Sunday, May 23, 2010

Till Death Do Us Part

Life is tough, then you die. One may wonder when it will happen -- or even how it will happen -- but no one doubts that at some point in time death is inevitable.

It will happen.

No matter how many times people are confronted with the cold, hard fact of their mortality, some really don't want to accept the idea that death is unavoidable. Due to the insidiousness with which religion has warped their perceptions, some insist that every effort be made to sustain a dying relation's life for as long as possible. Others may pray for a miracle.

These people refuse to accept the fact that the odds are stacked against them. No one has ever beaten the system and no one ever will. While many a melodramatic tear has been wrung from a well-written death scene, some people actually look forward to dying.
  • For some, death is seen as a way out, a relief from the pressure to keep on living.
  • For others, death seems like the only solution to their woes.
  • Some people make peace with the idea of dying because they are steadily losing their battle with a terminal disease.
  • Others look forward to death as a way of tying up loose ends and making a clean exit (the public's demand for the right to a physician-assisted suicide in extreme cases led to the 1994 passage of Oregon's Death With Dignity Act).
  • In 2006, Eric Steel's haunting documentary, The Bridge, examined why so many people have ended their lives by jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge.
Best known as the theme song from the movie and television series M*A*S*H, Mike Altman's lyrics to "Suicide Is Painless" (music by Johnny Mandel) read as follows:
"Through early morning fog I see
Visions of the things to be
The pains that are withheld for me
I realize and I can see...
That suicide is painless
It brings on many changes
And I can take or leave it if I please.

I try to find a way to make
All our little joys relate
Without that ever-present hate
But now I know that it's too late, and...

The game of life is hard to play
I'm gonna lose it anyway
The losing card I'll someday lay
So this is all I have to say.

The only way to win is cheat
And lay it down before I'm beat
And to another give my seat
For that's the only painless feat.

The sword of time will pierce our skins.
It doesn't hurt when it begins
But as it works its way on in
The pain grows it grin, but...

A brave man once requested me
To answer questions that are key
'Is it to be or not to be'
And I replied, 'Oh, why ask me?'

'Cause suicide is painless
It brings on many changes
And I can take or leave it if I please.
...and you can do the same thing if you choose."

A handful of films screened at the 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival focused on people who opt for suicide, long to be released from life's misery, or simply accept death as the natural consequence of having been born. Whether in narrative or documentary format, each film explores the reasons why someone might embrace death rather than fleeing the inevitability of its grasp.

* * * * * * * * *
Jay Rosenblatt's 26-minute-long black-and-white documentary entitled The Darkness of Day is, in effect, a meditation/montage about suicide made by a filmmaker whose family has experienced more than one intentional death. Rosenblatt uses discarded 16-mm footage that he feels captures "the sadness, the isolation, and the desire to escape" that had previously been recorded in various contexts on film.

Filmmaker Jay Rosenblatt

As the narrator reads from a journal kept by a man who committed suicide in 1990 (the brother of one of Rosenblatt’s friends), the filmmaker tries to evoke a sense of compassion in the audience while exploring what has made suicide such a repulsive thought to so many people and yet the perfect solution to others. The diarist's words are simple and to the point:
"I cannot bear, even once more, to wake to sorrow. I do not fear death. I fear the empty hours of life that would otherwise lie ahead -- a life that seems to me the worst fate for a person on this earth. "
Rosenblatt's film examines a mix of intentional deaths, ranging from those of celebrities (Ernest Hemingway) to the double suicide of an elderly American couple. Mention is made of the teenage girl who jumped directly into the lava flow at Mount Mihara on the Japanese island of Izu Oshima.

Not only did her suicide spawn more than a thousand imitations (in 1936 alone, more than 600 people leaped to their deaths at this site), it helped to transform Izu Oshima into a popular tourist attraction. No doubt due to its fatality-driven fame, Mount Mihara subsequently became the location where Godzilla was imprisoned by the Japanese government in Godzilla 1985.

* * * * * * * * *
The man I followed to California in 1972 committed suicide several years later. Chuck Cleaves was one of those gay men who, after swallowing a lot of drugs at the Folsom Street Barracks during the 1970s (he had a particular fondness for PCP), convinced himself that there was no reason for a gay man to want to live past the age of 30. Having worked as an orderly in the Kaiser Hospital Emergency Room, he knew exactly how to inject an air bubble into one of his veins.

When a former roommate called to tell me that Chuck "had finally succeeded," there was no need to explain what he was talking about. With some people, suicide is never a question of "if" but rather "when." Assisted suicide does not always mean holding a pillow down over someone's head. Sometimes it can be as simple as leaving them alone for long enough to get the job done.

The programmer who introduced Domaine to the audience at the San Francisco International Film Festival couldn't stop gushing about what an impact the film had made on her when she saw it at the 66th Venice International Film Festival. As a result, I was curious to see what could possibly have moved her so deeply. The movie that she claimed she would remember for the rest of her life struck me as far less impressive than many other melodramas.

That may be because, having lived in San Francisco for nearly 40 years, I've gotten used to the fact that many people jump off bridges, overdose on drugs, and give up on the 12-step programs designed to help them cope with their substance abuse problems. For some people, living sober can be a real bitch!

Plenty of films have been made about alcoholics who drink themselves to death. Patric Chiha's drama, however, crosses over into the "doomed diva" school of faghaggery, as a handful of people watch a beloved friend disappear into a bottle. The main characters include:
  • Nadia (Béatrice Dalle), a mathematician who is obsessed with order but whose alcoholism leads her, irretrievably, to chaos.
  • Samir (Alain Libolt), one of Nadia's closest and most loyal friends.
  • John (Raphael Bouvet), one of Nadia's more flamboyant friends (whose specialty is going to gay bars in drag and performing onstage as Joan Crawford).
  • Jeanne (Tatiana Vialle), Nadia's younger sister, who tries to warn her headstrong son that his aunt's much-touted originality is really an illusion. As strong-willed as Nadia may seem, there is no doubt in Jeanne's mind that Nadia has always been the black sheep of their family.
  • Pierre (Isaie Sultan), Jeanne's teenage son who, instead of spending time with his high school classmates, prefers to go for brisk walks through the parks of Bordeaux with his charismatic, chain-smoking, and hypercritical aunt.
  • Fabrice (Manuel Marmier), the young man who cruises Pierre on a city bus and breaks Nadia's stranglehold on Pierre's attention.
Unlike such lighthearted fare as Auntie Mame and Travels With My Aunt, Chiha's first full-length feature is focused on the changing dynamic between a gay teenager coming to terms with his sexuality and his flamboyant, self-centered diva of an alcoholic aunt. Whereas Augusta Bertram and Mame Dennis are life forces that broaden the horizons of their impressionable, wide-eyed nephews, Nadia is an extremely selfish woman whose neediness could easily suffocate Pierre (an appropriate title for this film could just as easily have been Travails With My Aunt).

Nadia and and her nephew have developed an extremely strong bond (though still in his teens, Pierre has become his aunt's closest confidant and taken on the role of the handsome gay man who advises Nadia on which outfit and accessories to wear). No stranger to gay bars, Nadia doesn't hesitate to take her nephew out dancing with her and "the boys."

As Chiha notes:
"On the first day of auditions, I asked the young men to listen to some music under headphones and do whatever they felt. Surprisingly, Isaie was the only one who danced (in his own very personal way). I felt that the way he moved was essential for the role of Pierre. At the time of filming, Isaie was truly between two ages -- he was both a child and a man. During the shoot, he underwent the same transformation as Pierre. He matured, grew hair, made a place for himself amongst a crew of adults, and became the leading role. The exchange of roles between Nadia and Pierre is the story of the film."
Isaie Sultan as Pierre

Chiha also stresses that Nadia's fascination with the mathematical theories of Kurt Gödel was a carefully made choice.
"Gödel revolutionized mathematics by showing that the world of mathematics is necessarily incomplete. Nadia is on that same path. Initially, she believes in the possibility of a structure. She believes the world can be organized or defined. But, in the end, she understands she's been wrong about that. The world is, and will remain, chaos. She can't find the formula because the formula cannot be found.

Béatrice Dalle as Nadia

The main reason I chose Gödel is because he went crazy (Einstein would take him on daily walks through the Princeton campus). I'm interested in how she comes to understand that there's no solution, no magic formula. The source of her profound melancholy is that she comes to realize that words only add confusion to thoughts and feelings. She says it clearly in the film: 'Words are disorder.'"
As the film progresses, Nadia's drinking continues to spiral out of control. When Pierre finds himself spending more time with Fabrice (his first boyfriend), Nadia becomes noticeably jealous. As she becomes more depressed, it becomes obvious that she's been selling off her dresses to support her drinking. By the time Nadia finds the courage to enter a rehabilitation clinic in Austria named Domaine, Pierre has become repulsed by her behavior and is barely speaking to his aunt.

However, after several months, he decides to visit her in Austria. Arriving in the dead of winter, he finds Nadia sober, depressed, going through the miserably banal motions of daily life, and desperate for a drink. When Pierre arranges her to take Nadia off the grounds for a day, he is warned by the clinic's director that he will be responsible for his aunt's health and that, due to the fragility of her liver, one drink will kill her.

Pierre (Isaie Sultan) and Nadia (Béatrice Dalle)

In a key scene, Pierre overhears Nadia's confession to another patient that she wishes to die. Later, when Pierre takes her for a day excursion away from Domaine's grounds, as soon as the opportunity presents itself, Nadia orders herself some booze.

Whether out of love, helplessness, or disgust, Pierre does nothing to stop her from drinking it. Late that night, as they walk through a snow-covered forest, Nadia falls to the ground and calls out for help. Knowing the end is near, Pierre doesn't move. As Chiha sees the situation:
"It's more an abandonment or symbolic murder. Pierre is cruel in the sense that he chooses himself instead of Nadia. Nadia is cruel because she gives a young man a mission he cannot accomplish: that of saving her."
While Chiha's story is beautifully captured on film (and despite a powerful performance by Béatrice Dalle) it's hard to feel much sympathy for Nadia. What I found much more interesting was how Pierre's emerging gayness was a total nonissue for his family. Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * * * *
Start by thinking of the provocative new film written and directed by Joao Pedro Rodrigues as the antithesis of 1978's La Cage aux Folles, its 1983 adaptation for the musical stage by Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein, and 1996's Americanized film version, The Birdcage (which starred Nathan Lane and Robin Williams). To Die Like A Man is much grittier, portrays a much deeper emotional pain for a gay parent, and challenges its audience to deal with more wrenching and life-threatening issues.

Think of this film as a Portuguese reworking of Romeo and Juliet in which -- instead of revolving around two star-crossed lovers from warring families -- the forbidden love is shared by Tonia (Fernando Santos), a popular but aging and increasingly blowsy drag queen/entertainer whose leaking silicone implants have started to poison her body, and her much younger, drug-addicted male lover Rosário (Alexander David), who has been urging Tonia to undergo gender reassignment surgery. As the great Margo Channing once said, "Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy night!"

Fernando Santos as Tonia

To Die Like A Man was partly inspired by the real-life story of Centurio Joaquim de Almeida (who performed in Lisbon nightclubs using the stage name Ruth Bryden). As filmmaker Joao Pedro Rodrigues explains:
"A dazzling icon of Lisbon’s night life, Tonia, at the peak of her career in the late 1980s, discarded her double identity and clothed herself in her 'artistic character,' beginning a series of plastic surgery operations which turned her socially into a woman. Tonia gradually let fall all traces of her original male identity which, for her, represented everything she could not control (discrimination against her same-sex orientation, the male gender which she deplored in her body, the name of the family which rejected her, and the paternity of a son who was the outcome of a teenage heterosexual relationship).

Tonia (Fernando Santos) with her pet dog, Augostina

Tonia changes her appearance but never actually changes her sex. Against her will and her most immediate and urgent truth, her deepest conscience speaks: her religious convictions do not allow her to complete the transformation. This is a film about war. About a world at war (a war against the self). But it is also a love story, about the love between Tonia and her young friend, Rosário."
Tonia's no fool. She knows that some of the younger drag queens at the club where she has been a star for many years would love to push her out of the lineup. A temperamental and justifiably paranoid diva, she even contemplates abandoning show business. But, as a deeply religious drag queen, she struggles with the knowledge that even though she wants to be the woman her Rosário desires, she can never become that woman in God's eyes.

Tonia's competitor Jenny (Jenni La Rue)

Not only does Tonia have a good-hearted habit of picking up stray dogs like Augostina and hustlers like Rosário, she also has a very angry son, Zé Maria (Chandra Malatitch), who has recently gone AWOL from the military and tracked her down. Sexually confused (after having anal sex with another soldier, he murdered the man with a bullet in his head) and filled with rage at having been abandoned by Tonia when he was just a child, Zé Maria has no compunctions about tearing up Tonia's house, ruining her aquarium, and bringing a lot more stress into Tonia's life (which is already filled to the brim with homodrama). The fact that Tonia seems to love her dog, Augostina, more than any human does not help matters at all.

One of Zé Maria's acts of defiance against his biological father

To get away from all her troubles, Tonia convinces Rosário to take her on a road trip to visit his brother. When they become lost -- and Tonia's newest stray dog refuses to return to their car -- the couple find themselves in an enchanted forest where they meet the strange Maria Bakker (Goncalo Ferreira de Almeida) and her even stranger friend/maid, Paula (Miguel Loureiro). Maria Bakker may be a real piece of work, but she's a far cry from the witch encountered by Hansel and Gretel when they got lost in the Black Forest. As the filmmaker explains:
"It was on finding Casa Susanna, a book of anonymous photographs I discovered by chance in a flea market, that I found the key to materialize the fiction I wanted to write. These photographs are a 'family album,' shots of the home life of a certain Susanna, a professional drag artist (whose visiting card was found together with the photos) who organized meetings in the 1960s with his men friends in a country house where they all donned female clothes and probably acted out at weekends the average middle-class American housewives’ tasks, far from society’s bigoted gaze, and thus building up a kind of Eden of tolerance and freedom of speech.

Maria Bakker (Goncalo Ferreira de Almeida) and Paula (Miguel Loureiro)

These photographs, which remind me so much of the melancholy of William Eggleston’s images and of Edward Hopper’s solitary women, led me to the second major movement of the film: Tonia and Rosário’s outing to the countryside. During this 'partie de campagne,' they get lost in the forest, eventually to meet the enigmatic Maria Bakker, whose function here is as a double and a counterpoint to the character of Tonia. Tonia faces up to fate, understanding that the journey she has embarked on is much longer and has no return. Her body eaten up with disease is the most obvious and tragic evidence of this. As a result, Maria Bakker’s forest is not so much the enchanted forest of the fairy tales, but rather a dark and impenetrable forest."
The film takes its title from Tonia's request to her son, Zé Maria, that he promise to dress her in a suit for her funeral so that she can die like a man. What Tonia does not anticipate is Rosário's suicidal response to her death, which is every bit as moving as the final moments of Shakespeare's tragedy.

Throw in a demonstration (using origami techniques) of how male genitalia are surgically converted to female genitalia during a sex change operation, some mystical floating points of light in an enchanted forest, and the special effects by Antonio Gavinho (who manages to simulate brownish diseased pus oozing from Tonia's diseased nipple) and it's easy to forgive the film's excessive length of 138 minutes.

Despite many weak points (and a need to trim at least 20 minutes), To Die Like A Man has a unique voice and is willing to take big risks. Fernando Gomes (as the club owner, Teixiera) and Cindy Scrash (as Tonia's friend, Irene) appear in supporting roles. If the audience finds itself caring more about Tonia and Rosário than they might have expected, it is in large part due to the screenwriter/director's research into the private lives of certain figures in Lisbon's drag community.
"Some of the people I met during my research served as models for building up my characters and, eventually, some became my characters. It was a slow and sometimes difficult job to get close to them, but one which allowed me to write this story while thinking of real bodies, of actual flesh-and-blood people. I know how they walk, how they gaze, how they speak. They are not abstract images written on a piece of paper. They breathe the air that surrounds us.

I firmly believe that it would have been impossible to make this film without the emotion and the generosity of these persons. However, as I wrote the screenplay, I felt the film had to turn its back on the relentlessness of tragedy and find another point of view that would allow me to stand back from the actual real-life stories."
Like life, To Die Like A Man is at times long and messy. But when it hits its mark, the film soars with surprising visual strength and genuine poignancy. Here's the trailer:

No comments: