Saturday, August 28, 2010

Women on the Move: Three New Films Reviewed by Sophie Mayer

directed by Sarah Turner
The Headless Woman
directed by Lucrecia Martel
Villa Amalia
directed by Benoit Jacquot

Reviewed by Sophie Mayer

In Lesbian Visibility, film theorist Amy Villarejo suggests that maybe out-there L-Word style representation isn’t the equality it’s cracked up to be. Instead, she suggests, lesbians can change the objectifying visual field by being craftily invisible, unavailable to voyeuristic eyes. It sounds counter-intuitive and like a return to the days of Queen Victoria’s ignorance, but Villarejo’s not suggesting that films like The Kids Are All Right should be banished because they basically turn lesbians into straight couples in order to make them visible in mainstream media (except for that bit where Jules has sex with a guy, hmmm, oh wait, that’s another article). What she’s interested in is non-mainstream films by lesbian filmmakers that don’t contain the obligatory – what to call it: snuggle shot? – but still allude to a queer, female sensibility.

For some reason, several of these films involve trains (Ulrike Ottinger’s Johanna of Arc of Mongolia and Yvonne Rainer’s Journey to Berlin/1971 spring to mind), and three recent films suggest that being on the move (not just on trains: think Thelma and Louise!) might just be a way of making lesbians visible without, yknow, the purple silky panties approach that Channel 4 took to advertising the L-Word. Sarah Turner’s Perestroika, released on September 1 by the ICA, is closest to the fabulous feminist experiments of Ottinger and Rainer, mixing video from the 1980s with digital film and stills from 2007 to tell the interconnected story of two journeys that Turner made on the Trans-Siberian Express.

Unlike the fabulously camp journey Delphine Seyrig experiences in Johanna of Arc, Turner’s journeys are fascinating but hot and uncomfortable: and the journey in 2007 is emotionally wrenching because Sîan Thomas, the friend who took her to Russia in 1987, died in 1992, and this is Turner’s first return. As she repeats the journey, she is haunted by memories of her friend (some of which she videoed) and by memories of pre-perestroika Soviet Russia.

The film itself is haunted by various apparitions, including Turner herself, only visible as a reflection in the night-darkened windows. The voice-over narrator speaks as the filmmaker we glimpse in the window, but this ‘Sarah Turner’ suffers retrograde amnesia, a fictional lens Turner introduced to look at memory and loss. The film ends at Lake Baikal, the site of a slow ecological catastrophe, where it appears that flames are rising from the freezing waves. Through the hallucinatory intensity of the train journeys, this image makes terrible, perfect sense.

So, you’re wondering, where’s the lesbian in all of this? The narrator speaks repeatedly to or of ‘you,’ addressing someone who is travelling with her, who is just visible in a repeated sequence in which Turner stumbles to the restaurant car. Most of the voices (but not all) in the film are female, and there is an underlying sense in which it is a beautiful, unconventional love story between Turner and her loved-and-lost friend Sîan. Turner appears only one unreflected: in a photograph shot by Thomas in which she is filming with her video camera. When we see the footage of Thomas taking the photograph, it has an aliveness that – with the faces blocked by cameras – is heartbreakingly inaccessible. Intense currents swirl around and through relationships between women, to the hypnagogic rhythm of the train that connects us with both dream and desire.

Equally dreamy/nightmarish in its evocation of female subjectivity is Lucrecia Martel’s brilliantly opaque film The Headless Woman. Out now on DVD from New Wave films, The Headless Woman continues Martel’s exploration of her home province in Argentina, Tucumán, which was brutally suppressed during the junta. Motivations are often mysterious, characters are afflicted with lassitude then suddenly ravenous with desire, dialogue is elliptical: her films seem like they are being made as if under political censorship, full of oblique but loaded references, and a vertiginous sense of threat.
At the centre of this unstable world, where nothing is what it seems, is a dentist called Veronica whose Christian name seems to certify the truth of what she witnesses. The problem is that Veronica, driving along an empty road, doesn’t see what it is she may have hit. Even the graze on her head that testifies to the accident is erased when her husband makes her hospital attendance disappear after it transpires she might have killed a young indigenous boy whose body is found in a drain after torrential rains. Veronica is caught between polite society – her husband, lover, friends, sister – who want her to remain untroubled by inequality and her role in it, and the possibility of rebellion, embodied in her favourite niece, Candita.

Candita is played by Inés Efron, the lead from XXY, and her role in that film is just under her skin here, not least when she swims languidly across the new pool while the adults lounge around. But her queerness is also part of the narrative: much to her mother’s disapproval, she has a girlfriend, a campesina who is the fastest-moving and most directed person in the film, riding alongside Candita’s mother’s car on her motorbike, and guiding Veronica through the rural community where the boy’s family lives. Candita, seeing Veronica’s sympathy with her rebellion, attempts to seduce her with a ferocious kiss: Veronica refuses her, and from that moment, she turns back to her old life, refusing the possibility of movement (across class boundaries, as well as literal freedom of movement) that Candita both seeks and holds out.

Ann Hidden, in Benoit Jacquot’s Villa Amalia, makes the choice that Veronica can’t – but her choice is guilt-free, and this new French film (on DVD from Peccadillo Pictures) is a lighter-hearted affair. Although it deals in death, divorce, disappeared dads and other life-changers, it does so with inimitable French style. Everything in the film looks glorious, and it looks all the more glorious as Ann leaves her stultifying life of apparent love and success in Paris to disappear in Italy (note to fashion editors: in doing so, she leaves behind this season’s camel, chignon and white shirt look to adopt a Mediterranean wardrobe of non-maxi flowered dresses and short hair, making clear that minimalism is for people with empty lives). While the character of Ann takes a tranche of Under the Sand, adds a soupçon of The Page Turner and jusqu’un peu of Catherine Deneuve in Les voleurs, Isabelle Huppert makes the somewhat hackneyed role of the fortysomething Parisienne restlessly rediscovering her erotic and artistic life her own by train, mountain and boat. She doesn’t fly because she doesn’t want to be traced via her passport – but that seems secondary to the need to show a woman, alone, on the move, changing direction.

Of course, the film’s distributed by Peccadillo so it comes with certain expectations – and fulfils them, but quietly. Ann’s childhood best friend Georges tells her he’s gay with a shrug, and later gets beaten up while cruising on the island of Ischia, where Ann has retreated. Ann leaves behind her cheating lover Thomas and doesn’t so much come out as come alive: literally, when she is rescued from the sea by – typically! – gorgeous Giulia, out for the day on her friend Carlo’s boat. She and Giulia form an instant attraction of silent glances, and – typically! – shack up after their first night together.

Don’t expect hot sex, though: everything in this film is as hidden as Ann’s (not-so-subtle) stage name (her absconded father is Jewish: she has presumably changed her name to hide that legacy and to hide from him). Huppert’s strong face and awkward-graceful motion convey the sense of Ann’s turbulent and dramatic interior world, expressed through her piano compositions but not language – and, when she returns to Ischia at the end, perhaps a peace in being so far from metropolitan culture, hidden in her new love.

Sophie Mayer is a writer, editor and educator. Find out more at

Labels: ,

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Theatre Review: Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens at the Shaw Theatre

Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens
by Bill Russell and Janet Hood

Shaw Theatre, London, 10-28 August 2010
directed by John-Jackson Almond
musical director Michael Roulston

Reviewed by Richard Canning

This revival of the song cycle by Bill Russell and Janet Hood (which first ran at the Kings Head Theatre, Islington in 1992, but received its world premiere in 1989) must come as a surprising choice – if only because nowadays we know all too well that trying to promote any work of art concerned with the AIDS epidemic is beyond a Sisyphean adventure. The Shaw Theatre is to be applauded, then, for having the conviction to go ahead, setting aside commercial considerations and tackling what is very much a less-heard and seen subject today.

One of the four original singers reprises her role: Miquel Brown – mother of Sinitta, but also fondly remembered by gay men for 1980s Hi-Energy classics such as So Many Men, So Little Time - once again sings as Angela. She is joined by Jonathan Hellyer (playing Brian), a.k.a. the Dame Edna Experience, making his London theatre debut, Leon Lopez (as Doug), and Anna Mateo (as Judith). Hellyer does a great job of his “own” chief song, And the Rain Keeps Falling Down, but is a more subdued stage presence than anyone who has seen him doing cabaret at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern would suspect. Lopez and Mateo in particular are very strong vocally, as well as demonstrating a stage presence which, inevitably, not all of the thirty cast members playing the smaller roles can match (though Titti La Camp as a drag queen is a definite exception).

The aim of the piece – a combination of songs and monologues - is to pay tribute to all those lost to the AIDS epidemic, by virtue of retelling the life stories (and, inevitably, in part, death stories) of thirty people who succumb to it. Each participant is thus given a few minutes on stage to tell it from his or her point of view. The actors then remain on stage, witnessing the other contributions and continuing to inhabit their roles.

The first thing to concede is that the cumulative effect of hearing so many diverse tales of loss, prejudice, deceit and ill fortune is as moving now as it was 17 years ago. That does not prevent me from feeling, however, that the status and purpose of the piece today is not fully clear. Russell has written new monologues for this revival, a good number of which take us, logically enough, to the non-Western terrains with which we now associate the most devastating human experiences of the syndrome. Some are very effective, even taking advantage of moments of winning humour – as when a South African woman begins her monologue with the words: ‘The only thing worse than a man is a politician.’ The conceptual difficulty, however, is, of course, that the original production of Elegies was conceived at a time when the lack of effective treatments for HIV/AIDS had left those turning HIV-positive with few expectations other than their short- or medium-term demise. The drug treatments which would act therapeutically to minimize HIV’s destructive effect upon immune systems rolled out unevenly, but from the USA in 1996, and across Europe in the following years.

The new monologues in Elegies articulated on stage successfully move on the production’s accommodation of the epidemiological reality today, but by introducing the subject of drug treatments, and their uneven presence in different global contexts, it makes the “unadjusted” tales here – those penned in 1993, which inevitably make no reference to drug treatments - feel historical. Thus, the thirty characters listen to, and respond to, a huge variety of reminiscences, but the audience becomes aware that these couldn’t, or didn’t, inhabit the same chronological context.

It’s a small quibble, certainly, since theatre can, and should, be able to remake the world, showing it to us anew. Still, it made me aware of another reservation I felt: that the integrity of each story, with one following the other, interrupted after each block of four or five by the next song, did not help make the evening feel fundamentally dramatic. Conflict and argument have, naturally, played a central role in many or most AIDS dramas, from early candidates such as Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart and William Hoffmann’s As Is (both 1985), through to Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (1992) and British dramatist Jonathan Harvey’s two epidemic-related works, Hushabye Mountain (1999) and the recent Canary (almost a pastiche of Kushner). In the case of Elegies, however, the evening’s raisons d’etre – to celebrate the diversity of lives lost; to counteract shame, prejudice and secrecy; to offer the broadest range of perspectives on the syndrome – are all worthwhile.

But there is an inevitable simplicity of message, in consequence. It might be summed up as “positivity.” Certainly it is threatened, just for one moment, by the case of the muscle-boy addicted to Crystal Meth, who admits to knowingly exposing numerous online partners to HIV. (A very topical moment, this, given the ongoing trial in Germany of a pop singer with AIDS who is alleged to have failed to communicate her HIV-status to sexual partners). But before and after him, the subtext of the evening seems to involve undifferentiated celebration – as in one of the song titles, Heroes all Around. There’s nothing implicitly wrong with this. It’s just that it can feel like the audience is witnessing a self-help group, rather than being inducted into the uncertainties and complexities which theatrical narrative can offer.

The monologues themselves – rendered in verse - are somewhat uneven, though the best have the same lyrical directness and honesty as the dramatic poems in Thom Gunn’s extraordinary collection, The Man with Night Sweats. A shopaholic girl was especially winning, summarizing her post-diagnosis take on life thus: ‘If spending makes you feel alive, die before the bills arrive!’ The songs, meanwhile, are delivered with enthusiasm and accomplishment. The best can certainly hold a candle to those found in West End musicals embracing much more conservative storylines. The only really wrong note is struck by the unaccountable decision to have the production wrap up with a few lines (only) of Miquel Brown singing the disco anthem So Many Men, So Little Time as the entire cast leaves the stage. Certainly, it’s a vintage tune, invoking a particular time period and gay subculture very strongly. But its lyric – written with explicit appeal for sexually busy gay men in the early 1980s – threatens to complicate, even overshadow the clear steer towards plurality and diversity in the preceding two hours, as well as, rather bafflingly, to take the audience back to a specific and historical moment at the show’s close; a time, perhaps, before which any of these losses would have taken place.

Still, this is a committed (and huge!) cast, performing for free, and The Terrence Higgins Trust is benefitting from every ticket sale. There’s plenty to think about here, and many moments to savour.

Richard Canning. Canning’s edition of AIDS fiction, Vital Signs (2008), is available from Da Capo Press.

Labels: ,

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Review: The Last Bohemians: the two Roberts – Colquhoun and MacBride

The Last Bohemians: the two Roberts – Colquhoun and MacBride
by Roger Bristow

Published by Sansom and Company

Reviewed by Richard Canning

This book is both a celebration of the works of two Scottish painters whom Bristow thinks particularly overlooked, and also, inevitably, a human story that is intrinsically sad. ‘The Golden Boys of Bond Street’, as Colquhoun and MacBryde were known in forties London, each looked set to change the face of twentieth-century British art for a time. One of the challenges facing Bristow, in this first joint biography and critical assessment, is to figure out precisely why they are now so forgotten.

Colquhoun was nominally bisexual; MacBryde exclusively gay. But this was a couple whose relationship obviated any need for categorization: they became inseparable; lovers, collaborators, mutual critics, and – progressively and ultimately self-destructively – drinking companions. Both came from Ayrshire from poor stock; both studied at the Glasgow School of Art; both were smitten by the inter-war Parisian bohemia of Montparnasse; both sought fame and renown in London, a city whose values, character and fellow citizens Colquhoun and MacBryde struggled first to understand, then to accept.

Bristow has studied a huge volume of material in building this shared portrait, though it must be said that much of what he quotes – particularly notes taken by the artists themselves – proves rather unenlightening. As observers, they were keen visual artists, but unexceptional wordsmiths. Thus, on a first trip to Italy, Colquhoun reports Michelangelo’s ‘tremendous command over the design of the human figure.’ In Venice, he notes, ‘our first impression was of “water”. It was beneath our feet in the canals and waterways…’ Summing up La Serenissima, he signed off: ‘Venice is indeed a beautiful city… it belongs entirely to the past.’

Admittedly, these words were not intended for publication. Still, both painters luckily prove much more adventurous and idiosyncratic in oils than with words. Influences ranged from Matisse, Gauguin and Rouault to Chagall, Cezanne and Wyndham Lewis, who was not known for tolerating others’ works, let alone praising them. However, Wyndham Lewis – then writing as art critic for The Listener – found much to praise in a 1947 exhibition at the Lefevre Gallery of both Roberts’ works. Yet even this praise finally can be seen to have done for the pair, by yoking them together. Wyndham Lewis initially celebrated Colquhoun as the finest young British artist, but corrected himself, writing: ‘Perhaps I should say Colquhoun and MacBryde for they live together, their work is almost identical and they can be regarded as almost one artistic organism.’ Bristow goes to great lengths to distinguish between Colquhoun and MacBryde’s artistic trajectories. Yet it remains true that in the eyes of critics, art collectors and ‘the Establishment’, their closeness became a confusion and an impediment.

A sense of entitlement coupled with chippiness at English mores and manners did not help. While they began to absorb other influences, closer to home – Sutherland, Nash and Piper – and were certainly capable of producing works as original and distinguished as anything by these three, they lacked the social grace and occasional deference which oils the wheels of any artistic career. Certainly Francis Bacon lacked such grace too. But Bacon - whom they would come to know as a young unknown, and who would before too long find his reputation eclipsing theirs – was an exceptional case, and an exceptional talent. There is a certain justice, for all the fine illustrations included in The Last Bohemians, in considering Colquhoun and MacBryde something no artist wishes to be called: merely very, very good.

They gravitated towards Celtic dissidents in London, so Dylan Thomas was an obvious intimate. Since they all drank to excess habitually, they inevitably stumbled across the roué of Soho roués, penniless writer Julian Maclaren-Ross. Other fellow travellers included the Scottish poet George Barker and the peculiar homosexual artist John Minton, whom Colquhoun and MacBryde generously took in as lodger. But Minton, far from proving a stabilizing influence upon a relationship already characterized by violent extremes, developed an obvious crush on Colquhoun. When it was resisted, he began bringing other men back to stay, enraging MacBryde. As early as 1944, an acquaintance had noted that the pair ‘seemed to carry a violence’ around with them. This very much understates the case. Repeatedly, one or other is found knocking the other one out.
Mysterious Figures, 1960 by Robert Colquhoun

Bristow admirably sketches in how the softly-softly artistic subculture – however relatively tolerant, compared to English society at large – could nevertheless inhibit gay creators. Minton would die of a drug overdose by 1957; Colquhoun and MacBryde responded to their shared failure to achieve a stunning (and financially empowering) breakthrough with recourse to ever larger quantities of alcohol. The situation was always exacerbated by the unstated rivalry within their relationship. Each had a moment of sensing his own imminent breakthrough – notwithstanding Wyndham Lewis’s comments – and, though implicitly each was supportive of the other, it is inevitable in any artist to consider one’s own reputation by way of comparing it to one’s nearest peers.

By 1947, Colquhoun and MacBryde could no longer subsist in London, and took advantage of the offer of free accommodation and studio space in Lewes, East Sussex. A succession of less helpful rural retreats followed – unavoidably, since Colquhoun and MacBryde consistently proved incapable of moderating their drinking and violent outbursts, or showing any sign of gratitude to their progressively put-upon hosts. These - including the writer Elizabeth Smart - were often friends or former friends, who felt a kind of guilt or regret at their diminishing careers, more than any strong personal warmth. Bristow’s final chapters are bathetic more than anything else, with tales of the Scots upsetting English village life, sometimes getting banned from one village pub to another and thus setting out on ever lengthier, ever crazier searches for drink. Whenever money ran out, they would simply insist that others paid.

Colquhoun lived long enough to see a small revival in his career in the form of a major exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1958, which was well-attended and positively-reviewed. But few paintings sold. In an act of bizarre timing, filmmaker Ken Russell then determined to shoot a study of them for the BBC’s Monitor programme, aired in 1959. Russell struggled to animate the pair, or even to catch them sober. More work and more drinking followed, until, in 1962, Colquhoun suffered a massive heart attack, dying in MacBryde’s arms. Four years later, the near-destitute MacBryde was knocked down in a street in Dublin. He suffered a broken back and died shortly afterwards.

Excepting a play about them written by John Byrne and staged at the Royal Court in 1992 (and condemned by Bristow as trading in gossip and folklore), these two artists have, effectively, vanished in the near half-century since their deaths. Bristow is to be credited with telling an important, if self-evidently cautionary tale about two promising careers. As he concedes, however, The Last Bohemians will stand not only as a tribute to what Colquhoun and MacBryde achieved, but also as an indication of what they might have done in very different circumstances.

Richard Canning’s most recent book is Brief Lives: E M Forster (Hesperus Press).

Labels: ,

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Review: Collected Plays of Mart Crowley

The Collected Plays of Mart Crowley

Published by Alyson Books

Reviewed by Giuseppe Albano

Unlike many contemporary writers who just happen to have written for the stage, nobody could accuse Mart Crowley of being a closet novelist. In the six plays collected here, the dialogues and stage notes show a vivid sense of theatricality and are the work of an author who is deeply concerned with the ‘Society of the Spectacle’, to borrow Guy Debord’s phrase. Just look at the lushly fetishistic descriptions of the sets: that of Avec Schmaltz (1984) ‘could be a Hallmark card or a window in Bloomingdale’s’, while that of The Men from the Boys (2002) should, we are told, be ‘Abstract and stylish... Dramatic and anal. And, of course, it should positively scream “taste”’. In Crowley’s worlds image and impression are everywhere and are, at least initially, everything, but there are shocks aplenty when the superficial sheens are blasted away to reveal just how damaged, frightened, and alone his psychologically complex characters are.

And so most of Crowley’s human creations lead necessarily duplicitous lives: there is the one they want others to believe they are, and the one they themselves want to believe they are not. Nowhere are the effects of this more painful than in For Reasons that Remain Unclear (1993), in which a seemingly innocuous chance encounter in the Eternal City between an aging Roman Catholic priest and a smart Hollywood scriptwriter turns into a tense, emotionally violent playoff between a paedophile and his former prey. Wised up audiences, will, of course, recognise the thematic signs before they are spelled out, but this doesn’t weaken Crowley’s power as a dramatist. His purpose is less about lulling his audiences into a false sense of security than inviting them to watch as his characters are slowly shaken out of theirs. If this process is sometimes predictable in terms of the plot – the loudening church bells at the start of For Reasons can only mean one thing: that a crescendo of difficult truth is building – the very inevitability makes it all the more theatrically compelling.

Mercifully, the rest of the collection is far less distressing. Best (and best-known) of the bunch is Crowley’s first work, The Boys in the Band, a wise-cracking bitch-fest which hit the stage running in January 1968 and changed both the face and the pace of gay drama forever. Flash forward three and a bit decades and Crowley was serving up the sequel, The Men from the Boys, whose dialogues are as reassuringly quick-fire as the original gang returns to commemorate the passing away of Larry (who, shock horror, hasn’t died of AIDS – ‘We know what you thought! Gay men do die of other things!’ Michael reminds us). These two plays in themselves make this collection worth forking out for and, taken together, provide a thrilling reminder of just how entertaining a group of gay men in a room drinking together can be. To the untrained ear, the characters might seem to do little else than snarl and bark at one another, but listen a little closer and we hear that even at their most cutting, the party members throw each other the best lines by opening up opportunities to come back with ever wittier comments. (Who said gay people don’t make great team players?)

There is, however, one sad thing about this book that just won’t go away: the fact that its author only managed to complete six stage plays in four decades. If Crowley had spent less time working on shoddy TV shows like Hart to Hart and the Colbys, who knows what theatrical legacies he might have left?

Giuseppe Albano lives and works in London. His translations of poems by Annelisa Alleva were recently published in La Casa Rotta (Jaca Book, Milan, 2010).

Labels: , ,