Thursday, October 22, 2020

Unhappy Birthday: The Boys in the Band

Jim Parsons, Robin de Jesus, Michael Benjamin Washington and Andrew Rannells in The Boys in the Band (2020), now streaming on Netflix.

The Boys in the Band, if you need reminding, is a landmark 1968 play by Mart Crowley about eight gay men at a birthday party: Michael, the host, full of venom and self-hatred; his bookish ex-lover Donald; gentle, self-possessed Bernard; flamboyantly effeminate Emory; promiscuous Larry and stable Hank, a volatile couple; a dumb hustler called Cowboy; and Harold, the figure skater, pothead, and supercool “32-year-old, ugly, pockmarked Jew fairy” whose birthday it is. Emotional hostilities and histories emerge, with Michael finally forcing the others into a sadomasochistic truth-telling game which involves saying “I love you” to someone over the phone. The same actors—Kenneth Nelson as Michael, Frederick Combs as Donald, Reuben Greene as Bernard, Cliff Gorman as Emory, Keith Prentice as Larry, Laurence Luckinbill as Hank, Peter White as Alan, Robert LeTourneaux as Cowboy, and Leonard Frey as Harold—played these roles off-Broadway, in the West End, and in the first film version, from 1970, produced by Dominick Dunne and directed by William Friedkin. The play didn’t reach Broadway until 2018, its fiftieth anniversary, when it was directed by Joe Mantello, produced by Ryan Murphy, and played by an all-gay cast: Jim Parsons as Michael, Matt Bomer as Donald, Michael Benjamin Washington as Bernard, Robin de Jesús as Emory, Andrew Rannells as Larry, Tuc Watkins as Hank, Brian Hutchison as Alan, Charlie Carver as Cowboy, and Zachary Quinto as Harold. The same personnel return for a new film version, which began streaming on September 30 as part of Murphy’s multi-million-dollar deal with Netflix. 

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Cinema Comes of Age: Two Books on the Early and Late Stages


“Filmmaking is more athletics than art and filmmaking comes from the thighs.” – Werner Herzog, 2011.

Yes, this is an art review, even though it’s about cinema, because although movies are magic, as Van Dyke Parks once sang, they are also the premier art form of the twentieth century. As a visual art critic, I often hasten to point out that from my perspective visual art, and the history of art writ large, must perforce contain not only the aesthetic by-products of the French invention of photography in about 1840 but also the captivating artifacts resulting from the invention of cinema roughly fifty years later. Joseph Niepce, and then later on the Lumière Brothers, who jointly ushered in a seismic shift in the radical creation and revolutionary distribution of images, were visionary frontiersmen inaugurating the dreamlike epoch of the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction.

Was it science, fashion novelty, documentary evidence, or artistic medium? Well, it was all of the above. The still camera and the movie camera are now of course considered among the most modern of all modernist devices, but in those early heady days it was unclear how to situate the new technology, what to call it or how to judge its artistic merits. Such questions have naturally fallen far by the wayside in the wake of remarkable photographic artists such as Stieglitz, Evans, Frank, Arbus, Callahan, and Winogrand (to name only a few) as well as the breathtakingly beautiful motion pictures of Keaton, Bresson, Fellini, Kurosawa, Godard, Tarkovsky and Herzog (to mention some of my own personal favourites). 

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Barbara Kopple's Desert One: Broken Wings

A scene from Barbara Kopple's Desert One.

Operation Eagle Claw, the aborted attempt by a Delta Force crew in April 1980 to rescue fifty-two U.S. hostages held in Tehran by revolutionary students in the thrall of Ayatollah Khomeini, doomed Jimmy Carter’s bid for re-election, sealing the popular impression, encouraged by Ronald Reagan’s campaign rhetoric, that he was a milky, ineffectual peacenik who had no idea what to do when faced with the radical aggression of a foreign nation. Four decades later Barbara Kopple’s somber, mournful documentary Desert One presents the mission not as a slip-up but as a tragedy – eight American military were killed when one of the helicopters, its pilot blinded in a sandstorm, collided with a transport in the desert before the rescue team could enter the city – with Carter, who owned the disaster and rode out of the White House on its broken wings, as its face. Interviewed now, he still looks scarred by it, not because of its political implications for him but because of its human cost. Here was a president who steadfastly refused to use the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and the holding of hostages as a provocation for a war with Iran but who arranged for a rescue attempt as a last-ditch solution if diplomacy proved to be futile (as of course it did), and who wound up with casualties incurred outside any field of battle.