Basil Dearden, Victim, 1961, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 100 minutes.
IT REALLY WAS the love that dared not speak its name: The words homosexual and homosexuality weren’t uttered on-screen until 1961, in Basil Dearden’s London-set Victim, the first commercial movie to plead tolerance for same-sexing between consenting adults since the 1919 German film Different from the Others.
Co-written by Janet Green (who scripted Dearden’s 1959 film Sapphire, a police procedural about a murdered woman who had been passing as white) and John McCormick, Victim unspools as a thriller about Melville Farr (Dirk Bogarde), a married, closeted, extraordinarily virtuous barrister who stands up to a blackmailer. Until 1967, homosexuality was illegal in England—a prohibition that essentially became, in the words of the film’s detective inspector, a “blackmailer’s charter”; 90 percent of all blackmail cases at the time involved threats to expose homosexuality.
Though succumbing occasionally to the creaky, heavy-handed dialogue typical of social-awareness films, Victim remains a thoughtful, sober work (particularly when contrasted with the hysteria of another high-profile, lavender-themed movie made the same year on the other side of the Atlantic: William Wyler’s The Children’s Hour). The corrosive effects of the closet and self-loathing are unsparingly examined across class lines and age groups. When Farr sets out to avenge the death of a young construction worker (driven to suicide by a blackmailer’s demands) with whom he was emotionally involved, he knows full well that his refusal to remain invisible will end his promising legal career and, most likely, his marriage to Laura (Sylvia Syms). The scenes between Farr and his wife are Victim’s most poignantly intricate: Though their marriage is clearly a companionate, loving, and trusting one, with Laura fully aware of her husband’s gay past, Farr’s revelations about his most recent same-sex attachment, even if platonic, devastate her. The film’s empathy extends to both characters—casualties of enforced silence and concomitant deception.
Im Sang-soo, The Housemaid, 2010, stills from a color film in 35 mm, 106 minutes. Left: Byung-sik (Youn Yuh-jung). Right: Eun-yi and Nami (Jeon Do-youn and Ahn Seo-hyeon).
IM SANG-SOO’S THE HOUSEMAID, a remake of Kim Ki-young’s 1960 classic of the same title, begins with a narrative and aesthetic tease. In a masterful opening sequence set on a busy urban street, Im’s handheld camera roams freely among the town’s inhabitants, the jittery cinematography and rapid editing mirroring the frenetic pace of city life. Among the denizens is a woman positioned on the edge of a balcony, poised to jump, but given no more weight by Im’s camera than the other figures. When she finally leaps to her death, a few curiosity seekers gawk, while others continue with their daily business, untroubled, placing leaflets on cars or cutting fish in a restaurant.
The film then doesn’t so much rewind as start over, with the jarred viewer left to ponder the opening’s (non)place in the accompanying narrative. The remainder of the film, which takes place almost entirely in the mansion where the young housemaid of the title begins her employment, unfolds at a far more measured pace. Trading the handheld work for more carefully composed cinematography befitting upper-crust stateliness, Im introduces notes of uncertainty by complicating the film’s visual style through odd, seemingly unmotivated angles and employing rack focus to reveal characters surreptitiously watching the action in the background.
The Housemaid is a horror movie about how the rich take care of their problems and how divisions of class and sexual power make enemies of potential allies. As Eun-yi (Jeon Do-youn), a young woman two parts naďf and one part seductress, starts a new job working for a wealthy womanizer and his pregnant wife, Im’s camera quickly sexualizes her. Before long the film’s objective gaze gives way to subjective shots from Eun-yi’s boss Hoon’s (Lee Jung-jae) point of view. Soon, the two are having an affair (in which Eun-yi is largely complicit). But when Eun-yi becomes pregnant, Hoon’s domineering mother-in-law begins a series of attempts at forced abortion designed to look like accidents. Hoon’s wife, equally screwed over by Hoon, evinces a brief moment of sympathy for the maid, suggesting a possible compact between these two victims, but before long she’s swept up in the imperatives of preserving appearances. The film plays the ensuing escalation with a touch of campy knowingness, with the startling, fiery penultimate image bringing about an appropriately near-apocalyptic conclusion.
The Housemaid opens Friday, January 21 at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and the IFC Center in New York.
Greg Olliver and Wes Orshoski, Lemmy: 49% Motherfker, 51% Son of a Bitch, 2010, stills from a color film, 117 minutes.
NEAR THE BEGINNING of this amiable, humanizing documentary, an enthusiastic Motörhead fan tells the filmmakers, “If they drop an atomic bomb, the only things left will be cockroaches and Lemmy!” A justifiable assumption, to be sure, about this seemingly indestructible lion of prog, metal, punk, and, above all, rock ’n’ roll: Born Ian Fraser Kilmister in England on Christmas Eve, 1945, Lemmy has subsisted on Jack Daniel’s, Marlboro Reds, and the three S’s (speed, strippers, and slot machines) for most of his adult life. He’s one of the few celebrities walking today—Iggy Pop and Keith Richards are others—who could make a significant contribution to medicine by donating their bodies to science. As this film makes clear (despite its subtitle and its subject’s extensive collection of Nazi military paraphernalia), Lemmy is also a hell of a nice guy.
Raised by his mother and grandmother, largely in North Wales, Lemmy caught the rock ’n’ roll bug early, idolizing Little Richard and Elvis as a child, and seeing the nascent Beatles live before their debut LP. He joined the beat group the Rockin’ Vickers as a guitarist and enjoyed some regional success in Manchester, Liverpool, and environs. As the band descended to the cabaret circuit, Lemmy moved to London and became a roadie (and unofficial drug dealer) for the Jimi Hendrix Experience. He returned to performance as a bassist-vocalist with space-rock band Hawkwind, which—as Captain Sensible of the Damned, Peter Hook of Joy Division/New Order, and Jarvis Cocker of Pulp all note in the film—was the prog band that punks were allowed to like. Fired by his colleagues for being terminally late (and temporarily jailed in Canada on a drug charge), Lemmy struck out on his own, forming Motörhead (original name: Bastard) in 1975. Speaking to his involuntary dismissal from Hawkwind, Lemmy says, “It was ’70s drug snobbery. They were into organic drugs; I was into speed and organic drugs.”
In the film, the likes of Alice Cooper and Ozzy Osbourne credit Motörhead as being the first heavy metal band, and Lemmy’s music (and sartorial style) certainly set the template for the genre. Beyond the loud fast rules of the band’s sonic assault, Lemmy brought the following elements, among others, to the mead-hall table: skulls; mutton chops; biker aesthetics; growled, guttural vocals; gothic lettering; and unnecessary umlauts. For those who care about such things, members of the key bands associated with the thrash metal subgenre (Anthrax, Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth) all cite Lemmy as their primary inspiration. But what’s surprising about the documentary—and, for the uninitiated, Lemmy himself—is how little you have to care about such things to enjoy the film and its star. Lemmy’s influence cuts across several (often incompatible) genres and generations of musicians, and his understated charisma and good-hearted nature make similar films about bigger acts (the Rolling Stones, say) seem like contrived exercises in cinematic fellatio.
Lemmy is candid about the controversial aspects of his persona. Point-blanked by the filmmakers about whether his collection of Nazi uniforms, medals, daggers, etc., means that he himself is a Nazi, he makes clear that it’s about his interest in military history generally and German military aesthetics in particular: “It’s just how I like to dress. If the Israeli army had the best-looking uniforms, I’d wear those. But they don’t.” (To be fair, Lemmy avidly collects—and wears—military items from other cultures and periods, particularly from Eastern Europe and the American Civil War.) About his lifetime of substance abuse, he says, almost tearfully, “I don’t want to advertise that. I don’t want kids doing drugs because of me. I don’t want kids not doing drugs because of me either, but I’ve had too many friends die from that lifestyle for me to promote it.” Asked by a caller on a radio show how he explains his longevity, Lemmy answers, only half-jokingly, “Not dying—that’s the secret to survival.” At the end of the film, we see Lemmy sitting alone in a Moscow dressing room with a vintage slot machine. Over thirty years into Motörhead’s existence, he’s waiting to go onstage to greet a rapturous Russian crowd. “This is who I am . . . this is what I do,” he says, with a combination of pride and wistfulness. To which all but the most prudish viewer would reply, “Rock on.”
Lemmy premieres in Los Angeles at the Vista Theater on January 13; Portland, OR, at the Clinton Street Theater, January 14–21; and New York at the Cinema Village on January 21. For more details, click here.
Zhao Liang, Petition, 2009, stills from a color video, 123 minutes.
EMERGING FROM ARDUOUS, dangerous, in-the-trenches work, Chinese filmmaker Zhao Liang’s documentary investigations open onto profound problems in China that are often kept hidden by the country’s authorities. His interest is in the banal mechanics of systematic oppression: His remarkable debut Crime and Punishment (2007), for instance, provides a rare look into the People’s Armed Police, a branch of law enforcement similar to the military in its regimented lifestyle and coldly abusive administration of “justice.” The emotional frustration and dehumanization of young PAP men working in an isolated Northeastern region becomes fodder for abuse of undeserving suspects: a deaf-mute kleptomaniac beaten when he cannot respond to questions, an elderly scrap collector repeatedly and pointlessly castigated for his son’s antipolice remarks, and a group of timber thieves pummeled in a counterproductive interrogation (fines were reduced after the suspects’ families lodged complaints).
His latest work, Petition (2009), was filmed over more than a decade, and goes even deeper to uncover a segment of Chinese society left silent and demoralized by bureaucracy and corruption. These are the “petitioners” who, after being continually buffeted by local institutions, gravitate toward the State Bureau of Letters and Calls at the Beijing South Railway Station to file grievances against unjust imprisonments, broken financial agreements, and other injustices committed by the government. They transplant their lives to wait by the station; the same persistent petitioners are, year after year, rebuffed by a circuitous ticket system—or else brutal force.
Though their endless fight to be heard seems hopeless and their belief in ultimate vindication appears nearly delusional, the stubborn, vagrant petitioners are depicted as representatives of democratic courage marginalized and torn apart by a dismissive communist dictatorship. In the film’s most notable story line, a petitioning woman must painfully confront the independence of her daughter, who seeks a life and family of her own after having been taken out of school to stay by her mother’s side during her mother’s fruitless quest to receive recognition of her husband’s wrongful death. Petition thoroughly demonstrates China’s farce of due process, but also agonizingly captures the lives emotionally malformed by it.
Petition runs January 14–20 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.
Abel Ferrara, Go Go Tales, 2007, still from a color film in 35 mm, 96 minutes.
AT A TIME when milquetoast Williamsburg postgrad circles are the subculture most visibly represented on New York City art-house screens, it might be worth recalling Abel Ferrara, grimy poet laureate of the Koch and Dinkins eras. Working his way from grindhouse and exploitation—his directorial debut 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy (1976) was an out-and-out porno—to violent crime dramas and character studies (King of New York  and Bad Lieutenant ), Ferrara was, at the height of his powers, the city’s most ferocious, uninhibited chronicler of its underground networks and appetites.
The past decade has not been so kind to him. Just as the independent film boom of the 1990s ebbed, so did the notoriously volatile and uncompromising Ferrara find himself at the margins of distribution, with only a few of his last several films receiving limited releases in this country. This is unfortunate, because Ferrara’s talent and intensity remain a vital rarity within the world of independent filmmaking. Notwithstanding the DOA ’R Xmas (2001), the turn of the millennium has brought two of his best films—Mary (2005) and Go Go Tales (2007)—each revealing new facets of his hustlers and redemption seekers. These works are unusual territory for Ferrara: Mary traverses NYC and Israel following a filmmaker, an actress, and a television journalist as they struggle to understand and accept Christ beyond the realm of myth; as with his other characters, nothing will suffice but the most powerful of experiences.
Go Go Tales, on the other hand, is classic Ferrara filtered through a loose compendium of Mom-and-Pop Operation Fighting Against Gentrification clichés. The action takes place at Willem Defoe’s barely functional strip club, and Ferrara indulges in its comic possibilities with abandon. Camp stage performances (Asia Argento unforgettably smooching a dog) and camp real ones (Sylvia Miles’s piercing landlord) comprise the film’s skeezy (in a good way) raison d’ętre. Though slight, the metaphoric Tales gleefully expresses its director’s own position as a beleaguered, skin-of-the-teeth underdog and scheming focal point of a like-minded community of outcasts.
Ferrara’s three most recent films have been documentaries, and, like Go Go Tales, two of them reflect his fight for cultural survival. In Chelsea on the Rocks (2008), Ferrara’s main concern is capturing the present Chelsea as a microcosm of outsider creativity and living, a community at the mercy of new management. Napoli Napoli Napoli (2009) is a staid and underdeveloped sociological study of the Italian city’s festering plague of poverty, drugs, and crime, whereas Mulberry St. (2009) acts as that film’s more personal flip side, with Ferrara exploring his Italian roots and current Little Italy neighborhood during the annual San Gennaro festival. Hard-core Little Italy store owners and neighborhood holdouts lament the decline of the once truly wild festival after the city’s successful efforts at cleaning up its vibrant gambling ring, while Ferrara intimates that his films’ distribution limbo, the stifling of ethnic pride, and the persistent pressure on independent filmmakers are intimately linked. A carnival spirit prevails by Mulberry St.’s end, mostly due to the irrepressible energy of Ferrara, shooting on the fly and playfully interacting with old friends, but a bittersweet shadow lingers. For how long remains to be seen: Ferrara is apparently at work adapting Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a film that could fully unleash his id once more.
Florin Serban, If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle, 2010, still from a color film in 35 mm, 94 minutes.
AN ARRESTING CONTRIBUTION to the increasingly evident “new wave” in Romanian cinema, Florin Serban’s remarkably assured debut feature, If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle, makes effective use of prison drama conventions to create an impressive portrait of a youthful offender and to introduce a charismatic new actor to the screen. Based on a play, the film has dramatic focus and a temporal urgency that builds with quiet intensity. Though less than two weeks away, eighteen-year old Silviu’s parole is jeopardized when he learns that the mother who abandoned him eight years earlier is about to take the little brother he has raised to Italy with her. Determined to prevent this, Silviu appeals to an understanding warden for a day’s leave; makes frantic deals he cannot honor with a fellow prisoner in exchange for use of a cell phone; and finally resorts to violence that will no doubt result in extended, if not permanent, incarceration. There is an additional though ambiguous suggestion that the dormitory atmosphere where the men sleep facilitates sexual humiliation and that Silviu may be one of its victims.
A volatile but sympathetic protagonist, Silviu is played by George Pistereanu, a nonprofessional still in high school when Serban discovered him. With a natural ability to project charm and threat in a single, wide-eyed glance, the young actor easily embodies Silviu’s cauldron of suppressed rage and unpredictability, fusing the cool single-mindedness of Bresson’s Michel (in Pickpocket ) with the personality and impetuousness of a young Steve McQueen. Genuinely drawn to Ana, an attractive and personable social worker, he is no less frightening holding a shard of glass to her throat and bashing in a guard’s head to compel the warden to call his mother and give him a car to leave the prison so he can take the same Ana out for coffee.
The thirty-six-year-old Serban, having completed a university film program in Romania, then studied directing at New York’s Columbia University, where he also taught film history and theory. Although he claims to “love” Bresson, Serban’s filmmaking style and indulgence with actors could not be more opposed. His restless, handheld camera rarely abandons Silviu’s perspective, repeatedly dogging his tracks by following the back of the actor’s head in close-up, an effect that lends the character an illusory power. This is counteracted by shots of Silviu running toward the prison exit while the camera remains behind as if to register the futility of his efforts. Similarly, when he strains to look beyond the fence to see his brother getting into his mother’s car, the viewer, like Silviu, is limited by an extreme long shot. Though this restrictive technique can often prove forced and monotonous in first features, Serban’s control and purpose are never in question. In the penultimate scene, framed as a two-shot, Silviu sits quietly with Ana in a café, orders another coffee, then leaves. While she waits, the film cuts to an extreme long shot of Silviu walking back to the prison as approaching police sirens wail offscreen. After the authorities cuff him and drive off, the image, for the first time free of Silviu’s desperate but fruitless energy, luxuriates in a serenely still shot of the highway, a field, and the sky as the credits unfurl.
I’d like to believe that the inherent contradictions of Serban’s avowed influences—besides Bresson, he loves Almodóvar, and “can’t wait to get old and make movies like Ozu” but for the moment wants “to make a movie like Gladiator”—are the result of an omnivorous, Tarantino-like appetite for all cinema. But does the world need another sword-and-sandal epic? Or, for that matter, another Almodóvar? My hope is that Serban will apply his considerable filmmaking talents and flair for directing actors to more impassioned accounts of the socially misdirected young people in Romania with whom he clearly seems able to empathize.
If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle plays January 5–18 at Film Forum in New York. For more details, click here.