Orange Is the New Black, 2013–, production still from a TV show on Netflix. Season 3, episode 6. Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren and Poussey Washington (Uzo Aduba and Samira Wiley).
DAVID SIMON, the creator of The Wire (2002–2008), famously said of the origins of that lauded Baltimore-set HBO program: “Our model when we started . . . wasn’t other television shows. The standard we were looking at was Balzac’s Paris or Dickens’s London or Tolstoy’s Moscow.” Orange Is the New Black, the hit Netflix series created by Jenji Kohan, has a less exalted literary prototype: Piper Kerman’s 2010 memoir of the same name, chronicling her year in stir. But the show, whose third season recently became available for gluttonous, single-sitting consumption, has consistently stood out for its novel-of-manners-like attention to detail. Recounting the lives of the inmates—white, black, Latina, and Asian; young and old; straight, gay, and other—at Litchfield Correctional Facility, a fictional women’s penitentiary in upstate New York, OITNB, in its best moments, suggests Edith Wharton had she written not The House of Mirth but The House of Meth.
Other influences would seem to be lesbian-pulp paradigm Ann Bannon and the galvanizing findings of Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow (published the same year as Kerman’s book), regarding this country’s prison-industrial complex. Showcasing perhaps the most diverse female cast ever seen on television, OITNB nominally centers around Kerman’s surrogate, Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), the Waspy, bisexual Seven Sisters grad who’s behind bars for aiding and abetting her drug-selling girlfriend, Alex (Laura Prepon). By the third season, viewers are blessedly spared the recurrence of Piper’s ex-fiancé Larry and thus of Jason Biggs, the supreme nullity who portrayed him.
Filling this heteronormative void, however, is a sapphic subplot that proves almost as dull. Further complicating her on-again, off-again relationship with Alex, Piper takes up with new Litchfield inmate Stella, played by Australian model Ruby Rose, whose acting gifts don’t extend much beyond confident winking. Schilling, too, remains a performer of narrow range, the limits of her talent made especially clear as her character assumes a tougher persona as the capo of a contraband unwashed-panties operation.
In her rave of OITNB’s first season, New Yorker TV critic Emily Nussbaum pointed out that “while the show touches on the grinding unfairness of the penal system, it’s never preachy or grim.” Though that observation still mainly holds true, more than once this season, the series’ usually fluid dialogue was gummed up by lengthy trivia-filled asides or blunt speechifying. These infelicitous rhetorical acts were usually committed by Litchfield’s reigning bull dagger, Big Boo (Lea DeLaria), who butchsplained some of the theses in Freakonomics to born-again Doggett (Taryn Manning) and later delivered the show’s most clanging redundancy: “God, there’s no fucking justice!”
But these awkward interruptions and outbursts, even if more numerous than in past seasons, are still dwarfed by subtle yet sharp comments on, among other weighty topics, this country’s abominable status as the “jailingest” nation in the world and the disastrous results of prison privatization. And OITNB continues its superlative use of flashbacks, an often clunky narrative device that is here used to recapitulate the backstories of characters both major and minor, illuminating the circumstances and choices that led to Litchfield. This season, these histories are rendered in at least three different languages, including, most astonishingly, Pennsylvania Dutch. The series’ assiduous attention to the particulars of each inmate’s life, whether delving into her past or her present, has made it one of the most brilliantly kaleidoscopic in the history of television. As the great Laverne Cox, who plays the transgender prisoner Sophia, recently told the New York Times, “In some ways trans people are like everybody else, and in some ways we are not. When we get specific in the storytelling, that’s when the universality happens.”
The third season of Orange Is the New Black was released June 11 on Netflix.
Matías Piñeiro, The Princess of France, 2014, color, sound, 66 minutes. María Villar and Julián Larquier Tellarini.
IN MATÍAS PIÑEIRO’S elating The Princess of France, the precise attachments, romantic or otherwise, among the constellation of characters may be deliberately confusing, but the performers themselves, all part of the writer-director’s regular troupe, are exceptionally vivid. The third of Piñeiro’s ludic riffs on Shakespeare, following Rosalinda (2011) and Viola (2012), The Princess of France loosely revolves around the reunion of Victor (Julián Larquier Tellarini), who’s recently returned to Buenos Aires after a sojourn in Mexico, with the cast he directed in Love’s Labour’s Lost a year ago; he now has the funding to do the comedy as a radio play. Mounting this production becomes secondary, though, to the voluble players’ own tangentially related dramas, unfolding in the theaters—a street, a museum, a bed—of their choosing.
The protean nature of not just allegiances but also identities is a hallmark of Shakespeare’s comedies, of course, and Piñeiro cleverly signals this fluidity in the film’s opening minutes. A bravura fixed long take of a coed soccer match played on a concrete pitch—the game shot from a city rooftop and scored to the first movement of Schumann’s First Symphony—reveals two teams distinguished by neon yellow or orange vests. Although the number of brightly hued opponents is equal at first, by the scene’s end only one saffron-suited footballer remains, chased—perhaps menacingly, perhaps teasingly—by nearly a dozen competitors sporting lemon jerseys. This pursued athlete, named Lorena (Laura Paredes), removes her identifying garment in an alley, where a young man announces, “Come! It’s started,” and then whisks her into a theater to watch a rehearsal, well underway, of Love’s Labour’s Lost.
Viewers of The Princess of France will likewise feel that they are often witnessing incidents in medias res, though the sense of being unmoored from the mechanics of plot and backstory proves exhilarating, not confounding. As a web of current lovers, former girlfriends, and soon-to-be exes is spun around Victor shortly after his homecoming, the spectator remains utterly absorbed by losing herself in the cascade of utterances—whether digressions on the French nineteenth-century salon painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau; reflections on the inconstancy of desire; or dialogue from Shakespeare’s source play, considered his most linguistically dense—flowing forth from the performers. What makes these words so vital is that those delivering them rank among the most distinctive sounding in contemporary cinema; the actresses (who, as in Viola, are the main focus here, despite Victor’s prominence), especially possess deep, alluring timbres.
One of the most seductive speakers of español rioplatense, Elisa Carricajo, who plays Carla (and who set in motion Viola’s slinkiest moment), fittingly voices, while recalling her character’s first meeting of Victor on a crowded dance floor, the film’s sexiest line: “It was clear that we were going to kiss, but there was no hurry.” A similar atmosphere of languid or suspended eroticism permeates The Princess of France, which, during its fleet sixty-six minutes, performs a miraculous balancing act: In its liberating destabilization of time and action, Piñeiro’s film paradoxically draws viewers in closer, making them feel like co-conspirators in this intricate theater of intimacy.
The Princess of France opens Friday, June 26 in New York at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
Mia Hansen-Løve, Eden, 2014, color, sound, 131 minutes. Paul and Louise (Félix de Givry and Pauline Etienne).
IN MIA HANSEN-LØVE’S EDEN (2014), a story based on her brother Sven’s life as a DJ, communication often gets lost in “the mix of machines and voices” that, as another DJ says early on, make garage and house music special. The year is 1992; the city is Paris. A teenage Paul (the very decent Félix de Givry) grows up in the night. Entranced by the flavor of club jam that will come to be known as “French Touch,” Paul all but lives in basements and warehouses, returning to his family’s apartment only to sleep. He dreams of doing something like Daft Punk, so he and his friend Stan (Hugo Conzelmann) become a duo named Cheers, like the bar. Their artist friend Cyril (Roman Kolinka) draws them a logo, their promoter friend Arnaud (Vincent Macaigne) spreads the word, and Paul gets a bachelor pad and turntables instead of going to college. Soon it’s the night of their debut. The year is 1994. In the morning, Paul comes home to a note from his American girlfriend Julia (played by Greta Gerwig at half-speed) saying she’s sorry, but she “had to go back.” Since we already know that Julia has a husband in Brooklyn, the narrative purpose of the note isn’t to explain why she’s leaving; with no other exceptions, goodbyes are nonexistent in Eden. The note is here to leave Paul in silence long enough, for once, to get a message.
What the message is depends on the angle you watch from. If you’re older, it may be that life goes on outside the party, even when the music stops the world. Or that at some point it does become too late to go back, as Julia knows and Paul either doesn’t or ignores. If you’re younger, it may be that nothing pure lasts. Underground music is such a pure thing, and first love is another. So is ecstasy, the dangers of which are warned by Le Monde and Paul’s mother, but his drug of choice is cocaine. Without ever saying so, he seems to dread the irreversible loss of the present—or control over the present—that comes with ecstasy, and to embrace as protection the permanent awakeness of coke.
Awakeness is not like mindfulness, though, and if Paul doesn’t get talkative on drugs, nor does he get introspective. Lyrics like “I was a man who didn’t have any direction” are supposed to stand in for Paul’s epiphanies, but it’s unclear whether he’s having them. Eden is a diary in that it follows a single person through linear but not continuous time, somehow crossing two decades in the space of two hours; it is also an antidiary in that it doesn’t stick to red-letter days, skipping across the high points of a life, preferring to settle in the lulls. (Maybe I mean it’s the anti-Facebook time line.)
Sarah Manguso laments, in her new book Ongoingness (2015), the way she used to diarize or not: “So much apparent nothing I ignored, that I treated as empty time between the memorable moments.” Ongoingness is a memoir of a diary, which sounds dementedly meta—she’s writing about her life spent writing about her life?—until you learn the diary is twenty-five years and eight hundred thousand words long. It’s more like a memoir of addiction, written with the terminal honesty, or ethical commitment to not romanticizing, that’s so often praised in the genre. Her addiction, of course, is the diary; she herself calls it “a vice.”
Paul’s habits are easier to see as vices, yet his addiction to coke is also an addiction to making time—to working more, which means staying up later, which means staying up later still to party, which means working more to afford more means of working, staying up, and partying. Mostly Paul is happy when he’s working, which is to say working for himself. When a lover who’s also a DJ asks him to come see her gig, the way he says “maybe” for “no” is breezily cold and self-absorbed. “No hot water, but you buy Paul Smith shirts?” the same girl asks over breakfast. “Priorities,” he responds, kidding but not.
Halfway through Eden, in the summer of 2001, Cheers play PS1 Contemporary Art Center (now MoMA PS1) in New York. Paul goes to see a pregnant Julia, who tells him, with her husband in the shower, that she wrote him all these letters she never sent. Louise (Pauline Etienne), who has now been Paul’s (very French) girlfriend for several years, completely freaks out about what she means to him. Offscreen, one of their friends commits suicide; Paul and Stan find out at an electronic music station, moments before going live. They go live anyway. There is an awful beat of radio silence before the song comes.
At home in Paris, Daft Punk are suddenly everywhere. The years are 2003, 2004, 2005, and 2006, exploding on screen in a half-minute montage of parties and boats, and then the second half of Eden begins with the fall. It’s a very slow fall. Actually, the second half has the same exact pacing as the first, but because a fall is supposed to be so much faster than a rise, this one feels torturously slower. The symmetry of the film becomes predictable, as it substitutes for the peaks of euphoria a series of flatly significant “after” shots that mirror the ones “before.” Colorful balloons are filled and float to the ceiling for the first Cheers album party at Respect; eleven years later, after another regular but unsuccessful Cheers night, black and white balloons are pricked one by one. On two separate occasions, a generation apart, Daft Punk are denied at a club because no one, including the bouncer, knows what they look like under their helmets. It was sort of funny the first time, but not the second. Ditto a lot of things, actually: Paul’s money problems, the lies to his mother, the lazy way he often has with women. “Now I won’t make the same mistakes, time and time again,” sings Julie McKnight for the Kings of Tomorrow in “Finally,” Paul standing motionless in a crowd.
Even when he stops playing music the clubs want and starts playing music at weddings, Paul can’t stop playing music, the same way Manguso couldn’t stop writing a diary that no one will read. Paul needs the money, but the money is also a ruse. He doesn’t want to lose his place in time. Only after a drug-induced breakdown does he quit, find a job, and join a writing workshop, where he meets yet another young woman (they never get any older in twenty years). She gives him a book of poems by Robert Creeley, and that’s how Eden ends, with the suggestion that Paul was to Daft Punk as Creeley was to William Carlos Williams, or else with a poem that just fits.
“You understand so much in life that nobody explains to you,” Hansen-Løve tells the writer Durga Chew-Bose in Filmmaker magazine. “I try to make movies like life, where nothing is really said, and it’s there without needing to be explained.” Her camera is shy and hyperattentive yet usually easy to ignore; her script, which her brother helped write, is sometimes so light it’s like gossip. “I want to write sentences that seem as if no one wrote them,” a friend tells Manguso, who in turn puts the sentence in her book without naming the friend. Hansen-Løve, likewise, makes scenes as if no one is watching them. Yet with all the time Paul spends in emptiness, it becomes an emptiness as ornate, as detailed and unreal, as a cathedral’s, where neither machines nor voices account for the music you can hear.
Mia Hansen-Løve’s Eden opens Friday, June 19, at the IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas in New York.
THE SEVENTH ANNUAL BAMcinemaFest begins with a Judd Apatow veteran impressively portraying a beloved, bandanna-ed dead author and ends with two newcomers who are naturals in front of the camera—at least that of the iPhone 5s. In between these bookends are twenty-one other feature-length works (both narratives and documentaries), plus four revival screenings, a handful of shorts, and, just announced, a sneak preview of Noah Baumbach’s Mistress America. Its titles plucked, as in previous editions, mainly from Sundance and South by Southwest, BAMcinemaFest offers a distillation of American-independent cinema, a corpus that, even in the highly curated sampler presented here, remains wildly disparate in theme—and quality. Trend-sniffers will note only the number of times that Kickstarter thank-yous dominate closing-credit segments.
“I lived this incredibly American life,” Jason Segel as David Foster Wallace tells Jesse Eisenberg, playing a Rolling Stone reporter who’s trailing the author, in James Ponsoldt’s The End of the Tour, the festival’s opening-night film. It takes a while to grow accustomed to Segel’s inhabiting of Wallace, captured during the final lap of promoting 1996’s Infinite Jest: At first DFW’s signature long, lank locks crowned by a kerchief seems like an absurd costume for the star of such regressed-bro vehicles as I Love You, Man. But Segel delivers lines like that above—and even quotes Saint Ignatius—with wrenching earnestness, his performance honoring a writer whose boundless compassion was ultimately outmatched by his despair. Yet no matter how intelligent and surprising, Segel’s take on Wallace still cannot make Eisenberg’s trademark clipped speech and twitchiness more tolerable.
There’s no such lopsidedness in Sean Baker’s Tangerine, the trashily buoyant BAMcinemaFest closer; its stars, Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor, both making their feature-film debut, are equally charismatic in their roles as transgender prosties. Set during Christmas Eve in the seedier intersections of Hollywood, Baker’s film tracks Sin-Dee (Rodriquez) as she storms down Santa Monica Boulevard in search of her cheating pimp boyfriend, her bestie Alexandra (Taylor) reluctantly aiding the motor-mouthed wronged woman in her enraged quest. As in his previous movie, Starlet (2012), a tale of an improbable intergenerational friendship between an aspiring XXX actress and an octogenarian widow, Baker again evinces genuine admiration for his unconventional heroines, his warmth never curdling into mawkishness. Enhanced with anamorphic adapters, the smartphones that Baker used to shoot Tangerine proved extremely versatile, enabling both widescreen visions of shapely, fishnet-stockinged legs furiously in motion and more intimate two-shots of extreme acrimony in doughnut shops or tender reconciliations in laundromats.
The friendship between Catherine (Elisabeth Moss) and Virginia (Katherine Waterston) is beset by an even more fraught, if quieter, push-pull dynamic in Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth, the festival’s centerpiece. A besotted yet spiky homage to New Hollywood exemplars of female unraveling, like Robert Altman’s Images (1972) and Woody Allen’s Interiors (1979), Perry’s movie opens with a tight close-up of Moss’s teary, mascara-smeared face as her character demands of her off-screen, soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend, “Why are you doing this to me?” Though never articulated again, the query becomes the film’s theme: Nearly all conversations between Catherine and Virginia are poisoned by simmering hurts and resentments. That these increasingly dark, aggrieved exchanges take place amid the effulgent glory of the Hudson Valley, where Catherine retreats after her breakup—and her father’s death—to spend a few weeks in the airy country home owned by Virginia’s parents (and where the two engaged in more passive-aggressive banter the summer prior, a time smoothly rendered in flashback), only heightens the dread of this domestic horror story. Although these acts of psychic sabotage can occasionally seem strained and overwritten, the lead actresses are always fascinating to watch: Moss, in her second film with Perry after last year’s Listen Up Philip, mines the odd humor in her character’s mental disintegration, and Waterston, last seen in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1970-set Inherent Vice, has an uncanny ability to appear at once an of-this-moment performer and a throwback to American cinema of forty years ago.
American television from eras past is the subject of two fitfully informative docs. Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville’s Best of Enemies recounts the ten debates between William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal that served as the linchpin of ABC’s coverage of the Republican and Democratic National Conventions of 1968. An army of talking heads weighs in on the contentious colloquies between the National Review founder and the author of Myra Breckinridge, this gabbing too often privileged over the far more revelatory source material itself. Both forty-two at the time of the debates, their orotund speech a product of their Brahmin upbringing, these class-consonant, politically discordant public intellectuals make no attempt to conceal their mutual animosity, infamously reaching its lowest point when Buckley, who had just been branded a “crypto-Nazi” by his opponent, retorts by calling Vidal a “queer” and threatening, “I’ll sock you in the goddamn face.” But even this potent moment in network news is diluted by the excess of commenters dissecting the fracas, which Best of Enemies then rushes to proclaim as a harbinger of today’s nonstop bloviating. Similarly, Jon Nealon and Jenny Raskin’s Here Come the Videofreex, an amiable chronicle of the alt-media collective that launched the first pirate-TV station in a Catskills hamlet in 1972, uncritically embraces this assertion by one of its interlocutors: “Set up a camera and you can change the world.”
I risk making my own fatuous pronouncements about then and now in discussing Larry Clark’s Kids, the twentieth anniversary of which BAMcinemaFest is celebrating with a post-screening Q&A with the director, writer Harmony Korine, and stars Chloë Sevigny, Rosario Dawson, and Leo Fitzpatrick. (The film marked the inaugural big-screen effort of all those mentioned.) Revisiting Kids for the first time since its summer 1995 release, I felt the same profound unease mixed with queasy admiration for Clark’s graphic depictions of adolescent lust and predatory smooth talkers as I did during my initial viewing. My appreciation for Clark’s provocative project, however, only grew once I considered the ludicrously sanitized versions of teenage sexuality that have dominated big screens for the past two decades.
The seventh annual BAMcinemaFest runs June 17 through 28 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York.
Stephanie Gray, You Know They Want to Disappear Hell’s Kitchen as Clinton, 2010, Super 8, black-and-white and color, sound, 17 minutes.
AVANT-GARDE FILMS, as Jonas Mekas often explains, are to narrative movies as poetry is to prose. Mekas was a poet before he ever picked up a camera. Now ninety-two, he continues to both write and film. Stephanie Gray, roughly half Mekas’s age, is also both a poet and a filmmaker. Poetry informs the place from which she speaks as a moving-image maker and her camera-eye informs her words. “Super 8mm Poetics: The Films of Stephanie Gray,” a three-evening retrospective at Anthology Film Archives, coincides with the publication by Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs of her second poetry collection, Shorthand and Electric Language Stars.
Spanning fifteen years, the retrospective confirms Gray’s commitment not only to celluloid but specifically to the narrow-gauge medium of Super 8. She has mined its particular expressive qualities—graininess, smeary color or low-contrast black-and-white, limited focal range, on-the-fly sync-sound recording, and, especially, the fragility and instability of the film strip itself during shooting, editing, and projection. Like the places and people she has filmed, Super 8 has all but disappeared. Most of the filmmakers who briefly explored it turned decades ago to video and digital technologies. But for Gray, whose work is defined by its stubbornness, Super 8 is the artisanal medium where she celebrates handmade imperfection and mourns its passing.
The third program in the series is devoted almost entirely to short films that memorialize —although that’s too grand a word for Gray’s images—places that made daily life in New York unique until they fell victim to so-called gentrification: More Bread Forever (2004) shot the day before Zito’s Bakery on Bleecker Street closed; I Bought the Last Four Bagels at Jon Vie Pastries, New Year’s Eve 2004 (2004); Magic Couldn’t Save Magic Shoes (2010); You Know They Want to Disappear Hell’s Kitchen as Clinton (2010). The titles are more straightforward—punchier even—than the film images, where Gray’s deliberate refusal to focus her lens except for brief scattered moments makes the places that one took for granted till they were gone look as if they were already misted memories even before they breathed their last. All of Gray’s films suggest the difficulty of focusing on anything—even what we most love or hate.
The paradox is that these extremely fragile films comprise a cinema of personal and political grief and outrage that is unsparing of its audience. Gray speaks from the position of a working-class, lesbian, and severely hearing-impaired woman, a voice from the margins that refuses to be silent, indeed finds no justification for marginalization of any kind. Gray makes no attempt to seduce a potential audience, although several films in this retro are ironically humorous in their wordplay, most notably Close Yr Hearing for the Cap(Shuns) (2000). Her voice-overs are repetitive in pitch and rhythm and reedy in timbre—they reflect the way she hears her own voice and the voices of others, but more crucially they express a struggle to be heard at all. And while Gray’s vision is not disabled, her handheld camera often seems to replicate the seeing of a nearly blind person as it gropes its way toward the object of her attention, circling and zooming until finally for one or two seconds it focuses only to move away and repeat the same movement patterns over and over again.
There is one film that is an exception to the Spartan rules of Gray’s filmmaking. Kristy (2003) consists of clips of the actress Kristy McNichol, her lovely face filmed off a TV screen and “processed” in various ways. The television loses sync so the image is sometimes in vertical roll as Gray films it; the film itself is scratched and torn, the editing splices visible. McNichol, who came out in 2012, twenty years after she retired and nearly a decade after Gray made Kristy, was already a lesbian icon in the 1980s when she played a teenager on Family. Gray’s portrait film collapses the filmmaker’s desire into the desire she projects onto McNichol. Naked in its longing, Kristy takes possession of a beauty that will not be denied.
“Super 8mm Poetics: The Films of Stephanie Gray” runs June 12–14 at Anthology Film Archives in New York. Live spoken word and musical performances accompany films in all three programs.
MAHOGANY, THE DIANA ROSS VEHICLE from 1975 that has launched a thousand drag tributes, is the first and only film directed by Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown Records, which financed the movie; it was originally slated to be the seventeenth feature helmed by Tony Richardson, the British New Wave stalwart. According to an article in the New York Times from February 1975, Richardson—best known for Look Back in Anger (1959), The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), and Tom Jones (1963)—was sacked midway through Mahogany’s production because the Motown impresario, who had managed Ross’s career while she was the lead singer of the Supremes, “did not feel Richardson was capturing the feeling of ‘blackness’ necessary to the story of a girl from the Chicago ghetto who achieves success as an international fashion model and designer.”
That “girl” is Tracy Chambers, played by Ross three years after her screen debut as Billie Holiday in the highly successful 1972 biopic Lady Sings the Blues and five years into her career as a solo recording artist. Tracy works as the secretary to the priggish head of the display department of Marshall Field’s, though her off-hours are devoted to fashion classes; the El ride back to her South Side walkup provides the precious few minutes needed to complete the sketch of a design begun in night school. That lavish garment, and several others, will be realized about halfway through Mahogany, as Tracy leaves Chicago for Rome at the invitation of Sean (Anthony Perkins), the sociopathic fashion photographer who discovers her on a shoot at the upscale department store.
In leaving the boot-strapping Windy City for the decadent Old World, Tracy is also abandoning Brian (Billy Dee Williams), a community organizer running for alderman who’s disgusted by his girlfriend’s profession (“Baby, I don’t understand this whole trip”). Williams, once known as the “black Clark Gable,” also played Ross’s love interest in Lady Sings the Blues; in Berry’s film, the actor must revile the other “feeling” necessary to a project about fashion: queerness, which Mahogany simultaneously celebrates and repudiates. Visiting Tracy on a surprise trip to the Italian capital, Brian, whose preferred attire consists of Shaft-inspired ensembles of thick turtlenecks and leather coats, is treated by his lady to a bespoke suit, though the outfit makes him uncomfortable: “I feel like an ol’ sissy walking around in this thing.” He squirms even more at a party thrown by Sean—whose sexual deviance is confirmed by his inability to get it up for Tracy—after a gender illusionist tries to finger-feed Brian a canapé. Butch guest and effete host will soon be tussling in Sean’s gun room; despite the tricked-out, macho redoubt, even here the photographer shoots blanks.
Perkins, who died of complications related to AIDS in 1992 (one year after Richardson’s death from the same illness), had played a queer character before, albeit a far more sympathetic one, in Frank Perry’s adaptation of Joan Didion’s Play It as It Lays (1972), in which he acted opposite Tuesday Weld as B.Z., a tormented bisexual movie producer. Yet the gayest signifier in Mahogany is, of course, Ross, who also served as the film’s costume designer. (Perhaps the most lavender moment in ’70s cinema occurs when Tracy shows her designs to an indifferent dress manufacturer played by Bruce Vilanch.) The outré japonaiserie that makes Tracy an haute-couture superstar isn’t quite as outlandish as her outbursts at her nonbilingual staff in her atelier: “Don’t give me that ‘non capisco’ shit!” And in the string of rhetorical questions that make up the bulk of the movie’s theme song, which became a number-one hit for Ross, is embedded a query that could have served as a salvo for homosexual intifadists forty years ago: Do you like the things that life is showing you?
Mahogany screens Monday, June 8, at the IFC Center as part of the series “Queer/Art/Film: Black Summer Nights.”