27 February 2008


In an effort to write more, I’m taking on the films of one director at a time. While I would love to do this on a weekly basis, I’ll start off monthly and see how it goes.

To kick things off, I’ll be revisiting the work of British New Gay Cinema pioneer Derek Jarman. I wrote my master’s thesis on him nearly a decade ago, but I haven’t viewed any of his films in well over five years. When I was studying Jarman in depth, he had only recently passed away (from AIDS in 1994) and he still seemed fresh in the public’s memory (or at least the specialized, mostly academic audiences in this country who knew of his work). Since then, I sense his profile has faded. One could argue that his films are too esoteric, too British, too much of an era long since passed to have a lasting impact (and it doesn’t help that more than half of his features are unavailable on region 1 DVD). In reviewing these films, I hope to rebuke all of that, for something in Jarman’s style singled him out to me from the many directors I was exposed to as a Film Studies grad student.

The 33-year-old Jarman was already an established painter and set-designer (both for stage and screen). He had picked up a Super 8 camera a few years before and had begun to make off-the-cuff experimental short films with his friends (many of these were collected in the feature IN THE SHADOW OF THE SUN (1980), which I haven’t seen because it’s never been available in the US on VHS or DVD). In his first memoir, DANCING LEDGE, Jarman recounts meeting producer James Whaley at a luncheon. After introducing himself as a "maker of little films", Whaley asked him if he had any ideas for a feature. The producer was most taken with Jarman’s mention of St. Sebastiane, and the two set off on writing a treatment.

Jarman may share a co-director credit with editor Paul Humfrees on SEBASTIANE (1975), but the film clearly bears the former's stamp. It nearly overflows with stylistic motifs that would reappear in all of his subsequent work: the emphasis of mood over narrative, a painterly visual tableaux, and dominance of the male gaze, for starters. One can easily trace his revisionist approach to portraying the lives of historical figures from its humble beginnings here to his more sophisticated, conceptually daring takes on CARAVAGGIO, EDWARD II, and WITTGENSTEIN.
The film opens dauntingly and loudly with a party at Diocletian’s palace straight out of Kenneth Anger’s SCORPIO RISING. Lurid pinks, golds and blues and a relentless tribal beat accompany a troop of half-naked men wielding plastic, super-soaker-sized phalluses as they wildly gyrate around a debased central figure, climaxing in what Jarman calls “a condensed milk orgasm.” Although the sequence has little to do with what follows in the narrative, it undoubtedly sets a tone, not only for SEBASTIANE but for Jarman’s entire filmography: an unrepentant celebration of homoeroticism, sex and camp.

The rest of the film follows Sebastiane (the slight-framed, beatific Leo Treviglio) as he is sent into exile in the desert by the Romans for professing his Christian faith and eventually martyred. We get many scenes of Sebastiane and his fellow soldiers engaging in fight practice, goofing off and lazing about—in the first of a long line of deliberate anachronisms, Jarman has his cast throw around a plastic frisbee.

Between these seemingly trivial, often comic moments exist lyrical ones that shape the film into something far more ambitious than a simple historical piece, revisionist or not. Thirty minutes in, Jarman fixates on two soldiers, Anthony and Adrian, as they sensually frolic and embrace each other in the water. Drawn out in a series of slow-motion shots with Brian Eno’s ambient score languidly hanging overhead, the sequence is passionate and blissfully erotic without being pornographic (though in some versions a glimpse of an erection appears in one shot). Arguably, it’s more audacious than the opening orgy—to portray on film a physical act of love between two men, as opposed to merely sex, did not have much precedent in 1975; nor did depicting homosexuality as something other than an affliction to overcome.

Also audacious is how Jarman recontextualizes Sebastiane’s faith in God as something material. Early on, Sebastian muses on his own beauty, devotedly staring at his reflection in the water. Throughout, he recites his winsome, plainspoken poetry (both out loud and in voiceover); combined with visuals like the soldiers' embrace, they start to sound less like prayer and more like paeans to the male form. I don’t think Jarman is suggesting that Sebastiane was gay (he actually fends off sexual advances from one of his superiors) so much as appropriating his status of persecuted outcast as an allegory for anyone who upsets the status quo by being different.

At this early stage in his career, Jarman has all the disparate pieces on the table but not the ability to successfully alchemize them into a convincing whole. The fragmented narrative rambles without any sense of momentum or poetic epiphany. Sebastiane himself is so much a generic cipher that when his execution concludes the film, it has precious little resonance. As each soldier methodically shoots an arrow at Sebastian as he is tied to a post, we hear nothing, not even the arrow puncturing the skin; only the wind is audible. Such a somber, mournful tone is the complete opposite of the film’s opening frenzy. The lack of melodrama is soothing, but not haunting enough. An earlier, minor scene where Sebastiane and another soldier find divine revelation by listening to a sea shell is far more affecting.

When researching my thesis, I quickly dismissed SEBASTIANE as a first film by a talent awaiting refinement and development. It’s still not the best Jarman work to begin with, though it’s far from the most challenging one. Sure, it’s a little naive, but in a charming rather than annoying way. Stay tuned to see what happens as that naivete gradually transforms into knowingness and something approaching both rage and lament.

24 February 2008


--Only four awards left and it's not even 11:30. Diablo Cody gets Original Screenplay amidst a truly horrid orchestral version of "A Well Respected Man", and is actually pretty adorable despite the tattoo, outfit, hair, etc;

--I was hoping they'd include the infamous milkshake monologue for Daniel Day-Lewis' Best Actor clip from THERE WILL BE BLOOD, but the maniacal religious conversion scene's nearly as good.

--Oh those Coen Brothers. If they win Best Picture, I wonder if Ethan will have more to say.

--And the big winner is... NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. Surely the best Best Picture in years. And hey! Ethan doesn't have to say anything.

As for my predictions, I correctly guessed 17 out of 24. Not sure if I'll be live-blogging again next year. I have to admit I feel a bit like Comic Book Guy, tapping snarkily away. And finally, why the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE theme?


--Aw, I was looking forward to Roderick Jaynes' acceptance speech for Film Editing, but it went to THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM instead.

--Without 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS AND 2 DAYS on the list or THE BAND'S VISIT even eligible, I don't care much about Best Foreign Language film this year. As I predicted, it goes to THE COUNTERFEITERS (how the Academy loves a holocaust film), though I'm guessing (hoping?) the accompanying music's not in the film as it's much better suited for a figure skating competition.

--Here comes John Travolta and his spray-on hair. Vinnie Barbarino would not approve. It kinda restores one's faith in humanity when something from ONCE wins Best Original Song. Make art, indeed.


--Jon Stewart's sarcastic reaction to the belabored, oh-we're-so-clever behind-the-scenes Academy voting montage? Perfect.

--Sigh... seeing Kristin Chenoweth perform the second nominated number from ENCHANTED reminds me how much I'm missing PUSHING DAISIES.

--Hmm... Seth Rogen does give off a bit of a "Dame Judi Dench" vibe (though Jonah Hill ain't no Halle Berry).

--Where is the Sound Editing and Mixing love for TRANSFORMERS? (Just kidding).

--Wow, Lead Actress less than two hours into the broadcast? Oscar goes schizoid once again? (though I don't think ATONEMENT will be winning Best Picture). And it goes to Marion Cotillard, who was so absolutely mesmerizing as Edith Piaf that I don't even mind Julie Christie losing.


--Deserved Best Supporting Actor winner Javier Bardem acknowledges his haircut, touchingly thanks his mother in Spanish, and sets the bar high for best speech of the evening.

--Oscar's Tribute to Periscopes and Binoculars is actually far more entertaining than watching performances of the Best Original Song nominees.

--And now, the most unpredictable category... ever. Best Supporting Actress goes to one of my all-time favorites, Tilda Swinton, who gives a typically genuine, unrehearsed acceptance speech. How can you not love the way she comments on the statue's "buttocks"?


--"Oscar is 80 this year, which automatically makes him the front runner for the Republican nomination". Leave it to Jon Stewart to score with the political jokes instead of the obligatory strike-related ones.

--First up, Best Costume Design. What happened to kicking things off with a supporting actor or actress award? Why does Jennifer Garner have Peter Petrelli's haircut from the first season of HEROES?

--The best thing about montage # 1, celebrating 80 years of Oscar: too many hairstyles of the damned to mention (bonus points for young Michael Jackson's 'fro... and Jane Fonda's too).

--Only in a category like Makeup can both NORBIT and LA VIE EN ROSE exist. The Academy goes with the classier of the two.

15 February 2008


October 1998: 120-minute cassette

01. Propellerheads feat. Shirley Bassey, “History Repeating”
02. Soul Coughing, “Circles”
03. Erasure, “Too Darn Hot”
04. The Kinks, “Apeman”
05. Tom Waits, “16 Shells From a Thirty-Ought Six”
06. Pulp, “Dishes”
07. Leonard Cohen, “Sisters of Mercy”
08. Meryn Cadell, “Window of Opportunity”
09. Saint Etienne, “Been So Long”
10. Jane Siberry, “See the Child”
11. Utah Phillips and Ani DiFranco, “Holding On”
12. The Darling Buds, “Do You Have to Break My Heart?”
13. Information Society, “A Knife and A Fork”
14. Everything But the Girl, “Mirrorball”
15. Liz Phair, “Polyester Bride”

16. The Jam, “Start!”
17. LaBelle, “Lady Marmalade”
18. Billie Holiday, “Comes Love”
19. Frank Sinatra, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”
20. Rosemary Clooney, “Mambo Italiano”
21. Keely Smith, “Don’t Take Your Love From Me”
22. Vince Guaraldi Trio, “Linus and Lucy”
23. Dionne Warwick, “Do You Know the Way to San Jose”
24. Pizzicato Five, “Fortune Cookie”
25. Annie Lennox, “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye”
26. Kirsty MacColl, “Angel”
27. Saint Etienne, “Hobart Paving”
28. XTC, “Earn Enough For Us”
29. Morcheeba, “Let Me See”
30. Indigo Girls, “Galileo”
31. Sam Phillips, “These Boots are Made For Walkin’”
32. Sheryl Crow, “My Favorite Mistake” (labeled “Mystery Flavor”)

Ah, I *heart* the ‘90s. I made this mix nearly a decade ago for a friend’s 23rd birthday (the same recipient of this and this) and revisited it when I made a CD version of it for her 32nd birthday a few months ago. Given I’ll be 32 for only a few more days, I thought I’d better write about it now.

I don’t think I’ve recently listened to any other mixes I made from that pre CD-burning, pre iPod era—in fact, this is one of the few from that time where I wrote down the track listing for my own records. Forgive me my nostalgia, but for all its detriments (fuzzy sound, analog sequencing, limited durability), I really miss mix tapes, especially the 120-minute ones: two neatly appropriated hours of song, as opposed to an arbitrarily determined 75-79 minute swath of time. Too bad most people no longer have anything to play them on (the main reason I “digitized” this mix for my friend).

The title, of course, is from an Ani DiFranco song, although her appearance here is limited to musical backing for a Utah Phillips monologue. Apart from the actual number of songs, there’s no running theme, except for a long stretch of pre-1975 tracks on Side Two that I don’t remember being intentional. As with most of my mixes, this is a perfect time capsule of what I was into then. Apparently, the soundtrack for my clove-smoking grad school years contained lots of Britpop, slightly quirky alt-rock, the BIG NIGHT soundtrack, and a few random selections, like “Sisters of Mercy” (I must’ve seen McCABE & MS. MILLER recently) and “Lady Marmalade” (a whole three years before the tacky MOULIN ROUGE remake).

Surprisingly, I’m not embarrassed by any of the selections I made as a 23-year-old; I doubt I could say the same for a mix I made at 18 or especially 13 (which would’ve consisted of songs taped off the radio). Before setting out to re-make it, I discovered I already had most of these songs on my iPod. Hearing it again, some of it actually seems more relevant today, particularly this apt lyric from Pulp’s beautifully world-weary “Dishes”:

A man told me to beware of 33
He said, “It was not an easy time for me”

but I'll get though
even though I've got no miracles to show you.