The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo


Syndromes and a Century

Apichatpong Weerasethakul has almost single-handedly brought Thai cinema to international prominence with a series of enigmatic experimental narrative films. A graduate of the film program of School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Weerasethakul is one of the most rigorously formal filmmakers working today, making him a staple on the festival circuit as well as in both art and film magazines. Syndromes and a Century played at the 2006 New York Film Festival, but it has had only a very limited theatrical run. It’s playing on October 18 at 7 PM as the inaugural film in the Spotlight Film and Video Series at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (MMoCA), curated by Eric Crosby. Syndromes and a Century is an absolute gem, and surely ranks among the very best films of the year. For this reason, this one-time 35mm screening – the Madison and Wisconsin premiere of the film – is a cinematic event not to be missed.

Syndromes and a Century purportedly tells the story of Weerasethakul’s parents – both doctors – before he was born. His re-imagining of their earlier lives takes a odd form, because the narrative, much like in his previous films, Blissfully Yours (2002) and Tropical Malady (2004), is split into two halves. The first part takes place in a medical clinic in a rural setting, while the second half repeats the opening scenes in an urban, high-tech hospital complex, but presents them from another camera angle, alters the dialogue, and substitutes an entirely different character and diagnosis. Some of the characters from the first half reappear in the second. Several are literally the same, but others have changed. I can’t rationally explain either the film’s structure or its aberrations, which remain one of the many mysteries of Syndromes and a Century.

The film’s whimsical irreverence managed to get Weerasethakul in trouble with the Thai censors, but I’m not sure American audiences will completely understand the reasons. They mainly have to do with such things as one of the male characters getting an erection, Weerasethakul’s portrayal of Buddhist monks, and his depiction of a female doctor drinking on the job as a means for coping with her anxiety about having to appear on weekly public television.

The film opens with a shot of trees rustling in the wind. An attractive young female doctor, Dr. Toey, interviews a new colleague, Dr. Nohng, for a job. While the interview questions initially sound routine, they’re actually completely weird, such as asking about his drawing skills or what DDT stands for. It’s hard to imagine hiring practices based on questions that seem like they might have been written by Harmony Korine. In fact, much of the dialogue is so unusual, inspired, and full of non sequiturs that it makes most movie dialogue appear dull and pedestrian by comparison. Some of it is patently absurd, such as when Dr. Nohng claims to prefer playing the position of center in basketball because you don’t have to be tall, or when the male doctor at the start of the second half tells the elderly monk to stop eating so much chicken because it’s full of cholesterol.

There are three plotlines: one involves Dr. Toey, who works at the medical clinic; another concerns a singing dentist; while the third has to do with Dr. Nohng. In Dr. Toey’s case, it turns out that a persistent, love-struck suitor proposes marriage. He approaches her during lunch one day with a kind of forlorn and uninhibited desperation we tend to associate with Miranda July. Dr. Toey’s response is to hint that she’s already in love with someone else. But in the long flashbacks we see – in which Dr. Toey visits a man who owns an exotic orchid farm – the issue remains unresolved. When the orchid farmer coyly indicates to Dr. Toey that he’s fallen in love, it’s not totally clear that he’s talking about her. And, in fact, we never really find out the answer for the simple reason that this story line get sidetracked, and because Weerasethakul hasn’t the least bit of interest in either narrative development or closure.

The second plotline is even more way out there. This involves a young monk, Sakda, who has ambitions to be a DJ or own a comic-book store. He goes to the dentist for the first time, only to have the dentist sing a song to him while he works on his teeth. If the eroticism of the scene persists as a subtext, the two meet again after the dentist performs publicly on stage. We expect the dentist to bare his soul. He does, rather awkwardly, but the scene and the dialogue veer off in an almost surreal direction involving the dentist’s sense of guilt over his brother’s childhood death for which he feels responsible. At the point where the dentist finally asks Sakda whether, he is, in fact, the reincarnation of his deceased brother, I nearly fell off my chair. The monk’s response is equally mind-boggling. He tells the dentist that he couldn’t possibly be his brother because he wasn’t human in his previous life. The dentist gives Sakda a copy of his latest CD, but the monk suddenly is called away, abruptly ending both the scene and this particular story thread.

The monks themselves defy any preconceptions I’ve ever had of them. In one of the early scenes, an elderly monk, who has tortured chickens as a child, discusses being haunted by dreams in which chickens tell him they want to see him suffer. In the middle of this discussion, Dr. Toey excuses herself in order to ask a colleague to repay a loan. After she returns, the elderly monk tells the doctor that he senses confusion in her heart. He then gives her an herbal potion to help regulate her menstrual flow. Huh? The monk then tries to get the doctor to give him a batch of prescription drugs for everyone at the temple. When Dr. Toey refuses, he insists that he knows she has the power to do this if she wanted. The giddy and absurd humor of Syndromes and a Century is considerable, but it’s completely deadpan in its delivery. It is beautifully contained by the formal rigor of Weerasethakul’s stunning camera movement, long takes, and wide-shot compositions that distance us from the characters. The languid pace of his scenes gives the impression that the performers have all the time in the world.

The third plot thread occurs in the film’s second half, where the focus shifts from Dr. Toey (who is seen sitting at her desk and lost in reverie) to Dr. Nohng, who appears to flirt with one of the male patients in a hallway scene that echoes the one of the dentist. His girlfriend, however, visits him at work. She wants him to move with her when she gets a job transfer, but Dr. Nohng seems reluctant despite the fact that she gets him sexually aroused. We later see her run out of his office and Dr. Nohng follow after her, while the camera remains fixed on the empty white corridor bathed in cool fluorescent light.

Weerasethakul’s film involves narrative incident, but has only the slight semblance of plot. Just at the moment you expect the suppressed narrative to kick in, Syndromes and a Century is just as apt to get diverted into a more purely experimental visual passage involving the hospital’s duct-work, equipment, and ventilation pipes, such as occurs later in the modern hospital, which is largely filmed in the section where they build prosthetic limbs. The passage ends with a close-up on the black hole of the strangely-shaped ventilation pipe, which mirrors the eclipse that occurs in the first half of the film during the scene where Dr. Toey and another woman discuss love and relationships. Early in the film, there’s a scene where Dr. Toey and a colleague head out of the room. The camera follows their action, but only up to a point. It settles on the landscape outside the window instead, leaving actors as offscreen, disembodied voices. During the same scene, the opening credits appear over the shot of the landscape. After awhile, the actors, who assume they’re no longer being filmed, fall out of character and converse among themselves.

Of all of Weerasethakul four features – Mysterious Object at Noon (2000), Blissfully Yours, and Tropical Malady – Syndromes and a Century is his most accessible film, as well as his best. Although Syndromes and a Century is firmly rooted in art cinema, there’s a unique and special quality about the film, as if we’re watching events occur in some alternate universe. The seemingly magical and buoyant tone of Syndromes and a Century – its combined sense of both humor and wonder – is what makes the film seem unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.

Other events in the Spotlight Film and Video Series include video programs by Paul Chan, Michele O’Marah, and John Bock, as well as a special Saturday screening of Ken Jacobs’s epic Star Spangled to Death (2004). For additional information on the series, click here.

Posted 6 October, 2007

Spike Lee: She’s Gotta Have It

Following on the success of Stranger Than Paradise, She’s Gotta Have It (1986) provided American independent filmmaking with even greater momentum, adding to the consensus that a bonafide movement had begun. Like Jarmusch, Brooklyn-based Spike Lee was a NYU film-school grad, whose 60-minute thesis film, Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads (1983), won a Student Academy Award. It also managed to achieve some degree of success within independent film circles as the first student film ever selected for the cutting-edge New Directors/New Films series, and also did well on the international festival circuit. After running into financing problems on a second feature, Spike Lee shot She’s Gotta Have It on a deferred budget of $175,000, with the domestic rights being picked up by Island Pictures for over twice that amount. Despite receiving mixed critical reviews in the white press, She’s Gotta Have It struck a responsive chord with popular audiences, especially black movie-goers, resulting in a domestic gross of over $7 million dollars. In the process, Spike Lee himself became a major cultural icon, taking a giant first step toward becoming the most successful African-American filmmaker in history.

Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It takes black female sexuality as its subject in telling the story of Nola Darling, a sexually-active, young African-American woman with multiple sex partners. Using the interview format derived from the tradition of direct cinema, the film manages to create a hybrid form of documentary and dramatic elements through use of a somewhat didactic and unusual essay-like structure in order to interrogate Nola, her three lovers, and the film’s other characters. She’s Gotta Have It also incorporates an eclectic medley of more free-form, experimental techniques: mixing black-and-white and color film stocks, fast and slow motion, a montage of still photographs, a couple of musical interludes, and a choreographed dance number.

In one of his early diary entries that accompanies the published screenplay for She’s Gotta Have It, Spike Lee discusses the original idea for the film:

“It’s always amazed me how men can go out and bone any and everything between fifteen and eighty and it’s OK. They are encouraged to have and enjoy sex, while it’s not so for women. If they do what men do they’re labeled whore, prostitute, nympho, etc. Why this double standard? Why not explore this? Have a character, a beautiful young black woman who loves sex, and can love more than one man at a time also. So, that’s the basic outline-premise.”

In choosing to explore this sexual double-standard within the context of the black community, Lee underscored the fact that only an African-American filmmaker could possibly tackle such loaded subject matter – black sexuality – even if he had his own gender issues. The brash “in your face” aspect of She’s Gotta Have It proved to be a brilliant strategic move because it demonstrated so clearly the incredible lack of diversity that existed in mainstream American cinema. Not only did She’s Gotta Have It deal with important and controversial subject matter, but it managed to present it in a refreshingly original and highly comedic way.

In Alternative Scriptwriting: Writing Beyond the Rules (there’s now a fourth edition with a different subtitle), one of the few non-Hollywood manuals, Ken Dancyger and Jeff Rush cite She’s Gotta Have It as an alternative model to a variant of the Aristotelian three-act structure they term the “restorative three-act structure.” As they explain:

“A more specific variant of three-act form, derived from the well-made play developed by the French playwright Eugene Scribe in the 1820s, has become the dominant model for mainstream films. Characterized by a clear and logical denouement, this conservative model of storytelling was the most popular dramatic form of the newly dominant French and English middle class that emerged in the “safe” Europe after the Napoleonic wars.”

Using She’s Gotta Have It as one of their examples of more open-ended “counter-structures,” Dancyger and Rush argue that the film has “an ironic two-act structure.” The authors claim that it has no first turning point and that “its flashback structure discourages a linear, three-act reading” because the action has been predetermined and the audience does not actually participate in Nola’s decision to have additional lovers other than Jamie. Yet a flashback structure does not in and of itself negate the possibility of a three-act structure.

Dancyger and Rush, however, concede that She’s Gotta Have It has a second turning point:

She’s Gotta Have It does have something akin to an act break. After Jamie leaves her, Nola decides to drop her other two lovers and go back to him. However, because we have not been involved in Nola’s initial decision to have three lovers and are not positioned to see the taking of the three lovers as a first-act mistake, we do not feel this break serves as a consequence of some earlier misdirection. We have no sense of her coming back into sync with us as we would with a traditional second-act break. Rather, we stand outside and watch, wondering what she is going to do without being able to prejudge her actions.”

Although Dancyger and Rush are certainly right that Nola’s decision to have three lovers is not part of the first act set-up, there is an alternative way of segmenting the acts. The difficulty stems from the fact that Nola never really changes in the course of the film. She is the same person at the end as she was in the beginning, which is why Dancyger and Rush argue that the events in the film have already been predetermined. In this sense, Nola is more of a passive rather than active protagonist because she continues to act the same way throughout. But whereas Nola’s character remains the same, other characters, most notably Jamie, undergo changes as a result of their interactions with her.

The first crisis in the film is triggered by Jamie. It is not about Mars – or Greer, whom we haven’t as yet met – but about Opal. In comparison to his response to Mars, Jamie seems completely threatened by the possibility of Nola having a female lover. He is openly hostile to Opal and basically gets rid of her, which functions as the first turning point. Once Opal is out of the way, the second act deals with the complications Nola faces in having three male lovers. The second turning point is much clearer. It involves a crisis precipitated by Jamie when he announces he’s also having an affair and gives Nola an ultimatum. It is also noteworthy that the turning points stem from Jamie’s actions rather than Nola’s.

The first turning point occurs on page 22 of the screenplay, while the second appears on page 59. Thus, the first act is 22 pages long, the second 37, and the third 25. A look at the printed script indicates that this is the exact structure Spike Lee had in mind when he wrote She’s Gotta Have It because the screenplay is clearly divided into Beginning, Middle, and End, and those written headings are included in the script. Lee’s journal entry also attests to the fact that this was the intended structure. The film timings of She’s Gotta Have It do not deviate very much from the screenplay. The first turning point occurs at 21 minutes, and the second one at roughly 60 minutes. The 80-minute film divides into a first act of 21 minutes, a second act of 38 minutes, and a third act of 19 minutes.

Dramatic feature films that have two-act and one-act structures are actually rare exceptions in American commercial cinema. The major formal innovation of Spike Lee’s debut feature is not really its structure, which I believe contains three acts rather than two, but Lee’s attempt to interrogate the notion a single unified point of view. The narrative employs the documentary-like technique of direct interviews not only with the protagonist, Nola Darling, but with the various other characters – Jamie, Mars, Greer, Opal, and Clorinda – who provide their own counter-perspectives on her behavior. All the characters attempt to engage the viewer in the narrative through means of direct address. Nola’s views about her own sexuality contrast with those of her male suitors, who all seek to make her their own. At the center of contention is Nola’s determined refusal to limit herself to a single man.

Although Jamie Overstreet remains Nola’s major romantic interest – representing the embodiment of romantic love and stable family life – she also maintains relationships with the witty Mars (Spike Lee), and good-looking male model, Greer. These two men are a study in contrasts. Mars exhibits the strongest cultural identification with African-American culture, while Greer is a narcissistic buppie, whose pretensions seem to be derived completely from the white world. While Mars has the ability to make her laugh, Greer represents pure physical attraction. There are class divisions between them as well. As the unemployed Mars puts it at the Thanksgiving dinner: “Fifty-dollar sneakers and I gots no job. Tell me how to do it when times get hard.” Greer, on the other hand, has the fancy convertible and high-profile career. He lumps both Mars and Jamie together by calling them “ignorant, low-class, ghetto Negroes,” while Mars refers to Greer at one point as a “pseudo-black man.” The men continually insult one another to Nola. Mars is especially merciless in his putdown of his competitors, referring to them as “two Joe Neckbones” and Jamie as having “a sixteen-piece Chicken McNugget head.”

Nola’s promiscuity elicits condemnation from all three of her male suitors. Mars calls her a freak. He states his position when we first meet him: “Look, all men want freaks. We just don’t want ’em for a wife.” Nola criticizes men for not being in touch with their feelings. “In my experiences,” she says, “I’ve found two types of men: the decent ones and the dogs.” We then get typical and satirical come-ons from the dogs, including the last one who tells her: “Girl, I got plenty of what you need. Ten throbbing inches of USDA, government inspected, prime-cut, grade-A tube steak!”

While Nola believes Jamie to be an exception to these men, Jamie turns out to be more threatened by Nola’s lesbian friend, Opal. He assumes because Nola won’t commit solely to him that she must secretly be one herself. While Jamie tolerates her other male lovers, he reacts most strongly to Opal. The other two, Mars and Greer, have different takes on Nola. Mars theorizes that Nola has problems with her father. Greer insists she must be a sex addict in need of professional help. We see Nola rebuff Opal’s sexual advances; we also interview her father, Sonny, who speaks lovingly of her, as well as a sex therapist, Dr. Jamison, who assures us that Nola has a healthy sexuality. Interestingly, Jamie turns on Nola eventually by having an affair with the dancer and then forcibly having sex with her when she calls him one night. In the film’s most controversial scene, Jamie demands that Nola admit that he owns her vagina. Nola’s dream indicates that she is not completely guilt-free. In it, the girlfriends of the three men give the litany of excuses that deflect the blame from their men onto Nola.

Despite the fact that the story centers on Nola, Mars Blackmon manages to breathe the most life into this film through his considerable sense of humor. Although Mars is only a minor romance character, he provides much-needed comic relief at various points in the story, whether it is to put Nola’s undies over his head while pretending to be a super hero, or to use verbal repetitions over and over. It is also Mars who continually infuses the film with a sense of the black vernacular. He tells Nola, “You know, if I can make a babe laugh, I’m over like a fat rat. And when they stop laughing, I book.” He also provides references to black politics, culture and sports. He even works his passion for the Knicks into the story. As Mars discusses with Jamie the time Nola caused him to miss the first half of a Knicks and Celtics game in which Bernard King scored thirty-five points, Jamie remarks, “Larry Bird is the best player in the NBA.” Mars responds, “He’s the ugliest motherfucker in the NBA. That’s what he is.” Mars’s dialogue exhibits the inherent creativity of the black idiom. Despite his low economic status, Mars embodies the vitality of African-American culture itself, which is why Spike Lee played such a prominent role in the highly successful advertising campaign for She’s Gotta Have It, exhorting preview audiences to see the film so he wouldn’t have to return to selling tube socks on the street.

If Mars is the secret life force in the film, so is the place where the story is filmed. Lee is self-deprecating about both Mars and his home town of Brooklyn, but She’s Gotta Have It exults in a strident regionalism equal to that of Richard Linklater’s setting of Austin for Slacker, or that of Minnesota for the Coen brothers’ Fargo. A sense of place supplies energy and vitality to the home-grown visions of many independent films, and She’s Gotta Have It is no exception. Hidden beneath the self-effacing urban facade of She’s Gotta Have It is a love poem to the sprawling, working-class borough that has always taken a subordinate role to the sophistication associated with Manhattan. The film begins with a nostalgic photo-montage of Williamsburg, and at various points we view shots of Fulton Street, Fort Greene Park, and the Brooklyn Bridge. When Nola breaks up with him at the end, Greer equates Manhattan with drive and ambition, which he finds utterly lacking in Nola. He tells her angrily, “So keep your tired ass here in Brooklyn.”

Looking back, Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It turned out to be the right film at the right time. Its unexpected commercial success managed to open doors for other subsequent independent-minded writers and directors interested in exploring racially and ethnically diverse subject matter ignored by mainstream cinema. For this reason, it seems incomprehensible that such a landmark classic has virtually disappeared by remaining currently unavailable on DVD in this country. The unfortunate effect of this has been to create another gaping hole in the history of American independent cinema.

Posted 1 October, 2007

New York Top Ten Art Shows

1. What is Painting? (MoMA). Curator Anne Umland’s feminist-inflected exhibit provides an alternate reading of the challenges to painting’s authority over the past forty years. It begins with an assassination attempt, Vija Celmin’s “Gun With a Hand” (1964), and takes us step by step into the present, as represented Wade Guyton’s Warhol-inspired “Untitled” (2006) and the hard-edge geometric abstraction of Sarah Morris. Along the way, the show deliberately avoids the usual suspects. It’s amazing to see how rediscovered artists such as Lee Lozano and Lee Bontecou seamlessly fit into the context of the show, or how various others, like Jackie Winsor or Dorothea Rockburne, expand our notions of painting. There’s one Warhol. The terrific eight-panel portrait of Lita Hornick paid for Lonesome Cowboys (1968).

2. Raymond Pettibon (David Zwirner). I thought Pettibon’s graffiti installation was one of the big flops at the Venice Biennale this summer, but his new show at David Zwirner, entitled “Here’s Your Irony Back (The Big Picture),” is a hard-hitting political attack on the US involvement in Iraq. Pettibon’s comic book-inspired drawings and collages contain incredibly rich graphics – the show’s a virtual textual and visual overload – that combine political agitprop with caustic wit, while refusing to pull any punches. It may be the best single one-person show of Pettibon I’ve seen. The last time I looked, all 97 pieces were available for viewing online.

3. Neo Rauch (The Met). The twelve newly commissioned paintings by Neo Rauch at the Met entitled “para” succeed despite the cramped quarters of the show. And the two additional works in the larger room next door made a total of fourteen. Neo Rauch’s best work employs elements of narrative, while defying easy reading. “Waiting for the Barbarians” creates a frightening sense of expectation, in which the flatness of the turquoise sky and the red and green texture of the house roof play off other elements that suggest a small town just after a carnival. A strange pall hangs over its inhabitants. Two women reach for a rifle, while a funeral pyre contains a human figure wearing an animal head. In this work and the others, Neo Rauch manages to turn the trappings of socialist realism into something more akin to magic realism.

4. Rembrandt (The Met). How can Rembrandt possibly be rated behind these other shows? Two reasons. The organization by patron reminds me of the nutty treasure hunt concocted by the two curators at Documenta 12 this summer. At this point in history, when Artforum is the size of a telephone book as a result of gallery ads (which dwarf the art criticism inside), we don’t need to be reminded of the connection between art and money. It’s great on one level that The Met carted out their entire collection of Dutch paintings for the show. While it serves to place Rembrandt within a historic context, it unfortunately also lessens the impact. The incandescent Rembrandt portraits are, well, Rembrandts, but those five Vermeers secretly stole my eyes.

5. Sol LeWitt (Paula Cooper). Even in passing on, Sol Lewitt hasn’t lost a step. He’s only getting better, which turns out to be – who would have guessed? – one of the hidden benefits of his conceptual strategy. This monumental sculpture entitled “A Cube with Scribble Bands in Four Directions, One Direction on Each Face” (2007) was one of the unexpected surprises, proving that, as much as you might think you know the guy’s work, Sol LeWitt is never quite as predictable as he ought to be. This piece of intense graphite scribbles changes depending on your perspective and just might be the most auratic Lewitt in recent memory.

6. Charles Burnett’s My Brother’s Wedding (IFC Center). How I managed to get the last two tickets for the 8:40 PM Saturday screening a half-hour before makes me wish I had also bought a ticket for Powerball that day. The new version of My Brother’s Wedding (1983) has been re-edited from 115 down to 81 minutes. No, it’s not as strong a film as either Burnett’s masterpiece Killer of Sheep or his later To Sleep With Anger, but it’s nevertheless an important transitional work which provides important thematic connections. The film captures a sense of what it’s like to live in South Central, Los Angeles as much as Killer of Sheep. When someone knocks at the door or a couple shady-looking dudes turn up at the local dry cleaners run by Pierce’s family, the sense of danger is palpable. This is balanced by comedic moments I hadn’t associated with Burnett previously. In the question and answer session afterwards, Burnett turned out to be as sensitive in person as his films. How many times have you seen a guy change a baby’s diapers in a movie? It was about as shocking as when Paul America turns around and takes a pee in Warhol’s My Hustler. My Brother’s Wedding, along with Killer of Sheep, is scheduled for DVD release on November 13. Mark your calendars.

7. Jules de Balincourt (Zach Feuer Gallery). I’ve been a fan of Jules de Balincourt’s work from his very first New York show in 2003 at LFL. He mixes the Mission-school aesthetic of Chris Johanson with the primitiveness of Tal R to create a style very much his own. The range of his talent is on view in his latest solo show “Unknowing Man’s Nature,” which juxtaposes geometric abstraction, outsider-like representation, digital-inspired imagery, maps, and large squiggly expressionist patterns with a palette that runs the gamut – from pink and baby blue to bright acidic orange and green. A large painting like “Think Globally, Act Locally” proves how good de Balincourt really is as a painter. Some of my other favorites in the show are the wide shots of moody landscapes, such as “I’m Just a Fire in the Night,” the small cluttered painting of a room filled with safari trophies called “Global Hunter, or the small “Untitled” painting of people awkwardly sitting around a fire that suggests we’re in Kay Donachie territory.

8. Mark Bradford (Whitney Museum). While critics continue to rave about Rudolf Stingel, I’ve seen his work at Venice four years ago, a whole solo show at the MCA in Chicago, and now this entire floor of the Whitney. Mirror floors, Styrofoam, carpet, decorative wallpaper, photorealism, interactive silver walls in which viewers draw their own graffiti – okay I get how he questions what constitutes painting, but the show at MoMA said the same thing only much better. And if the bad art in the “Summer of Love” exhibit made me temporarily regret ever having been a hippie, it was redeemed only by the small section of psychedelic posters of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable and the Warhol-related photos. Mark Bradford’s three large canvasses on the first floor turned out to be the real highlight. The surfaces of the silver canvasses were composed of elements of collage – fragments of decayed posters – other than paint, resulting in imagery that suggests urban topography.

9. Collier Schorr (303 Gallery). The fact that this gutsy show consists of drawings and some photographs rather than her usual obsessively staged photographs of young men gives it an unpredictable element. This exhibit turns out to be a variation of the same theme, but filtered this time through the prism of her photographer father, who documented a young man with a fixation on a 1967 Corvette about to go off to war. Though Schorr claims not to be able to draw, these are pretty good renditions of a young man who never made it back. What is most interesting about her drawings are the representative elements she chooses not to depict – her use of negative space – that makes them an elusive attempt to recapture childhood memory.

10. Abel Auer and Dorota Jurczak (PS 1). I was grateful for an opportunity to see the work of these two Hamburg-based artists in a show organized by Alanna Heiss. Auer’s landscapes have an element of kitsch or bad Teutonic folk paintings done with an over-the-top color palette that bears affinity to other Modern Gothic work. His drawings in this particular show are much stronger and weirder than the paintings. They are nicely complemented by Polish-born Dorota Jurczak’s careful but macabre etchings and paintings rooted in Eastern European symbolism. All of her pieces remain remarkably self-contained in contrast to the more effusive style of Auer. 

Other noteworthy shows include: Ryan Trecartin (Elizabeth Dee), Eva Struble (Lombard-Fried), Matt Keegan (D’Amelio Terras), Henning Bohl (Casey Kaplan), Ingrid Calame (James Cohan), Jonathan Pylypchuck (Friedrich Petzel), Huma Bhabha (ATM Gallery), Jim Drain (Greene Naftali), Laura Letinsky (Yancey Richardson) and Ugo Rondinone (Matthew Marks).

Posted 24 September, 2007

River’s Edge

River’s Edge (1987) was produced on a budget of $1.8 million by the independent producing team of Midge Sanford and Sarah Pillsbury, who were also responsible for John Sayles’s Eight Men Out (1988) and Susan Seidelman’s Desperately Seeking Susan (1985). Based on a true incident in California in which a group of teenagers covered up a classmate’s murder, River’s Edge caused considerable controversy at the time of its release. Rather than presenting the typical Hollywood tale of juvenile waywardness and redemption, River’s Edge situates the incident within its wider social context of dysfunctional suburban families, drugs and alcohol, and depersonalized, mediated experience. The film brought critical success to both its director, Tim Hunter, and screenwriter, Neal Jimenez, including Indie Spirit Awards for best feature and best screenplay, but the film’s bleak view did little to enhance either of their careers within the industry.

Neal Jimenez’s screenplay is in many ways even darker than Tim Hunter’s actual film, probably because Crispin Glover’s over-the-top performance adds an additional comedic element. Otherwise Hunter’s film remains remarkably faithful to Jimenez’s script. It is not surprising that every major studio initially passed on such depressing material. Once Sanford and Pillsbury optioned the script, they resubmitted it again to the studios with virtually the same response until Hemdale finally agreed to finance the project. Distribution of River’s Edge proved another formidable obstacle. Island Pictures bought the theatrical rights only after the film played successfully at festivals. Surprisingly strong box-office results in New York and Los Angles led to expanded theatrical distribution in thirty cities, proving that industry experts had been wrong. There turned out to be a market for such a picture after all, mostly among college students and a younger audience. The film has become something of a teen classic subsequently. Roger Ebert has called it “the best analytical film about a crime since The Onion Field and In Cold Blood.”

River’s Edge weaves the interlocking stories of three different murderers – Tim, Samson (John), and Feck – which span different generations. The main plotline focuses on Samson’s murder of Jamie, as well as Layne’s (Crispin Glover) bravado attempt to cover it up, but the film has two other subplots involving Tim and Feck. Feck (Dennis Hopper) represents the older ’60s generation. His murder of a woman stemmed from love, and his elimination of Samson results from a kind of moral necessity. Samson kills for the sense of power and aliveness it gives him, while Tim is perhaps the most frightening of all because his acts are seemingly without motivation. He represents the new breed of killer. In that sense, River’s Edge is a highly prophetic film. Two decades later, when teens and sub-teens routinely use their classmates for mass target practice, we are now probably a bit surprised that Samson didn’t take out the rest of his friends as well.

River’s Edge mixes both conventional and unconventional elements. The film uses a three-act dramatic structure, but its most significant events – turning points – actually happen off-screen. The first turning point would be when Matt (Keanu Reeves) squeals to the police, but we never see him make the phone call. While Layne and the others view the body at the river, the camera fixes on a reflective Matt fidgeting in class, and later at home he sits holding the phone. Both instances suggest that Matt is contemplating calling the authorities, but at this point neither is conclusive enough to serve as a turning point. We only know that someone has called the police when Layne and Samson see the squad cars in front of Samson’s house. This does not happen until 36 minutes into the film. Right after that, Matt leads the police to the crime scene. During Officer Bennett’s interrogation, Matt alludes to the fact that he was the one who reported the crime. This clearly reveals a change in the protagonist’s motivation. Matt, however, is too much of a pothead to function as your typical goal-driven protagonist. This is probably why he has little to do with the second reversal.

The second turning point occurs when Feck shoots Samson at 75 minutes. This important event is again not played for its full dramatic effect, but happens off-screen. Feck picks up the gun and Matt hears a shot in the night. The information is conveyed associatively. We do not know for sure that Samson is dead until Layne finds his body, an event which functions as the film’s climax. Another way to view this would be to see Feck’s shooting of Samson as the climax of this subplot, just as the family subplot involving Tim and Matt peaks toward the film’s end when Tim nearly shoots his older brother. Either way, excluding credits, the first act would be 36 minutes long, the second act 39 minutes, and the third is the shortest at 21 minutes.

There are other unconventional aspects, which have to do with character. Matt is the protagonist, Layne functions as his antagonist or opposition (with Tim playing that role in the family subplot), and Clarissa serves as the romance figure in the story. Typically, the protagonist and romance character would be at cross purposes, especially during Act Two. In terms of motivation, Matt’s romance with Clarissa would serve to alter his goals – his love for her would be the factor that causes him to change – but that is clearly not the case here. Matt decides on his own to report Samson– his decision has nothing to do with Clarissa.

In conventional dramatic terms, Layne would pose more of a threat to Matt, but Matt actually defies Layne without the risk of any consequence. Layne turns out to be more posture than substance. Once Matt finks on Samson, there is not much else at stake for him, other than stealing Layne’s girlfriend, Clarissa. This turns out to be rather easy to do once Layne dumps her out of his car, especially because Layne more or less also invites Matt to go with her. On some level, it is not actually Layne who serves as Matt’s antagonist. Layne simply personifies the mores of the teenage group, in which friendship matters above all else, including human decency and the law. By snitching on Samson, Matt risks ostracism from his friends. As with most teenagers, this is what he fears the most. Clarissa underscores this point by asking Matt, “Weren’t you scared of people finding out?”

River’s Edge has a complicated plot structure as well as richly-drawn characters. Matt may be a complete stoner, but he is a sensitive one. The design on the back of his jacket – a peace symbol combined with a skull – is wonderfully emblematic of his ambivalence, and it is part of his youthful naiveté that he thinks he can balance such contradictions. Jamie’s murder changes all that because the ensuing situation forces Matt to choose between Eros and Thanatos. Not only does Matt rebel against Layne’s attempt at control – which mirrors Samson’s murderous impulses – but he’s the only one who seems to be able to feel anything for Jamie. This is evident when Matt confesses to Clarissa that the reason he informed on Samson is because the look on her face continues to haunt him. Matt is also kind to his little sister and protective of her when Tim drowns her doll, Missy, and desecrates Missy’s grave. He is also repulsed by Tim and Moko’s target practice on defenseless crawfish in a water bucket. Matt also complains to his mother about letting Tim hang out with Moko. Although Matt throttles Tim, he is actually the only one who cares enough about Tim to discipline him. His mother’s boyfriend, Jim, is hardly a role model. Jim talks about discipline, but he lacks the moral authority to impose it.

All of the kids in River’s Edge have a mediated view of the world, a point that is underscored by the television-like image of the river that opens the film. When the teenagers hang outside school and fantasize about splitting for Portland, Tony’s reference is to Easy Rider. Layne, in particular, seizes upon Samson’s murder of Jamie as if it is a movie or television plot. As Samson and Matt and Layne drive back from viewing Jamie’s body for the first time, Layne turns it into a Hollywood pitch: “It’s like some fucking movie, you know? Friends since the second grade, fuckin’ like this – (he proudly raises crossed fingers to demonstrate the unity of their friendship) – and one of us gets himself in potentially big trouble, and now we’ve got to deal with it. We’ve got to test our loyalty, against all odds. It’s kind of exciting. I feel like Chuck Norris, you know?” As Layne and Matt drive around later and discuss who might have finked on Samson, Layne tells him they are a team and compares them to Starsky and Hutch. And when Clarissa argues with Layne for calling her a bitch, he tells her that “in a time like this, where every fucking second counts, a man can’t waste his time choosing words.” Clarissa responds, “What is this, Mission Impossible?” as Matt hums the theme song from the back seat. Clarissa also complains to Matt that she feels terrible for not crying over Jamie like she did for the guy in Brian’s Song, the TV movie about the star football player who died of cancer.

The characters in River’s Edge have a hard time differentiating between what is real and what isn’t. Feck, for instance, treats his rubber sex doll, Ellie, as a substitute person. This parallels Kim’s doll, Missy, whose drowning represents a certain emotional reality for the child. But Feck is an adult, not a child – he’s expected to be able to negotiate the difference. And, in fact, he does when he’s interrogated by Samson as to whether he’s a psycho. Feck responds defensively, “No. I’m normal. She’s a doll. I know that.” On the other hand, Samson’s aunt has gone completely over the edge and lives in the world of Dr. Seuss’ The Cat and the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham.

The teenagers have similar problems with determining what’s real. Layne’s response to Jamie’s naked corpse is to poke her body with a stick. Dumbfounded, he says, “This is unreal. Completely unreal.” Samson also struggles for control over reality, which is why he murders Jamie. He tells Feck: “I had total control of her. It all felt so real, so . . . real. She was dead there in front of me, and I felt so fucking alive.” And the crisis involving Jamie and Samson provokes Layne to fabricate his bond of friendship with Samson, but Samson later tells Feck: “Layne was never a friend anyway. He doesn’t know me.” At the end of the film, Matt levels with Layne about Samson: “I fucking know you, Layne. You get these ideas in your head, and you don’t think, and this idea – helping Samson out – it’s not a good idea.” But it is also interesting that Layne, who has trouble distinguishing between reality and illusion, justifies his concern for Samson over Jamie to Clarissa by an argument based on the distinction between the animate and inanimate. This occurs when Layne throws Clarissa out of his car for suggesting she ought to inform the cops about Samson’s whereabouts. She pokes a hole in Layne’s specious reasoning by responding: “And who’s next on his list.”

Of course, there’s also an element of misogyny in Layne. Not only does he call Clarissa a stupid bitch, but earlier at Feck’s door, when Feck warns Layne and Matt that the reason he killed a woman was that she had it coming, Layne humors him: “Right Feck. Women are evil. You had to kill her.” Yet Layne, despite his flaws, is a wonderfully wacky antagonist who, in many ways, overshadows Matt in terms of character interest. Perpetually decked out in death-rocker black leather, he is the kind of obsessional loser who will find a place for himself eventually in the ultraconservative right wing. At one point, as Layne and Samson are driving around, he attempts to give Samson an inspirational lift: “It’s people like you that are sending this country down the tubes, you know? No sense of pride, no sense of loyalty, no sense of nothing. Why do you think there are so many fucking welfare cases in this country? Why do you think Russia’s gearing up to kick our ass?” Layne attempts to turn friendship into his ultimate value. For him, it takes precedence over the law. But, like his political analysis, it is not based on honest feeling, but rather something that he has picked up from the media.

Clarissa probably has the best insight into his character. When she gets together with Matt, she quickly deflates Layne’s bravado image by suggesting he has problems with alcohol abuse and that “They could make a movie out of him.” This is the same guy who, early in the film, makes a display of pinching Clarissa’s ass in front of his friends. When Layne discovers Samson’s body, he lets out a pathetic moan, and assumes a foetal position in front of the body. His line – “They fucking killed him”– reeks of a right-wing paranoid conspiracy. He’s becomes completely deflated and pathetic at the end. In our last image of him, he sprawls face down on a large rock. He is also conspicuously absent at the funeral. Although we don’t see him being arrested, we can assume he’s been being held as an accessory to Samson’s crime.

The other major characters, Samson and Feck, present a striking contrast, and part of the script’s brilliance is to put these two psychos together and allow them to interact. We know only the basics about Samson. His has no parents. His mother’s death is an apparent sore point – he found her dead in the shower – which suggests that she probably committed suicide. In any event, he lives with his crazy aunt to whom he reads children’s books by Dr. Seuss. The original explanation of why he kills Jamie is that she said something about his dead mother, but Samson later reveals his motive to Feck. He kills because it gives him a sense of power and makes him feel real. One other aspect of his character is only hinted at, and that has to do with the sexual component to his killing, since Jamie is fully clothed in Samson’s murder flashback, but naked when we first see her. When Clarissa suggests this to Layne when they’re driving around, Layne denies Samson’s a “sex maniac,” but then kicks her out of his car shortly afterward.

Samson does little to help himself throughout the film. He cannot even spare the energy to help Layne dispose of the body. There is also a suggestion that Samson was drunk when he killed her. Samson, as his name implies, is a lumbering giant, who uses drugs and alcohol in an attempt to numb his repressed rage. Whereas Feck only wastes dudes in self-defense, Samson has a different mode of operation. He tells Feck: “Me, I get in a fight, I go crazy. Everything goes black, and I fuckin’ explode, you know? Like it’s the end of the world, and who cares if the guy fucking wastes me, I’m gonna waste him. The world’s gonna blow up anyway, so I better at least keep my pride.”

Samson becomes very aggressive when he’s around Feck. Numerous times he seems to challenge the older biker. He needles him about the doll and brings in the cat against Feck’s wishes. Later he pretends to force Ellie to perform oral sex, another parallel in terms of his character. Samson also tries to badger Feck into shooting off his gun, while Feck insists he doesn’t believe in shooting a gun without a reason. Feck has managed to evade the law for twenty years, but Samson hasn’t the will or desire to keep going; only Layne has delusions of saving him. Samson already recognizes he’s a dead man and that they are going to fry him for committing such a brutal murder.

None of the adults in River’s Edge turn out to be terribly good role models. Madeleine (Matt and Tim’s mother) is a pothead living with her boyfriend. The kids’ real father has split and Madeleine at one point cries that “they’re all accidents, anyway.” Clarissa’s parents are portrayed as disembodied voices. We never see Layne’s parents at all. Tony’s father appears to be a psycho when he fires a shotgun at Layne and Matt when they show up at this house. Samson’s mother probably committed suicide, while Aunto seems certifiably mad. After Clarissa leaves Matt to go to class and he kids her about having the hots for Burkewaite, she tells him that she “respects” him. Matt answers in mock disbelief, “You respect an adult? I really do need to get stoned.” Clarissa’s respect is especially misguided because Burkewaite turns out to be another demagogue like Layne. He waxes nostalgic about knocking pigs on their asses, and later espouses vigilantism as the proper response to Samson.

Feck, for all his craziness, is the only sympathetic adult character. He provides the moral center to the film. A pot-smoking rebel rouser, who brags he “ate so much pussy back then my beard looked like a glazed donut,” Feck is also the only one who seems to feel real compassion for Samson and his fate. When Samson insists that “they’re gonna fry me for sure,” Feck reminds him that Layne is trying to help out. But Samson has a forceful comeback: “What’s he gonna do? Send me off to Portland? Hide me out in some dark room for twenty years so I can end up like you, Feck? You think I want that?” Feck answers: “No. You don’t.” Feck may be slightly crazy and pot may help to numb his pain, but Feck knows full well the price of murder. He articulates this to Samson early on: “You kill a person and they stick after you like ghosts. They can’t let you forget. They won’t believe you when you say you’re sorry. They want you to pay somehow.”

Feck is a murderer, but he claims to have at least loved his victim. Later at the riverbank, he not only refuses to fire his gun without reason, but for sentimental reasons as well. The gun with which he kills Samson is the same gun he used in the murder. Feck’s shooting of Samson is double-edged. On one level, he does it because Samson is a psychotic murderer – as Samson puts it, “what other excuse do I have” – who kills for the power and sense of aliveness it gives him. Feck explains his own motivation: “. . . because there was no hope for him, no hope at all. He didn’t love her. He never felt a thing. At least I loved her. At least I cared.” But Feck’s murder of Samson is also an act of compassion.

Throughout River’s Edge, the teenagers express a fatalistic awareness of death and/or annihilation, which justifies their party-while-you-can, nihilistic behavior. Yet Feck clearly has the greatest sense of life’s absurdity. This is manifest in the scene where Feck and Samson discuss how he lost his leg:

SAMSON: That when you lost your leg?
FECK: Yeah. Motorcycle accident.
FECK: The rest of the gang ditched me, kept on riding. My leg was in the street. I remember lying there in the gutter, all bleeding and shaking, staring at my leg, next to the beer can, and I remember thinking: that’s my leg. I wonder if there’s any beer in that can?
FECK: I also thought: Maybe they can sew it back on, but then the ambulance came, ran right over it.
SAMSON: Wasted that leg.
FECK: But who needed it. I got another one, right?

Jimenez has a tremendous facility with language as well as an ability to write both realistic and visually-rich dialogue. As has already been pointed out, Jimenez deliberately chooses not to show certain important dramatic moments and situations, such as Matt’s phone call or Feck’s killing of Samson. He also creates an anti-dramatic climax to the family subplot between Matt and Tim. Logically, Tim ought to pull the trigger, especially considering how he encourages Moko to beat Feck over the head with the numbchucks. But Jimenez’s decision to withhold certain dramatic elements is actually a deliberate stylistic device in River’s Edge.

Jimenez is perfectly capable of creating drama, as is evident in certain highly dramatic individual scenes in River’s Edge that bristle with tension. A great example of Jimenez’s ability to create such scenes is Officer Bennett’s interrogation of Matt. The scene is emotionally charged for a simple reason. To Bennett, Matt is the prime suspect. But when Bennett attempts to treat him like a suspect, Matt reacts with the righteous indignation of the wrongly accused. In informing the police about Jamie’s body, Matt has placed himself in a vulnerable situation vis-à-vis his teenage school friends. Bennett uses his veiled accusations as a way of pricking Matt’s most vulnerable sore spots. Like any interrogator, Bennett keeps pushing Matt’s buttons until Matt explodes finally at the attempt to turn him into the reprehensible figure of a murderer or accomplice.

Virtually every scene involving Matt and his mother’s boyfriend, Jim, also escalates quickly into dramatic conflict. After Madeleine and Matt get back from the police station, Jim is there to greet them. It doesn’t take much to set off their Oedipally-charged rivalry, but Jim relishes the notion that Matt may have played a part in Jamie’s murder. And Matt once again gets blame rather than credit for his actions, which reinforces his indignation and fuels his anger. But Jim also hits Matt at another point of vulnerability, since Matt actually does know where Samson is hiding out. As Matt stalks off, Matt yells after Jim: “Mother-fucker! Food-eater!” The literalness of the lines add a comic touch to the confrontation. Earlier when Matt takes his BB gun back from Tim for shooting crawfish, Tim screams after him: “Pothead fuckbrain.” This line is also funny, mostly for the unintended self-hatred it implies.

Jiminez and Hunter show a firm grasp of dramatic conventions throughout River’s Edge, but the drama, as I have argued, is subverted or down played at key moments, including at the film’s understated ending. After Clarissa and Matt view the body, they file into the first-row pew. Matt takes Clarissa’s hand – that’s the extent of it. The camera winds up framing Jamie in her casket. Matt has been spared death from Tim, the brothers have settled temporarily, and Matt and Clarissa attend the funeral together, with Layne no longer in the way. But the ending refuses to provide us with the false security that everything will be okay now for these disaffected young people. In fact, there is an earlier scene, that deliberately parodies such Hollywood clichés. After Matt and Clarissa have made love for the first time, Matt says, “So now we get married, right?” Clarissa answers, “No. Let’s get stoned instead.” The integrity of River’s Edge is precisely its grim realistic picture of suburban teenage life, as well as Jimenez and Hunter’s steadfast refusal to sugarcoat it for greater mass consumption.

Posted 17 September, 2007

Boys Don’t Cry

When Hilary Swank won an Academy Award for her extraordinary performance in Kimberly Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry (1999), it guaranteed that the film would reach a much wider and more mainstream audience despite its controversial subject matter. The film’s commercial success accomplished Peirce’s goal of raising consciousness about hate-crimes in this country by dramatizing the story of Teena Brandon, a twenty-one-year-old biological woman who passed herself off as a man (Brandon Teena) until she was raped and murdered by two ex-cons in rural Nebraska in 1993 after they discovered the subterfuge. A Romeo and Juliet tragedy with a gender-bender twist, Boys Don’t Cry’s greatest strength as a film has to do with its quick dramatic setup and its ability to make us side emotionally with Brandon, who, despite his reckless naiveté, manages to win our hearts through his energetic attempts to reinvent himself and his steadfast refusal to be bound by the restrictions of biological gender.

Boys Don’t Cry presents the love story between Brandon and Lana as an ecstatic, other-worldly quest. The opening montage, which consists of proleptic images from the drag-racing scene later in the film, serves as a metaphor for Brandon’s burning desire for freedom from the constraints of the world. We see a time-lapse of a rural landscape with cars speeded up so that they appear as streams of light. This is followed by shots of the highway, out-of-focus circles of light, two cars racing down the road, Brandon’s eyes in the rearview mirror, the game of “chicken” as one car pulls ahead, Brandon smiling, shots of the moving road, Brandon’s eyes darting around, more lights, then swirling dust with a police car in soft focus, and moving night clouds. Rock music blares on the soundtrack, while credits have been interspersed throughout.

The camera tilts down from the clouds to a trailer park. We hear someone insisting “shorter,” then we see Teena, an androgynous young person with chiseled features, getting a haircut. Teena slicks down her hair and smiles happily at her new image in the mirror. The short haircut has transformed Teena from a woman into a man: “Brandon.” Lonny, his gay cousin, comments on the huge bulge in Brandon’s pants. Brandon removes a rolled-up pair of socks from his crotch to adjust the proportions. Lonny comments, “If you was a guy, I might even wanna fuck you.” Brandon corrects him, “You mean if you was a guy you’d wanna fuck me.” Lonny responds with a dialogue hook, “So you’re a boy, now what?”

The scene cuts to the parking lot of a roller skating rink. Lonny tries to dissuade Brandon from going inside, but Brandon is far too psyched to listen. Lonny grabs the cowboy hat off Brandon’s head and comments that it makes him look like an idiot. Insisting he has a date inside, Brandon goes in and meets Nicole, who seems to accept the fact that he’s a boy. Afterwards, Brandon escorts Nicole home and kisses her in front of her house, which leaves him in ecstasy. We go back to the opening image of the time-lapse landscape. The camera tilts up to the swirling night clouds, then black. The sound of thunder. We hear angry men’s voices, as rain pours down on the trailer park. A title announces: “Lincoln Nebraska 1993.” Brandon races into the trailer park with several guys chasing after him. One of them yells: “You fucking dyke.” Once inside the trailer, Brandon locks the door, as the guys pound on the door and call him a “fucking faggot.” This upsets Lonny, who tries to reason with Brandon: “You’re not a boy.” Brandon responds, “Tell them that. I’m the best boyfriend they ever had.” Brandon vacillates between exuberance and fear. Lonny asks: “Then why don’t you just admit you’re a dyke?” Taken aback, Brandon answers, “Because I’m not a dyke.” Glass breaks. Lonny takes the money Brandon owes him out of his wallet and kicks him out.

Boys Don’t Cry needs only a mere six minutes to set up its dramatic premise, which centers on Brandon’s risky attempts to pass himself off as a man. After Lonny throws him out, Brandon stumbles into the white-trash world of the Falls City crowd. Brandon’s instant infatuation with Lana when she sings karaoke at the bar provides the motivation for the first turning point. This involves his impulsive decision to stay in Falls City and to become “one of the guys” rather than return to Lincoln as he had planned. Whereas the karaoke scene suggests an internal change in terms of Brandon’s character, the first turning point represents a conscious decision on Brandon’s part to pursue his romantic quest, which occurs about 17 minutes into the film. Although this is unusually early for a first turning point to occur, the event actually happens on page 26 of the shooting script, which provides a lot more background detail about Brandon’s past life.

Peirce and Andy Bienen’s shooting script shows him working as a dishwasher in a restaurant. It also includes information about Brandon’s mother and her boyfriend, his older sister, and five-year-old nephew. The scene where Brandon meets Nicole (who’s called Heather in this version) at Skate World is also elaborated on, including Brandon’s reluctance to have actual sex. In a shopping mall in Lincoln, Brandon’s family discovers him walking arm in arm with Heather, which blows his cover. The scene ends with Brandon getting caught by a security guard after he steals a ring from a jewelry store. When Brandon calls Heather and her mother threatens to call the cops, family pictures are visible, including one of Brandon’s father as a young man on a motorcycle. After the scene where men chase Brandon into Lonny’s trailer for stealing a woman’s credit card, Brandon receives sex-change information at a post office box. He then steals a car, goes for a joy ride with a fifteen-year-old girl, and ends up getting caught by the cops, setting up the later court date. The film thus condenses a great deal of exposition found in the original shooting script, which accounts for the discrepancy of where the first turning point occurs.

In an interview with Sight and Sound, Kimberly Peirce discusses the decision to excise the backstory and not to explain Brandon’s transgenderism as an attempt to go against the conventions of the biopic:

“To me movies are about great main characters and one event. I welcome anybody changing the form, but for me anything that gets in the way of the story shouldn’t be there. And knowing Brandon was destroyed for not being understood, I needed to bring him to life in a way that was universally understandable. How could I do that? Not through a biopic. You do that by creating a unified event, by having him stand in front of the mirror getting ready to go out. Gay or straight, male or female, you understand that.”

There were other practical considerations as well, which Peirce delineates in the same interview:

“There were a million different openings – the first cut was three hours long and started with Teena in her trailer, Teena at her dishwashing job, Teena at the skating rink. And people were fascinated, but two feelings emerged: ‘Can we know more about Teena?’, which sent me backwards when I needed to go forwards, and ‘I didn’t realise until half way this was a love story.'”

The love story between Brandon and Lana develops in gradual stages during the middle act, culminating in their intense and extended lovemaking in the field after he visits her at the spinach factory. The scene lasts nearly five minutes. We see them start to make love and then return to it again as Lana describes it to Candace and Kate.

Brandon’s fatal mistake proves to be his attempt to pay the speeding ticket. After Lana visits him in jail, Brandon has no choice but to explain the issue of his gender. Although this scene has the potential to serve as the second turning point, Lana suffers from the same sense of denial as Brandon. Deliberately choosing to avoid the issue, she bails him out. Candace, however, has found hard evidence that Brandon is actually a woman. After Candace squeals to John at 73 minutes, it causes a chain reaction. Even so, it does not turn out to provide conclusive proof of Brandon’s gender because both Brandon and Lana attempt to continue the charade with the rest of their extended “family.” The second turning point actually occurs when John and Tom depants Brandon at 82 minutes. This provides the indisputable truth about Brandon’s gender and represents the single event that spins the story into its horrific third act, which depicts the brutal rape and eventual murder of Brandon.

Peirce and Bienen create dramatic conflict by placing their determined but vulnerable protagonist, Brandon, into an extremely combustible situation with two volatile ex-cons: John and Tom. Convinced he is actually a man, Brandon becomes intent on following his own sexual desire, whatever the personal cost. Lonny tries to warn him off, but Brandon has become too swept up in the exhilaration of his own sexual desire to listen. As Brandon watches Lana sing karaoke, he is too entranced to notice that he is not her only admirer. Danger lurks right next to him in the form of John, who shares the same fixation with Lana. Brandon’s crush on Lana draws him further into the orbit of her dysfunctional “family” and causes him to enter into an incestuous love triangle with its symbolic “father” figure, John. Once he suspects what’s going on between Lana and Brandon, John reminds Brandon, “One thing you gotta keep in mind, though, little buddy. This is my house.” Numerous times Brandon comes close to being found out. John notices his tiny hands early on and Lana’s mother “Mom” asks to get a closer look at Brandon when she first meets him. Brandon almost gets caught when the cop stops him for speeding, but the computer is down and he gets a temporary reprieve. The longer the story goes on, the more the risks increase. And once John and Tom find out the deception from Candace, the horrors escalate from depantsing, to rape, to murder.

John and Tom are not simply one-dimensional, evil antagonists. The screenwriters create believable motivations for their behavior. There are a number of scenes that indicate John’s irrational side. In the drag racing scene, John encourages Brandon to elude the cops, but he then blames Brandon afterwards for getting caught and endangering their lives. Brandon appears to be confounded by this response, but the others in the group are quite familiar with the inherent contradictions of John’s irrational behavior. Kate alludes to the fact that Brandon’s entered a “psycho ward.” Tom offers a clinical diagnosis: “The doctors say he ain’t got no impulse control.” At Lana’s house, as John sits watching TV with his daughter April, Mom tells Brandon proudly: “Of course, four years ago, you wouldn’t have thought he could take care of himself, let alone that kid. Well 4 years ago, you wouldn’t have been able to talk to him . . . Prison.” But seconds later, John explodes at April – “The little bastard pissed on me!” – leaving Candace the task of consoling the crying child.

John’s obsession with Lana is obvious when we are first introduced to her in the bar, when John screams at someone who distracts him from her performance by breaking a glass. A dreamy, mesmerized look comes over him as he watches her sing. John also carries around Lana’s letters in his wallet. At Brandon’s birthday party, John becomes extremely jealous and intrudes on her in her bedroom as she wraps Brandon’s present. He tells Lana he misses her and tries to hug her. She responds angrily, “You’re giving me the creeps. You’re like a stalker.” John maintains that he simply wants to protect her, but the “stalker” line carries a certain resonance because we do see John staring at her later through the window of the spinach factory as she works the night shift.

When John finds out that Brandon may actually be female, he storms into Lana’s room searching for proof. Mom tries to get him to stop, but John guilt-trips her by telling her, “If you were any kind of mother, you wouldn’t have let this happen.” John reacts with utter disgust after he ransacks Lana’s room and finds the sex-change pamphlet in Brandon’s duffel bag. After reading from it briefly, he screams, “Get this sick shit way from me.” Once Brandon arrives, John assumes the role of the righteous and indignant parent. He tells Brandon, “The fact is, little dude, when it comes right down to it, you’re really nothing but a goddamn liar.” When Kate suggests they should leave and let Lana and Mom deal with the matter privately, John snaps, “Don’t you dare tell me my business.” Later, after John and Tom rape Brandon, John blames the victim for his actions by saying, “You know you brought this on yourself, Teena.”

Compared to John, Tom is a less major character in the story, but Peirce and Bienen have created an interesting backstory for him as well. Tom tells the story of the family fire as the gang heads to the bumper-ski area. In Tom’s version he’s the big hero, the one who rescued everyone. He tells them proudly, “When they brought me in, they were like, ‘this is the biggest fucking fire around here in 50 years!’ You probably saw it in the Lincoln paper. That was me.” But John deflates Tom’s bubble later on by suggesting that Tom actually started the fire himself. When Brandon asks Tom whether he set the fire, Tom avoids answering the question directly, which suggests that it’s probably true and may even be the reason he spent time in prison. Tom copes with his inner demons by mutilating himself with a knife – the scars on his body serve as a testament to his own self-loathing.

Lana’s mother provides a kind of halfway house for Lana’s wayward friends, especially John and Tom, who call her “Mom” and consider themselves to be part of her extended family. But Mom, who is clearly an alcoholic, has her own personal problems. When we first encounter Mom, she’s “sprawled on the couch in a drunken haze” in the scene where Brandon escorts Lana home and the two help put her to bed. The next time we see Mom, she drinks and plays cards with John and Tom. Mom turns up the music and begins dancing to the radio, which wakes up Lana, who needs to sleep during the day because she works the night shift. Although Mom sincerely cares for her daughter, she does several things that escalate the events that lead to disaster. Mom allows John top ransack Lana’s room and find the incriminating evidence. After Lana comes out of the bedroom and announces conclusively that Brandon is a man, it is Mom who suddenly freaks out and screams at Brandon: “You son of a bitch, what’ve you done to my baby? I want the truth. What the fuck are you, you motherfucker!” As Lana attempts to deal with her mother, John and Tom depants Brandon in the bathroom. After Brandon has been raped and shows up at her house, Mom shouts: “I don’t want it in my house.” Mom also encourages John to get rid of the evidence, a sign of her misplaced loyalty to her “family.” After John breaks into her house, Mom is also the one who informs John where Brandon is staying.

John’s attempts to assume the role of the absent father in Lana’s dysfunctional family adds an incestuous dimension to his character. John insists to Lana that he only wants to protect her. He asks her, “So, what do you see in him? I mean he’s nice and everything, but he’s kind of a wus.” Lana replies, “I know he’s no big he-man like you, but there’s something about him . . .” This “something about him” includes Brandon’s ability to satisfy her sexually, which is what creates such antipathy in John because it represents not only a threat to his masculinity, but to his patriarchal position within the family.

Brandon’s attraction to Lana is both immediate and decisive. From the moment he sees her, she’s the only one for him. But Lana only warms to Brandon gradually. When he tries to walk her home, she rebuffs him, causing him to comment about her crankiness. Once they do get together, Lana remains slightly ambivalent despite the orgasmic sex. As Kimberly Peirce has pointed out in various interviews, Lana tries desperately to balance conflicting impulses. In the scene where Brandon walks her home, Lana does a double-take before entering the house, asking him his name. When they have sex the first time, Lana glimpses his cleavage, indicating she knows – at least on some level – that he’s actually a woman. She tells him, “It’s okay, Brandon. Don’t be scared.”

As the above scene indicates, Lana is not the only one who is ambivalent. Brandon, in fact, has his own fears, which causes Lana to console him. If there is any doubt regarding Brandon’s gender, Candace tells Lana the truth after she finds the evidence. When Lana visits him in jail, Brandon has been placed in the women’s cell, causing her to ask: “What’s going on Brandon?” But Brandon concocts a story about being a hermaphrodite. Lana hasn’t heard of the term, so Brandon tries to explain: “It’s a person who’s got girl and boy parts – Brandon is not quite a ‘he.’ Brandon is a she. Brandon’s real name is Teena Brandon.” But Lana cuts him off abruptly and proceeds to bail him out. Meanwhile, Candace reveals the secret about Brandon’s real gender to John and Tom, and they head over to Lana’s house to break the news to Mom. Before Lana goes home, she and Brandon make out, but when Lana tries to touch him, Brandon recoils.

Lana and Brandon make love eventually – as two women – after Brandon has been raped, a scene which J. Hoberman calls “so transcendently sentimental it should have been set in the Garden of Eden or accompanied by a celestial choir,” and which Melissa Anderson in Cineaste considers “the only false note in Boys Don’t Cry.” Afterwards, Brandon asks Lana to accompany him to Lincoln, and Lana agrees and goes home to pack her things. But when Brandon turns up with his hair no longer slicked down and looking more feminine, Lana hesitates, causing Brandon to sense “her confusion and fear.” Lana’s vacillation ends moments later when John breaks into her home, and Mom, now fearful, provides him with the information that Brandon is hiding out at Candace’s farmhouse. Lana tries to save Brandon, but she is helpless against the two ex-cons, determined to prevent their rape-victim from testifying against them. Once Brandon dies, Lana’s love remains steadfast and assumes the level of myth. It is only through death that the transcendence the two sought together will finally be reached, even if only through the device of memory. In Brandon’s note, which Lana reads – and which we hear in his own words in voiceover – as she drives through depressed farm landscape, he ends by saying: “I’ll be waiting for you. Love always and forever, Brandon.”

What raises Boys Don’t Cry above the tabloid sensationalism of its subject matter are the complex characterizations that Peirce and Bienen are able to create, not only for Brandon and Lana, but for the perpetrators of this hate crime. By carefully delineating the social forces that have shaped John and Tom’s stunted world view, it becomes possible for us to understand the threat Brandon poses to the fragile sense of their own manhood, both symbolic and real. How else to explain the fury of the violence he elicits from these two small-town losers, desperate in their intent to hold onto the only remaining power that has not been stripped from them already. But Brandon, the film’s scrappy transgender hero, refuses to allow himself to be defeated by hatemongers. “You were right about me John,” Brandon defiantly tells him at the film’s end, “I just keep getting back up.” In fact, one of the most appealing aspects of Boys Don’t Cry lies in its ability to find hope and transcendence in this otherwise grim Midwestern tragedy. As Roger Ebert writes: “This could have been a clinical Movie of the Week, but instead it’s a sad song about a free spirit who tried to fly a little too close to the flame.”

Posted 9 September, 2007

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