Tag Archives: Gay/Queer

CAPSULE: NEPTUNE FROST (2021)

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Neptune Frost is currently available for VOD rental or purchase.

DIRECTED BY: Anisia Uzeyman, Saul Williams

FEATURING: Cheryl Isheja, Bertrand Ninteretse (AKA Kaya Free), Elvis Ngabo

PLOT: In an alternate-reality African nation, an escaped coltan miner teams up with an intersexed refugee to hack global information systems through their dreams.

Still from Neptune Frost (2021)
COMMENTS: Neptune Frost‘s scenario involves an authoritarian crackdown in an imaginary African country; a resistance movement composed of university students, refugees, and escaped coltan miners; and global hacking accomplished in dreams. With a first act that indiscriminately flips back and forth between two different on-the-run protagonists, one of whom is played by two actors, and dialogue spoken and sung in five different languages, Neptune Frost loses viewers in its thickets early on. And that’s before the first big musical number—in which a dream spirit transports the dreamer into a black-lit, monitor-lined room festooned with spinning rainbow bicycle wheels and advises him (later her) to “hack” into abstract systems like land rights, labor, and greed—even occurs. The film is aware of its own difficulty: a third of the way through, a character addresses the viewer directly: “Maybe you’re asking yourself WTF is this? A poet’s idea of a dream?”

Persevere through the confusion, or at least get yourself into a headspace where you’re not invested in everything adding up in a rational way, and you’ll find much to appreciate in Neptune Frost. Foremost is the music, which ranges from work songs (which carry over into protest songs) to dreamy electronica-based trance chants, and eventually full-bore hip-hop bashes. The African setting—landscapes, dress, flora and fauna—fosters a unique language of images. The costuming tends to the bizarre: background characters have keyboard parts and diodes glued to their clothes and faces, a spirit has a head enclosed in a semicircular wicker cage, the state’s brutal police favor pink uniforms, and Neptune herself sometimes has a bird’s nest on her shoulder. As it progresses, the movie throws datastreams of glitchy cybernetic psychedelia at the screen to represent its mystical hack of the global order. The narrative remains hard-to-follow all the way to the end, but themes of technology, gender, colonialism, and DIY revolutionary politics (local, global, and imaginary) float in and out of the mix. The film’s aesthetic may be Afrofuturist, but its style is Afrosurrealist.

Truthfully, there is almost too much to process in Neptune Frost: both the characters and the events can be a chore to sort out. The film’s concepts are half-hidden in a haze of impressionistic poetry and song (with phrases such as “binary crime,” “martyr loser king,” and “unanimous goldmine” carrying obscure significance); although at other times, messages are delivered bluntly (one song bears the refrain, “fuck Mr. Google”). It’s no surprise to learn that writer Saul Williams is a poet and musician. If Neptune Frost sometimes feels like a concept album brought to life, that may be because there is one: Williams’ 2016 left-field rap album Martyrloserking (and two sequels), plus a graphic novel. This world is much wider than the slice we see in the film, and further exploration may yield more answers than are given here. Neptune Frost comes achingly close to a general “” rating, and also to a “” rating. But ultimately, while impressive, I think the project’s appeal is decidedly niche: fans of Afrofuturism, proponents pf progressive (verging on radical) politics, and advocates of African film in general (of which we have far too few examples). If you’re not in one of those groups, but have adventurous tastes in cinema and are up for a challenge, then Neptune Frost is also a worthwhile visit: there is truly nothing quite like it out there.

Neptune Frost opens June 3 in New York City and Dallas, expanding to additional art-house theaters through June. We’ll let you know when streaming options get sorted out.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a bold, bizarre, and unflinchingly confident debut that prompts its audience to interrogate the very real human costs of the information age through the speculative lens of a future both vastly different and uncannily similar to our own.”–Toussaint Egan, Polygon (festival screening)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: PLAYDURIZM (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: Gem Deger

FEATURING: Austin Chunn, Gem Deger, Issy Stewart

PLOT: Demir lusts after handsome auctioneer Andrew, Andrew lusts after blonde druggie Drew, and Drew has an intermittent death wish for Demir.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA LIST: Taking his visual cues from Liquid Sky and his narrative cues from Videodrome, first-time filmmaker Gem Deger presents a hazy narrative teeming with homoeroticism, designer drugs, unnerving violence, tragic escapism, and the reliably cutesy presence of a house pig.

COMMENTS: With well over a century of cinema having come and gone, it becomes increasingly difficult to dismiss a film for being “derivative.” Variations on themes is the only way to tell a story these days, and it is with that in mind that I judge Playdurizm, the directorial, screenwriting, and acting debut of Gem Deger. Deger puts forward his manifesto in the opening sequence, narrating that “[Francis] Bacon said there’s nothing apart from the moment… I believe in nothing,” over a pink-lit sex scene. Whatever pretentiousness may come across in his art-housey introduction is, against the odds, grounded by the surreal tragedy that ensues.

Demir (Gem Deger) wakes up to the sounds of a pig rooting around what may be his bedroom. It is unclear, as it is quickly established that Demir has lost his memory—suffered a “complete reboot”, according to his house mate, Andrew (Austin Chunn)—and sees little option but to follow the pet pig as it scampers across the purple- balloon-covered floor. Demir is awkward, soft-spoken, and ostensibly allergic to peanut butter, making Drew’s suggestion he try some on his breakfast bagel a bit too cutesy-sinister. But the “Drew problem” Demir faces (he lusts fiercely after Andrew) is solved quickly enough with a drug overdose. However, an improbable man with a genuine Malevich soon appears, and his ambitions aren’t entirely to do with selling a “Black Square” painting to Andrew.

Ambition and amateurism collide throughout, making for a twitchy viewing experience. Austin Chunn looks the role—presuming, of course, one is envisioning an impressively sexy auctioneer—but at times seems more like he’s playing the part instead of inhabiting it. On the other hand, Chunn’s dialogue delivery when suturing a nasty wound is spot-on; contemplating his sewing hook and floss, I believed it when he advised, “this is going to… be a little minty.” Gem Deger’s performance simultaneously benefits and suffers from his awkward, heavily accented delivery. Ultimately, though, the chemistry between Deger and Chunn is undeniable.

The sound design, set design, and prop choices (Goebbels’ belt-buckle gun, anyone?) carry much of the weight, weird-wise. If someone told me that Deger had never seen Liquid Sky, I’d say they were lying. Any excuse for neon tones and lighting is good enough; the Day-Glo vomit, wondrous in its luminescence, is an obvious nod to Margaret’s makeup. Beyond the direct Videodrome name-drop (Demir and Andrew get high watching it together while Drew is lying dead in a cupboard space beneath the sofa), there is a slow tilt toward body horror and twin-dom that is what the cumbersome term “ian” was devised for.

Those fine lines between amateurism and ambition, pretentious and tragic, and derivative and original all weave together by the finale, as the story’s actual events come to light.  Deger admits his plagiarism in the title. This cinematic exploration of the adversities that so often befall the queer community is melodramatic, vibrant, frightened, and determined—not unlike that wondrous community itself.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…any film festival looking for a film that shirks conventional story telling with surrealism and puts danger and violence into romance and sex should consider it…”–Andre Mack, Screen Anarchy (festival screening)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: EDWARD II (1991)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Derek Jarman

FEATURING: Steven Waddington, Tilda Swinton, Andrew Tiernan, Nigel Terry

PLOT: Upon the death of his father, Edward II lifts the banishment of his friend and lover, Piers Gaveston; in response, his royal court rebels and civil war ensues.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA LIST: Unlike many period pieces, this has homoerotic dance interludes, a serenade crooned by Annie Lennox, and a chilling scene in which Tilda Swinton’s Queen Isabella lustily bites the neck of a disloyal nobleman. But beyond the obvious oddities, Edward II‘s narrative pinches more than flows, its disjointed scenes rendering the film’s array into a garment that juts out in disquieting spikes at the observer.

COMMENTS: To fully appreciate what is going on in Edward II, one must have a decent grip on England’s 14th-century history, 16th-century theatre, and 20th-century cinema. History’s pertinence pools sickly within the bumps and cracks of Derek Jarman’s austere sets, casting its gloomy but far-reaching glow under the director’s harsh lighting. The doomed players—the king and his lover; the queen, and hers—are archetypal tragic figures attired in smart modern dress. Gilded glamor and radiant red splatters the creaking, decaying artifice of the seat of English power as the flawed monarch fights vainly to secure first the safety of his lover, Gaveston, and then his own. Through Edward II, Jarman grinds his axe in the Middle Ages before taking it to the neck of contemporary England.

Three times it is read that Edward II’s father has died, and three times it is read that Piers Gaveston’s banishment has thus been rendered null and void. To the chagrin of all but the new king, Gaveston returns from France, enchanting Edward anew, and infuriating the establishment. Edward sees nothing but beauty in Gaveston, and feels nothing but his love. Edward’s queen, Isabella, feels spurned, and considers self-exile until Mortimer, the commander of England’s armed forces, convinces her that he has a plan. His plan unfolds, and Edward grudgingly banishes Gaveston once more. But the plan folds in on it itself, and the murky doings of the discontented nobles trigger a series of upsets, turn-abouts, and murders.

This is a juicy tale, to be sure, and that juiciness is reinforced by Jarman’s aesthetic. King Edward’s private haven is a square pool of murky water, tucked away in a basement chamber with rusted-steel walls; upon his second banishment, Gaveston endures a gauntlet of spitting nobles; and blood, when it appears, is ample, particularly after the queen renders harmless an erstwhile ally. The lines are delivered wetly, as well. The actors are not slurping and sputtering, but the sound design emphasizes the wetness of the lips, the throaty fullness of exhortations. The slick-slap of words is brought forward in the sound design and rendered at full volume—dialogue delivered in drenched sorrow.

Whether or not the time-jumping anachronism, accentuated performances, and installation-style shots and sets work for you will hinge on whether you are open to the full Derek Jarman experience. An avid gay rights activist, Jarman eschews any ambiguity about the actual monarch, and is willing, able, and eager to toss aside two things: any cinematic conventions that may stand between him and making beautiful, painterly images, and any staid historicism that may stand between him and his proudly gay point of view. It opens with a conversation between Gaveston and a traveler; two men unabashedly make love behind them. It closes with a lament from Edward playing over shots of assembled, real-life gay rights activists. Derek Jarman had a clear world-view, and in Marlowe’s play, he found the perfect framework to display his classically peculiar visual élan while simultaneously preaching his message.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Derek Jarman’s phantasmagoric, outrageously stylized interpretation of the Christopher Marlowe play, is more a creature of its director’s sensibility than its creator’s… In [Jarman’s] hands, Edward II has become a chic melodrama that’s part art object, part The Valley of the Dolls.” -Hal Hinson, The Washington Post (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE ONE YOU FEED (2020)

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Beware

DIRECTED BY: Drew Harwood

FEATURING: Gareth Koorzen, Rebecca Fraiser, Drew Harwood

PLOT: When a hiker is injured, a man and woman bring him back to their remote farm to recuperate, where they engage in mind games of attraction and power that are destined to meet a calamitous end.

Still from "The One You Feed" (2020)

COMMENTS: The One You Feed luxuriates in its silences. The Stranger’s wanderings through a Western landscape are a wordless reverie, and the only residents of the ranch where he finds himself laid up after a wild animal attack speak in rudimentary instructions, when they deign to speak at all. He is an isolated character, by choice and then by happenstance, and we are forced to consider the world largely via the visual information available to us.

It soon becomes clear that the silence may be as much out of a lack of things to say as it is a mission statement. Writer/director Harwood (he also takes credits as editor, production designer, and casting director, and shares producer, story, costume design, and set decoration credits with Koorzen) has created a funhouse mystery, with a pair of antagonists (The Woman and The Man) who behave curiously and arbitrarily. They live in a timeless space, with modern tools on their farm but a 19th-century aesthetic indoors. Harwood clearly hopes that by withholding information, he’ll stoke interest. The names of the characters point to his dedication to this strategy.

The result, however, is not intriguing, but frustrating. If no one talks, then we’re going to rely on actions to guide us through. But if no one takes action, then it’s going to be damn hard to figure out what anybody’s game is. So we have to settle for what we can see: the Stranger is crippled by injury (and by a haunted memory which will be teased out over the course of the film). The Man is beefcake, dressed in his overalls with one strap carelessly unbuckled, delivering sparse dialogue that alternately identifies him as a himbo or an aspiring poet. Meanwhile, The Woman is harsh and shrill with a soupcon of neediness, and her propensity for plunging necklines suggests she shops exclusively in the Sexy Homesteader section at Spirit of Halloween. It’s all tropes, but tropes without consistency of purpose.

I’ve seen this film described as “romantic,” and while both of The Stranger’s healers/tormentors copulate with him, both encounters border on or fully embody rape. When he ultimately makes his plea to one of them to join him, the moment hasn’t been earned by anything that has come before. If this is supposed to be a universal tale of love, attraction, and jealousy, then the universality is based on capriciousness and hostility.

Ultimately, the roots of the film’s faults can be found in the title, which alludes to a metaphor about two wolves living inside a person’s heart. One thrives on love and hope, the other on hate and despair, and they are in perpetual conflict. Which will win? See the title. But in The One You Feed, there is no love, no hope. Violence is only a moment away, and anything more than a stock motivation is nowhere to be found. There’s only one wolf in this tale, and it eats the only thing it is served.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“There’s a dreamy tone to this artful drama… The plot is meandering and vague, so it’s not clear what actor-filmmaker Drew Harwood is saying, but the ideas that he throws around have an intriguing kick to them, while the archly surreal tone and quietly intense interaction holds the interest.” – Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall (contemporaneous)