Tag Archives: Gay/Queer

I AM DIVINE (2013)

DIRECTED BY: Jeffrey Schwarz

FEATURING: (archival footage), , Frances Milstead

PLOT: This documentary chronicles the life of Glenn Milstead, from a chunky effeminate nerd who got beat up at school to the iconic, outrageous and obscene 300 pound drag queen Divine, the main attraction in John Waters’ transgressive early comedies.

Still from I Am Divine
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: As a straightforward documentary on a strange guy who just happened to star in some pretty weird movies, it’s purely supplemental material.

COMMENTS: One of the biggest questions raised by I Am Divine is, do you refer to Divine as “he” or “she”? John Waters, the foremost living authority on the subject, always refers to Divine as “he,” probably because when he thinks of Divine he thinks of Glenn Milstead. Other interviewees are inconsistent, swerving between gender pronouns. Divine, the foul-mouthed three-hundred pound harridan in clown makeup, is clearly a she, while the performer who portrays the character is clearly a he. There isn’t much conflict in this haigiographic documentary that means to celebrate Divine’s life and legacy, but to the extent that there is, one of the two key tensions is the one between she and he, between Divine and Glen. Divine swallowed Glen, and he was unable to escape her mighty maw and forge the independent career as a male character actor that he desired. (The other important conflict, which occurs more on the surface level, is between Glen and his parents, who initially reject him as a freak, then touchingly reconcile late in life).

I Am Divine does a fine job of shrinking this giant career down to a ninety minute snapshot. It’s thorough (even fitting in Divine’s brief stint as a disco diva) while remaining fast-paced and succinct. The John Waters years are covered in detail, and some may appreciate the clips of rarely seen pre-Pink Flamingos films like 1968’s Eat Your Makeup (with Divine as Jackie in an incredibly tasteless recreation of the Kennedy assassination). Although little is revealed here that will shock Divine’s hardcore followers, there are a few surprise tidbits for casual fans: salacious stories suggesting that Milstead’s appetites for sex and pot may have rivaled his love of doughnuts, and scenes from his live show that demonstrate his talent for Don Rickles-styled improvisational insult comicry. Milstead was large enough to have his own gravitational pull (his image even dwarfed a character like John Waters) and some of the movie’s most revealing insights involve Divine’s satellites. Belated credit is given to Van Smith for creating the arch makeup that defined Divine, and the curious will learn the sad answer to the question, “whatever happened to Dreamlander stalwart David Lochary?”

Divine is inspirational to gays for obvious reasons, but the character’s appeal crosses the sexual orientation line. Divine is appealing because she represents the triumph of the misfit, the ugly, the loser. As Waters points out, Divine takes everything that people laughed at Glen Milstead for—his effeminacy, his weight—and “exaggerated it and turned it into a style.” Divine proves that “undesirable” traits can be turned into assets when they’re embraced rather than hidden away, which is a powerful solace to anyone who feels like an outsider forced to pretend to be normal.

I Am Divine was a Kickstarter success story, raising over $50,000 (of a requested $40K) for post-production and licensing costs. Hundreds of names of fans who paid $10 or more for the privilege appear in the seemingly endless credits. Given that the film was made explicitly “BY and FOR” Divine fans, nothing appears here that is too penetrating or negative. The reverential interviews and clips meet, but don’t exceed, your expectations for a documentary about Divine. Still, true priests and priestesses in Divine’s peculiar cult of trash camp will eat this movie up like Divine eats… well, you know.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…shows how the future John Waters muse transformed from an isolated, weird kid into an over-the-top, proudly freakish star… a striking tribute to the pioneering spirit, radical queerness and sheer divinity of Divine.”–Ethan LaCroix, Time Out New York (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: MYSTERIOUS SKIN (2004)

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Brady Corbet, Michelle Trachtenberg, Jeffrey Licon, Elizabeth Shue, Mary-Lynn Rajskub, Bill Sage, Chase Ellison, George Webster

PLOT: Brian, who is missing memories from part of his childhood, believes that he was abducted by aliens; his investigations lead him to Neal, a street hustler who may have had a similar experience.

Still from Mysterious Skin (2004)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This searing and graphic drama about two damaged boys and their opposite approaches to dealing with trauma is Gregg Araki’s masterpiece, his best movie by a wide margin. Ironically, however, it’s also his least weird film, with only a few dreamlike moments thrown in to relieve the harsh reality.

COMMENTS: Alternating stories in the lives of two former Little League teammates, one now a teenage hustler and the other a UFO-abduction fanatic, Mysterious Skin plays something like Midnight Cowboy with a touch of “The X-Files.”

The performances of both young leads are astounding, and it’s actually a little unfortunate that Brady Corbet’s turn as nerdy, asexual Brian is overshadowed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s sexier performance as a prematurely dissipated teenage prostitute. Gordon-Levitt’s role interacting with the various johns, from lonely middle-aged businessmen to touchingly pathetic AIDS sufferers to the inevitable angry sadist, is simply meatier than Corbet’s, who only spars sexually with a frumpy fellow alien-abduction enthusiast. Gordon-Levitt, in his first major part after concluding his run as an alien inhabiting the body of a precocious kid in the sitcom “Third Rock from the Sun,” announces himself here as one of the great upcoming actors of his generation in his dark performance as a cocky boy-stud who isn’t nearly as in control of his life as he believes himself to be.

Each kid has a very different character arc, but they have more in common than it seems. The story’s big “secret” will probably become obvious very quickly, but the drama doesn’t come in the mystery of the big reveal. This is more of a dual character study depicting opposite but equally dysfunctional strategies for dealing with the unthinkable. It’s difficult to watch at times, but it’s played with exceptional compassion and insight that steers well away from survivor clichés—the hustler’s story, in particular, reveals a disturbing but credibly sick psychology. Scenes with cornfed Kansas grotesques finding mutilated cattle with their genitals removed make the Midwest look a little Lynchian; but, other than a misty shot of a Fruit Loop shower and hallucinatory glimpses of an actual UFO, Akari makes very few departures from raw reality here. The supporting performances are all excellent, as is the unobtrusive shoegaze score. This is filmmaking at its most humanistic.

Araki wrote the Mysterious Skin screenplay from Scott Heim’s novel. According to a Heim interview included on the Blu-Ray edition, the director consulted the original author on the adaptation, although Heim decided to get out of the way and not meddle unless asked after the contract was signed. Heim was then invited to tour with the cast and crew as they took the film on the festival circuit. The dynamic between the original author and the adapter here appears to be a model working relationship.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The film has a weird buoyancy…”–Stephanie Zacharek, Salon.com

(This movie was nominated for review by “Tori.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

156. STRANGE FRAME: LOVE & SAX (2012)

“How fortunate are those who can frame the beauty of the strange.”–opening title of Strange Frame

DIRECTED BY: G.B. Hajim

FEATURING: Claudia Black, Tara Strong, Ron Glass, 

PLOT: In the 28th century, saxophonist Parker falls in love with songwriter and escaped debt slave Naia on Jupiter’s moon Ganymede. The two women form a band, which catches the eye of a music producer. When the producer kicks the sax player out of the band to set Naia up as a solo act, hooks the singer on drugs and isolates her from the outside world, Parker teams up with two interplanetary trash haulers to penetrate the corporate defenses that separate the women.

Still from Strange Frame: Love & Sax (2012)
BACKGROUND:

  • This is the first feature film from Hawaii-based director G.B. Hajim and the first script and soundtrack from co-writer/co-composer Shelley Doty.
  • Hajim and Doty began discussing the project in 1999, and began writing the script in 2002. They envisioned Love & Sax as the first in a series of four films.
  • More than forty Hawaiian high school students worked as interns on the film over its seven years of production.
  • The black and white live action footage edited into the film comes from the all-black feature The Duke Is Tops (1938), starring Lena Horne as a singer who is manipulated into leaving her lover behind with promises of becoming a star in New York City.
  • “Star Trek” alumnus George Takei has a vocal cameo.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Strange Frame is at its visual best when it’s a free-flowing montage: cut-out mutant space lesbians in the foreground, swirling psychedelic backgrounds drifting in and out of focus in the background. It is therefore a difficult task to isolate a single strange frame from this movie; every image is in a constant state of flux. One of the best sequences occurs when Satanically suave agent Dorlan Mig plies the women with powders and rare liquors in an upscale Ganymede nightclub populated by horned celebrity dominatrices and their monocle-wearing cat-person managers. Immediately before the lovers are launched into a trip that’s visually unhinged even by this movie’s extreme standards, we see them reflected in his mirrored shades, one girl improbably and perfectly framed in each lens, before their visages dissolve and morph into pink lips and tongues. That’s about as standout a standalone image as you’ll be able to find in this Heraclitan river of psychedelic cinema.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: This story of two renegade lesbian rock stars gigging among the moons of Jupiter is a bit odd, but really not all that weird in and of itself. It’s the visuals that (as the movie’s legend promises) “frame the beauty of the strange.” Imagine dropping a hefty dose of LSD on the set of Blade Runner, and you walk through a door and suddenly you’re in the Star Wars cantina. Now, imagine that experience animated by the team behind Fantastic Planet working under the direction of , take that result and square the weirdness quotient, and you have some inkling of Strange Frame‘s visuals.


Original trailer for Strange Frame

COMMENTS: Strange Frame is an animated psychedelic lesbian science fiction musical. Just to be clear, I would have been happy with any three Continue reading 156. STRANGE FRAME: LOVE & SAX (2012)

CAPSULE: A LIAR’S AUTOBIOGRAPHY – THE UNTRUE STORY OF MONTY PYTHON’S GRAHAM CHAPMAN (2012)

DIRECTED BY: Bill Jones, Jeff Simpson, Ben Timlett

FEATURING: Graham Chapman, , Terry Gilliam, Michael Palin,

PLOT: Fourteen different animation studios bring chapters of Monty Python alumnus Graham Chapman’s farcical written autobiography to life, with narration provided by Chapman himself (recorded before he snuffed it in 1989 at 48 years of age).

Still from A Liar's Autiobiography (2012)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s weird enough, but the appeal is too limited—it’s mainly Monty Python memorial fanservice.

COMMENTS: It begins (after thirty seconds of abuse) with Graham Chapman, or rather with a photograph of Chapman’s head digitally pasted onto a cutout of Chapman’s body, forgetting a line while onstage performing a live sketch. As the audience and his cutout co-stars grow restless at the awkward silence, the roof opens and helpful aliens beam the suffering actor up into a psychedelic Saturday morning kid’s show version of a spacecraft. It appears that the foregoing was all a hallucination, however, and after spewing a beautiful chunk of rainbow vomit into a gas mask as he’s being wheeled into surgery, Chapman begins reflecting on his childhood. He focuses on a (perhaps unreliable) early memory of being taken for a stroll through the wartime streets of a British city, calmly smoking his pipe as mom pushes his pram over the severed limbs littering the street. And that’s just the first ten minutes of this odd opus. At its best, A Liar’s Autobiography skips along from one insane sketch to another with the absurdist impatience of a good episode of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.” Unfortunately, the script is rarely at its best, and things frequently bog down with scenes like Chapman’s memories of arguments over getting haddock or halibut during a childhood vacation; incidents that neither enlighten us about the enigmatic comic’s artistry nor, more importantly, make us laugh very hard. Chapman adds silly little jokes to his life story—such as the notion that his parents were disappointed when he was born because they were hoping for a “heterosexual black Jew with several amusing birth defects” because they “needed the problems.” This autobiography, however, probably could have used more substantial and ongoing lies, like a recurring supervillain nemesis, because a gripping life story does not emerge here: the movie plays more as a series of digressive comic essays loosely organized around Chapman’s personal chronology. The genesis and operations of Monty Python are largely passed over, though fans will catch some throwaway lines and references, and clips of some classic sketches are incorporated. None of the rest of the troupe are more than minor characters in the story. The two themes Chapman keeps returning to are his homosexuality (bisexuality, if he’d had a few drinks) and his alcoholism. From what appears onscreen, Chapman never struggled with his homosexual urges, but became a “raging poof” quite enthusiastically. Nor were his friends particularly shocked—though he does make Marty Feldman faint from giggling at his coming out party—so there’s no element of conflict to the movie’s sexual subtext. Alcohol proves a more fruitful antagonist, and scenes of hazy hotel room escapades with random groupies and a squiggly Edvard Munch-ian delirium tremens sequence add darker textures. What keeps Autobiography watchable even during its driest patches are, firstly, the constantly shifting animation styles, which range from a dingy variant on Pixar-style 3D to a blocky children’s storybook style to an experimental bits with partially translucent figures. The other thing that keeps you watching despite the lack of any compelling storyline are the completely off-the-wall bits that may pop up at any moment. A man walks out of a bomber cockpit and finds two lesbians making love in the cargo bay; Cameron Diaz voices Sigmund Freud as he analyzes the previous segment; Chapman rides in a roller coaster shaped like a penis past bizarre clumps of suspended breasts. Though not the funniest by a long stretch, Autobiography may be the most surreal project any Python was ever associated with, which is saying something in itself. Overall, this is an uneven piece, but regular readers of this site will surely find something to admire in it. Python fans will obviously want to check it out, although they also stand to be the most disappointed in its lack of probing insights into its central character.

The movie’s official site is worth a click; by answering an interminable series of silly screening questions designed to identify your level of (im)maturity, you can gradually unlock content from the film.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an engaging trip: miscellaneous, wittily surreal, with a sadness to lend it a structuring heartbeat.”–Nigel Andrews, Financial Times (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE LAST OF ENGLAND (1988)

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Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Nigel Terry occasionally narrates. There are no characters or speaking parts, and no actor can be said to be “featured” in this film; a pre-fame  appears prominently in it, however.

PLOT: An abstract, impressionistic view of Britain in the late 1980s, contrasted with nostalgic memories of simpler times.

Still from The Last of England (1988)
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: A mysteriously personal and poetic meditation on themes of decay, The Last of England is too restlessly strange to ignore. If anything, its biggest challenge to earning a spot on a list of weird movies may be that it actually strays too far from reality. By abandoning narrative entirely and mucking up the image until it becomes impossible to tell what we’re looking at, Jarman’s film becomes almost completely abstract, the movie equivalent of a Jackson Pollock painting.

COMMENTS: Among other odd offerings, The Last of England features men having sex on the Union Jack, terrorists in black ski masks rounding up prisoners, and a wedding where the bridesmaids have full beards. Each of these images has been manipulated three times: the color correction has been toned down to monochrome or amped up to day-glo, the footage has been sped up or slowed down, and the camera’s conventional stability has been abandoned for a deliberately jittery style that is indifferent to conventional framing. As if the welter of abstract scenarios wasn’t disorienting enough, Jarman edits back and forth between two scenes—say, a naked hobo eating cauliflower in a junkyard and a man in a neck brace pouring corn over his head—according to peculiar rhythms, as if he’s alternating rhymed lines of verse. Naturally, the soundscape is an equally convoluted collage, consisting of snippets of poetry combined with Jarman’s own prose ruminations about the decline of England and “found” sounds (football fans, jet fighters, soldiers accepting medals from the Queen). Although the visuals never let up, at times flickering back and forth too fast for the eye or mind to properly process, an eclectic selection of musical recordings occasionally provides some aural respite. The movie even turns into a music video sometimes, as when naked pagans dance in front of a bonfire while highly synthetic club dance music pulses in the background; there are also classical music selections, acoustic guitar interludes, and songs from Barry Adamson, , and the terrifying wailing of Diamanda Galas. Although it makes no disciplined case (juxtaposing clips of English drill instructors with Hitler’s speeches is not a political argument), the movie does have a generically strident leftist political tone. The film’s provocative progressive politics—come on, it’s got two guys doing the nasty on the British flag—contrasts with its elegiac tone. With its bitter disillusionment and nostalgia for a mythically idyllic pre-World War II England—Jarman includes happy home movie footage of his childhood and describes the bombing of London as if it ignited a series of firestorms that were still raging in 1988—England is reminiscent of a more intellectual (if even less coherent) version of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, and one suspects that the loss of innocence Derek Jarman bemoans belongs more to Derek Jarman than it does to England. Obviously, this obscure and often frustrating farrago is not for everyone, but those willing to patiently pick through the visual rubble will find scraps and relics of sublime beauty. Jarman’s intellect and passion come across on film so powerfully that you leave feeling more impressed than entertained or enlightened. And, at eighty-seven rambling minutes, the movie can become a chore to watch; The Last of England‘s lasting impact may be to remind us why the short format has become the preferred vehicle for non-narrative experimental films.

In conjunction with the film Jarman also published a (now long out-of-print) book entitled “The Last of England“; reportedly, it dealt mainly with the director’s relationship with his father, who Derek believed was scarred by his experiences as an airman in World War II.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Its inconsolable rage and bitterness is protean, chafing at the absurdities of Thatcher’s England, but also at the wider dome of existence, man’s inhumanity to man, and so on.”–Jaime N. Christley, Slant (DVD)