Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Whitney: two sides

Just back from being blown away by a screening of Kevin Macdonald's new documentary, Whitney. Never a fan of her music, I had only a passing interest in Whitney Houston's life and death. But seeing the film has shifted my view dramatically. There are so many jaw-dropping moments, from her family/employees speaking about her with no hint of irony, to the shaky home movies shot by her childhood friend and rumoured girlfriend Robyn Crawford in which Houston comes across as playful, mischievous and sharp. This is all in direct contrast to the image of her promoted by her label Arista and its founder Clive Davis. "Whitney Houston", we learn, was her public face. In private, she was Nippy. Nippy was way more compelling.

By then end I was in tears. So many if onlys..... Her mother Cissy Houston left her and her brothers alone, allowing (spoiler alert) the children to be abused by a family member. Years into her stardom, Robyn issued an ultimatum, seeking to get Whitney away from her abusive husband Bobby. Houston accepted her resignation, severing ties that had lasted since they were teens. The film does not disclose whether the two reconciled before the singer's untimely death in 2012. Some quick research reveals Robyn is now happily out and has her own family. Phew. She must have suffered so much being on the edges of Whitney's entourage. It is sobering to realise that the most personal, revealing and insightful footage in the film is that shot by Robyn of Houston backstage. It is Robyn whom Whitney (or more likely Nippy) is looking at when she mugs or slags off Paula Abdul or sings in a wacky voice. But Whitney, perhaps seeking to please Dragon Mother Cissy, wanted to "do what was expected of her", as one interviewee puts it.

Some reviews have castigated the film for focusing on her dramatic life arc rather than her music, but there is plenty of music in the film, some of it quite cleverly edited to focus on her vocal, eerily echoing through the cinema speakers. I still find her oeuvre to be over-produced, bland and hopelessly MOR. But I also recognise she had a grounding in gospel and soul and would have done more in that vein, had the record label agreed.

The film emphasises how big a talent she had but also how alone she was, being pulled in different directions and trying to please everyone, most notably her demanding family. In that sense, she was not a superstar above the fray but someone very human, fragile and badly let down by those who could have looked out for her. A tragic loss.

Sunday, April 01, 2018

BFI Flare: Fierce and Fabulous

Not styling myself as a fashionista, I was rather more curious than fascinated by the subjects of Susanne Bartsch: On Top and Antonio Lopez 1970: Sex, Fashion and Disco. Who were they? Despite growing up in New York, I was not familiar with either the party organiser Susanne Bartsch or the fashion illustrator Antonio Lopez, who came to prominence in the 1970s and '80s. After seeing these films, I thought: who are they? Both documentaries are rather impressed with their subjects, quoting their friends and associates and showing lavish documentary footage. But, I was left nonplussed. Sure, they had lots of mates and famous friends, but why are they important? I guess it depends how much gravitas one gives to party organising and fashion illustration.

At least the setting came through loud and clear. Bartsch appears in her film, holding court as she prepares for a retrospective at the Fashion Institue of Technology. By coincidence this was where Lopez and his partner Juan Ramos, both deceased, attended early in their lives. There was a bit of crossover between the two films, showing us earlier times in New York City that seemed way more lively and fun than the present. So much so that at the Q&A after the Bartsch film, the question arose as to whether New York is stuck in the '80s!

Lopez, who also worked in Paris with Karl Lagerfeld, found models such as Jessica Lange, Jerry Hall and Tina Chow. The former two are quite familiar to me, but Chow was not. Having read up a bit on her, I was saddened to see how young she died. But, all of those questioned in the Lopez film seemed enamoured of him. He seemed to radiate charisma, but didn't want to hang around. Is this something to be celebrated? Seen from another viewpoint, one might find his bevaviour rather insensitive. Perhaps his work was more important to him, but the designs shown didn't seem to me to warrant the reverence the filmmaker displayed. They are now part of an archive shared with the even shadowier (he never spoke in the film) Ramos, who seems to have been the "intellectual" in the partnership. If only we had learned more about their relationship, but the film really tells us nothing about him.

I was also consued by the title: disco music is played throughout the film but from the late 1970s. And the film actually covers the mid-1960s to the mid- 1970s. ????

At least Bartsch gets to tell her story, and we see some very revealing moments, if only to show how demanding she is, but by the end I was thinking how ridiculous all of the scene was: hangers-on described as nightlife personalities, a husband so muscle-bound he can barely walk and a son who seems traumatised by growing up in the Chelsea Hotel. And her signature look? Bushy eyelashes.  It must be exhausting trying so hard to keep up appearances.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

BFI Flare: Going Home

On the lighter side of Flare films, I viewed two that focused on finding or inhabiting places.

The first hour of Becks is superb as the title character, a musician played by Lena Hall, finds herself homeless after a break-up with her girlfriend and heads back to St. Louis to live with her mother (Christine Lahti). As she settles into self-pitying recovery, she reconnects with a childhood friend who runs a bar and takes up a residency there, attracting the attention of bored housewife Elyse (Mena Suvari). Clearly, Becks is on rebound but that doesn't stop her playing with fire. The cast are superb,  the writing crisp, and the songs performed by Hall are a vibrant element, but I felt the film fell apart in the last half hour, with the stage set for some kind of evolution of Becks' character. Instead, the film delivers a non-ending with no obvious development of the themes.

Alaska Is a Drag
By contrast the artfully low-budget Alaska Is a Drag is a real find. Boxing, drag and African-American twins are not a typical mix, but writer-director Shaz Bennett takes these elements and runs with them, as Leo, a would-be drag superstar, faces bullying at his fishery job, while his sister Tristen undergoes chemo for Hodgkins disease. Not obvious comedic elements, but the leads, ably supported by Margaret Cho and Jason Scott Lee as surrogate parent figures, depict people who dream big and throw themselves into achieving those dreams, even if it means decamping to the lower 48. As Leo, Martin L. Washington Jr. inhabits a full range of masculinity from punching out foes to strutting on imaginary catwalks. His relationship with goofy but hunky Declan, while important, never outweights his loyalty to his sister, which is refreshing. So many plot strands are left unresolved, one craves a sequel to see what happens to these sparky characters.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

BFI Flare: Making Contact

Rain did not stop play at Flare, as I managed a full day of screenings, socialising and a very informative Makers session with producer Elizabeth Karlsen. In response to questioning from Tricia Tuttle, Karlsen outlined her extraordinary career, moving between  London to New York, as she made early contacts with figures such as Christine Vachon and Todd Haynes who grew into film-making colleagues. She also grew quite emotional explaining how her first feature was Parting Glances, working with the late Bill Sherwood as he shot in his apartment. Quite the creative life. I also caught two features, one old and one new that were intense experiences.

Montana, despite the name, has nothing to do with the US state, but is a slow-burning Israeli drama written and directed by feature debutante Limor Shmila. I found myself quite confused by the large ensemble cast, supporting Noa Biron's star turn as Effi, wondering who all those people were and how they knew each other. This somewhat mirrors Effi's dislocation, arriving back home after an absence of 15 years to find not only romance with a neighbour but a disturbing dynamic developing within the family unit. It proved rather too disturbing for one audience member who chastised the festival and the director in the Q&A for not providing a trigger warning and for the inaction of the title character. Shmila and Biron were gracious enough in response, defending the complexity of the situation being depicted. Ultimately, in this film the silences proved to be the most powerful moments, allowing things that could not be said to hang in the air.

"Goodbye Sadness" is the song by Yoko Ono that plays over the closing credits of Silverlake Life: the View from Here, a film I have long wanted to see. It proved to be a captivating watch, one punctuated by vocal exclamations from the audience as we watched a long-term couple, Tom and Mark, live out their AIDS diagnoses on-screen, moving from good-humoured joshing to hospital procedures to physical decay and death. The KS lesions dotting Mark's back brought shock to some. I guess for many it was their first sight of such things, now not so common. Which is a good thing, I guess. Lives cut short, but lived well.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

BFI Flare: Odd Couples

Festival time! I got off to a bit of a slow start as I needed to sort out my festival viewing experience. But I have managed to view 2.5 dramas so far.

My Days of Mercy
The BFI Flare opener, My Days of Mercy, stars Ellen Page and Kate Mara as two women on opposite sides of the death penalty forming a romance. While the two leads are eminently watchable and the film offers some suitably grave moments of inmates' last meals, at some point one does think, "Is this romance in utterly bad taste?" And yet, it's well acted and has a jaunty script. I do fear that Ellen Page is destined to spend her career playing emotionally stunted heroines. But she is on good form as the anti-death penalty protester saddlled with a family haunted by a brutal murder. Can she find happiness with a straight woman who lives several states away, has a boyfriend and is a staunch proponent of capital punishment? This is cinema.

 While My Days of Mercy follows a rather predictable path, the German drama Luft is cut from very different cloth. I found the first ten minutes gripping, as taciturn Manja is bowled over by a balaclava-clad Louk, fleeing some hunters she has sabotaged. Manja lives in an apartment block in an unnamed city with distinctive pale blue tower blocks that jut up like shoeboxes, in contrast to the mysterious forest where Manja retreats at every opportunity, urged on by her grandmother who tells her the forest is home to all her ancestors. Luft creates a quasi-magical atmosphere as if Manja is gripped by something beyond her every time she encounters the seemingly confident Louk, who cannot resist a dare, no matter how foolhardy. But she too copes with an emptiness, as her mother has not been in her life since the age of 10. The two schoolgirls embark on a journey to find the mother, and become intimate along the way,but while the film builds up brilliant tension and atmosphere, the ending completely punctures that and I found it quite frustrating.

Saturday, March 03, 2018

Family Values

I am doing a lot of catch-up with Oscar nominees this week, having seen both I, Tonya and Get Out, and was struck by the formidable and ultimately destructive role played by family matriarchs in both.

I can totally see why Allison Janney has been nominated for best supporting actress for her scenery-chewing turn as LaVona Harding in I, Tonya. She is both hilariously foul-mouthed and painfully abusive in the role and LaVona's insistence that she is doing it for her daughter's own good shows her lack of self-awareness. It's one of the reasons the film works as well as it does, though I share concerns others have raised that it lets the younger Harding off the hook for her own behaviour. LaVona, rejected by her husband, turns her gaze on her young daughter and continues to undermine her into adulthood, a powerful statement about life patterns.

The mother in Get Out--or rather the onscreen mother in Get Out--is played by the redoubtable Catherine Keener who does her best with this slippery, hypnotic character. The key offscreen character is also a mother: the protagonist Chris's mother who was killed in a car crash and never came home to tuck little Chris in that night. This loss dogs him throughout the film and I wondered if it was meant to emphasise his lack of relationships with women and the distrust he carries.

Or is it the filmmaker Jordan Peele's mistrust? There is not one woman in the film who is helpful or trustworthy. What does that say about the film's underlying politics? I found Keener's part rather underwritten, although I think she should have been nominated. But the character I really wanted to know more about was Georgina, the family maid who it turns out is carrying *spoiler alert the brain of the family matriarch inside her and, it is intimated, was seduced by Rose, the girlfriend of Chris. Wow! Betty Gabriel is sensational in this small but important role and I wish we had seen more of her. We never even learn her character's real name, as the film makes clear the zombified characters are given new names when they are rebrained, a not so subtle allusion to slavery.

The female characters in Get Out seem that much more remote and othered than the male characters. It's a pity. I would love to see a Get Out prequel that explained "Georgina"'s back story, as she ends up as the nameless queer black woman nobody ever gets to know before she is despatched.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

The 'bourne Identity: Overnight Film Festival

A very belated Happy New Year from Kunstblog. Good heavens. It's practically spring already. Been doing stuff.

Anyway..... I finally had the opportunity to spend a weekend away from stuffy London by attending the second edition of the Overnight Film Festival in Eastbourne. I had booked without seeing the programme, so keen was I to participate. Once the programme was announced, I was happy to see so many female-led and queer-oriented films included.

But, the trip itself was part of the attraction--Eastbourne is only a couple hours by train, and I whiled away the time looking out the window, spotting two pheasant grazing trackside. On my arrival in Eastbourne I took my time getting to the seaside, dragging my wheeled suitcase over the pavement, having a late lunch on Terminus Road and finally arriving at the hotel that served as both accommodation and screening site, the venerable Queens Hotel. Hotels are still an extravagance for me, being a veteran of backpacking, staying with friends, etc. This hotel screamed faded grandeur, with gorgeous high ceilings and speckled mirrors. My room was icy cold, a result of them opening for the festival, but it did warm up after a few hours.

The festival opener was The Velvet Vampire, an exploitation B-movie with feminist overtones, as it was directed by Stephanie Rothman. The acting by the couple who encounter the desert-dwelling vampire was atrocious, but she, as played by Celeste Yarnall, was quite intriguing. The screening room was the hotel's ballroom and with chairs facing blacked-out windows, it was quite atmospheric. We all had a good laugh at how pink the male lead was and the film was a good laugh.

As would prove a refrain, I passed up the opening night party in favour of an early night, wanting to pace myself over the three days. But apparently, the partying went on quite late, spilling over into an appointed party room.

I was keen to be up early enough for the breakfast, which was held in a sea-facing ground floor room, the view to the pier spoiled only by some grey skies. But, it was just what I had hoped--seaside dining. I felt quite decadent, spooning out my grapefruit segments while gazing at the sea.

Saturday was a bit of a queer revival day, with Velvet Goldmine and Bound both showing, having been programmed by guest curator Zing Tsjeng, who shared her experience growing up in Singapore and viewing the former as near contraband. When it came out in 1998, VG was a bit of a flop and I wasn't that keen on it when I saw it on TV. Viewed in a cinema (as such), its bombast made a bit more sense. The production design, music, and extravagant characters made more impact on me, but as the leads are all rather unsympathetic (and Christian Bale's wig is atrocious), it still didn't really move me. I think it's one of Todd Hayne's passion projects that doesn't connect as well as he would have liked. Great soundtrack and costumes, though.

Bound is a total '90s classic, so I was a bit bemused to hear it referred to as "lost" and "unknown", but I think this is a bit of a generation gap. As so many of the attendees and programming team seemed to be 20-somethings, I guess this film was a bit of an unknown quantity and the Warchowskis are, of course, better known for their subsequent projects. Still.... it ain't unknown. As butch released con Corky, Gina Gershon has never had such a good role, and Jennifer Tilly's faux girly act as gangster moll Violet makes perfect sense in this tense thriller. One is always questioning: is she sincere or not? Will she screw Corky over or not? Joe Pantoliano plays his usual sinister mobster figure to perfection. We gasped. We laughed. We enjoyed it very much, thank you.

Again, I passed up the glam rock party with regrets as I was just too tired to stay up. And when I went down in my pyjamas to breakfast the next morning, I was not the only one, although I had no real explanation for my hungover state, having consumed absolutely no alcoholic refreshment. I think it was a combination of long days, very dry hotel air and a bit of nervous energy. But, with some rare sun spotted, I had decided to go wandering on Sunday. Having caught the last half of a curious Portuguese faux doc, The End of the World, which takes place at the seaside, I headed out into the Eastbourne sun and wind for a brisk walk which took me to the Towner Gallery, a gorgeous multi-level space showing several exhibits. I checked out the Haroon Mirza-curated We stared at the Moon from the centre of the Sun, which took over two rooms on the ground floor. In one room were several multimedia displays, such as some projected films by Tacita Dean and Lis Rhodes sharing one large screen side by side, which was intriguing. Playful spinning Technics turntables spun in one brightly lit corner, linking their artists. The connections were a bit difficult to work out: sound, light, orbs. Mirza had drawn from the Arts Council collection and his whims determined the exhibits.

Back at the Queens, guest curator Shiva Feshareki was disappointed to miss the exhibit, as she has collaborated with Mirza and I was the bearer of bad tidings as we had a brief chat after her selection, No One Knows About Persian Cats, a film I saw at London Film Festival back in 2009. It told a real story about underground musicians in Teheran defying the authorities, but staged it with the actual participants, blurring the boundaries between documentary and fiction, which I found interesting. 

The early checkout time on Sunday proved a bit frustrating as the last film was in the evening and I had to dash to make my train. Sorry, Claire Denis. I will have to catch all of 35 Shots of Rum another time. 

It was an enjoyable weekend, although I do feel the team (all volunteers) could make much more of the location, which has numerous unused spaces. How about some cult films running on a DVD overnight? Bring your duvets and pillows and voila! Instant all-nighter. Or maybe something more sedate, such as high tea and discussion? There were salons in the lounge, but with people around talking over their drinks, it was next to impossible to hear what the curators were saying to the small groups that gathered. It's a great concept and certainly well worth supporting.