Friday, January 15, 2021

Visconti 1943: Secret Men's Business vs Obsession

 


 

   Ken Anderson does extensive research for the films he features at DREAMS ARE WHAT LE CINEMA IS FOR... and often draws attention to the facile quality of contemporary reviewing and analytical film writing. He recently drew attention to Luchino Visconti’s maiden voyage into film-making (“Ossessione” (1943) on social media, by way of the leading man’s sensuality. And that’s an excellent point of entry into accessing a homosexual director’s approach to the art. All things are not equal, all things are not the same: what’s been did and what’s been hid are the domain of insightful analysis. 

 

Also known as “Obsession”, the early masterpiece of Italian neo-realism is often best known as the earliest screen adaption of James M. Cain’s “The Postman Always Rings Twice”…which of course also became the ultimate American film noir classic of the same name. That film’s adherence to the standard sexual noir theme (red-blooded American hero pays the ultimate price for a bad girl’s machinations) certainly wasn’t what was on Visconti’s mind when he brought a finely-tuned gay sensibility to the property. In Gino Costa, the hero would pay dearly for his many sins, with none of them being his propensity to follow the siren song of latent homosexuality. Visconti boldly added an original character (Spagnolo) to his screenplay to make his points on homosexuality and politics quite clear to his audience, and all who’d undertake analysis thereafter…should they take him up on the offer. 

 

While Luchino Visconti had the set of balls his entitled background of nobility endowed, Italy in 1943 under Fascism was no place to openly suggest that a homosexual alliance with a probable Communist was a good (and virtuous) move for a fella wanting to escape a destiny of hard times. That didn’t slow Visconti down at all: unless you were looking for it he was clever enough to hide it in plain sight. What he couldn’t hide is what he’d learned from Renoir and the French Existentialists: a meaningful story might always factor class into whether true freedom is vigorously pursued as an existential birthright beyond circumstances of birth.
 
 

The shell & the sound of the sea...freedom


 

And so Gino is thrust into making a tenuous grab at freedom: Giovanna, the woman he’s obsessed with, doesn’t wish to try freedom with him after all – preferring to stay with her by-now cuckolded husband. The wheels of fate are however turning for the penniless drifter in holey trousers: his choice to ride a train to no particular place with no ticket brings him an opportunity few of his class ever see come their way. Or, more precisely, the kind of opportunity that only males of virile beauty ever get…the type of male beauty which most attracts when gaze considers it in repose, and presenting no threat.

 
A bum on a train with no money knows how things play out. He’ll be gracelessly thrown off at the next stop as a discarded man, and he’ll need to go politely. However, the intervention of a stranger who pays Gino’s fare to the end of the line while chastising the conductor for his treatment of “a gentleman” elicits more than a “grazie” from Gino: he grabs his case and joins Spagnolo, the former stranger. In no time at all a cigarette ritual has transpired and with an only partly-apprehensive “Why not?” has accepted lodging for the night.

 

A gentlemen considers his options


 
Spagnolo’s vaguely Marxist lecturing to Gino about the circulation of money may be lost on Gino, but the fact that a male couple can share a bed in a pensione for a discounted cost isn’t. Spagnolo’s response to Gino’s confession of his obsession for the woman he’s left behind is as Existentialist as it gets: “Leave. Choose freedom.” Spagnolo gazes upon his new companion while he sleeps, lit only by a match he holds. He’s gone in the morning when Spagnolo awakes, and we find him on Ancona’s dock. But he won’t be shipping out as a free man working on a ship: with a change of heart or mind he returns quickly to the pensione as Spagnolo is departing. No questions are asked - by now the terms of courtship are falling into place. The deal is predictably sealed over that predictably metaphoric cigarette: Gino accepts a light from Spagnolo in violation of masculine “manners”, and in lingeringly cupping his hand over the other’s consents to intimacy. For Spagnolo’s part he seems a little unsure about what he’s acquired. For Visconti’s part he films the whole secret ceremony with no eye-contact or revelatory close-ups…we observe, but not as invited voyeurs. Not without its charms, the waterside scene will be revisited later…
 

 But “Ossessione” isn’t about resolved homosexual relationships – it’s about obsession. While it’s obvious the Gino / Spagnolo “arrangement” is working out quite well - they’re together, they’re making a living together, Gino is better-dressed – heterosexual obsession shows up unexpectedly in the form of Giovanna. Obsession is a harsh master with no morality, and Gino’s abandonment of Spagnolo is but the beginning of his own decay. Spagnolo soon finds him in a bad way, and reminds him there are still happier choices than obsession. In repeatedly claiming he doesn’t want to “travel” any more we’re again reminded that The Other was invariably a commie homo..a fellow traveler. Visconti again reminds us that a truer love between men requires each supporting the inherent freedom of the other...something which obsession destroys. 

 

Sicily...Genoa...me...you're free


Too far gone – and just too guilty to change his fate – Gino knocks Spagnolo down with a punch for suggesting he knows of Gino’s participation in a crime of obsession. The crime of passion against Spagnolo may or may not be homophobic, but all to late Gino realizes he’s lost Spagnolo. In a masterful statement, Visconti bookends the story of Gino and Spagnolo with another duplicated set-up. As it began with a long shot of Gino carrying his small case towards freedom without looking back at the obsession he was leaving, so it ends with Spagnolo similarly abandoning Gino. 

 

 
Footnote:
   Luchino Visconti’s restricted on-screen homosexualities didn’t apply off-screen. He managed to convince leading man Massimo Girotti that an affair would help with the film. It certainly didn’t hurt: Girotti easily carries the film with panache despite being a relative newcomer - his long and stellar career would be significantly substantiated with "Obssessione". His “Gino” is a satisfyingly perfect creation of raw masculinity and uncalculated naiveté…the reward an auteur must surely hope will emerge from the vagaries attendant to assembling a satisfying film. With no apparent help from costuming or makeup departments, the young Girotti plays dirty, ungroomed and entirely un-actorish. We're told there's no such thing as the male muse, but perhaps Visconti would beg to differ. 


 


Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Queer Man, Queer Relationship /1


 

 

"The gay relationship is the homosexual relationship is the relationship between men who have sex with other men."

 

   Reduced to its 21st Century clinical nomenclature, we're at least able to ground the homosexual relationship in non-hysterical medical science...albeit with an epidemiological twist. The 19th Century "diagnostic" terminologies - homosexual / homosexuality - seek to pathologize and therefore separate some men (and women) from what was essentially normal but neverthess deemed socially unacceptable. Despite Kinsey's clear 20th Century debunking of "sexual preference" as binaries, Western society still unrelentingly clings to the idea. And we often reinforce it as we flail around within our identity issues.
 
   None of which of course goes to acknowledging or dignifying the homosexual relationship. Acceptance of same-sex marriage partially addresses it, but it doesn't define healthy male-to-male relationships. Nor should it: we haven't come this far to be once more defined by those who may not even wish us well. As crumbs off the table of advanced capitalism, we're wise to look at the institutions's implications...be they legal, romantic, societal and / or historical.
 
 

Knowing What's Rightfully Ours



   We weren't always this way. We weren't always "othered" and victimized by the homophobic religiosity of societies, and the laws and worse which ensued. We weren't always consumers of a gay culture born out of Mafia bars and profiteering pornographers and all who chased a pink dollar. We weren't always lonely losers.
 
   For millenia homophobic translating scribes and scholars have vilified us when not making us invisible, and therefore a reasonable Rabbinical approach to the most ancient Biblical tale of David and Jonathan is warranted. Arguably it is a moral tale which archly dignifies not only sexual love and attraction between men but the concept of men marrying each other.  Hiding in plain sight is their much-mentioned but never defined "covenant". (It's violation however most certainly is.) Was that covenant not their marriage and all that love and marriage entailed in the context of their time? Is David's grief and remorse at the death of Jonathon the overarching moral of the story rather than a footnote?
 
   A footnote of much contextual importance is the fact that Jonathan's father - the canny King Saul - undoubtedly arranged the marriage / covenant. In David and Jonathan's attraction (to each other) he only saw great opportunity: a potential threat was ameliorated in acquiring a powerful son-in-law in the ambitious David.  Similarly, the 9th Century marriage-like arrangement of Basil 1 and King Charles of Constantinople bore the same hallmark of traditional marriage as it was: they were beneficial liaisons.

 

You know the King's son likes you when he strips and hands over his sword.

 

   When the loose threads of homosexual history are tied up in some semblance of correct order, we see a clear picture of men who have sex with each other as being critical to the backbones of many societies - albeit somewhat patriarchal, and in differing senses. Our ancestors' relationships were as complex as they were not so complex. All had form and function, and all were free of competition and dysfunction. It's the toxic masculinity of religions old and new however which is threatened by consenting male homosexual relationships: two men in bonded loyalty will usurp any priest, given half a chance.

 

 

...and Taking Back What's Rightfully Ours 


 

   The modern homo of course is still fighting for his life as well as regaining his entitlement to loving and being loved. He requires a world of acceptance rather than mere tolerance...approval being implicit within acceptance. He mightn't find a lot of inspiration from non-gay couples either: they're also managing to make profound messes of contemporary relationships and marriage. "Love matches" have no higher success rates than arranged marriages. Men nowadays don't have fathers like King Saul who'll see that their lineage and power can be consolidated and extended by exploiting a gay son's lustful and loving attraction.  Nor do we have Athenian mothers either - women who hope a beautiful son will pay back the family's investment in him by choosing a man of enough wealth and influence to enrich her, as well as the son.
 
   What we do have however are commonsense approaches to reality and opportunities to form relationships which straddle both love matches and arranged marriages. We can choose to do things our ways, and do them better. Things like shared values and shared history and background / character verification aren't to be dismissed in the name of romantic delusions. Having a good relationship is neither radical nor conservative: it's both when a Queer man takes charge of his life enough to ensure he's getting what's due to a first-class citizen of our times.

 

   It's a big wide world out there full of men. But when we crunch the numbers we find that few are physically or emotionally available for a functional relationship.  In fact, few are even available for a worthwhile sex hookup.  Most don't know what they want, so it's all that more important to know what we want. Most are dismissive, so it's all that more important that we're not. And we just might end up with nothing if we think the crap we ticked for an online dating profile means anything more than data collection.

 

   And when we get to the point where we think we've made a good connection, it can only help to review the situation with some objectivity. I've found the following checklist to be thoroughly sound, most useful and very affirming. 

 

 

CHARACTERISTICS OF A GOOD RELATIONSHIP

 

 

1.   Strong motivation by both individuals to make the relationship work.
 
2.   Confidence that most problems can be resolved.
 
3.   A firm commitment to, and consistent attempts to, communicate openly and directly. i.e. the couple does not ignore feelings or automatically assume understanding.
 
4.   A good feeling and a closer relationship usually results from a discussion of a difficult relationship problem.
 
5.   Both individuals feel comfortable with the decisions that have been made about sex in the relationship.
 
6.   Discussions about sex are as comfortable and open as discussions about other important aspects of life.

 

7.   The couple has numerous shared interests.

 

8.   The couple shares a similar philosophy of life. 

 

9.   Both individuals have similar motives and goals for the relationship.

 

10. The couple has the ability to have fun together.

 

11. The couple has the ability to relate well to other persons.

 

12. Both individuals are receiving approximately equal gratification from the relationship.
 

Monday, May 4, 2020

"1900": Bertolucci Serves Up Homoerotica With Fascism, Italian-style


   

"Although I think 1900 is a movie there is a lot to say about, my critics keep distant from it. It's as if they were fucked up the ass and refused to come."

   Bernardo Bertolucci

 

 

   And it's on that most-Italian of notes - as voiced by the most-Italian of directors to achieve notoriety by bringing anal sex to the masses - we're drawn to reconsider 1900 almost a half-century after the fact.

   Often flagged for its homoerotic undertones, Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1976 sprawling opus 1900 (aka Novecento) attempts to anchor itself in the unlikely fatalism of its male principals' relationship. The births of the two boys occur on the day Emilia-Romagna’s favored son Giuseppe Verdi dies in the early days of 1901. Alfredo is born into the landed gentry, while Olmo is a peasant, and a bastard. And they subsequently develop a close boyhood friendship premised upon attraction of opposites.

   1900 is indeed sprawling cinema, in much the same way that cities sprawl exponentially when ungoverned by uniform town planning. The movie’s only focused narrative is its determination to advance Communism, with Olmo and Alfredo's story being that of two opposed faces of class distinction and wealth distribution, within a specific time period of legalized homosexuality. While wildly varying attitudes to same-sex relations are intrinsic to the history and psyche of Italian males, the traditional underlying view is that it's significantly more natural to Southerners and illiterate peasants. Bertolucci knows his history well enough to flesh out his characters with enough sexual nuance to set us up for a visceral loathing of Fascism no matter how we sexually identify.

The Padrone & The Paisan


   Clocking in at well over five hours, 1900 as a bromance with Fascism as its Valentines card has decidedly more relevance today than when it was released. A century after their time we might question whether two men of opposing classes could ever bond – or more to the point – would ever be allowed to bond as boys. And yet in the lushly bucolic region of an Italy long gone they do, and they are. In their century Italian males and their patriarchy are caught up in turbulently uncertain times. In our century, so are we. Which warrants taking a fresh look at Bernardo Bertolucci's didactic 1900 as our minds ponder more seriously otherwise tangential subjects like history repeating itself.


Critics, Dicks And Director's Cuts


   Modern marketing mythology would have us believe that most cinematic efforts were (and are) unfairly and irrationally assembled by studios against the auteur's intentions and what-nots. And the romantic notion that film directors nobly ply their craft with little or no regard for the views of even the most intelligent critics is almost a given. Thus, The Director's Cut: that thing which re-sells a movie well beyond its usual shelf-life as temporal entertainment.

   Unsurprisingly, 1900 was always destined to be a candidate for revisionist appreciation and evaluation on those terms. But all is not what it seems. For starters, Bertolucci endorsed Paramount's drastically shortened American version, despite contractually holding the upper hand on any cuts which weren't his. Despite it being a critical and commercial success in Europe as was, he protesteth not too much or too long over the Stateside insult.

   As for critics (important and otherwise) he appears to avoid compromised appeasement by perversely offering what they're least expecting as response. With The Conformist, Pauline Kael warned that his obsession with style for style's sake could lead him to make "luscious fruity movies". 1900 emphatically refutes the idea: its summery, pastorale lusciousness is progressively drip-fed jaw-dropping wintry cruelties. He agreed with feminist excoriations of his Last Tango In Paris wherein Marlon Brando wasn't nude but Maria Schneider was. But he never responded to Ingmar Bergman's broadside that Last Tango would have been a much more truthful film if  Schneider's Jeanne had been a boy.

   Bernardo Bertolucci certainly doesn't hold back putting dicks onscreen in 1900. He claimed all his beloved actors' dicks were an extension of his own – and dutifully anoints the junior Alfredo and Olmo with dicks and earthy curiosity about each others dicks, as opposed to a curiosity about each others stations in life.


Homoerotic, Homosexual Or Homosocial? 

 

  The auteur was a neo-Freudian, and his attitude to homosexuality reflected that pre-Liberation limited analytic orthodoxy. He alleged homosexuality and bisexuality to be merely of adolescence without disapproval per se. He never made a film about LGBT existence - neither did he seek to diminish it. To his credit then, when Olmo and Alfredo reunite as young men after World War 1, it’s to his peasant Communist male Olmo (Gerard Depardieu) that he assigns overt homosexual desire within adult male friendship. It’s the dilettantish Alfredo (Robert de Niro) who wipes off his passionate kiss on the lips in shock. We're not to know whether homophobia or his ingrained contempt for peasantry has apprehended homosexuality or true equality. And since both actors singly were either side of thirty, the likelihood of them being mistaken for youthfully callow is a stretch too far.

Crossing boundaries with sex and love as the equalizer?


   That scene takes place in the barn rooftop where as boys they’d played power games with silkworms and appendages. As adults, war-fresh Olmo unexpectedly encounters Alfredo while hauling grain on his shoulders. Overjoyed at finding his childhood friend he shamelessly pins him down in submissive sexual position while ripping the buttons and insignias off their uniforms...Olmo has fought, Alfredo has been purchased a uniformed exemption. Looking lustily down at Alfredo he declares “I like you this way” and Alfredo responds with “Kiss me my hero!” But Alfredo’s only kidding. Olmo’s not, and his hand wanders lazily over his dick after being rejected.

  The director has made a political statement with homosexuality as a broad associative metaphor, although his harsher self might claim that in doing so he's sabotaging his own alleged heterosexual bias, in service to his political bias. He cuts to an obviously truncated and uneasy dialog covering rats, the wartime trenches and breadth of worldview. It ends with Alfredo humiliatingly kicking Olmo in the ass. The camera lingers on Depardieu’s face long enough to make his hurt palpable...while suggesting Bertolucci's omnipresent cinematic theme of "once a traitor, always a traitor" has collided with love and sex.

The face of something other than shame


   But Bertolucci is far from done with the homo motif to make a point. 1900's most notorious sex scene finds our "young" men in bed with a girl who Alfredo vulgarly treats himself and Olmo to. It all goes downhill again, but in reverse. Olmo can't get it up, and the paid lady suggests that Alfredo might know how to help him out. Alfredo's eager to oblige and reaches across for Olmo's dick, but now it's Olmo  who turns away, perhaps repulsed by the capriciously callous behavior of his friend, perhaps by his taunts about free love. There was a time when Gerard Depardieu fully naked was something to behold, and it's in his raw state that he becomes the conscience of the film when the girl has an epileptic fit.


The non-Joy Of Triangulated Sex

  Later in the day Alfredo meets Ada (Dominique Sanda) and brings her to a peasant's dance to meet Olmo. Ada's a full-throttle, free-spirit type in the predictable Lady Brett Ashley mold, Alfredo's smitten and Olmo wonders if he can do better than female pazzos - only to be told that he's a country bumkin who doesn't understand. Mistaking Ada for the lover of his exiled and urbane black-sheep uncle Ottavio, Alfredo has failed to grasp his beloved uncle's Bohemian proclivities but catches on quickly. Bertolucci's grand up-sweeping tableau with Ottavio as von Gloeden photographing naked boys is a much a political statement as everything else in 1900: Fascism literally destroyed many of the artist's unique niche images of Italianism - as it destroyed legalized homosexuality and more.


 

When Heterosexuality Can't Save The Day