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Archive for the ‘I Heart This’ Category

The Business of Fancydancing

You want to know what chanting and ceremony are all about? Here it is. Plenty of fusion-style music too. The sound track is great. The screenplay is by poet Sherman Alexie, whose fictional stand-in is a gay Indian poet called Seymour Polatkin. The film opens with the poet reading from his work to, apparently, no audience. He’s behind a store window, so there is a glass wall between him and the people, who blithely walk by. Which is how any artist feels, at least part of the time. We see some of the reviews he has received, e.g. “Seymour Polatkin is full of shit.”

An eternal problem for the screenwriter is how to cram in all that exposition, the necessary minimum of information the viewer of this fiction really needs to know about the characters and how they got there, and where they are, and what year it is, and so on. I like how the back-story is presented here. The poet is looking at himself in a mirror, dressing for an event. Another man is in the room, standing behind Polatkin, and what he says reveals part of the back-story.

His name is Steven, and his life has been deeply affected by the poet’s work. “You wrote the poems that keep me awake,” he says. Steven recites one of the poems. What a nice, personal, loving tribute for a friend to offer. This is a father poem, and Steven confesses that he had not talked to his father for many years. “When I read your poem I picked up the phone and I called him.”

We can tell these two guys are friends, and before long it’s evident they are lovers and partners. We also learn more about the poet and his past through his public appearances. He tells a bookstore audience how he emerged from the closet and told his grandmother he was a two-spirited gay man.

Polatkin also frequents another venue, a disco where the dancers are all different kinds of people who probably wouldn’t be found together. I’m reading this as Seymour Polatkin’s subconscious, inhabited by all the people he knows from his different worlds.

That is the essence of the poet’s problem. He belongs to many cultures, and some people tell him that is the equivalent of belonging to no culture. But Polatkin isn’t buying it. Which is what makes him a poet. He talks it all out with a TV journalist, on an eerily empty stage where the two of them regard each other intensely and engage in verbal fencing matches. The Interviewer is his anima, his conscience, his guardian angel who practices tough love, an alternate personality, or some amalgam of those entities and more. It’s a very effective cinematic device to handle introspection.

On the rez, a man called Mouse has committed suicide. He was a genius violinist and a general hell-raiser. In a flashback, Mouse bitches about how Seymour Polatkin stole pieces of his life and used them in poems as if they were his own. Even though Mouse is a gifted musician, he doesn’t understand how art functions, probably not even his own. The person Mouse complains to is Aristotle. They all grew up together, and were partners in petty crime, and so on. Another flashback shows their degenerate drug habits. These rez kids huff gasoline and gases from spray cans. This film is just wonderful for finding ways to visually and aurally express thoughts and emotions. For instance, we know that Mouse understood Aristotle, whose spirit inspired some of his finest music. We aren’t told this, we see and hear it.

At a poetry reading, Seymour reads a piece about selling his blood for money to travel to Mouse’s memorial. He sees the apparition of Mouse sitting in the audience, looking real as anybody, judging the poem.

Seymour Polatkin makes it to the memorial. The 13th Step is the rez community center, its interior walls painted in vibrant colors, not bland Caucasian eggshell. Agnes is there. She’s half Jewish and half Indian. They met in college and had an affair, then Seymour told her he was gay, and switched over to men. He didn’t plan to ever go back to the reservation, but Agnes decided to move there, and teach music. She more or less accuses him of being a race traitor, but their relationship still appears to be about 90% good. They love each other in a highly individual way, and she always stoutly defends him to the others who say he’s sold out, etc.

Seymour and Aristotle started college at the same time, but Aristotle just couldn’t take it. There is a very affectionate scene between the two of them, which may be a fantasy. If nothing like this ever happened, the poet certainly wanted it to happen. Anyway, for Aristotle, the price to live in the white man’s world was just too high, and he dropped out. Even though he was, as a school official condescendingly said, “one of the bright ones.”

And Seymour, despite being both Indian and gay, preferred to take his chances in the larger world. He never did understand Aristotle going back to the stifling prison of the rez. The Interviewer also asks Aristotle many questions – which I read as Seymour’s efforts to understand his friend – but Aristotle stoically refuses to say a word. He just sits there, and finally gives a warrior yell.

At the memorial, Seymour stands up in front of the people as if to say something. He stoically remains silent, just like Aristotle did with the Interviewer. But inside he’s screaming, just like Aristotle did with the Interviewer and the bureaucrat. He walks out of the communal hall and leaves the reservation.

In the last song, the music teacher expresses her sadness for the sadness of the poet.

Extra bonus: Two “Northern Exposure” actors are in The Business of Fancydancing.

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The film is subtitled “A Love Story,” and it is – a love story where the people are not only the same gender, but one is 30 years older. The gay demimonde has existed in many times and places. No matter how forbidden and furtive, there has pretty much always been, among the queer, a community of sorts. But any man who takes on a partner so much younger will always draw fire. There have been 30-year-old grandfathers. It’s biologically feasible, and it’s a significant age difference. These two had a lot to overcome.

And there’s something else. What a lot of us want, deep inside, is to know a loving person will be with us at the end. Chris had that. Through his several years of cancer, Don was on the scene. When Chris died, his partner spent the rest of the day drawing different views of the corpse, just as he had drawn so many hundreds of other portraits of the living man. In the documentary, Don Bachardy doesn’t discuss this aspect, but I’m guessing that this strange kind of post-mortem ceremony had enormous value for the survivor. This final exchange of intimacy between lovers could not have been one-sided. I’d bet the farm, that the writer’s voice was continuously heard by the artist, even as the artist sketched the writer again and again. In the annals of spontaneous, self-generated therapeutic techniques, this one is exceptional.

I once took Christopher Isherwood’s blood pressure. That morning, when I looked at the day’s patient schedule and said “Wow!”, the three women who worked in the front office were like, “And your point is…..?” This Santa Monica medical practice had a lot of celebrities on its books. When Flip Wilson came in for an appointment, there was excitement. But the Isherwood name did not ring a bell. That’s the industry for you in a nutshell – writers get no respect.

My heart was beating fast because this man had known Bloomsbury. Leonard and Virginia Woolf published three of his books. E.M. Forster was his literary mentor. Besides, he was just a cool guy – for instance, he was into Eastern religion long before the hippies caught on to it.

A lot of childless couples bring pets into their relationships, so they can have something to care about and fuss over together. Their mutual bond with the pet strengthens their own bonds. That works well for some. Isherwood and Bachardy didn’t have pets, but reserved their affection for each other. They were, in fact, each other’s pet – Chris was a horse, and Don was a cat. (There was a lot of that kind of thing in the old Bloomsbury crowd. The letters of Virginia Woolf, et al, are full of marmosets and dolphins and all kinds of creatures that the correspondents characterized themselves and each other, as.) This documentary of a shared life includes segments of animation that bring alive the horse and cat characters that the two drew for each other. It’s brilliant, and really illustrates one of the secrets of a lasting couple: the creation of a private realm, where just the two of you live, and nobody else is allowed.

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Under the opening credits, scenes of New York in 1920s or ’30s. Black and white newsreels of a big celebration – the end of World War II? Anyway, it’s sometime in the first half of the 20th century. And we’re lucky it doesn’t start with scenes of Morocco, which probably looks pretty much the same now as it did then. So that would be really confusing.

A young couple, Kit and Port, travel with a friend. On their foreign-shores arrival, Port defines the difference between a tourist and a traveler. Kit tells their friend Tunner, “I’m half and half.” It’s a clue that she is already half inclined to get a new life. In her luggage we glimpse a copy of Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood – So it’s 1936 at the earliest, and the book is a nice period touch -just what this character would be reading. Did I mention that Kit is played by Debra Winger? And Port is John Malkovich. How often are two of my personal idols in one movie? Not very.

Paul Bowles, who wrote the original story, is narrator, though thank Goddess there are only a couple of lines of narration. He’s this dapper old dude hanging around the Grand Hotel and watching the couple, Porter and Kit, interact, and the third guy travelling with them, as if they were his own private soap opera. The Bowles character is interesting. If this story is anything like his real life, it exactly expresses how he would be looking back, as an old man, at his younger self. Or you could make a case that he’s the Witness, the part of one’s self that always stands back and watches.

In the café, Tunner carries on like a picky tourist just because there are “corpses” (bugs) in the soup. Kit and Port slurp their soup in unison and with enthusiasm, making their friend feel like an outsider. But when he leaves in a huff, they admit to each other how lousy the food is. Couples do this. They exclude others, but they also bring others into their relationship and use them as pawns, or retaliation tools, or jealousy goads, or whatever. This is primarily a relationship movie, and it depicts faithfully the couple dynamic, the games played, the underlying loyalty and solidarity.

In the hotel where they all stay, Kit and Port have separate rooms. But when Tunner quizzes her about it, she says it’s not good to confuse sex with sleep. This is a woman after my own heart. Later, Kit rather pointedly shuts Port out of her room. But the next day, she invites him to rub her tummy. But they don’t make love, apparently. They seem to have a complicated thing going on.

Then, she doesn’t want to go for a walk with her husband. Port goes off on his own and finds beautiful scenery, overlooking a lower place. You can tell he’s bitter that Kit is not there to share it. He lets a man lead him to a courtesan. To reach her, they have to climb down a ladder to a valley where the fires of many encampments burn. It’s like descending into hell, in a symbolic kind of way. Port learns from experience that, unlike his native land, in this country the courtesans kiss. A lot. At least, this one does. She also steals his wallet, but he knows, and gets it back. Instead of just leaving quietly, he flaunts the fact that she didn’t succeed in ripping him off. To her way of thinking, however, it’s the foreign visitor who stole something from her, by daring to recover his own property. She ululates an alarm, the men come running, and there is a desperate pursuit.

Tunner peeks into Kit’s room, and into Port’s room. He knows Port hasn’t been back all night, but Kit rumples up his bed and tells a lie, she says Port already got up and went out. But then Port returns from his wild adventure, and there’s his wife and their friend, in his room, with the bed messed up. Naturally, he suspects a dalliance. Kit takes out her bad temper on Tunner. “Stop trying to be interesting. On you it looks terrible”

Kit and Port go off on long bike ride, and end up on vertiginous overlook. They make love, but then he starts talking while they’re doing it, and apparently they talk too much, I think we’re supposed to conclude that he loses his erection, and Kit is obviously frustrated.

In town, a funeral procession goes by, with the deceased carried on a litter at shoulder height by several people in a way that is businesslike, not at all dignified or stately. They move so briskly, the corpse bounces around.

Port asks Kit “Could you be happy here?” Talk about foreshadowing! They talk about the fact that they’ve been married seven years, which Port doesn’t think is a long time. “We will stay in El Gaa” is another prophetic utterance.

Tunner intends to follow them to El Gaa but actually, he and Kit have gotten together by now, and Port wants to keep them apart, so he and his wife move on to another town. Port is desperate to find transportation, but a clerk tells him it’s impossible. From a handful of currency, he flings bill after bill at the man in negligent flicking way, then grabs the front of the guy’s clothes. Having seen the money and the violence, the clerk asks “American?”

Port falls ill, and Kit goes off to look for the hotel, probably hoping someone will come back and help her carry him. Meanwhile, he is surrounded by the Master Musicians of Jajouka, who play their curative music over him. He intuits that the music is beneficial, and beckons them closer. Kit comes back, finds Port on the ground in the midst of all this, and tells the shamans/musicians to stop. But Port flings more money, and they start playing again.

After some horrible days in a bare room, Port dies. Kit flags down a passing caravan, and is appropriated by a desert sheik who takes her home to be one of his paramours, and there’s a very exotic love scene. But then the other wives and the rest of the people in the settlement drive her away.

Tunner is still hanging around in the couple’s last known location, where he’s been waiting for three months to hear something. He seems to have gone somewhat native. He’s wearing baggy pants, anyway.

Rejected by the locals, Kit tries to steal or buy some soup in the marketplace, but she’s not allowed to do either. The people set upon her. Next, we see her in a hospital. Her hands and feet are covered with either henna designs or tattoos. A Red Cross woman takes her away in a car. They arrive at Tunner’s hotel, and the Red Cross woman leaves Kit alone while she goes to find him, but when they come back Kit is gone. She wanders around and winds up back up in the same place where the Paul Bowles character is still hanging out in the dining room. Then he does some voiceover philosophizing about how we think we have forever, but we don’t, and how the number of times when we will do the things we love are finite.

This movie has a great look, especially the window treatments in that part of the world. I forgot to check the credits to see who was the fly wrangler. A lot of flies were around when Port was deathly sick. Are they real flies? Or added by digital magic? Here’s my last question. If black absorbs heat, and the body loses 80 percent of its heat through the scalp, why in this scorching desert climate do people enclose their heads in cloth that appears to be treated with tar? Is it tar? Don’t their brains bake? Why not, at least, wrap up in white cloth, to reflect some of the heat? Or why not just go bare-headed, and take advantage of the natural air-conditioning properties of hair? Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure these people know what they’re doing. They’ve had centuries in which to perfect their ergonomic relationship with the climate. I’m just wondering how this seemingly counter-intuitive solution works in practical terms, that’s all.

Director: Bernardo Bertolucci

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