.

This movie was chosen immediately after seeing a tweet wishing a posthumous birthday to Chantal Akerman. While I have seen a few other of her films, I am as guilty as most for thinking of her as the Jeanne Dielman… director and little more, so I’m happy for such a good excuse to view more films by the groundbreaking woman auteur.

Je Tu Il Elle (1974, Dir. Chantal Akerman)

Je Tu Il Elle (1974) - IMDb

More than a concise narrative, Je Tu Il Elle is Chantal Akerman’s internal exploration of dealing with grief from a heartbreak. The exploration is so personal that the director cast herself as the lead – the je in in title. Reeling from the experience, the film begins with Akerman’s character locking herself in a room to process. She eats nothing but powdered sugar from a paper bag for weeks while she eventually begins working on a written story of her emotions. These moments represent the denial and depression stages of grief she undergoes as part of this heartbreak.

Eventually, she finds the power to leave her room and she immediately starts hitchhiking to her ex-lover’s place. She is picked up by a male trucker who presses her for a hand job in exchange for the lift. While she never seems especially angry during the incident, the revenge sexual act serves as that step in her grief. Eventually she arrives to the home of her ex-lover (Claire Wauthion) and Akerman’s character reaches the bargaining state. She begs her ex to stay the night, for food, and eventually for sex – shown surprisingly honestly and graphically for 1974. The following morning, she crawls out of her ex’s naked embrace and leaves without waking her. In these last seconds, her character has finally found acceptance and is ready to live her life as a single woman again.

A 2021 Film Journey: Days 155 and 156

Before I dive into today’s post, I wanted to share that I got my second COVID shot. While I am super excited to see friends again (and see movies in the theater again) like with the first shot, I was feeling all the side effects. So, while I watched a film yesterday, I was not feeling up to writing through my fever so today’s post will be a double to make up for it.

The Half of It (2020, Dir. Alice Wu)

NetflixFilm on Twitter: "This film centers love as a place of effort and  possibility. The point isn't love coming from a happily-ever-after. It's  opening yourself up to love in new forms. Celebrate

Part of me wanted to prove that I do not exclusively watch hyper pretentious queer films, but as a queer woman myself I had exhausted a sizeable portion of the queer media that Hollywood has put out in their relatively conservative history. This is why when I try to stick to films that are new-to-me, a large portion of my blind spots are the more artsy. Thankfully, the world has become more openly receptive to queer identities in the past decade, and it now allows me the opportunity to watch queer young adult stories I would have killed for 15 years prior.

The Half of It is one such film. Alice Wu’s 2020 young adult romance exists in a world where Ellie Chu’s (Leah Lewis) attraction to Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire) is not seen as taboo even if heterosexuality is still considered the norm. This allows Wu to depict a story devoid of the self-hatred that may have accompanied a similar story told 10 years prior. Ellie still feels a significant othering and keeps her romantic feelings to herself, but it is as a natural part of coming of age. The way that Ellie grows into herself throughout the film is a wonderful normalization of the self-discovery young queer people undergo.

Show Me Love (Fucking Åmål) (1998, Dir. Lukas Moodysson)

Show Me Love (1998) directed by Lukas Moodysson • Reviews, film + cast •  Letterboxd

If The Half of It is representative of the young adult queer experience today, Show Me Love aka Fucking Åmål is much more akin to what someone from my generation experienced. Agnes (Rebecka Liljeberg) is a newly 16-year-old woman who has no question in her queerness but living in a small Swedish town that uses the word “lesbian” as a slur, she feels the need to partially closet herself out of caution. This does not stop her from pining over her classmate Elin (Alexandra Dahlström).

Maybe it is my age speaking, but the increased stakes in Show Me Love elevates the film from a somewhat twee tale of young love to a mature story where people forego an easy life for a fulfilling one. I am happy that the world has evolve to the point where happy queer stories like The Half of It can be told, but the emotional turmoil from films like Show Me Love resonate at a more visceral level. I may have talked around it some, but I loved Show Me Love even if it may be dated now. It reminds me of my formative years more than any present-day release could.

A 2021 Film Journey: Day 154

Third day of Pride and I feel like a bit of a broken record, but I once again am using the Criterion Channel’s LGBT section. What can I say, I have a type of film that interests me and Criterion just delivers on that time after time. For a slight variation on the Criterion theme today, I chose to visit a selection type that Criterion offers that I have not watched much from before: Shot+Feature

Flores (2017, Dir. Jorge Jácome)

Jorge Jácome, Flores - Video & Film - e-flux

Flores is superficially a story about the impact on the island of Azores during a climate apocalypse. As hydrangeas grow uncontrollably and stifle the other fauna on the island, it could be a setting for a heavy-handed environmental film. However, director Jorge Jácome instead uses this beautiful floral landscape as a backdrop for a love poem between two men who enlisted in the army to stay on the island together. The short leans heavy in the poetic style to deliver a quiet, meditative piece that lingers in its beauty.

Beau Travail (1999, Dir. Claire Denis)

Beau Travail' Review: Claire Denis' Finest Hour

I understand why these two films were paired together. In fact, it almost seems too obvious that they would be together, and the similarities are rather obvious. That said I would never have heard of the former short so no complaints here.

This film is another one that I am struggling to write about. At its heart, Beau Travail is a tone poem, and one of the more effective ones that I have ever seen. Claire Denis uses voiceover with the repetitive movements of the French Foreign Legion troop training in the Djibouti sun. This hypnotic mood amplifies the obsession of Galoup (Denis Lavant) until it smolders over from the intensity. Every second of the film is imperative to the essence of the film even if the narrative could be distilled to a short film. Watching the film is more of an experience than watching a story, and I loved it exactly for that.

A 2021 Film Journey: Day 153

For the second day of Pride I once again am using the Criterion Channel’s LGBT section, and I assume that will be a common sentiment as making it through most of those films seems like a good goal for the month. I will make sure to sneak some more mainstream queer films in throughout the month as well though, especially after tonight’s viewing.

Pink Narcissus (1971, Dir. James Bidgood)

Club Silencio: Obscure Beauty: Pink Narcissus (1971)

When picking films to watch, I frequently go out of my way to watch films as blindly as possible. I mention that because while I did not know what Pink Narcissus was, I would never have guessed what my following hour would be. The only film James Bidgood ever made is part cinematic ballet and part erotic gay fantasy. The film contains no dialogue or traditional story and is instead filled with suggestive and graphic imagery for the entirety of the film’s runtime.

While the film has some variation in setting, the circular thrusting and gentle caressing are constant images which create a hypnotizing affect. The viewer becomes entranced by the camp of the costumes and sets. Especially given the era (it was released two years after the Stonewall riots but began production six years prior) this fullhearted embrace of queer imagery is a cultural touchstone.

I have a bonus film for tonight as well. Every Wednesday a Discord server I belong to has a movie night, and for the first time in a while it was a film that was new to me.

Rebecca (2020, Dir. Ben Wheatley)

Rebecca' – the 2020 Netflix movie a far cry from 1940's Hitchcock classic -  SaportaReport

I am not going to lie; I went into this film assuming I would hate it. At least until I noticed that it was directed by Ben Wheatley which gave me some hope even if he was attempting a remake of one of Hitchcock’s great films. The film ends up being fine. It is better than a remake of Rebecca has any right to be, but it is also the weakest offering I have watched from Wheatley. The most damning appraisal of this remake is where it succeeds and where it fails. The middle hour of the film is almost an exact remake of the 1940 classic and is excellent. During this part of the film, I on more than one occasion told myself that if this were the story’s first adaptation, I would find it excellent. Unfortunately, the book ending half hours of original material feel at odds with the parts that work. A backstory is introduced for little reason, and the new ending forgoes much of the mystery for melodrama. This mix in quality of parts dooms this remake to be lost to time. The best parts are done better by Hitchcock and the original pieces are lacking in quality.

The one thing that this remake arguably does better than the original is the character of Miss (Mrs. in the remake) Danvers. Judith Anderson is excellent in the original as the conniving head maid, but Kirstin Scott Thomas elevates the role to something special. Thomas makes an exquisite villain – especially a villain under a veneer of pleasantness – and is in conjunction with the middle hour the reason to watch the film.

A 2021 Film Journey: Day 152

Happy Pride month! Back in February, I made it my goal to watch a Black helmed film a day for the entirety of the month. For June I am going to do something similar, but instead of focusing on the director, I want to make sure that I am viewing a queer film a day for the entirety of the month. Creating a list for this month has actually proven much easier than finding Black directed films. I am sure some of that may be because of a negatively voyeuristic (I will never again watch The Danish Girl). To start my viewing, I am diving into New Queer Cinema a movement I have seen little of.

Mala Noche (1986, Dir. Gus Van Sant)

Critique : Mala Noche, de Gus Van Sant - Critikat

Gus Van Sant may be the man most synonymous with the New Queer Cinema movement, and while his debut feature film Mala Noche was not the earliest representative of New Queer Cinema, it came out during the movement’s infancy and likely had an influence on the films to follow.

Mala Noche taps into angst that would define Gen X as Walt (Tim Streeter) pines after Johnny (Doug Cooeyate) an undocumented Mexican immigrant who does not reciprocate Walt passions (or share his orientation). Walt work in a convenience shop where he can work in tatter t-shirts and affect a lackadaisical mentality. The only thing Walt seems to care about is his obsession with Johnny. Even in this obsession, Walt is happy to play increasingly ridiculous mating games letting Johnny drive his car into a guardrail and show up at his hotel room on hands and knees.

Taken literally, Walt engages in predatory practices and Mala Noche could be read as a propaganda film against queer people, but Mala Noche is not meant to be taken with such a literal interpretation. Walt is representative of the generation that 80s excess left behind. Walt is further looked down upon because of his sexuality, but rather than repress it, he uses it to thumb at the world. The film is about being unashamed about oneself.

A 2021 Film Journey: Day 151

Because I seemingly cannot stick to any on movie watching theme, today’s movie of choice checked off a few different boxes, but none of which are the self-imposed movie watching goals I’ve tried to set for myself this month (i.e. Criterion films I own but have not watched or mainstream new releases). Instead, today’s movie is a 2020 film that a Podcast I listen to has been talking up, and a film that let me utilize one of my May Kanopy watches before they rolled over. All that said, with how much trouble I have had this month even keeping up with the one movie a day goal, a win is a win.

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets (2020, Dir. Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross)

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets' Review: Over Drinks, a Blurry Line Between  Truth and Fiction - The New York Times

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets stretches the definition of documentary to its limits. The film purports to document the final day of the Las Vegas bar the Roaring Twenties. The film captures the bar’s all-day party as the local barflies experience one last night in the bar that has been their home away from home. The thing is, the Roaring Twenties was not actually closing and, it is not in Las Vegas rather New Orleans. Potentially the largest betrayal of the documentary label is that the attendees at the night’s festivities were cast rather than locals wandering in – though only one was a professional actor (Michael Martin) and he played himself.

If so much of the film is filled with artifice, how does Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets claim to be a documentary? The answer to that comes from the purpose of the film. Rather than tell the literal story of a closing dive bar directors Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross use that flimsy premise to booze up a bunch of locals and explore a part of the human condition. Real alcohol flows freely while the film shoot, and as the inebriation sets in, the locals forget about the prying eyes of the camera. Despite the film’s inherent falsehoods, the emotions flowing from the people on screen are genuine and reflect each person’s inner struggles. In this way, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is more honest than most documentaries, even if it takes some liberties with the initial setup.