Dominic Ambrose Blogblot

of words: narrative, film and non-fiction

Looking back at Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar

How odd to discover Gore Vidal for the first time one week after his death. I picked up his 1948 novel, The City and the Pillar at the OutWrite LGBT Book Fair in DC last week and then proceeded to devour it. I was fascinated by this coming of age novel as it was set in such an important historic period, the 1940s, and because it was written with such subtle colorations by the 22 year old writer. Gore Vidal had already achieved fame with his earlier work and was securely set on a trajectory of fame and fortune when he decided to risk it all by pubishing this loud and proud gay novel in that era of virulent homophobia. It must have taken great courage, as well as foresight, and the knowledge that his novel was an achievement that could defy all the doomsayers. In fact, his novels were pretty much blacklisted for the next six years after this publication, but with his persistent genius, he managed to overcome.

The City and the Pillar is the story of Jim Willard, a young man in Virginia who leaves home after high school and drifts to Seattle, Hollywood and Manhattan learning his way in the semi-clandestine society of homosexuals and yearning for his impossible love. The story ends tragically for that love affair, but one has the feeling that Jim, now an experienced gay man, will survive. I loved the way that this character develops during his travels, gaining self-confidence and stature in his dealings with others. Although he is closed up in himself and not entirely sympathetic, the reader can’t help but root for him wholeheartedly as he navigates the hostile waters of post-war society. Even his transgressive and unconscionable acts at the end of the story felt good, though I would have prefered something a bit more amiable and better motivated. Gore Vidal writes in his introduction that he revised the ending for a new edition in 1965, because the original ending, which ended in death, was too melodramatic. Good call, Gore. He also revised the entire text at that time, so if you read an old edition, make sure it includes these 1965 changes. With my own novel, Nickel Fare, so forward in my mind (I was at OutWrite to read from the novel), I greatly appreciated seeing the parallels that I could draw between this young man Jim Willard and my own coming of age character, Nicangelo. They are both loners adrift without family or close friend and they both must control the demons that eventually rise up from their subconsciouses, so tried by the misfortunes they’ve endured. A critic, using the literary landmarks of the day, called Jim Willard “l’ètranger,” that is, an existentialist stranger drifting through an absurd world. That could describe my Nicangelo as well, as he watches all the certainties and truisms of his youth turn to caricatures before his eyes.

The title puzzled me, as it is not referenced anywhere in the story. In his introduction Gore Vidal seems to indicate that it connotes the idea of an impossible idyll but a google search yielded no results. And then I noticed the epigraph at the beginning of the book, refering to Lot’s wife, who looked back and became a pillar of salt. Jim’s fatal flaw was his retrospection which paralyzed him and made him incapable of finding love, in effect, turning him to stone. There are some blatant stereotypes and some heavy handed Freudian psychology in this story, which I think reflect the primitive level of openly gay literary tradition of that time, more than anything else.

The City and the Pillar clearly deserves a high profile in the library of gay literature, and it did come in at number 9 on the Lambda Book Report’s January, 2000 list of the 100 most influential LGBT books. But I suppose that in a society like ours where the latest trends and newest innovations are always preferable to the old and tried (and often tired), I guess it is no wonder that there is so little mention of the book. Now, with the death of Gore Vidal on July 31, 2012, a look back at this classic and highly entertaining novel is in order – don’t worry, you won’t turn to stone, but you will be fascinated.

Check out The Gore Vidal Pages

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August 14, 2012 Posted by | literature | , , , | 2 Comments

Loose Cannons, (Mine Vaganti) and Ferzan Ozpetek in full bloom

The Italian film Mine Vaganti, (Le Premier Qui l’A Dit in French, Loose Cannons in English) has made its second entrance to Paris last night. This was billed as a “preview,” une avant-première, but in reality, even though the official Paris theater run begins July 21, the film has already been shown to sold out audiences at Les Halles in May, 2010. This time it snuck in as part of the mysteriously low-profile Paris Film Festival, and a half a theater full of informed people found their way in the July heat to the Gaumont Parnasse cinema, where they showed their appreciation by actually applauding at the end (never a given in Paris, even at festivals).

I had heard a lot of good things about this film, and was aware of its success in Italy, and I was not disappointed by what I saw. Ferzan Ozpetek has always been an idiosyncratic filmmaker, with stories that meander through an emotional terrain of unspoken desires and limitations, played out in settings of sumptuous beauty. An Ozpetek trademark is the proliferation of characters in his stories who reveal their inner selves in unexpected ways throughout the story, resulting in a teeming tableau of personalities that pull the story apart with their flourish. The key to success for Ozpetek is weaving these unruly characters together into a story that leads them somewhere better than where they began. He was almost there in his 2007 film, Saturno Contro, (Saturn in Opposition), but not quite. His 2008 film, A Perfect Day, adapted from Melania Mazzucco’s novel, was also not completely successful in this regard, if I can judge from the reviews and critical comments (I haven’t seen it). However, here in Mine Vaganti, Ozpetek seems to have hit his stride and found a way to let his characters unfold in ways that don’t crowd out the plot. Thus, the necessarily open ended final scenes are satisfying in ways that Saturno contro’s was not, because the resolution is to be found in the new equilibrium that this blossoming and growth have created. This is symbolized beautifully in the final garden scene where characters from different story threads and epochs dance together in perfect harmony and peace.

Ever since his directorial debut with Hamam (Steam) in 1997, the Turkish born Ferzan Ozpetek has earned a devoted following among audiences in Italy and elsewhere. His treatment of gay themes means an inevitable comparison with Almodovar. In fact, Ozpetek has an ironic style and a feeling for stories that reflect a very Mediterranean sensibility, in ways that parallel Almodovar, but whereas the Spanish director is steeped in the cultural iconography of Spain and Latin America, Ozpetek is part of an Eastern Mediterranean tradition that still feels the weight of millennial customs more than the anarchy of intercontinental modernity. This leads him to explore areas of classical beauty and wisdom, but also to confront the tragic limitations and inbred fears that still persist there. For this reason, Mine Vaganti, which is set squarely in Italy’s south, the Mezzogiorno, may seem anachronistic and unreal to many viewers in other lands. Tommaso’s father’s exaggerated response to his son’s coming out, the inarticulate longings of the young woman, Alba and the manipulative sensuality of just about everyone may be a bit hard to swallow for some people with a low tolerance for the self-indulgences of this ancient part of the modern world. Indeed, the film is set in an alternate reality that speaks the language of traditional Commedia all’Italiana (Sophia Loren or Alberto Sordi would be perfectly at home here) but to my mind, it does so very effectively, in the service of characters that touch us, despite their obvious theatricality.

As usual, Ozpetek has attracted some of Italy’s best actors to create an ensemble of unforgettable characters. Heading the cast are Riccardo Scamarcio in the role of Tommaso, the conflicted gay son, with kissing scenes that are courageous for an Italian actor with heartthrob status. Nicole Grimaudo plays the beautiful young woman, Alba, who is nursing a broken heart, Alessandro Prezioso is Tommaso’s older brother Antonio and Ennio Fantastichini his overwhelmed father.  Click on the poster, above, to go to the film’s official website, where you will hear the film’s delightfully retro theme song, sung by Nina Zilli. The soundtrack, unfortunately, is not listed on the website. That’s a shame, as it includes some great music, italianissima, but including one great Turkish song by Sezen Aksu at the very end.

July 7, 2010 Posted by | cinema | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Strella, by Panos Koutras, one of the stars of Cheries-Cheris

Cheries-Cheris, Paris, 2009

Strella, (Also called, “A Woman’s Way,”) is a delightful film by Greek cult director Panos Koutras. How do you top “The Attack of the Giant Moussaka,” his 1999 film about a giant slab of casserole that suddenly threatens the city of Athens? This problem may have been weighing on the director’s mind for much of the last decade heavier than greasy béchamel and eggplant could ever weigh on his stomach. He first went with a surrealistic melodrama with a wicked mother and a burning Acropolis, (“Real Life,” from 2004) but didn’t really hit his stride until now with this much more believable, yet still unusual story. He knew he had to forego the Moussaka’s bargain basement Almodovar kitsch, but it took him and his co-writer Panajotis Evangelidis this long to really master the element that makes the Spanish director’s films work: the subversive gay plot.

Strella is about a pre-op trans who meets a man just out of prison after doing 15 years for a crime of passion. Their relationship starts out very steamy, but hits a few obstacles as they come to terms with their respective pasts, and with Strella’s complicated social life. The film includes many “non-professional” actors in their first movie roles, most notably Mina Orfanou who plays the title role. Mina is first among a whole bevy of trans in this film, ranging from the young twinks to the older grande dames of the night, all natural actors who give the film great authenticity. In contrast to all of the wigs and hormone treatment, is the macho actor Yannis Kokiasmenos who gives a very sensual and sexy performance as Yiorgos, the older man whose release from prison not only means freedom, but also separation from his cellmate. To say that Yiorgos is emotionally torn by this new and uncomfortable situation is an understatement, considering the secrets he must come to terms with during the length of the film.

One of the most interesting and gratifying thing about this story is how well the problems are resolved by the end. Before this, the only gay themed Greek movie I had seen was the depressing story of murder and intrigue “Blackmail Boy” (2002). I somehow managed to miss Katakouzinos’ “Angel” from the 1970s, but I guess I’ll save that one for some suicidal rainy day. For now, I will savor the good feelings that I am left with from “Strella.”

Strella premiered at the Berlinale earlier this year, and in France at the Gay Film Festival Cheries-Cheris that took place in November, 2009 at the Forum des Images. Hopefully, it will soon have a commercial run in Paris so that those who missed it the first time around will get a chance to see it.

Oh, sorry, did the mention of moussaka make you hungry? Here is a small taste of that earlier film:

December 13, 2009 Posted by | cinema | , , | Leave a comment

Beyond the Kosovo rainbow. Today’s gay people trapped in a deadly past.

Sarajevo FF, 2007. A film review
It’s easy to forget with all of the other ethnic, social and economic problems that the people of the former Yugoslav republics face, but intolerance toward gay people in this region can be particularly cruel and violent. This is a first look at homophobia, Kosovo style, with its world premier at the Sarajevo Film Festival, 2007.
The courageous and pioneering documentary, Beyond the Rainbow, was written and directed by Ismet Sijarina and produced by Kastrati Cooper for Crossing Bridges Production. “Crossing bridges” is a particularly significant phrase in a Kosovar context, as the simple act of straying across the wrong one can be deadly for the Albanian residents of this province of Southern Serbia. The symbolism works well for gay people as well, as they must be doubly concerned about wandering into dangerous territory. There are many bridges that need crossing in this part of the world, and many people massing on one side yearning to get to the other. In this case, it’s the bridge over the chasm of dangers that separate the dark, secret world that Kosovar gays are forced to live in and the world that they can see and hear just across the way in western Europe. They can look across at what people in other European societies have been able to achieve, but it is solace and torment in equal parts. They have the unpleasant choice of staying locked up in their dark houses staring across the divide, or they can make a run for it, across the dangerous bridges, dodging the snipers that exist all around them.
A considerably amount of time in this documentary is given over to interviews of four gay men who sit uncomfortably perched on stools, silhouetted in shadows to protect their identities, talking about their feelings, their fears, their humiliations and their hopes. The story is often told between the lines: the way they make excuses for the actions of others, the way they spin their own rationales in ways that western gays would never dream of explaining themselves, the way that some of them put up smokescreens of bisexuality to hide from others and from themselves. This is unfamiliar territory for Western Europeans, like the societies of sixty years ago, when there was no freedom for gay people, not even in their own minds. In fact, one of the characters says that people cannot allow themselves to be free neither in their actions nor in their thoughts. This mental prison is taken up again in the recurring staged scene in which a gay man debates with his embittered alter ego, which ridicules his sexual orientation and almost succeeds in convincing him to accept the deception.
Other citizens speak as well, including social workers and religious spokesmen. A lesbian who is eloquent about her situation, says in contrast to the religious figures, that we live heaven and hell right here on earth, and the interviews given by young straight men on the street, as they cruelly mock the calls for gay rights, is a frightening reminder of the physical danger that the silhouetted interviewees face.
I saw this film in Sarajevo, a city that itself has lived through the era of deadly bridges. It was just a decade ago that the low, harmonious bridges that span the city’s river were some of the most dangerous urban places on earth. And yet today, in this peaceful place, it seems so impossible, so absurd. But what about those other bridges that the gay people of Kosovo are so worried about? Do the gay Sarajevans have any better access than their Kosovar cousins? Sadly, the answer is, just barely. It seems that even here, in this intelligent, cosmopolitan city, homophobia is rampant as well. There isn’t even one gay bar in Sarajevo, and the one organization, Queer BiH, that holds gay parties every month or so, does it with hired security guards. While the film festival was going on, Queer BiH announced that it would organize Bosnia’s first gay pride march in June, 2008, and the news was immediately taken up on the front page of a scandal sheet, ready to stir up trouble for the benefit of circulation. Even here, where people have lived through years of suffering over foolish sectarian divisions, this shameful homophobia still holds sway.
Beyond the Rainbow is a proud, courageous film that reminds us that there is still much work to be done to chase out the secret ghosts lurking in ex-Yugoslav societies. Some bridges are peaceable thoroughfares, for sure, but there are many more that still need to be secured, and all declarations of victory are still very premature as long as gay people are still forced to speak from the shadows.

May 9, 2009 Posted by | cinema | , , , , , , | 1 Comment