Each month I highlight one exceptional GLBT film from a wide range of genres (comedy to drama, musicals to suspense) and periods (from early cinema, by such masters as Eisenstein, Murnau, and Cocteau, to contemporary works). When possible, I select a film which in some way such as theme, historical period, or style connects with the G&L Reading Group's book of the month. I hope you enjoy these reviews! Here is the full index to ALL Recommended GLBT Films of the Month. Below are the pictures selected for 2003:
- December: The Haunting (Wise / 1963)
- November: The Gospel According to Saint Matthew (Pasolini / 1964)
- October: See The Sea (Ozon / 1997)
- September: Paris Was A Woman (Schiller / 1995)
- August: Beware of a Holy Whore [the tongue-in-cheek title refers to cinema] (Fassbinder / 1971)
- July: Jubilee (Jarman / 1978)
- June: Effi Briest (Fassbinder / 1974)
- May: Ran (Kurosawa / 1985)
- April: Mrs. Dalloway (Gorris / 1997)
- March: Beauty and the Beast (Cocteau / 1946)
- February: Heavenly Creatures (Jackson / 1994)
- January: Medea (Pasolini / 1969)
For more on cinema, see my Film Resources page for both general information, including 50 Landmarks of Film History and "best" lists in many categories, and GLBT cinema, featuring "50 Outstanding GLBT Films," great directors, and more, plus special Web sites devoted to Fassbinder and Pasolini.
Aspect Ratio is the "shape" of a film image its width to height ratio. For example, "1.33" means aspect ratio of 1.33:1, or that the image is one and a third times wider than high (note the illustration to the right, with stills taken from some exceptional films not part of GLBT cinema). Always try to see a work in its original "shape" as the filmmakers designed and shot it. The four most common aspect ratios are:
I know of no genre, or more precisely subgenre, which is so completely overshadowed by one film as the ghost movie is by Robert Wise's 1963 masterpiece, The Haunting, about a small team of paranormal investigators who try to fathom the mysteries of the ultimate haunted house.
There have been many beautifully-made and memorable pictures of this type, ranging from classic Hollywood fare like The Uninvited (1944) to Mizoguchi's exquisite Ugetsu (1953) to such problematic fantasies (or are they?) as Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad (1961) and Ozon's Under the Sand (2000). Of course there are legions of ludicrous ghost movies, among the worst of which is the abysmal 1999 remake of The Haunting (although its director Jan de Bont also made the exceptional action film Speed, and he was cinematographer on many of Paul Verhoeven's finest pictures).
Robert Wise's definitive adaptation of The Haunting is also one of the most visually ravishing and dramatically intense not to mention (literally) spine-tingling films I have seen, as well as a subtle landmark in the history of portraying complex lesbian and bisexual characters onscreen.
Although Wise is not GLBT-identified, at least two of his greatest films have strong connections to GLBT cinema. We'll look at The Haunting in a moment, but it should be noted that he co-directed one of the great screen musicals, West Side Story (1961), with the influential gay theatre director and choreographer Jermone Robbins, who conceived the show in its Broadway incarnation in collaboration with several other great talents, all of whom were gay or bisexual: composer Leonard Bernstein, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, and librettist Arthur Laurents. There is also an intriguing minor gay male character in Wise's Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), which is not only one of the greatest films noir but a complex film about racism (and to a lesser extent homophobia) which fully integrates its social analysis into multi-layered characters and pulse-pounding action.
Robert Wise, born in 1914, has many other impressive credits. He edited both Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons for Orson Welles, and directed an extraordinarily diverse range of films, including three very different pictures for legendary producer Val Lewton: the rarely-screened Guy de Maupassant adaptation Mademoiselle Fifi (1944), the haunting and lyrical The Curse of the Cat People (1944; despite the lurid title, this is a great picture about the complexities of childhood), and Robert Louis Stevenson's The Body Snatcher (1945); classic science fiction films The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and The Andromeda Strain (1971), also the not-so-classic Star Trek: The Motion Picture); war movies The Desert Rats (1953) and Run Silent, Run Deep (1958); dramas Executive Suite (1954) about business, Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956) about boxing, and I Want to Live! (1958) about a woman on death row; noir masterpieces The Set-Up (1949) and Odds Against Tomorrow; and of course, The Sound of Music (1965). For more information and critiques, visit 10 Films Directed by Robert Wise.
For me, Wise's greatest work in its meshing of visual and editorial design with emotional subtext is The Haunting. It is a close, but not slavish, adaptation of Shirley Jackson's classic The Haunting of Hill House (1959), which is often considered the second greatest ghost novel, after Henry James's enigmatic The Turn of the Screw [free, unabridged online] (1898). Wise shrewdly omits Jackson's oafish character who bears an uncanny resemblance to Colonel Pickering in the then-recent musical My Fair Lady (1956), and tightens the narrative most of the plot is the same in both novel and film until it almost bursts with suspense, even as it provides ample opportunities for character development.
The Haunting is one of the most visually astonishing films I have seen. Like the vast, labyrinthine mansion which Jackson describes, and which Wise brings to life, there are no straight lines anywhere to be seen. Everything is slightly, or more than slightly, off-kilter, both in the set design and, even more subtly, in the intricate widescreen compositions. Wise shrewdly shot the film in black and white, allowing the fullest interplay of light and shadow lots and lots of shadows. (The film was made on a surprisingly small budget: despite the smash hit status of the Oscar-winning West Side Story, MGM had only minimal faith in this, Wise's latest and radically different project.) You can see the influence of Citizen Kane in several shots there is more than a little of Kane's towering castle, Xanadu, in Hill House yet overall this is a startlingly original vision of what, in earlier films, had long since descended into the hoary clichess of 'the haunted house movie.' Part of the film's originality, which in turn accounts for its extraordinary influence on all later films of the type, comes from Wise revealing Hill House's unique, and for some seductive, form of beauty. Even the faces, hidden within the swirling patterns of the wallpaper, are as lyrical as they are unnerving.
What anchors the film emotionally are the people. There are only four or five major characters (one appears unexpectedly, late in the film), and each is finely-etched, from the somewhat arch minor character of the housekeeper (who may have learned her trade from Hitchcock's Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca) to the four investigators, including two women with psychic abilities. They are Claire Bloom as the (for its day) openly lesbian character Theodora, and Julie Harris as Eleanor, who may also be lesbian or bisexual. The growing relationship between these two women, as in Jackson's novel, forms the emotional core of the story. It may have been very moving, especially in 1963 with so few lesbian characters, to learn that, despite Theo's flirtations with Eleanor (and I believe that she is trying to help Eleanor realize some long-buried truths about her nature), she has a woman waiting for her back home. In other words, Theo is not yet another lonely, tormented lesbian; she is at once incisive, witty, and nurturing, and she 'has a life' too.
Unlike the novel, Wise presents his film explicitly from Eleanor's point of view; he even includes a judicious use of voice-over by Ms. Harris. (Ms. Harris is a great actress on both stage the most honored performer in the history of Broadway's Tony Awards and film, including her breakthrough role in The Member of the Wedding; friends tell me she's also regarded as a "lesbian icon," although I do not know the facts of her personal life.) Although I realize that this interpretation may be a stretch for some people, I think that the ghosts of Hill House which reflect the self-loathing of the sadistic and puritanical man who built it (his last name, Crain, means "fear" in French) are also reflections of Eleanor's own self-consuming repression. On yet another level, Hill House, and the film itself, gain much of their power from the increasing disintegration between the boundaries of external and internal, which is brilliantly, and subtly, embodied in Eleanor's progression (or degeneration) throughout the tale.
There are many more layers, both emotional and thematic, in both the novel and film. But on at least one level Eleanor's fate reflects her relentless insistence on not looking into her own heart. As she increasingly pulls away from Theo she grows ever more connected to the house, relishes becoming a 'member' of it. Ultimately the film shows us the steep price one pays for self-blindness whether it's Hugh Crain or his doomed descendents or, now, Eleanor:
"Whatever walked there, walked alone."
The great poet/artist/filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini recounts the life of Jesus Christ with beauty, complexity, and power (using a non-professional cast, and only the words of the Bible); considered by some a masterpiece of world cinema.
Ozon is on my list of Outstanding GLBT Filmmakers
François Ozon's award-winning first feature, See The Sea, is one of the most seductive, complex, and unnerving thrillers of recent years. It is paired with his short comic film, "A Summer Dress."
This picture is on my list of the 10 Best GLBT Films
It is also among the top 10 of 50 Outstanding GLBT Films
Director Greta Schiller and writer Andrea Weiss are on my list of Outstanding GLBT Filmmakers
Greta Schiller's award-winning documentary Paris Was A Woman (1995) explores the extraordinary women, many of whom were lesbian or bisexual, in the Left Bank's thriving cultural scene between the wars. Through Schiller's exceptional filmmaking (she edited as well as directed and co-produced), and Andrea Weiss's brilliant research and screenwriting, we come to know the living, complex women who so often stand only as cultural icons: Gertrude Stein, Colette, Romaine Brooks. We also meet many of their less well-known but no less fascinating contemporaries. In a mere 75 minutes, with a spellbinding use of archival photos and film footage, Schiller manages to recreate the mood and flavor of this unique community of women who came to The City of Lights (and Love) from the U.S., England, and every corner of the world. This inspired, and moving, film brings to life their passion both for the arts and for a freedom in their personal lives which still resonates today.
This picture is on my list of 50 Great Films by GLBT Directors
It is also one of my picks for the 10 Best Films About Filmmaking
Fassbinder is on my list of Outstanding GLBT Filmmakers
Visit my comprehensive Fassbinder Website
Don't let the tongue-in-cheek title, which refers to cinema, deter you! Beware of a Holy Whore is not only one of the most insightful and hilarious films about filmmaking, it is also a landmark in Fassbinder's career, looking back to his brilliantly abstract early films and ahead to his unique melodramas. And it is a probing, multi-layered view of human experience of frustration, brutality, and especially love seen through the unlikely but fascinating metaphor of a stranded movie crew. Shortly before his death, Fassbinder said that he considered this his best picture. It also provides a stunning contrast to another of his masterpieces, Effi Briest, my recommended film for June.
In this visceral and highly entertaining political fantasy, Queen Elizabeth I travels 400 years into the future to find England a wasteland. Although made at the height of the '70s Punk movement, and featuring several of its key musicians as actors, this is a probing, and anarchically beautiful, film which exists on its own unique terms. Jarman was not only one of the most original, and visually brilliant, filmmakers of recent years (he died in 1994), he was also an exceptional author, painter, GLBT rights activist, and yes gardener. Visit my new Jarman Website to learn more about his life and works.
Based on a classic 19th century German novel about the consequences of betrayed love, Effi Briest is one of Fassbinder's most universally acclaimed, complex, and visually ravishing films.
Ran ("Chaos"), legendary director Akira Kurosawa's twenty-seventh of thirty films, is not only the summit of his artistry but a universally acclaimed masterpiece. He spent ten years meticulously preparing every detail of, and scouring the world for funding for, his magnum opus, a free adaptation of Shakespeare's King Lear transposed to sixteenth century feudal Japan.
Why is this my Recommended GLBT Film of the Month? Although Kurosawa is not a GLBT-identified filmmaker, he has reinvented the Fool of Shakespeare's play as a fascinating, multi-dimensional transgender character renamed Kyoami. This role is considerably expanded from Shakespeare's original, and in a way represents the healing opposite of the chaos ("Ran") of the title, balancing both masculine and feminine energy, great courage as well as flexibility and tenderness. Another GLBT connection with the film is Shakespeare himself. About 126 of his 154 Sonnets (click here for a free online copy), which most scholars and readers believe are autobiographical, are addressed to the young man he was passionately in love with: "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" And of course, there are many other "clues" to the Bard's sexual nature throughout his plays.
Marleen Gorris is on my list of Outstanding GLBT Directors
Dutch filmmaker Marleen Gorris (director of Antonia's Line, which won the 1995 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film) and British screenwriter Eileen Atkins (also an acclaimed stage actress) have done the seemingly impossible. They have adapted Virginia Woolf's landmark 1925 stream of consciousness novel, Mrs. Dalloway, with its structural and emotional richness not only intact but brilliantly reimagined for the screen.
As readers of Mrs. Dalloway know, the action unfolds on a lovely summer day in the early '20s, as London society matron Clarissa Dalloway puts the final touches on her elaborate dinner party. But as she fusses over every detail, she recalls a summer long ago, when she was young: beautiful, lively, and sought after by many men... and one woman. Throughout the story, her life mysteriously connects with that of Septimus Warren Smith, a young World War I veteran descending into madness.
Vanessa Redgrave (The Loves of Isadora, Julia, Howards End) gives a beautifully shaded, and subtly nuanced, performance as Mrs. Dalloway. She reveals much about her character's attitudes, and even her inner life, through the slightest turn of her head or lowering of her eyes. She is also successful at one of film's trickiest devices, because it is so often used unsuccessfully: voice-over narration. Redgrave, with director Gorris and screenwriter Atkins (sometimes using Woolf's text verbatim, other times paraphrasing but always with the right inflection), finds exactly the right tone. Voice over so often fails because it is used to cover up plot or character holes which the filmmakers were unable to solve more creatively. But in Mrs. Dalloway, Redgrave's narration adds a new layer of emotional, and thematic, complexity to the film. It also serves, I think successfully, as a creative substitute for Woolf's infrequent but resonant shifting of perspective (although she writes the book entirely in the third person, different sections have different tones, depending on which character she is focusing on). Redgrave brings Mrs. Dalloway, with all of Woolf's emotional subtext, fully to life.
As young Clarissa, Natascha McElhone also gives an outstanding performance. In fact, the entire cast is uniformly strong. My only quibble is with Gorris's decision to make the closeted lesbian religious fanatic, Miss Kilman (note Woolf's satirical name for her, which sounds like "kill men"), into a solely comical figure. The novel presents a more ominous portrait of the woman whom Mrs. Dalloway sees as leading her teenage daughter, Elizabeth, into a world of extreme narrowness. As Redgrave's Mrs. Dalloway says to Kilman and Elizabeth, "I just want everyone to be themselves."
What makes Mrs. Dalloway so much more than, say, a Masterpiece Theatre production is Gorris's inspired use of all the elements of film - widescreen composition, color, movement, sound, music, narrative structure, performance - to reimagine the novel for the screen, to make it both concrete and allusive.
I was particularly struck by how Gorris uses the color green throughout the film. With a seemingly endless set of variations on hue and texture, this one color becomes a primary way to give the film visual unity. This is important because the narrative frequently shifts between the film's present in the 1920s and Clarissa's youth. But Gorris makes green take on even more shades of meanings. It suggests the blurring of outside (forests, parks, gardens) and inside (wallpaper, furniture, clothing). Visually, it embodies Woolf's theme of modern life cut off from, though still tenuously attached to, the natural world.
The use of composition is at least as inspired. Gorris and cinematographer Sue Gibson shot the film in 1.85 widescreen (i.e., they used a 1.85: 1 aspect ratio, in which the frame is about twice as long as it is high). They subtly move between shots which are unbalanced, which "feel slightly off" to the viewer, to those which are rigidly structured, with all the visual elements lining up too perfectly. This visual design perfectly complements the film's (and novel's) emotional and thematic development, as elegantly composed images gradually, inexorably move towards stasis.
Of course, I am not implying that the picture is a substitute for the novel: Gorris and Atkins would be as aghast at the suggestion as Woolf. But the film is is an extremely well thought out, moving, and incisive complement to the book. One element which it clarifies is the lesbian subtext. Although fleeting in the novel, it would have had special meaning to Woolf, who was bisexual or lesbian. She shared much of her life, and passion, with author Vita Sackville-West, who also inspired Woolf to write Orlando, a 1928 fantasy novel with a gender shifting hero/ine (creatively filmed by director Sally Potter in 1993).
Gorris, who is openly lesbian, keeps the interplay between young Clarissa and Sally (Lena Headey) restrained but suggestive, with lots of playful touching. Their relationship reaches a peak with a brief, but deeply moving, scene of the two women together at her family's estate, which is at once idyllic and oppressive. (This scene occurs about 21 minutes into the film: Chapter 2 on the DVD.) Clarissa asks, "Sally, will we always be together?" She answers breathlessly, "Always. Always! We'll change the world." Commentatively, Gorris now cuts to a brief scene with middle-aged Mrs. Dalloway praising how well the maid has polished the silver candlesticks for her party. Immediately we cut back to Sally and Clarissa dancing tight against each other by a fountain. Slowly they draw closer together, moving into a passionate but tender kiss. A moment later, two men appear with quizzical, but not approving, looks. You can feel an entire path of Clarissa's, and Sally's, lives being closed off.
At the film's (and novel's) conclusion, during Mrs. Dalloway's elegant party, she remembers not only the man (Peter Walsh) she might have married, but Sally. The high-spirited, sleek girl has now become the plump, giggly Lady Rosseter (Sarah Badel), the mother of five boys. As Mrs. Dalloway tells us ruefully in voice over, Sally is now "older, happier, but less lovely." As she contemplates the suicide of Septimus Warren Smith (Rupert Graves, who played Alec the gamekeeper in Maurice), whom she never met but whose image has mystically haunted her throughout the day (Septimus' smug doctor is one of her guests), she also looks back on her youth. In particular, on the kiss she shared with Sally. Here, the kiss is remembered - or misremembered? - as being much longer, and even more impassioned, than what we saw before.
As Woolf puts it in her novel, Mrs. Dalloway has "lost herself in the process of living." But we have also seen her gently but determinedly fighting to keep her mind and spirit alive. And by the end of the story, with her party a success and having come to some kind of terms with the fate of Septimus, she feels "less afraid."
"Here I am at last," says Vanessa Redgrave's unforgettable Mrs. Dalloway in the last words of the film. Her voice drifts over the dancing couples of her present as the image slowly dissolves into the seated, immobile figures of their younger selves. The film poignantly captures, like Woolf's novel, the aching poetry of lost opportunities... and achieved compromises.
Recently talking with a friend about our respective lists of the greatest films, I realized that for me the common element in The Passion of Joan of Arc, Citizen Kane, Tokyo Story, Beauty and the Beast and a handful of others was that each film left me literally speechless, in awe of how the filmmaker's artistry can embody a profound and unique vision of life, no matter how seemingly "limited" the subject matter. Of the greatest films I have seen, Beauty and the Beast was the one I saw first, as a child. After twenty-five years and ten viewings most recently the Criterion Collection's flawless restored DVD it remains the most beloved....
This film is in the Top 10 of my list of 50 Outstanding GLBT Films
Peter Jackson (born 1961) is best known as the writer/director of the most acclaimed fantasy/adventure saga in decades: The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003), but he created some exceptional earlier works too. Although I have not seen Jackson as GLBT-identified, his Heavenly Creatures (1994) is one of the most profoundly moving, and popular, films about a lesbian relationship. It tells the true story of two teenage New Zealand girls (one of whom grew up to become bestselling mystery writer Anne Perry) who fell passionately in love in the starched-shirt city of Christchurch in the mid-1950s. Unfortunately, this is a place where even a doctor can only whisper the word "ho-mo-sex-u-al" through clenched teeth (in a tight close-up, of course). As their desperation grows, what they believe to be their only way out forces them to commit a shattering act of violence.
The film's enormous power comes from how Jackson and co-screenwriter Frances Walsh depict so many layers of the tender yet all-consuming love of rich Juliet Hulme (debut of Kate Winslet, later in Sense and Sensibility, Titanic, and Iris) and working class Pauline "Paul" Rieper (debut of Melanie Lynskey, later in But I'm a Cheerleader and Sweet Home Alabama). The film is by no means a simple thriller or romance or coming of age story, but all three and much more. It moves effortlessly from heartstopping suspense to extraordinary visual lyricism to a profound, yet sometimes very funny, story of two young people coming to understand who they are and what they need.
Jackson is ingenious at balancing so many disparate elements. He depicts a realistic 1950s milieu, stretching from the upper crust professional world of the Hulmes to the Riepers seedy boarding house, with countless details which feel authentic. And Jackson brings the film to another level by showing us, stage by stage, how Juliet and Pauline first dream up their alternate reality ("The Fourth World") - using voice over narration taken from the actual journals and letters - and then, thanks to some good early digital effects, come increasingly to live in their fairy tale kingdom. As their love deepens, and their families try ever harder to break them part, we are moved - perhaps even to tears - by their need for that special, albeit illusory, place where they can share love and adventure. Yet Jackson, who begins the film with the bloody aftermath of the climactic murder, never lets us forget that these two girls are ultimately willing to kill for their fantasy.
On this latest viewing, I was especially struck by how Jackson uses camera movement to convey a wide range of moods. This is a very kinetic film, which immediately establishes a rich counterpoint between camera movement and movement of the actors. Visualizing the film's theme, it simultaneously creates an effect of boundlessness (the camera can go anywhere) and limits (but the people can not). A perfect example is the mesmerizing "Donkey Serenade" sequence, when Pauline first visits Juliet at her palatial home. Also notice how Jackson alternately cuts with and, powerfully, against Mario Lanza singing the silly ditty as the girls explore the boundaries of their world, from home to school.
Why does Heavenly Creatures not feel like just another work about "doomed GLBT characters," which were so prevalent until just a decade or so ago? Perhaps it is because Jackson exposes the tangled strands of homophobia in Christchurch society, from religion to medicine, and how it operates in various social strata. He does this with a mordant sense of humor, and a great deal of compassion. Also, we never see Juliet and Pauline question their love for each other; there is not a jot of self-loathing in these young women. Their anger is directed at the society, in its many forms, which wants to deny them expression of their love.
Because Jackson and his collaborators have created a work of such richness and complexity, we can feel all of the pathos of this line from one of Pauline's poems, "'Tis indeed a miracle, one must feel,/ That two such heavenly creatures are real."
The Miramax DVD's excellent widescreen (2.35 aspect ratio) transfer contains no extra features, but it does present the complete 109 minute version of the film - 10 minutes longer than the U.S. theatrical release - which substantially fleshes out Juliet and Pauline's parents.
Click here to download the complete original screenplay to Heavenly Creatures, which includes an extensive interview with Peter Jackson and Frances Walsh.
This is a powerful, visually ravishing film about the mythic characters Medea and Jason; arguably is the great poet/ novelist/ theoriest/ filmmaker Pasolini's most underrated film.