Friday, March 28, 2014

BFI Flare: Sex and Liberation

Between the Waves dir. Tejal Shah
Last night's Flare viewing consisted of a documentary on a pioneer of underground gay film, plus a semi-retrospective on a current artist filmmaker.

James Broughton, celebrated in Big Joy, was a West Coast filmmaker-poet active in the post-war years in San Francisco, though he attracted more attention in Europe, earning a special prize at Cannes. In truth, the film footage shown looked a bit ropy to me: sub-Chaplinesque hetero follies played out in unlikely locales, including London's Crystal Palace. But, there was more to Broughton than his films. A playful wordsmith, he wrote 23 books of poetry, lines of which are cleverly used in the film, whether flashing up on screen or read out by his nearest and dearest, including his estranged wife. Yes, wife, because Broughton swung both ways and wasn't exactly careful in his relationships. Three children came out of his liaisons with film critic Pauline Kael and his later wife, Suzanna Hart, who still seems broken by the betrayal. Broughton left her for the love of his life, a younger man, but I did feel for the abandoned wife. Very telling, too, that two of his children declined to be interviewed for the film. Artists, eh? The most amusing parts of the film (aside from the appearance of Frida Kahlo on two interviewees' walls) are the acerbic comments by George Kuchar, who takes the piss out of Broughton's sunny Radical Faerie world view, and stresses that his film The Bed was detested "on the East Coast". You can take the boy out of the Bronx...

The evening was capped off by The Stinging Kiss, nine films by Tejal Shah, who works in Goa and ususally shows in gallery settings. This festival screening, she said, was new territory for her. And for me, as I found myself by turns discomited, bemused, and a bit fidgety over the next two hours. The films' aesthetic reminds me a bit of the Austrian cyberqueer film, Flaming Ears, that I saw many, many years ago, and Shah did name-check Donna Haraway in her comments. There is a coldness and detachment that makes it difficult to get immersed in the works. To be sure, Shah is exploring power relations and oppositions, as she positions herself in the frame in different roles. In one, she is the "dacoit" (a term new to me) enacting a scene that blurs the lines between torture and S/M with a male protagonist playing a cinematic heroine. In another, she is being force-fed reams of food by a dead-eyed female collaborator. In the longest work, an epic five-part sci-fi meets nature drama (Shah declared herself newly out as an ecosexual), a band of unicorn beings frolics in various incongruous settings, including a desert and underwater grotto. I wasn't clear what was happening, but watching Shah penetrate her partner with her horn while both writhed in pomegranate juice, well, you don't get those experiences in a multi-plex.

Pick of the day:
For a good old-fashioned tragic romance, you can't beat Reaching for the Moon, Bruno Barreto's lush drama on the love affair between poet Elizabeth Bishop and architect Lota de Macedo Soares. Wow! These two women were seriously high-powered and highly strung. Two continents aren't enough for them, as they build parks, write masterpieces, squabble and seemingly ignore the heartbreak and simmering resentment of Soares' cast-aside partner Mary, an old friend of Bishop's. A high IQ clearly doesn't equal a high emotional IQ, and Mary's revenge is a turning point in the film. With gorgeous visuals of Brazilian landscapes, and judicious use of Bishop's poems, the film also features three excellent performances by the leads playing out the triangle over a 16-year period. Take tissues.

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