All posts filed under: Cinema

What We Owe to ‘The Boys in the Band’—and Other Classics of Gay Film

Ryan’s Murphy’s new Netflix production of The Boys in the Band is a time capsule of gay life in New York City, 1968. A group of friends, all but one closeted, get together for a birthday party that makes Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf look like a strawberry social. Shame, guilt, fear, and self-loathing rip through a night of pills, alcohol, and panic attacks, ending with the lines, “Show me a happy homosexual and I’ll show you a gay corpse,” and “If we could just not hate ourselves so much… If we could just learn not to hate ourselves quite so very much.”  I was 18 when I saw the original production, alone, and 19 when I saw the 1970 film adaptation, also alone. I furtively entered and exited the theatre both times, terrified that someone I knew might see me at a show about gays. Would they wonder if I was gay, too? If they guessed, then what? I could end up like those characters, cast off by friends and family, no hope, …

Don’t Listen to the Outrage. ‘Cuties’ Is a Great Film

If you’d asked me a month ago what could possibly break through a news cycle dominated by the biggest global pandemic in a century, the most severe economic downturn since the Great Depression, and the worst civil unrest in the United States since the Civil Rights Era, a diverse, French arthouse film about four 11-year-old girls trying to win a dance competition wouldn’t have crossed my mind. Yet since its recent release on Netflix, Cuties has broken through the noise, and how. I wish it were for the right reasons: For instance, because Senegalese-French director Maïmouna Doucouré has written and directed a brilliant, award-winning first feature drawn from her experience growing up as an immigrant kid caught between cultures. Or because it’s alive with tenderness and heartache: a grittier, cross-cultural Eighth Grade about friendship, the love of a parent and child, and our longing to fit in, no matter our age, no matter the price. Or because it’s alive to injustice without preaching or judgement. But no. Cuties has broken through because of grotesquely false …

Remembering Reinaldo Arenas and His Enduring Lessons on Repression, Torment, and Exile

In a scene from Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s iconic Cuban film Memorias del Subdesarrollo (1968), a man looks down from his balcony at Havana’s streets. Only a few years had passed since Fidel Castro had overthrown Fulgencio Batista’s regime, and the prisoners taken during the failed Bay of Pigs invasion had just been put on trial. Like many middle-class Cubans at the time, the parents of Sergio, the film’s protagonist, had fled the country. But Sergio decides to stay. He prefers to anchor himself to his present and watch the revolution play out from his apartment. He uses his telescope to watch people, ships in the bay, places where the Republican-era statues once stood. He contemplates the city’s landscape with a sort of contempt. Sergio wants to become a great novelist, but failing at the task. He lives off the accumulated rent his family earned before the revolution, and so is regarded by the state’s bureaucrats as a parasite. Yet the contempt is unrequited: Sergio is indifferent to the political climate in Cuba. He prefers to …

Thoughts on Longevity

Olivia de Havilland, the oldest surviving actress from Hollywood’s Golden Age, turned 104 last week. To live that long is in itself an act of generosity. She won Oscars for her leading roles in To Each His Own (1946), and William Wyler’s 1949 classic, The Heiress, in which she starred opposite Sir Ralph Richardson and Montgomery Clift. But she is probably best remembered for her role as Melanie Hamilton in Gone with the Wind—a film that just narrowly avoided cancellation, and now carries health warnings on most streaming services for its outdated depictions of race relations in the ante- and post-bellum South. Its sexual politics are also likely to wrinkle a forehead or two. De Havilland may outlive it yet. Contemplation of such great age is intrinsically moving, perhaps because it releases us from the oppressive clamour of the moment. It restores our sense of time itself, and calms the shrill, neurotic demands of the 24-hour news cycle. “Man is the measure of all things,” said Protagoras, the pre-Socratic philosopher (though of course, he didn’t …

A Rainy Day in New York—A Review

In spite of a fresh round of uninformed press attacks, celebrity denouncements, and calumnies catalysed by the #MeToo movement, Woody Allen has remained an irrepressible creative force. Amid the kind of controversy that might have destroyed any other artist’s sanity, he somehow managed to produce a memoir and two new films. Getting his work in front of an audience, however, has proved to be more difficult. The long-discredited allegation that Allen molested his adopted daughter Dylan when she was seven was most recently revived by Allen’s former partner Mia Farrow and their son Ronan during the 2014 Golden Globe ceremony at which Allen was being honored. Ronan Farrow is now an investigative journalist whose star rose rapidly during the #MeToo era as a result of his Pulitzer Prize-winning articles for the New Yorker about Harvey Weinstein, and he has not hesitated to use his newfound celebrity and moral authority to pursue a vendetta against his estranged father. It was he who led the public condemnations of Hachette in March for agreeing to publish Allen’s book, …

Death of an Old-Fashioned Clown

When I recently discovered that Fred Willard had appeared as the ghost of Trump’s father in a skit on Jimmy Kimmel’s TV show, I must admit my heart sank. Not that there’s anything wrong with political satire, of course—traditionally, the comic has played the vital role of a jester whose job it is to send up pomposity and hypocrisy wherever they occur. But in the era of Donald Trump, a distressing number have preferred to simply become mouthpieces for progressive talking points and platitudes. Would Willard fall into this trap? I braced myself for disappointment, but I needn’t have worried. The laugh lines were predictable and the material was as charmlessly partisan as I’d expected, but Willard’s characterisation of Trump senior as a cheerful-but-damned sort of American soul in a Frank Capra three-piece suit effortlessly drained the sketch of whatever spite had animated its conception. But the Kimmel skits notwithstanding—he also appeared as Trump’s party planner and nickname-maker—Willard rarely concerned himself with fashionable politics. Few things are more dispiriting than much-loved entertainers contorting themselves to …

Easy Rider: 50 Years Looking for America—A Review

A review of Easy Rider: 50 Years Looking for America by Steven Bingen, Lyons Press (November 2019) 200 pages. It was the 1990 comedy Flashback that sparked my interest in Easy Rider (1969) when I was eight or nine years old. In the former, Dennis Hopper plays an aging 60s dissident, busted after 20 years on the lam, who gets taken cross-country by a no-nonsense FBI agent, played by Kiefer Sutherland. Naturally, the straight-laced fed can’t keep his laces very straight after Hopper doses him (or pretends to dose him) with LSD, releasing the young Republican’s inner hippie. At one point, Hopper declares, “It takes more than going down to your local video store and renting Easy Rider to be a rebel.” For some odd reason lost on me now, I liked this airy nothing of a movie and so, of course, insisted that my family rent Easy Rider the next time we visited our local video store. Strangely, I liked that too, though, again, I’m not quite sure why. Maybe it was the music—all …

Farewell, My Lovely

A review of The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood by Sam Wasson, Flatiron Books (February 2020) 397 pages. Editor’s note: the following essay contains spoilers. There’s a moment midway through the film Chinatown (1974) in which the hero, Jake Gittes, hands us a clue—not a clue about the case he’s investigating, the one involving graft and murder in L.A.’s Department of Water and Power, but a more subtextual kind of clue, hinting at the meaning of the film’s enigmatic title. Jake (Jack Nicholson) and his client, Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), are standing in her back yard, and she’s prodding him about his life before he became a private eye, when he worked as a cop in Chinatown. What did he do there, she asks? “As little as possible,” Jake replies. This bit of dialogue may seem innocuous, but it was, in fact, the inspiration for the entire film, taken by screenwriter Robert Towne from an actual Chinatown cop, whom he met in the early 1970s. In Chinatown, the policeman explained, you …

So Here’s to You, Buck Henry

I am somewhat ashamed to admit that I did not know who Buck Henry was. On the evening of his death on January 8, 2020, I had to Google his name (which sounds vaguely like the musky fragrance of an aging leather briefcase discolored by cigarette ash). According to his many admirers, Henry was the first writer to fashionize wearing a floppy baseball hat over round tortoiseshell spectacles. This is probably not true, but the residue of his mythology appears in the uniform of every New Yorker who writes about comedy; from David Letterman’s casual streetwear to the SNL writer taking their dog for a morning stroll in Central Park. You can still see this look in urban coffeehouses, where writers in colorful New Balance sneakers scribble jokes into moleskin notebooks. It’s almost certain that these twenty-something Buck Henry facsimiles associate the name with a woodsy-scented organic soap or fashionable strain of weed, or a dead Negro League ball player. I am not making fun of them. I am one of them. And they, like …

‘The Report’ Review—A Careful Examination of the CIA’s Interrogation Methods

The Report, a new film from Vice Studios starring Adam Driver, feels somehow both timely and late. It tells the story of American Senate staffer Daniel Jones (Driver), who was tasked with investigating the U.S. government’s “enhanced interrogation” program in the late 2000s. The program, which many denounced as torture, was used to extract intelligence from suspected terrorist detainees at CIA black sites after Al Qaeda’s attack on September 11, 2001. It ended years ago and is no longer even legal—the McCain-Feinstein Amendment restricts prisoner interrogation techniques to those listed in the United States Army’s field manual, and it passed the Senate with a 78–21 vote in 2015, backed by majorities in both parties. Among the general public, however, the topic remains controversial, with almost half of Americans saying they think torture could be used to obtain “important military information” from “a captured enemy combatant” and only a little more than half saying they think torture is “wrong.” During and after his 2016 campaign, President Donald J. Trump, ever-sensitive to divergences between “elite” and “popular” …