Tuesday, September 29, 2009

EIFF: Days Three and Four

Okay, two things: first, I'm sort of cheating in the title to this post. I didn't actually go to see anything at the film festival on day three, but I felt weird jumping from day two to four, hence why I threw it in there.

Second, I've decided to skip the usual orgy of verbiage that I seem to require whenever writing one of these things. No, I've resolved to keep my words chaste from now on. More films, less chatter. My promise to you.


Kirby Dick is clearly pissed off, and rightly so, in this documentary about gay Conservative politicians who hide in the closet while pursuing an anti-LGBT agenda. The film begins with an astounding audio recording of Larry Craig's police interrogation after his failed bathroom tryst with an undercover officer, begging the question: is Craig seriously in such deep denial that he believes having sex with other men doesn't make him a homosexual? Or is he simply that dedicated a liar and hypocrite?

Sadly, we'll probably never know. Dick obviously can't get direct interviews with people like Craig or his wife (who I am sure would have some whopper stories to tell if she cared to talk), but he does get some insights from formerly closeted politicians like Barney Frank and Jim McGreevey. He also follows the work of people like Michael Rogers, who runs BlogActive, which is dedicated to outing gay politicians. And while some people might feel uncomfortable with this sort of prying into the private lives of public figures, Dick's film makes a persuasive case that the self-deception required by living a double life often leads to a dangerously homophobic legislative agenda. Many of these closeted politicians seem to adhere more closely to an anti-gay agenda simply for fear of being associated with their own denied identity.

What's especially chilling is seeing someone like Charlie Crist, current governor of Florida, who has left behind a fairly impressive trail of evidence for his own homosexuality, but continues to deny his sexual orientation, even to the point of getting married—seemingly just to help his chances at a VP slot on the McCain 2008 ticket.

The film's most significant flaw might be its occasional lapse into conspiracy thinking. A note at the beginning of the film declares this to be a "brilliantly orchestrated conspiracy," which is perhaps a slight overstatement. There's no real deep organization behind this history of lies, but rather just a large group of powerful men who have internalized years of homophobia and turned it into a corrupt lifestyle. When Dick starts trying to suggest that the mainstream media is complicit in some sort of conspiracy to hide the truth, I think he starts to overreach. Yes, the mainstream press ignores many of these outing controversies until they blow up to Larry Craig proportions, but more than anything else that seems to be a function of the same homophobic discomfort that informs the politicians in the scandals.

There are times when Dick panders to paranoia when some good hard-nosed documentary filmmaking is really just required. The worst example of this is when he points out an episode of Larry King Live was edited after its first airing to remove a comment from Bill Maher outing Ken Mehlman, chairman of the RNC and crony of Dubya.

The film leaves the incident suggestively open, as if it were sign of a conspiratorial censorship. Is it not plausible that a major news corporation would not have the guts to stand behind a potentially libelous offhand remark offered without backing evidence? This is surely the same kind of self-censorship that keeps people like Ken Mehlman in the closet, but there's no real proof that it is somehow directed by the halls of power instead of ass-covering legal departments. Even more troubling, the film gives no indication that Dick bothered to interview anyone involved in the incident in order to uncover what actually happened—suggestive possibilities being better here than facts, apparently. The righteous rage and sense of purpose Dick brings to this documentary is vital and necessary, but unfounded conspiracy-mongering isn't really needed. The simple truth is frightening enough.

Tales From the Golden Age

It just wouldn't be a film festival without something from Romania, would it? And so we have Tales From the Golden Age, an omnibus film consisting of five different stories set during the twilight of Ceausescu's rule. That's right, an omnibus film—the Romanian New Wave is all grown up now.

The film benefits from being solely written by Cristian Mungiu, who directs one of the stories while handing over the reins to four other directors for the rest. None of the directors veer too far from the same deadpan style Mungiu effects, and the whole film maintains a consistency of purpose and general quality that is rare in these types of films. Admittedly, it's a minor work when compared to Mungiu's last film—the brutally powerful 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days—but still quite enjoyable.

In fact, I like Tales From the Golden Age as a sort of complement to 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. In that film, set during the late Ceausescu era like this latest one, Mungiu depicted a young woman's attempt to get an abortion as a cold-sweat nightmare. It was intense and immediate, narrowing the widespread political repression of the Communist regime into personal bodily subjugation.

By contrast, this latest film takes a more detached, absurdly humorous approach. Each of the five tales is treated as an urban legend of life under a repressive regime, all told with a dryly mocking tone. In one story, a student decides to earn some extra money by scamming people out of their empty bottles and getting the deposits for herself. With her partner in crime, she goes through apartment buildings posing as a member of the Ministry of Chemistry taking air samples to measure pollution from nearby industrial factories. The plan sounds ridiculous, but it works—largely because every person they talk to admits to having filed numerous complaints about the stench. Indeed, most people are surprisingly easy to scam. They're just happy to see someone from the bureaucracy doing something.

The rest of the stories maintain a similar balance between the absurd and the bleak. People create little black market enterprises to get by, while others struggle to hide the occasional bit of good fortune lest it be taken away (one of the funniest sequences in the film involves a policeman and his family trying to figure out how to silently slaughter a pig so that none of their neighbours find out they have meat). The film very nicely captures the farce of living under a crumbling dictatorship while not covering up the tragedy of the situation. In short, a worthy example of police-state humour.

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