Brief Film Reviews

These exceptional LGBTQ+ films come 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). For more on cinema, see the Film page.

Titles followed by a [month in brackets] were originally Recommended LGBTQ Films of the Month selections for 2002. In subsequent years, I selected films for which I’d written full-length reviews.


Written & Directed by Jean Cocteau, 1949, France – 95 minutes, black & white, 1.33 aspect ratio – Fantasy [LGBTQ Film of the Month December 2002]

Jean Cocteau (1889-1963) is a preeminent artist of the 20th century, and a major icon of gay culture, having created enduring works in fiction (The White Book (1928) and, a year later, Les Enfants Terrible), theatre (Orpheus (1926) and The Infernal Machine (1934)), opera (the libretto for Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex (1927)), poetry, painting, sculpture and, of course, cinema (including Les Parents Terribles (1948), aka The Storm Within).

Fantasy has a distinguished tradition in film, from Georges Méliès’ one-reel silents (1902’s “A Trip to the Moon”) to Peter Jackson’s monumental The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003); and Cocteau created four of the genre’s defining masterpieces. They are Beauty and the Beast (1945), and three career-spanning films inspired by the mythic poet and musician, Orpheus (whom some ancient writers believed “invented” same-sex love). Cocteau’s Orphic Trilogy consists of his avant-garde, and boldly homoerotic, first film, The Blood of a Poet (1930), which he wrote, directed, acted in, edited, and narrated; Orpheus (1949), discussed below (and a striking contrast to another mythic film by a great gay director, Pasolini’s Medea); and his final picture, the surreally autobiographical, The Testament of Orpheus (1959).

In 1949 Cocteau made Orpheus, one of his greatest and most popular films. As with Beauty and the Beast and several of his other cinematic and stage works, it starred his life partner, the strikingly handsome Jean Marais. He plays Orpheus as a wildly successful young poet (as popular as any rock star of later decades) beset by artistic and romantic rivals, both human and supernatural. Although Cocteau keeps the basic myth intact, he sets it in postwar Paris, sometimes giving it a jazzy, almost documentary feel (looking ahead a decade to the French New Wave). At other times, Cocteau uses the updated setting for droll satire: Orpheus receives new poetic “inspiration” from an enchanted car radio. The incomprehensible, Dada-like poems which he furiously transcribes become all the rage with critics and fans.

Cocteau adds many other ingenious, and genuinely moving, twists to the myth. This Orpheus searches for his dead wife by descending into a most extraordinary Underworld, with imagery drawn as much from mythology as from the director’s earlier works (“The Angel Heurtebise,” who first appeared in his 1925 poem, is a major character in the film), not to mention stark reminders of the then-recent Nazi occupation. Critic Pauline Kael praised Cocteau for giving “the violence and mystery of the Orpheus story a contemporaneity that, in other hands, might seem merely chic; Cocteau’s special gift was to raise chic to art.”

Orpheus is also a triumph of casting (Marais brings great depth and power to the title character, and Maria Casarès plays Death as a regally beautiful figure, with longing visible beneath her hauteur); sumptuous black and white cinematography by Nicholas Hayer; simple but influential special effects (countless films have imitated its liquescent mirrors as portals through which characters can reach different levels of reality); and a haunting score by Georges Auric.

Some viewers will be enthralled by Orpheus as a complex metaphor for the disturbing connections between imagination and death, while many others will be enthralled by its sheer virtuosity, beauty, and emotional resonance. Cocteau created one of the most successful, and enduring, blends of the actual and the fantastic in film. It could be summed up as “a realistic document of unrealistic events” – words which Cocteau used to describe his own Blood of a Poet two decades earlier.

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Written & Directed by Luchino Visconti, 1942, Italy – 134 minutes, black & white, 1.33 aspect ratio – Suspense [LGBTQ Film of the Month November 2002]

Ossessione (“obsession”), Luchino Visconti’s powerful first film, is an unauthorized – and partly homoeroticized – adaptation of James M. Cain’s classic 1934 suspense novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice (which has been filmed five times, and even staged as an opera). Not only is Ossessione one of the most engrossing suspense pictures ever made – and a landmark in the history of LGBTQ cinema – it also launched the extremely influential Neorealist movement in film.

Visconti follows the main thrust of the original story, about a beautiful but frustrated wife (here called Giovanna; played by Clara Calamai of Dario Argento’s Deep Red) who becomes obsessed with a strikingly handsome drifter (Gino, played by Massimo Girotti of Pasolini’s Medea and Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris) staying at her inn. Repulsed by her obese and ill-tempered husband, Giovanna begs Gino to help her kill him so that they can collect his hefty insurance premium. After the murder, they find themselves trapped in a downward spiral of fear, deception, and jealousy. Visconti, who also co-write the screenplay, adds a fascinating new element to the story in the form of a beguiling gay vagabond (“Lo Spagnolo,” played by Elio Marcuzzo, who was murdered by the Nazis three years after filming), who offers Gino a chance at a better life, both before and after the murder. Gino and Lo Spagnolo’s scenes, brimming with both sexual force and real tenderness, are astonishing for their period, and still deeply moving. Visconti has given Gino a revealing last name, Costa (“coast”), since he is a man on the edge, caught between straight and gay, between the arid land (represented by Giovanna, her ramshackle inn, and the dusty little village) and the freedom of the sea (Lo Spagnolo is often seen near the ocean or docks). Gino’s choice seals his fate.

Massimo Girotti in Ossessione

Gino and Lo Spagnolo’s relationship, as much as the illicit heterosexual pairing, may have caused the violent religious and political outrage which greeted the film. The Fascists went so far as to burn the negative; fortunately, Visconti was able to save a print. (Because Visconti never secured the rights to Cain’s novel – Mussolini’s regime ignored international copyright laws, among many others – the film was long banned in the U.S.; it was not released in a complete version, with a full half hour restored, for over 30 years.)

The great, openly gay filmmaker Luchino Visconti (1906-1976) has been called the most Italian of internationalists, the most operatic of realists, and the most aristocratic of Marxists (of noble lineage, he was nicknamed “the Red Count”). His first film, Ossessione, inaugurated Neorealism, known for its rough, documentary-like technique, use of non-professional actors, and emphasis on working class characters (Rossellini and De Sica are other directors in this movement). Neorealism “loosened up” filmmaking style around the world; it is the most important development in cinema before the French New Wave.

Visconti continued in this naturalistic vein until making another of his masterpieces, Rocco and His Brothers (1960), a domestic tragedy about a Sicilian peasant family forced to move to the industrial North in search of work. Afterwards, he focused on filming superb literary adaptations (Camus’ The Stranger in 1967; Mann’s Death in Venice in 1971) and opulent historical dramas, including The Leopard in 1963 and Ludwig in 1973. (His 1954 film Senso, about the Risorgimento, had English-language dialogue by Tennessee Williams and Paul Bowles.) Throughout his career he was also acclaimed for his staging of theatre (including plays by Cocteau and Williams) and opera. His 1969 film, The Damned, combines his major styles: It is an historical epic, about the fall of a Krupp-like German industrial family, filmed as if it were a Wagnerian opera. Directors as diverse as Bertolucci, Coppola, Scorsese, and Fassbinder have named Visconti as a crucial influence.

Although only half of his twelve films contain important gay characters (Ossessione, Rocco and His Brothers, The Damned, Death in Venice, Ludwig, and his next to last film, 1974’s Conversation Piece), they are essential to the evolution of LGBTQ cinema. His introduction of Neorealism, as well as his creative use – throughout his career – of all of film’s elements to explore the complexities of art, beauty, social justice, and sexual identity, have secured Visconti a vital place in world cinema.

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Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

Written & directed by Pedro Almodóvar, 1988, Spain – 89 minutes, color, 1.85 aspect ratio – Comedy [LGBTQ Film of the Month October 2002]

In Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Spain’s foremost writer/director, openly gay Pedro Almodóvar, creates a modern screwball comedy of dazzling visual style about women and their problems with men, whether adulterous husbands, married boyfriends, fiancés, sons… or terrorists.

High atop one of the poshest penthouses in Madrid, three women have come to the end of their emotional ropes. Gorgeous Pepa (Carmen Maura) – an actress who dubs films when not “starring” in detergent commercials playing the mother of a serial killer – obsesses over oily Ivan (Fernando Guillen), her married lover who just jilted her via answering machine. In rushes Pepa’s neurotic best friend Candela (Maria Barranco), seeking refuge because she just found out that her lover is a Shiite terrorist. And here comes Ivan’s unstoppable ex-wife Lucia (Julieta Serrano), released from 20 years in a mental hospital. Oh no! They are all on the verge of a nervous breakdown… and one of them is about to commit murder unless the others can stop her. Into this combustible mix walks Ivan’s son Carlos (Antonio Banderas) and his naive fiancée, and a giddy parade of other hapless characters.

Almodóvar returned to the classic 1930s/40s style of such comic masters as George Cukor (The Philadelpha Story) and Preston Sturges (Sullivan’s Travels), and combined it with his own outrageous use of visual design (with a nod to Fellini and Buñuel), to create his first masterpiece. He achieves an extraordinary balance between farcical action and deeply-felt emotion. We are captivated by the increasingly frenetic – and at times surreal – action, yet we understand and care about all of these wounded, sympathetically written and acted people. Almodóvar also successfully walks the tightrope between extremes of design and naturalness. On the one hand, there is an eye-popping use of color (especially the tension between vivid reds and blues), an obviously theatrical cityscape of Madrid (as seen from Pepa’s apartment), and recurrent motifs such as clocks, phones, and televisions. On the other hand, most audiences intuit the color and symbolic objects rather than analyze them; and the “fake” Madrid is often juxtaposed with scenes shot there on location, creating yet another edge between art and life. The film constantly teeters on the verge of its own – carefully-orchestrated – stylistic breakdown, but Almodóvar’s genius holds all the elements together.

As with his earlier films (1982’s Labyrinth of Passion, 1987’s Law of Desire) and subsequent work (1990’s Tie Me Up! Time Me Down!, and another masterpiece, 1999’s All About My Mother), Almodóvar uses a frenzied, and sensuous, surface to explore complex social problems, such as the condition of contemporary Spanish women, sexual identity (his films show a diverse array of richly-drawn GLBT characters), and the nature of violence. Through his multi-layered “cinema of excess” he not only rejects but dissects conventional moral stances. He does not so much prescribe solutions to our personal, and social, problems as force as to look – and laugh – at them in all of their absurdity.

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Fellini Satyricon

Directed by Federico Fellini, 1969, Italy – 129 minutes, color, 2.35 aspect ratio – Adventure/Experimental [LGBTQ Film of the Month September 2002]

One of the most wildly original, gorgeous, and unsettling films that I have ever experienced, Fellini Satyricon (1969) – as the credits proclaim, “a free adaptation of the Petronius classic,” from the late first century, possibly the world’s first nove. It is perhaps best viewed not as a historical “sword and sandal” epic (like Ben-Hur, Spartacus, or Gladiator), but as what its director called “my science fiction film of the past.” You can also see it as a phantasmagorical fever dream, or a drug-induced hallucination, not to mention a satirical, yet nail-biting, adventure set in a dozen exotic locales. It shifts between massive, fantastically detailed studio sets and jaw-dropping Mediterranean locations, while focusing on the odyssey of Encolpio, a “hot” and hard-living young gay man – a scholar, thief, and adventurer – during the gaudy decline of the Roman Empire. Astonishingly, this opulent film was made for just $3 million, compared to an average of $40 million for a typical 1960s Hollywood epic. (By the way, this is the first film in which Fellini added his own name to the title – hence Fellini Satyricon – but he did so only for legal reasons, since an exploitative, ultra low-budget movie of Satyricon was being made at the same time to cash in on Fellini’s fame. Later, Fellini became fond of adding his name to many of his films: he is, after all, the most autobiographical of major filmmakers.)

Fellini spins the few surviving fragments of Petronius’s Satyricon [free online] into a riot of alternately grotesque and rapturously beautiful images, moving from minimalism – such as the opening shot in which Encolpio spews out a lengthy Shakespearean-style monologue against a graffiti-covered wall – to massive crowd scenes, like Trimalchio’s feast, bursting with color and life and weirdness, worthy of comparison to Bosch, Brueghel, and Hogarth. (All of those artists, including Fellini, are both social satirists and epic visionaries.) On every level – narrative, visual and sound design, emotion – Fellini Satyricon catapults between extremes, from comedy to action to beauty to terror to pathos, and back again.

Writer/director Fellini turns the necessarily fragmentary Petronius (only a minuscule part of his vast original novel remains) into his own purposefully fragmentary film. As he told novelist Alberto Moravia at the time of filming, “I am insistent on the dreamlike character of the film. Everything will be disconnected, fragmentary. And at the same time mysteriously homogenous. Every detail will stand out on its own account, isolated, dilated, absurd, monstrous – as in dreams.” The film’s jarring elliptical structure perfectly meshes with its surreal visual and sound pyrotechnics (which have influenced many pictures, from dreck like Caligula to notable films like Clive Barker’s underrated Nightbreed and Terry Gilliam’s extraordinary Brazil). Fellini Satyricon is not only one of the most sensuous – and exciting – films ever made, it is also an evocative dramatization of Encolpio’s evolving psychological state, using imagery which would have had both Freud and Jung grinning with appreciation.

With Encolpio at its center, the film tells a unique, and in its day unprecedented, gay coming of age story. Made in Italy at about the same time as the 1969 Stonewall Riots, I think Fellini Satyricon is a – and perhaps the – landmark gay film, although it is rarely discussed as such. In a world filled with grotesquerie, the gay/bi lead characters – Encolpio, as well as his sometime lover Ascilto and their shrewd “boy toy” Gitone – are revealed as fully developed and complex people. And Fellini makes us understand why they do such sometimes horrific things: How else could they survive in a world gone completely mad? (Fellini stated clearly that Satyricon’s Rome was a parallel to the modern-day one, which he had skewered in his 1960 classic, La Dolce Vita.) Unlike any previous GLBT film, Fellini Satyricon explores a world with the full range of same-sex – as well as opposite-sex – relationships, from the most tender and heartfelt to the most brutal and debauched. All without flinching.

Intriguingly, Fellini’s biographer John Baxter hints that the director – whose films are conspicuously filled with images of women (8-1/2, Amarcord, City of Women) – may have been bisexual or gay. If so, Fellini Satyricon offers a possible glimpse into this great director’s psyche, where the view of same-sex relations constantly twists between beauty and horror and farce… and emotional growth. Perhaps it is significant that after Fellini poured his genius into this most deeply personal picture (which was financially and, to a lesser extent, critically successful), he never again explored same-sex themes. Many filmgoers and critics see his later works, despite some awards, as slowly spiraling downwards into self-imitation, merely echoing such earlier masterpieces as La Strada (1954), Nights of Cabiria (1957), La Dolce Vita, 8-1/2 (1963) and, of course, Satyricon.

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The Philadelphia Story

Directed by George Cukor, 1940, US – 112 minutes, black & white, 1.37 aspect ratio – Comedy [LGBTQ Film of the Month August 2002]

As a contrast to the NYC G&L Reading Group’s current selection, Iris Murdoch’s novel The Bell, I recommend The Philadelphia Story, one of the funniest – and (from a certain point of view) darkest – comedies of manners ever filmed.

Gay director George Cukor’s 1940 masterpiece, The Philadelphia Story, is perhaps the most sparkling and hilarious of all American comedies. (For me, the runners-up are Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby (1938 – also starring Hepburn and Grant) and Ernst Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise (1932).) It tells the story of a fastidious bride-to-be (Katharine Hepburn as wealthy “golden girl” Traci Lord) – who finds fault with everyone but herself – and the two men who come unexpectedly into her life on the eve of her second marriage. The uninvited guests – who blackmail their way into the Lord household – include a razor-tongued tabloid reporter (Jimmy Stewart as Macauley Connor) and Traci’s droll ex-husband (Cary Grant as C.K. Dexter Haven, who at one point tells Connor, “I thought all writers drank to excess and beat their wives. You know, one time I secretly wanted to be a writer”). After dozens of fabulous plot twists and turns, Hepburn gets her comeuppance and, at the altar, a most unexpected spouse.

The Philadelphia Story has everything you could wish for in a comedy, from exhilarating performances by three of the screen’s greatest actors (Hepburn, Grant, and Stewart – who won his only Oscar for this film), to a perfectly-structured screenplay by Donald Ogden Stewart (who also won an Oscar: Anyone named “Stewart” on this film got an Academy Award), who adapted John Barry’s Broadway hit. In fact, Barry had been hired by his friend Hepburn to tailor a comeback role specifically for her, after she had been labeled “box office poison” for years.

What sets The Philadelphia Story apart from other comedies might best be attributed to what was called, for five decades, “the Cukor touch.” George Cukor (1899-1983) has one of the most distinguished – and beloved – filmographies of any director, having made 64 films in 51 years. This “woman’s director” (Hollywood code for “gay”) worked with almost every great actress between the 1930s and ’70s, and excelled at a wide range of genres, including such classic literary adaptations as Little Women (1933, with Hepburn), David Copperfield (1935), Romeo and Juliet (1936, with Norma Shearer), and Camille (1937, starring Greta Garbo); the superb comedies Dinner at Eight (1933, with Jean Harlow) and Holiday (1938, starring Hepburn and Cary Grant); not to mention the gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett (1935, in which Hepburn disguises herself as a boy and fends off both female and male suitors, including Cary Grant).

He worked for legendary MGM producer David O. Selznick, who by the late 1930s felt Cukor was ready to helm the most eagerly-awaited, and expensive, picture of its era: Gone With the Wind (1939). Although Cukor was fired 10 days after filming began – star Clark Gable resented having to work for a “fairy” director who lavished his attention on female lead Vivien Leigh – it is Cukor’s carefully worked out vision of Gone With the Wind which studio hack Victor Fleming brought to the screen. The same thing was to happen with Cukor’s next film, The Wizard of Oz, for which he did all of the preparation – and defined the Judy Garland “Dorothy” that we all know – but for which Fleming again received the director’s credit.

Many of Cukor’s finest works were yet to come, including the classic “bitchy” comedy The Women (1939, with its all-star, all-female cast – not one man on screen – including Joan Crawford and Rosalind Russell), The Philadelphia Story (1940), the taut psychological thriller Gaslight (1944, starring Ingrid Bergman), two of the finest Katharine Hepburn/Spencer Tracy vehicles: Adam’s Rib (1949) and Pat and Mike (1952), Born Yesterday (1950, with Judy Holliday – arguably the last great screwball comedy), A Star Is Born (1954, featuring Judy Garland’s best performance), and My Fair Lady (1964, with Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison – this is one of the only film musicals which captures the vitality of Broadway at its best; it is also the only picture for which Cukor won a Best Director Oscar).

Although many of his films were enormously successful in their day, it is only recently that Cukor has – deservedly – come to be hailed as one of the great directors. On a formal level, Cukor often blends together – in unique and compelling ways – at least two genres, such as The Philadelphia Story’s gyrations between laugh-out-loud comedy and dramatic depth. Perhaps the most striking example of this “genre-bending” is A Star is Born, where Cukor fascinatingly shifts between musical comedy and stark drama.

The influence of feminist theory on film history has helped reveal the social and psychological complexities which Cukor explored. He made films from the point of view of women protagonists who were fiercely intelligent, strong willed, and often socially adventurous, such as the characters Katharine Hepburn portrayed in the 10 films she made with Cukor.

Some critics have accused Cukor of being a slave to the text. But this exceptionally literate director considered such fidelity to be one of his greatest strengths. And the charge that his films are visually uninteresting does not bear up to scrutiny: I believe that his best films strike an ideal balance between understated visual style and dramatic form. As you can see throughout The Philadelphia Story, Cukor avoids flashy effects, yet the film maintains a perfectly balanced momentum. He draws us in from the hilarious but disturbing – and supremely visual – opening vignette with Hepburn and Grant, and never lets go.

Cukor’s genius for pacing film comedy is matched only by Howard Hawks. Rather than simple line readings, Cukor has his actors deliver their dialogue with a precisely orchestrated timing which seems positively musical, almost Mozartean in its grace and energy. (Sadly, High Society – the inevitable musical version of The Philadelphia Story – is flat, despite some wonderful Cole Porter songs.)

But The Philadelphia Story is not all feel-good fluff; it is a comedy with genuinely dark depths. In fact, its themes might seem more at home in an Ingmar Bergman film than a screwball comedy: People’s inability to communicate honestly, a blinding lack of self-knowledge, isolation (true for all the characters) and many forms of despair (Traci Lord’s frigidity, Dexter Haven and Connor’s alcoholism, Mr. Lord’s infidelity with a chorus girl), not to mention its many broken families (including the Lords and the Hepburn/Grant ex-marriage) and the steep price of deception (most of the characters are caught in lies within lies). Cukor guides Hepburn, Stewart, and Grant into explorations of the full, complex range of their roles, from near-slapstick to confusion and pain to joy. Perhaps Cukor’s greatest strength as a director was his ability to reveal the dramatic tensions between people’s inner and outer lives. Although he dealt sensitively with his actors (and they loved him for it), Cukor insisted that they delve into the emotional areas which they usually kept guarded, and reveal them to the camera.

As a gay man in a relentlessly homophobic industry – and society – Cukor knew all too well about what had to be kept hidden. Film historian Jim McBride has noted that “Cukor strictly divided his socializing at his walled West Hollywood home between his celebrated friends from the worlds of film, literature, and high society, who visited for small lunches or dinner parties, and his loyal coterie of lesser-known gay friends and their handsome young hustlers, who would gather for pool parties on Sundays.”

Although The Philadelphia Story is one of the most perfectly polished and beloved comedies ever made (a friend mentioned recently that he’s seen it “probably a hundred times”), its power and richness come as much from Cukor’s unflinching look at what makes his characters tick as from the incandescent performances of his inspired cast. If you have not seen The Philadelphia Story, you are in for a rare treat. And if you have seen it, watch it again to savor the work of a truly great director who understands – and knows how to reveal – the precarious line between belly laughs and despair.

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Directed by Larry Clark, 2001, US – 115 minutes, color, 1.85 aspect ratio – Suspense [LGBTQ Film of the Month July 2002]

This month I recommend one of the most emotionally and visually stunning films of recent years: director Larry Clark’s Bully (2001). Like last month’s picture, Strangers on a Train, it is all about a murder – with strong homoerotic undercurrents – but Bully is based on actual, recent events in Florida when a band of rootless, giggling teenagers decide it would be “cool” to kill the bully who has been harassing them. Clark’s style – all saturated color, jagged editing, and hyper-real performances – could hardly be more different from that of Strangers on a Train. And these teens are certainly kinder, gentler sociopaths than Stranger’s over-the-top murderer, Bruno. Yet Bully is a thriller worthy of comparison to the Hitchcock classic. And although it tells a strikingly different story, Bully’s themes mesh with the Reading Group’s current selection, Paul Bowles’ 1949 novel The Sheltering Sky. Both works, on a fundamental level, deal with isolation, “the sadness inherent in all deracinated things” (Sheltering Sky, Chapter 7), and the tangled roots of violence.

Bully is an extraordinary, haunting film for many reasons. When I watched it again, just before writing this review, it lost none of its power, but did reveal some of the creative ways in which Clark constructed his best work to date. (His controversial 1995 debut feature, Kids, is easily one of the 20 finest pictures I saw from the 1990s.) Bully was written by Xachary Long and Roger Pullis, from Jim Schutze’s book Bully: A True Story of High School Revenge. It should be noted that Bully contains many scenes of extreme emotional and physical violence: Since those are Clark’s themes, they never struck me as gratuitous, let alone titillating.

Clark creates an ensemble film in which every performance seems particularized and real, from the many supporting parts to leads Brad Renfro (Marty Puccio, the high school-dropout surfer), Rachel Miner (Lisa Connelly, his pregnant girlfriend), and Nick Stahl (Bobby Kent, the “bully,” who is Marty’s best friend: Several characters note that they are “queer for each other”). Whether this is how “deracinated” teens acted in 1993 Florida, I don’t know (although Clark did film in Hollywood, Florida, where the murder took place – sometimes using the actual homes and locations). The cast, and filmmaking, convinced me utterly.

What became even more striking about Bully, on a second viewing, was the sheer fluency of Clark’s filmmaking. Before making features, he was a highly successful still photographer. But Bully is by no means a series of “pretty pictures” strung together to tell a gruesome tale. Clark is in complete control of the rhythms of his film, both within shots and in editing. The use of telephoto lenses (only the foreground is in sharp focus) and rapid panning shots are not only visually stunning (whether its Marty surfing or nightmarish distortions of row after row of cloned houses or strip malls or palm trees), they also reflect the rootless, superficial lifestyle of these kids, and their empty, materialistic parents. Image, sound, and theme are inextricably, and brilliantly, bound together from first shot to last.

In exploring this cycle of loneliness, frustration and violence, Clark probes unflinchingly not only into the lives of these alienated teenagers, but into their families too. Parents are shown in brief scenes, but with surprising depth. Again, Clark creates a resonant visual counterpart to their complex interrelationships. Take the dinner scene at the Kent home (where the authoritarian, “go-getter” father refuses to let Bobby see his lifelong “loser” friend Marty again). As the candle-lit meal progresses, the pivotal character in each shot becomes a shadowy, hovering foreground presence, covering part of another family member. Suffocation and menace have rarely been so beautifully, and subtly, depicted.

Much of the film’s power comes from its three-part structure: First we see, in vivid – sometimes heartbreaking – detail what led Lisa to come up with the idea of murdering Bobby, and how the idea spreads to kids who have never even met him, but think it would be “Like, uh, cool” to murder him. Then we witness, in excruciating detail, the night of the murder. Although this climactic moment is where most thrillers would end, Bully continues to peel away its characters’ self-deceptions in its final section. We see how the atrocity has affected, in very different ways, these benighted kids and their families.

Perhaps Bully’s most extraordinary achievement is that it made me understand – and care about – all of these kids, even the title character… and even the others after they have murdered him. Through the horrific dullness of their lives, revolving around drugs, video games, and lackadaisical sex, Clark showed me their vulnerability, their desperate need for love and connnection, and their humanity too. And Clark did this by creating one of the most visually and emotionally overwhelming films in years.

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Strangers on a Train

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, 1951, US – 101 minutes / UK – 103 minutes, black & white, 1.37 aspect ratio – Suspense [LGBTQ Film of the Month June 2002]

Strangers on a Train is one of director Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest achievements, along with such other masterpieces as his British films The 39 Steps (1935), Sabotage (1936), and The Lady Vanishes (1938), and the Hollywood pictures Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Notorious (1946), Rear Window (1954), The Wrong Man (1956), Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960), and The Birds (1963). I recently watched almost all of Hitchcock’s 54 films in chronological order, and the experience was a revelation, not only for the evolving thematic and emotional complexity of his vision (few artists have explored the ambiguous depths of the human heart with more insight) but for his absolute mastery of visual and sound design. His works are cinema at its best… and most unsettling.

With the success of Strangers on a Train in 1951, Hitchcock ended a long streak of box office duds. (Ironically, he tricked young Patricia Highsmith into selling him the rights to her first novel for a pittance: $7,500.) Not only was the film enormously popular with both audiences and critics, Hitchcock also considered it one of his best works.

Strangers on a Train is filled with several of Hitchcock’s most ingenious, and disturbingly beautiful, set pieces: Bruno (played by Robert Walker) at the fairgrounds following, then strangling Miriam, which climaxes with one of the most stunning Point of View (POV) shots I’ve ever seen (see my shot-by-shot analysis of this scene); the first tennis match, where everyone in the crowd jerks their head back and forth to follow the game… except Bruno, who is riveted on Guy (Farley Granger); Bruno frantically trying to recover Guy’s cigarette lighter from a sewer – with bystanders unwittingly cheering on the “villain”; and the shattering final confrontation on the carousel (badly imitated in so many movies). But it is not just the film’s big moments which keep us transfixed. Hitchcock brings his richly inventive visual style, and mordant wit, to bear on minor scenes too – just look at the prison bar-like shadows cast on Guy and Bruno, framed in a series of tight two-shots, during their first clandestine meeting in Washington.

As Highsmith’s readers have already gleaned, Hitchcock begins to diverge from her novel early on. Guy is a tennis star, not an architect; and most of the film’s story – including all of its most memorable sequences – were invented by Hitchcock and his primary screenwriter, Raymond Chandler. (He is the author of such classic suspense novels as The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely, as well as the screenplay for another Film Noir classic, director Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity.) Chandler and Hitchcock feuded during the development of the screenplay – which, as always, Hitchcock hovered over every step of the way. But the script which went into production was principally Chandler’s.

Strangers on a Train appears on this list of Recommended GLBT Films not because Hitchcock has been gay-identified, but because Bruno is perhaps the most flamboyant, and beguiling, central gay character in film at that time. Even so, homosexuality still “dare[s] not speak its name.” Or rather, it speaks its name in cleverly coded ways. No savvy moviegoer could miss the fact that Bruno is gay; in fact, Hitchcock elides all the “heterosexualizing” bits Highsmith felt compelled to include in her novel. And in the British release version of the film – which Hitchcock preferred – there is more emphasis given to Bruno’s coming on to Guy, along with a hint that Guy is not completely indifferent to Bruno’s charms.

What is most notable about Bruno is his complexity. He is flamboyant and crazy but also resourceful, witty, determined, and strong – both with resolve and even physically. At the fairground, he rings the bell on which even the two All-American boys escorting Miriam couldn’t do. We even see Bunro’s noble side, when – minutes after he’s strangled Miriam – he helps an elderly blind man cross the street. He has a consistent value system: Miriam deserves to be killed (she’s ‘bad’) but the blind man deserves help. Yet with all of his positive character traits, he is an insane murderer. And what about his victim? Hitchcock portrays Miriam as a greedy, two-timing tramp. Just in the fairground sequence, we see her going out with two guys even as she eyes the mysterious stranger (Bruno), even as she is trying to get back her husband, Guy. Why Guy… again? She sees his star, not to mention wealth and power, rising beyond tennis as he prepares to enter the world of Washington politics.

Hitchcock was not only a great artist but an inveterate snoop, and he certainly knew that his “straight man” Guy was played by a bisexual actor. (In fact, Hitchcock cast Farley Granger as an almost-openly gay man in their previous film together, Rope, based on the infamous homosexual murderers Leopold and Loeb. In Granger’s 2007 memoir, Include Me Out, he beguilingly recounts how, as a 21-year-old Navy recruit, “I lost my virginity twice in one night,” first to a charming female prostitite, and a short while later, to a dashing Navy officer.) And as filmgoers have known all along, the real “chemistry” is between Guy and Bruno, not Guy and his girlfriend Anne (Ruth Roman). Hitchcock uses that gay subtext – both in the story and with Granger – to energize the entire film.

Does Guy (let alone Farley Granger) really not suspect what Bruno is up to when he gets an invitation to the private compartment, in what has been called a classic pick-up scene? And after the near-strangling at the party, Guy punches Bruno after he says “I like you,” but then tenderly rearranges Bruno’s tie, puts his arm around his waist and walks him out. And after Bruno’s death, doesn’t Guy show – at the very least – a trace of sadness? Hitchcock teases us with same-sex undercurrents (especially in the less censored British cut), making it an integral – and highly entertaining – part of the dramatic tension. As in all Hitchcock’s best films, nothing is as straightforward as it seems, especially the connections between the criminal and the “innocent.” You can imagine Hitchcock beaming when he read in Highsmith’s novel that, with Guy and Bruno, “Each was what the other had not chosen to be, the cast off self, what he thought he hated, but perhaps in reality loved.”

There are many other GLBT aspects of Hitchcock: While re-viewing his films, I took notes on the prolific – and diverse – same-sex elements in his work, both onscreen and off. His films include such overt GLBT characters as androgynous killer Handell Fane (Murder!), the delightful same-sex couple Caldicott and Charters in The Lady Vanishes, the chilling Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca (1940), the emotionally complex murderers in Rope (1948), Norman Bates in Psycho, and more. Hitchcock worked with many GLBT-identified artists, including painter Salvador Dali (on 1945’s Spellbound), and authors Noël Coward (The Pleasure Garden), Somerset Maugham (Secret Agent), Thornton Wilder (the only time a director ever dedicated a film to its writer was with Shadow of a Doubt, also Hitchcock’s – and my – favorite of all his films), Daphne du Maurier (Rebecca and The Birds), Arthur Laurents (Rope), and Cornell Woolrich (Rear Window). GLBT actors included Ivor Novello (who also appears as a character in director Robert Altman’s brilliant whodunit, Gosford Park), Cyril Ritchard, John Gielgud, Charles Laughton, Marlene Dietrich, Raymond Burr, Anthony Perkins and, of course, Cary Grant. These are just a few of the best-known examples. (I hope scholars explore the GLBT aspects of Hitchcock in depth: He is the most frequently written about director, and here – ripe for excavation – is a rich thematic/emotional vein running throughout his entire body of work, on both sides of the camera.)

For comparison with Strangers on a Train, I recommend Larry Clark’s stunning Bully (2001). Like Strangers it is all about a murder – with strong homoerotic undercurrents – but Bully is based on actual, recent events in Florida when a band of rootless, giggling teenagers decide it might be cool to kill the school bully. Clark’s style – all saturated color, jagged editing, and hyper-real performances – could hardly be more different from Hitchcock’s, yet Bully is worthy of comparison to Strangers on a Train.

Hitchcock is one of cinema’s great artists, for his unnervingly original use of image, movement, sound, and black humor to explore a complex vision of who we are… and what we might be capable of doing. For the fun of it, pick a favorite scene or two in Strangers on a Train, then look at it shot by shot. Savor the slightly unbalanced, unsettling visual design. But be careful not to be drawn too far into its shadowy traps – and be ready to turn it off immediately if you hear someone chortling behind you, “Crisscross.”

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Howards End

A Merchant/Ivory production, 1992, US/UK, 140 minutes, color, 1.85 aspect ratio – Drama) [LGBTQ Film of the Month May 2002]

Howards End is one of the best films of the 1990s. It is a radiant, deeply moving, and sometimes very funny picture, as well as an exemplary adaptation of E.M. Forster’s 1910 novel about the complex interplay of values, tradition, class, and love.

Director James Ivory and producer Ismail Merchant – partners in life as well as filmmaking – excel at creating visually and emotionally rich adaptations of literary classics, including works by such canonical gay authors as Henry James (The Europeans (1979), The Bostonians (1984), and The Golden Bowl (2000)) and E.M. Forster (A Room with a View (1986), Maurice (1987) – one of the most popular of all gay-themed films, and Howards End). They frequently collaborate with screenwriter (and novelist) Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who has been particularly acclaimed for compressing Forster’s Howards End into a running time of under two and a half hours, while retaining much of the original’s emotional and thematic intricacy.

Although some critics accuse Merchant/Ivory of making glorified installments of Masterpiece Theatre, I think scrutiny of their best films – including such masterpieces as Howards End and The Remains of the Day (1993) – reveal a complete mastery of cinematic language. Their use of color, composition, movement (both camera movement and editorial rhythms), and sound (including Richard Robbins’ shimmering score) are sometimes as complex, and absorbing, as the prose of the authors they adapt. You can see this for yourself by finding a favorite scene or two and watching it a few times, liberally using your remote control’s freeze frame.

Merchant/Ivory also excel at bringing out the best qualities in their gifted casts, from the leads to the supporting players. Emma Thompson as Margaret Schlegel (who won an Oscar for her role) and Anthony Hopkins as Mr. Wilcox give two of the most compelling performances of their careers. And Merchant/Ivory are extraordinarily successful in creating what feels like a real, living world – which encompasses the brittle wealth of the Wilcoxes, the genteel poverty of the Schlegels, and the abjectness of the Basts – rather than mere sets and costumes.

Although Forster had a lifelong horror of seeing his novels filmed (it was only after he died that his executors allowed films to be made, beginning in 1984 with David Lean’s superb A Passage to India), you can imagine him delighting in the wealth of visual and aural details, and emotional nuances, of Merchant/Ivory’s film. And he would certainly be happy to learn that Merchant/Ivory were able to film at the very house which Forster used as a model when he wrote Howards End.

I envy you the first experience of Howards End, whether it is Forster’s great novel or Merchant/Ivory’s luminous film.

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The Opposite of Sex

Directed & Written by Don Roos, 1998, US, 105 minutes, color, 1.85 aspect ratio – Comedy) [LGBTQ Film of the Month April 2002]

The GLBT film I’m highlighting this time, The Opposite of Sex, offers a wildly different take on a young girl’s coming of age from the G&L Reading Group’s “book of the month,” The Member of the Wedding. Dedee Truitt, the acid-tongued lead of writer and first-time director Don Roos’s 1998 comedy, may be only a couple years older than Carson McCullers’ Frankie Addams, but she is on a journey of self-discovery no less profound… and a lot funnier.

Who is Dedee? Here’s a revealing snippet from her opening voice-over narration: “I don’t have a heart ofgold and I don’t grow one later, OK? But relax. There’s other people a lot nicer coming up – we call them losers.”

The Opposite of Sex is both the funniest – laughed till I cried – GLBT film I’ve seen, and one of the most moving. If you’ll forgive the literary comparisons, it combines the structural and thematic complexity of an early Shakespeare comedy (say, All’s Well That Ends Well) with a level of scathing wit which might have made even Oscar Wilde grin. It tells the story of how Dedee (in an inspired performance by Christina Ricci) tries to snag a father for her unborn child – even if it means seducing the boyfriend of her half-brother, a high school English teacher. Dedee never misses an opportunity to puncture the other characters’ – and our own – conventional expectations about everything from romance (“Rule one of sex: a person can do anything for ten minutes if they don’t breathe in.”) to the plot (“This is foreshadowing. Duh!”)

The lightning-fast narrative moves from Louisiana to Indiana, and California to Canada, and explores – with considerable depth – the jittery axis of sex/love through a wide range of characters. The film is also beautifully, if subtly, designed and photographed. And it boasts a terrific range of performances, from the phlegmatic Martin Donovan to the hilarious Lisa Kudrow, who has several of the funniest lines. “Puh-lease!,” she says when confronting her brother-in-law’s lover who claims that, after sleeping with Dedee, he’s turned bisexual. “I went to a bar mitzvah once. That doesn’t make me Jewish.”

As in all great comedies, by the end of their misadventures the chastened characters – even Dedee – have come to new understandings about sex, love, each other and, of course, themselves. I heartily recommend The Opposite of Sex, one of the best films I’ve seen in recent years.

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Battleship Potemkin

Directed by Sergei Eisenstein, 1925, Russia, 74 minutes, black & white, 1.33 aspect ratio – Drama) [LGBTQ Film of the Month March 2002]

Sergei Eisenstein (1898–1948) is universally regarded as one of the greatest filmmakers; he is also a personal favorite. I have seen his major works (the silent films Strike, Battleship Potemkin, October, and Qué Viva México; and his sound films Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible) many times, and continue to find new richness, beauty, and – now that he has been “outed” – fascinating same-sex content. As a complement to a LGBTQ reading group’s nautical “book of the month” – Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, Sailor – I’m highlighting one of Eisenstein’s masterpieces, 1925’s Battleship Potemkin (Bronenosets Potyomkin). (Another point of connection between Melville and Eisenstein is that critic Jay Leyda was both one of the most revered Melville scholars, and the translator – and personal friend – of Eisenstein. Eisenstein’s books, including The Film Sense and Film Form, remain landmarks of cinema aesthetics.)

Battleship Potemkin, which recounts an historical mutiny and its aftermath, was intended by its Soviet producers as a twentieth-anniversary tribute to the 1905 revolution. But Eisenstein transcended their propagandistic aim to create a dramatically and visually astonishing film.

Battleship PotemkinI’ve watched the climactic “Odessa Steps Sequence” dozens of times, and it never ceases to move me profoundly, even as it demonstrates the medium’s vast potential to express both emotion and ideas. It is also perhaps the most often imitated – and parodied – action scene in film history.

Perhaps Eisenstein’s greatest contribution to film is his Formalist theory – fully realized in Battleship Potemkin – of montage, namely that adjacent shots can be combined to produce a meaning beyond what was recorded on film. Over the past 75 years, Eisenstein’s “invention” of montage has become the bedrock of virtually all filmmaking, from art house cinema to music videos. But Battleship Potemkin still holds its own: with masterfully composed images – including some shockingly symbolic ones (who can forget that baby carriage careening down the Odessa Steps?) – he juxtaposes shots of precisely varied lengths to build his film’s dynamic rhythms, and to express its ideas. Eisensten’s best films are riveting on first viewing, yet they repay the closest shot-by-shot scrutiny.

Having re-seen all of Eisenstein’s major works during the past few months, I was surprised – on a GLBT note – by how much (often beautiful, always subtle) homoerotic imagery it contains, including the scene of sailors in their hammocks early in Battleship Potemkin. It’s no surprise that a gay genius like Eisenstein would run afoul of the Soviet regime; but at least he was able to complete a half-dozen feature films after Battleship Potemkin. At various times of political “thawing,” Eisenstein was permitted to visit the West, where he hobnobbed with cultural icons ranging from Walt Disney to James Joyce. Perhaps the most intriguing of all never-made films was the collaboration between Eisenstein and Joyce (who once ran a movie theatre): if anyone could have brought the richness of both imagery and ideas in Joyce – or Melville, for that matter – to the screen, it would have been Eisenstein.

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Children of Paradise

Directed by Marcel Carné, 1945, France, 190 minutes, black & white, 1.33 aspect ratio – Historical Romance) [LGBTQ Film of the Month February 2002]

Gay director Marcel Carné’s (1906-1996) masterpiece, Children of Paradise (Les Enfants du paradis), is one of the most luminous and romantic films ever made, not to mention one of the most popular. This opulent historical drama also provides a fascinating comparison to the (as-yet-unfilmed) Notorious Dr. August (a G&L Reading Group selection). If you know both works, imagine overlaying Carné’s style, and sensibility, on Bram’s novel: Talk about a match made in movie heaven!

Children of Paradise takes “poetic realism” (an internationally influential style, first developed by Carné and his screenwriter Jacques Prévert) to sublime heights. This unique film combines at least five different kinds of theatre, gorgeous design and cinematography, and music to tell the heartbreaking story of one courtesan loved by four very different men (including an intriguingly androgynous mime played by Jean-Louis Barrault). It is set against a meticulous recreation of early 19th century Paris’ wild “Theatre Street,” a place where hucksters and noblemen, actors and thieves rubbed shoulders… and sometimes fell in love. (The “behind the scenes” story is almost as intriguing as the film itself, which was made during the German occupation. Many of the actors were in the Resistance: They would sabotage a Nazi building, show up as extras, then disappear to continue fighting.) I’m ashamed to admit that when I first saw this (admittedly lengthy) film in college, I dozed off. But now, not only was I awed by its beauty and power, I finally understood why it appears on most critics’ lists of the “10 greatest films.” (If you enjoy watching films on DVD, the Criterion Collection has been extremely successful in digitally restoring both picture and sound. I am also glad that the enclosed booklet “outed” Carné – one of the world’s most celebrated filmmakers – and explored how his being gay affected his life and work.)

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The Night of the Hunter

Directed by Charles Laughton, 1955, US, 93 minutes, black & white, 1.33 aspect ratio – Suspense) [LGBTQ Film of the Month January 2002]

Welcome to my first column devoted to outstanding LGBTQ Films! Each month I will highlight one exceptional picture 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 by Almodóvar, Merchant/Ivory, and Todd Haynes). When possible, I’ll select a film which in some way – such as theme, historical period, or style – meshes with our book of the month.

The Night of the Hunter (1955) is a visually and emotionally rich film, not to mention one of the most influential. It creates an unforgettable blend of childlike wonder, Expressionistic design, and heart-stopping suspense, all while using the form of an American folk tale. (The screenplay is by novelist and critic James Agee, from a book by Davis Grubb.) Robert Mitchum gives the performance of his career as a sociopathic preacher – with Love and Hate tattoed on his knuckles – who stalks two children in search of stolen money left them by their father. Sadly, it is the only film directed by celebrated – and gay – character actor Charles Laughton (The Private Life of Henry VIII, the 1935 Mutiny on the Bounty, Spartacus). I have watched this film over a half-dozen times, and always find new aspects to savor and enjoy. If you have not seen it yet, I envy you your first viewing. (If you enjoy watching films on DVD, the transfer is superb.)

Page begun 2002 / Revised October 22, 2020

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