On a Sunday afternoon in early December, I had the pleasure of attending a screening of Pandora’s Box at the Phoenix Cinema (not to be confused with Leicester’s Phoenix), with a live piano score by Stephen Horne. Alongside fellow silent film enthusiast and Conrad Veidt lover Max, Max had attended their showing of Häxan (1922) a month earlier, with live narration by Reece Shearsmith. As we took the train down amid the chaos of cancellations, we sat down to an ornately decorated screen, as though in the pre-digital age of decades ago, before physical film projection was usurped by bootleg VHS tapes, torrents, DVDs and streaming, the pillarbox screen the centre of attention amid the wooden seats. Critic Pamela Hutchinson provided a brief introduction to coincide with her BFI Film Classics monograph, outlining some of the initial negative critical responses.
Though Pabst can often be overlooked in Weimar Cinema, he tackled social issues throughout his silents and talkies against the emerging New Objectivity. Adapted from Frank Wedekind’s plays Erdgeist (1895) and Pandora’s Box (1904), Wedekind’s narratives had been translated to cinema before with Leopold Jessner’s 1923 film, but Pandora’s Box became captivating through the energies of Pabst and Louise Brooks.
Greek mythology surrounding Pandora’s box and our relationship with evil may be diluted by time’s passage, the symbolism of Pandora reappropriated as a Danish jewellery company and the planet of Avatar (2009). But Lulu (Louise Brooks) explores this imagery well, embodied within Brooks’ cinematic image. As Brooks reflects in Lulu in Hollywood (1982), both Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl were “conducting an investigation into [Pabst’s] relations with women”, interested in the “flaming reality” of “sexual hate.” In his insightful 1983 essay Lulu and the Meter Man, Thomas Elsaesser argues Wedekind explored the femme fatale, and associations of transgression, violation and desire through the social milieu of class division. Pandora’s Box confronts not only bourgeois values but the male power curtailing the freedom Lulu seeks. Lulu’s relationship with newspaper publisher Ludwig Schön is formed of convenience of social standing, alongside his engagement to the daughter of the Minister of the Interior, Charlotte von Zarnikow, caught between the power of the press, sexuality and the political elite. Lulu is an alluring temptress to male authority; Rodrigo Quast seeks to exploit Lulu as part of his trapeze act, with Pabst’s fast editing adopting theatricality as she dons her outfit, stunning the theatrical audience and the viewer themselves. Like the carnival freakshow of Freaks (1932), Lulu has a sexual and romantic identity of her own, beyond the dehumanising gaze placed upon her by accepted societal values.
Schön’s double-edged threat – forcing Lulu, with his gun, to stage her own suicide, is itself coercive, taking agency from her death away from her, an impossible choice captured in immaculate detail by Günther Krampf. As Schön becomes a victim of the very suicide threat he levelled, Lulu’s judicious process is tragic: in the trial, she is faced with five years for manslaughter, despite her victimhood. Framed in close-up, Pabst captures the emotion and power of the desperation of her tears, faced with a jury who never knew. As Brooks reflects in Lulu in Hollywood, Pabst had no “stock emotional responses”, but sought actors to reach emotion “like life itself”. As the fire alarm is set off as a cunning escape, Pabst captures the unfolding chaos wonderfully. Lulu isn’t far away from the feminist heroine Angela de Marco in Married to the Mob (1988): facing presumed guilt against her husband’s murder in the bathtub by a bullet, we witness structures of power against her, through her avoidance of cops and her biased interview. As Elsaesser argues, Brooks’ Lulu is presented “practically without origin, or particular cultural associations”, with sexual desire part of a “more generalized structure of exchange”; sexuality lacks emotional engagement, with sexual acts and Reichsmark holding equal value. J. Hoberman writes that Pabst sought to create a fractured sense of eroticism, wanting “men in the cast to feel Brooks’s skin and have the actress get under theirs.”
In Lulu’s adventure in London, Pabst makes Lulu’s presence against male power most explicit. The mythology of Whitechapel and Jack the Ripper (Gustav Diessl) is buried within sensationalism of the press and tabloids and the police letter coining the killer’s name, enduring through the mystery of the ambiguity of his identity. The concept of the Ripper has a morality to it: a mutilator and murderer of prostitutes, attacking female sexuality in the slums and poverty of Nichols, Chapman, Stride, Eddowes and Kelly. Equally, the Ripper was formed against waves of Jewish and Irish immigration altering make-up and sentiment within 1890s London. The pervasiveness of representations border on the ridiculous: in film, the fictionalised killer of Hitchcock’s The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927), the time travelling pursuer of H.G. Wells in Time After Time (1979), a frequent foil to Sherlock Holmes across mediums, and in comics, the Gotham-based serial killer of Gotham by Gaslight (1991) and its giallo fan film Ripper (2016), the subject of Alan Moore’s From Hell (1989-98), an alter ego to Mr. Hyde in Thunderbolts #167 and the foe of IDW’s Doctor Who comic story Ripper’s Curse (2011). As Hutchinson notes, “sexually motivated murders”, or “Lustmord“, “filled newspapers and narratives in 1920s Germany”, from ‘The Butcher of Hanover’ to the Ripper’s role in Waxworks (1924) and Mack the Knife in The Threepenny Opera. The conflict between Lulu and the Ripper, her reflection and the Ripper’s knife – recalls Lulu’s previous use of the gun, returning to the paradigm between Lulu’s agency and victimhood. In the Christmas mistletoe, Pabst builds a remarkable sense of suspense, seeking the reveal of who moves first.
Louise Brooks will always be defined by her age: as the 21 year old actress in Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl, the disjuncture of seeing her graceful ageing in her latter years in Lulu in Berlin (1984) and Kenneth Tynan’s rediscovery in his New Yorker piece The Girl in the Black Helmet. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s eponymous 1991 song itself embraces the temporal disjuncture of “ghosts of long ago”:
And all the stars you kissed could never ease the pain
Still the grace remains, the face has changed
And you’re still the same
Having appeared in the avant-garde Denishawn troupe as a teenager and as a Broadway dancer, Brooks’ rising star emerged. As Hoberman notes, Pabst was inspired to cast Brooks after watching A Girl in Every Port (1928), attempting to borrow her from Paramount before she quit over a salary dispute. As German cinema fought against national boundaries, in a silent landscape supported by international coproductions and the universal language of the human face, American actress Louise Brooks could act alongside her German counterparts (with an Austrian director), a boundary that would continue to be stretched through the multilingual talkies that emerged, with a differently recorded version for each major market. Equally, as Siegfried Kracauer highlights in From Caligari to Hitler, the emergence of Kontingentfilme, or quota films, increased the distribution of foreign exports, with an increasing Americanization of Weimar cinema seeking to cater to American styles (1947:135).
Women in film are often underestimated, especially in melodrama, with “woman’s pictures” exploring women’s lives in deep, meaningful detail. With a handful of films, Brooks’ face joined the pantheons of women of early cinema, including Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich, decades before Monroe rose to fame, in part through her interwar flapper design. Kracauer notes critics found Pabst “fundamentally wrong” in adapting a “literary play”, with characters serving to “illustrate principles” (1947:148). Lulu is not just a character, but a symbol of female morality and sexuality. As Elsaesser argues, Lulu’s lack of family ties, social obligations, education and culture, and her freedom from guilt and conscience, assigns her as a “construct, not a sociological portrait”. Lulu is but an alluring, unreadable cinematic face of ambiguity and mystique, to read onto how we wish. Designer Gottlieb Hesch drew a sharp visual dichotomy through the contrast of Lulu’s costumes, between the purity of her white dresses and the sinful darkness of her black dresses, taken to full advantage through the film’s monochrome locations and cinematography. In Asphalt, we follow another woman on the other side of the law: Else moves through Berlin’s urban criminal landscape in her need to survive, frequently interacting with police, using sex appeal to seduce men and explore her femininity just as Lulu did the same year.
Pandora’sBox carries illicit beauty as we witness the dance between Lulu and Countess Geschwitz (Alice Roberts), continuing their motions despite leering male onlookers, a rebuke to male power. Decades later, the lesbian sexuality of Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013), Carol (2015), The Handmaiden (2016), Thelma (2017) and the Black Mirror (2011-present) episode San Junipero remain rare delights as we deconstruct the fetishising and eroticising male gaze, the emaciated international form seeking to conceal these relationships. The boat’s gambling den becomes but another Weimar underworld, alongside the havens of Dr. Mabuse der Spieler (1922) and crime and kangaroo courts of M (1931), and, as Elsaesser writes, a “fictional metaphor for the economic chaos of the Weimar Republic”, but the underworld connotes a distinctly queer connotation, only emphasised by the West German-era underworlds of Fox and His Friends (1975) and the Isherwood based Weimar-era underworld of Cabaret (1972); Dietrich’s bisexuality made her but another element within this underworld. As Brooks reflects in Lulu in Hollywood, her residence at the Eden Hotel gave her a firsthand look at Weimar Berlin’s decadence, highlighting “girls in boots, advertising flagellation”, “agents pimped for the ladies”, sportsmen arranging “orgies” and the drag queens outside Eldorado, and the “feminine or collar-and-tie lesbians” at the Maly.
But Pandora’s Box is as much about Berlin as fleeing Berlin. With her passport, Lulu flees alongside her best friend, Alwa Schön (Francis Lederer), in far from ideal, squalid conditions. Like the foundational directors, seeking greater profits who fled to Hollywood, like F.W. Murnau, E.A. Dupont and Ernst Lubitsch, or fled anti-Semitism, like Fritz Lang, or Nazi-era directors like Douglas Sirk, or child refugees like Mike Nichols, without mentioning actors like Conrad Veidt, experienced dislocation from the country they were raised and born in amid developing tensions, adopting the United States as an inherited home. Dr. Mabuse der Spieler conveyed an international heist, but under the auspices of organised crime. Alwa and Lulu flee the country with urgency, emerging in Christmastime London that cannot escape Lulu’s inevitable fate, even amid the festive goodwill of Christmas puddings, window displays, gifts, snow and the marching Salvation Army. Posters, echoing the citywide search of M, warn of a criminal on the loose. Brooks was American, but in the following years, the Weimar cinema followed an inevitable collapse and migration. As Hutchinson argues, “geography carries crucial meaning”, highlighting Wedekind’s and Brooks’ own stays in London.
Günther Krampf’s immaculate visions have a tendency to be burned into cultural memory with his iconic image of the creeping shadow of Nosferatu (1922), but Krampf’s incredible eye is no stranger here either, illuminating in light the sinister London fog, prefiguring the film noir and its own femme fatales. Stephen Horne’s score provided a great compliment, integrating atmosphere, sounds of the train and fragments of Christmas carols within his piano performance. Like the greatest of live scores, Horne elevated the film he performed against to a place of beauty.
Chinese Roulette is about skeletons in the closet: Ariane and Gerhard are parents to the most uncomfortable family. Underestimated and undervalued, their daughter Angela is constrained to crutches, yet holds power over the entire family, engineering her own game as she asks housekeeper Kast (Brigitte Mira) to move the table together at dinner. Looked after by mute governess and caretaker Traunitz, Fassbinder communicates immediate creepiness through Angela, reinforced by her large collection of dolls. Angela has no outlet to speak, not even those around her; often, her only outlet is in sign language to Traunitz. Older brother Gabriel (Volker Spengler) spouts pretentious intellectualism, an uncomfortable combination of teenager and adult mothered after as days go by, brewing coffee for guests. Like Angela, Gabriel seeks out the truth, but truth is often elusive. As housekeeper, Kast stands alone, enraptured within routines: mincing meat and preparing food, drinking large gulps of wine. Kast seems suffocated within housework, evoking the same endless role as Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975).
Where Fassbinder used Fox and His Friends (1975) to explore class difference and vapid human interaction within underground gay subculture, Chinese Roulette becomes an exploration of infidelity within the heterosexual (or bisexual) world. Ariane and Gerhard embody mid-70s attitudes, with increasing economic freedom to travel the world and in relationship formation. Both seek escape: in the opening, they depart at the airport in Munich, flying to Oslo. In the woods, Gerhard finds sexual escape with French mistress Irene (Anna Karina). Shot from above, Fassbinder presents the trees around as though freedom is infinite, fucking and undressing on the soil itself. But Ariane also has another sexual partner in business partner Kolbe. Their arrangement in the grand country house facilitates non-monogamy, switching partners. As he does in Fox and His Friends, Fassbinder beautifully communicates a visceral sexual gaze; each character finds attraction in the other. Fassbinder plays with female embrace and a bond between Ariane and Irene, finding beauty and chemistry; Gerhard and Kolbe cannot accept anything but a cordial game of chess.
As a young girl experiencing early stages of puberty, Angela feels a lack of sexual fulfilment, telling Gabriel no man will ever be sexually interested in her. Just as her existence as a disabled girl is stigmatised, so is sexuality. Angela exhibits underlying guilt and trauma for her existence, feeling responsible for her parents’ collapsing marriage and infidelity. She has a mischievous side, fully comprehending the state of affairs but assumed to be ignorant. She intentionally walks in on each parent with respective partners lying naked and awake as the morning rises, leaving with a wry smile. Acclaimed cinematographer Michael Ballhaus makes strong use of the frame, aware of angles and windows within the room itself. As she leaves, sexuality becomes more intense with perhaps the most ferocious hickey in cinema history.
Each partner must reconcile feelings towards non-monogamy, aware both men have slept with both women, and vice versa. The morning after, discussing sexual experiences and partners becomes an easy route towards jealousy. Over their quiet game of chess, Gerhard and Kolbe discuss the elephant in the room. Fassbinder frequently used techniques of melodrama; Chinese Roulette is no exception. Fassbinder follows a conceit that makes for easy melodrama, but approaches a pureness of character and identity. In the confounding closing text, Fassbinder underlines the film as an indictment of the institution of marriage and heteronormativity itself. A bisexual director with many partners over the years, often his own collaborators, Fassbinder never played by the societal rules placed on relationships. But Fassbinder’s approach to marriage cannot be taken as broad brush; each relationship and partner has their own set-ups, attitudes and values. No marriage or relationship is the same. Some fall apart; some stay together; some embrace non-monogamy. Chinese Roulette does not reflect every marital relationship.
Fassbinder extends beyond sexuality to explore norms around gender. Gabriel’s gaze has a sexual component; in the petrol station, Gabriel lies eyes upon male attendants. In their book, Gabriel plagiarises their work as writer, creating pieces making little linear sense. Gabriel sees their work within a literary tradition of philosophy of Nietzsche and Goethe; Angela also names Wilde, adding a queer element. In an extract read aloud, they speak of the son of God walking the earth, and His connection to the sun god; Gabriel embodies man and woman, crossing lines of gender. Fassbinder played with gender throughout his films; Volker Spengler plays trans woman Elvira in In a Year of 13 Moons (1978). Gabriel sees themselves as an angel walking upon Earth, made obvious by their surname and crosses appearing throughout the film.
Chinese Roulette has no end of games from a deck of cards to chess atop a glass board; sexuality is itself a game. A parlour game played after dinner, Chinese Roulette offers a medium for truth to emerge. The climax to an 80-minute film, the game is the only part that ever drags, but is essential to resolution. Fassbinder presents a Germany struggling to reconcile its recent fascist past, even as the country was split in two. Fassbinder communicates the same discomfort to the war as in Basil’s disastrous mocking of tourists in The Germans episode of Fawlty Towers (1975-79). Angele decries Kast’s role in the war, a silent outsider. Would she have been in the Gestapo, or working at Bergen-Belsen? Fassbinder moves between shocked reactions on each face, struggling to understand the power of what has just been spoken, creating perfect tension. Through the viewfinder on her gun, Ariane becomes a newfound threat, both to Angele and towards Traunitz, one of the few people to ever understand her. But fascism is itself slipping into everyday lexicon: in the car, she decries a bad driver as a “fascist”.
Fassbinder builds the film’s power through both location and music, creating confinement. Each room is a separate realm, embodying different people and identities. Through divisions, hearsay and speculation run rampant; we hear only half the conversation. Gerhard and Kolbe play chess in one room; Ariane and Irene discuss matters in the other, crossing between realms and panning out, creating visual representation of their conflicted relationship. Rooms stretch out as spaces of emptiness. In the opening, Angela and Traunitz sit together, playing a record of a classical piece, Gustav Mahler’s Uns Bleibt Ein Erdenrest, Traunitz sitting upon the window ledge. Aware of pace, Fassbinder stretches shots out, immersed within a world of women. Moving into the hallway, the music stops, interrupted by the presence of men. Fassbinder uses a similar technique later on: Gabriel walks between corridors, unsure what he will find as Kraftwerk’s Radioactivity seeps out, its delightful, sinister synths penetrating the soundtrack. Traunitz is reduced to a child, hobbling along with Angela’s crutches as the transistor radio plays.
Michael Ballhaus utilises the house’s tacky furniture and décor to create a strong visual aesthetic: clear acrylic cabinets are everywhere, enshrining bottles of wine and a hi-fi in cages; a birdcage is equally a part of the house. Ballhaus uses these elements to reflected and fracture faces across surfaces, lens flares moving across candles at the dinner table. But other scenes suffer, lighting and audio recording not perfectly thought out. The opening titles are an embarrassment, red text scrolling across the screen through a car window. Where Chinese Roulette suffers most is staging. Fassbinder’s output seems largely unmatched; although offering a massive canon of characters and scenarios, it leads to scenes played without enough dramatic gravitas. Through dropped plates and mugs of coffee and visceral arguments, although performances are commendable, we never feel the true, melodramatic power, without proper staging to emphasise these situations to their core. But this is a reasonable price to pay.
Coming Out provides an interesting counterpoint to Girl, produced 5 years later for the BBC’s Play for Today strand of programming. Unlike Girl, Coming Out is directed by a woman, Carol Wiseman, but follows a largely male cast of characters; scriptwriter James Andrew Hall is male. Frustrated children’s author Lewis Duncan (Anton Rodgers), writing in the queer underground press under the ridiculous pseudonym Zippy Grimes, is an unrelenting misogynist, dismissing his assistant Judy (Melanie Gibson) at all costs. He forgets her birthday; makes her miss her train; passes off all his half-concocted writing off to her to make some sense of. Lewis is continually unlikeable, never allowing the audience any sympathy for his situation. When Judy brands him as a “sexist pig”, wanting to be allowed her own life where she can go out with her boyfriend, we side with Judy.
Lewis faces constant pressure to come out, filtering his emotions into a manuscript. Everyone around Lewis tells him he should come out, but coming out has material consequences. With a queer perspective, Lewis has a burden of representation: he writes books imagining everyday situations around straight relationships, but his position will always be as an outsider. Lewis has a responsibility to write about queer themes, characters and settings. Lewis becomes a figure for other characters to open up to: Mrs Cooper (Helen Cherry) approaches him, talking about her struggle to deal with her priest son Jamie’s coming out. As a tutor and children’s writer, Lewis has to be careful, subject to homophobia: teaching young Brian, he becomes seen by Brian and his father as a “poof”, perverted and dangerous and a menace. Lewis faces pressure from his editor to be open as a column writer.
Lewis’ friends are equally reprehensible, never acknowledging their own privilege. Richie (Nigel Havers), Gerald (Richard Pearson) and Gunnar (Michael Byrne) are all in unhappy relationships, in a space neither monogamous nor polyamorous, creating a toxic culture of jealousy and dishonesty that cannot be easily resolved. Richie becomes an epitome of gay sexuality: blonde, young and beautiful, he becomes a artist’s muse, posing for Renaissance-esque paintings. Lewis meets for a night with black prostitute Polo (Ben Ellison), but remains unaware of the issues black gay men face as Polo recounts how few other opportunities are available to him and being stabbed by a policeman; even £500 a week is difficult to get by on as he attends to other people’s needs. At the dinner table, Gerald makes clear the many issues facing gay men, including the police threat. But Lewis never acknowledges this reality until it hits him square in the face: he rejects radicalism, decrying as an egalitarian prophet that all people are the same. Lewis is blind to real issues: misogynistic against women; homophobic against his own community. His struggles seem minor in the face of all other issues.
Coming Out ends upon a positive note, as Lewis commits to writing out his own experiences, clacking away at his typewriter. But Lewis remains an unlikeable protagonist who never really evolves over the course of the piece, never able to attract audience sympathy.
The Loft is a cute queer venue in the middle of Birmingham’s Gay Village. Produced in collaboration with Shout Festival, Shout have hosted LGBT film screenings throughout last November and this year’s LGBT History Festival. Shout are offering greater visibility to archival content, screening rarely seen TV productions of Girl and Coming Out (1979) as part of the Flatpack Film Festival. Even with the advent of YouTube, VOD and streaming, both productions remain difficult to come by, rarely screened and tied up behind paperwork. Festivals and events offer a role in curating the archive: behind the immensity of decades of content, little incentive exists to seek out forgotten relics on one’s own. It needs to undergo a process to be found again, amid a lack of positive queer representation.
Girl’s existence is directly tied to Birmingham: the piece was produced as part of the BBC2 series Second City Firsts (1973-78), recorded around Pebble Mill. Looking for early representation, we might be tempted to look at cinema, but as documentaries like The Celluloid Closet (1995) explore, LGBTQIA+ representation was largely hidden behind coded characters, although not entirely out of sight. But television offers a quicker production cycle, responding to social issues from young writers without the protracted process of drafting screenplays, scouting locations and concerns around budget. Girl feels disposable, relying upon theatrical staging and dialogue constrained to one room, but it’s of its time, never produced to be watched 45 years later. Broadcast post-watershed, Girl is an important milestone, the first same-sex kiss broadcast on British television, exploring the relationship between Jackie (Alison Steadman) and Chrissie (Myra Frances). Though 1970s audiences needed prior warning for its queer content, Girl still feels radical.
Set within a military institution, Girl lacks any male characters. A male presence is still felt: posters of male pin-ups adorn the wall; Maggie (Stella Moray) worries about pregnancy and brags about dicks. Girl’s characters are filtered through codes of masculinity rather than codes of femininity, providing an interesting insight into a period where queerness seemed in opposition to being a soldier, a conflict persisting to this day even without the same institutional discrimination. Girl was produced on the cusp of 2nd wave feminism. Before our contemporary debates around identity politics, intersectionality and online discourse, Girl’s questions are still relevant, but less well defined: marriage and abortion are rejected as remnants of patriarchy, in conflict with Catholic religious doctrine that similarly strengthens a patriarchal system.
Even today, queer women on screen remain marginalised: queer cinema invariably focuses upon attractive, shirtless white cisgender men than affording space for other identities, or are filtered through a male gaze. Some break through: Saving Face (2004), Transamerica (2005), Appropriate Behavior (2014), Carol and Tangerine (2015), but these are exceptions. Ghostbusters (2016) codes Holtz as queer, but her identity was suppressed through studio pressure and Feig’s unwillingness to push further.
Girl is inescapably subject to the male gaze: the piece is written by a male, directed by a male and approved by heads of department that are male. But Girl never uses its sexuality to elicit the male gaze, instead depicting real power to female intimacy. Jackie and Chrissie never just kiss: Steadman and Frances present closeness rarely captured elsewhere, enraptured in bed together under blankets; cigarettes evoking visceral sexuality. Jackie and Chrissie dance to a record, love made beautiful. Chrissie might be a player: she’s done this before, skirting outside lines of monogamy without ever being open and honest about it, but their love remains intense and instantly heartwarming. Against hate and oppression, seeing queer, female love on screen is powerful for its very existence.
The influence of social realism upon Nighthawks is obvious. In an early scene, Geography teacher Jim (Ken Robertson) bumps into coworker Judy (Rachel Nicholas James), about to screen a print of a Ken Loach film for her class that Jim wants to catch, screening Cathy Come Home (1966), unable to acquire a copy of Kes (1969). Nighthawks relies largely on non-professional actors, advertising for roles in newspaper classifieds; Robertson is the only professional actor. Masters of British cinema Lindsay Anderson and Michael Powell looked over drafts of the script, but their influence simply isn’t present. Ron Peck isn’t Ken Loach. Under the right director, non-professional actors’ naturalism can excel beyond the confines of stage and screen. But the cast, bored and under-directed, never provide interesting performances, unable to improvise in a way that isn’t amateurish. Peck attempts a style evoking documentary, but achieves neither documentary nor narrative cinema, struggling with shot composition and pacing, holding for too long through scenes which reveal no narrative information. Nighthawks is empty, revealing a film which could be condensed down by at least half an hour.
Peck never gives reasons to like Jim. Interesting aspects are barely explored: an uncreative day off with his camera, struggling to find a composition that satisfies, looking through the viewfinder at London’s recently erected high rises; at home, he views each slide through his projector. Though open to some of the other teachers, Jim is closeted to family. His character remains just as closeted. We know his sexual history as related to Judy: he pursued unsatisfying sexual relationships with women, gradually seeing more and more men. He meets men at clubs at night, going on dates but never holding anything down, finding it easy for people to walk out on him; turning up at a lover’s house to find him gone, without even a number. But we know little else.
Judy, as a source of connection, is perhaps the more interesting character, drinking a pint and eating a packet of crisps at the pub after work, afforded a lack of pretence of sexual tension that never entirely works out. Judy draws a contrast to Jim: she has a daughter and husband, trying to understand the queer community from a distance without being part of it, never able to entirely understand. She wants him to become more open to the outside world, pressuring him to attend the school dance.
The sections in school provide the film’s most interesting parts. As a Geography teacher teaching a class of mixed race kids, Jim is pretty bad at his job, struggling to control his pupils or teach them well. Jim struggles to keep boundaries between his two lives separate, turning up late after oversleeping, waking up in bed with a guy he met the previous night. Jim is never reprimanded; a substitute doesn’t take his place. Before Section 28 closed off any discussion of homosexuality as a “lifestyle choice” in school, Nighthawks is at its most interesting as Jim speaks honestly and openly about his sexuality. The camera pans over his pupils, genuinely curious and interested, throwing questions, defences and insults, with a variety of viewpoints: is he a transvestite, does he carry a handbag, does he wear women’s clothes? What does he do in bed besides sleep; does he go clubbing? Some kids are defensive, asking what’s the big deal; others profess to be gay bashers, yet are never seen acting upon their words. Maybe some of them are queer themselves: a girl wears a rainbow scarf; one of the homophobic boys wears a handkerchief.
Jim’s coming out is a manifestation of internal desire, making the process somewhat easy. Jim responds matter of fact: asking about their own relationships with women; denying he feels any attraction to the boys in the room. But this scene never feels entirely realistic, suffering no consequences. Though the principal offers a warning, he doesn’t expel him. But his concerns reveal an internalised culture of homophobia: Jim defends filling a gap in the curriculum, but the principal feels it should be contained to sex ed – a subject that still struggles to cover anything beyond cisgender, heterosexual bodies in any meaningful way.
At night, Jim has access to a world beyond. He drunkenly drives through London, Judy in the other seat, refusing her affections after the school disco as he refuses her affections, suggesting she get a taxi. At a café, Nighthawks draws its closest parallel to Edward Hopper’s painting: sitting, torn up, voicing his deepest, darkest feelings and insecurities as the world goes by. In the car, we sense Jim’s exhaustion as he and Judy debate the freedom and insecurity of non-monogamy. In his eyes, we sense he wants deeper connection: he doesn’t want this life, lacking opportunities to meet a long term, monogamous partner, struggling to reconcile his feelings.
The scenes in the discotheque provide community: in the opening, Jim is launched into another world, taking tokens from the usher. The repetitive synth beat is a relic, lacking licensing rights nor the transcendent disco lyrics of Donna Summer’s I Feel Love. Derek Jarman scouted locations, appearing in a cameo, but the club remains limited to an unconvincing set. The discotheque may be the film’s most queer element, but also it’s most uninteresting in a plot never allowing conflict that isn’t about being queer. Only a few years earlier, Fassbinder achieved far stronger along similar lines in Fox and His Friends (1975), exploring conflict along lines of capitalism, class and addiction. The discotheque is unrelentingly male and sexual, without space for other genders or trans people: men stand in lines in phallic desire, waiting for the next to approach without anything to talk about. In overlong close-ups, we see Jim’s male gaze: hit by red and blue lights, his desire stares out at other patrons.
Jim goes through a long series of men, lacking personalities, romantic or sexual attachment, as empty as Jim. Jim lists off names of men to Judy, unable to keep track of the most recent: Jim, Mike, Neal, Peter, John. Queer relationships intersect, lives as unstable as his own. Jim agrees on dates, covertly dropping men off the next morning, an everyday, morning routine – let’s do Thursday, let’s go to the pictures, let’s have a meal – but never displays any care for their lives or interests. Depicting queer life might be radical for 1978: Peck depicts sexuality that is never pornographic, but elicits the viewer’s gaze, something never seen on screen before, lingering on men making out, naked butts and flaccid dicks as men get dressed, but without any purpose nor erotic potential. Jim’s partners are merely people to politely take to bed.
Jim’s partners have some interesting elements: Neal seeks a job, reading over classifieds for something better than what he has. One man sought London as a place of queer opportunity as a metropolitan city, but never wants to become a prostitute. He meets men who came from Bolton and Leeds, from their own walks of life; an American banker and an Australian, only in the country for 18 months. One man he meets folds his bed away after sleeping together, hidden behind a mantelpiece with a curtain, chairs and a table carefully placed in front.
Nighthawks is an interesting remnant of post-Stonewall and pre-AIDS, especially within LGBTQIA+ cinema: the haircuts are awful; the bellbottoms and tattered blue jeans are gross; a man even wears a Logan’s Run (1976) t-shirt. Though it stands as a time capsule, it struggles to hold interest nor offer much value.
Adapted from German play Martyr, The Student has makings of controversy. Serebrennikov directed the play on stage with much of the same cast before making the film, but sought independent financing; state financiers found themselves concerned with religious themes. Russia’s relationship with religion remains complicated. Under communism, Marx decried religion as the “opium of the people”, following state decried atheism that rejected the long-held power of the Russian Orthodox Church. USSR film followed equal principles: Kino Eye (1924) represents faith through a madman in a sanatorium, decrying himself Christ and bread as his God; One-Sixth of the World (1928) depicts Russia’s religious diversity whilst simultaneously dismissing it; Enthusiasm (1931) opens with collapsing church steeples amid deafening sound. Directing Solaris (1972), Andrei Tarkovsky struggled between his own spiritual convictions and Soviet censors.
Placed in the concrete port city of Kaliningrad, The Student is set against a post-Soviet Russia in a city that was a Prussian and German territory before the end of WWII. Kaliningrad has no linear identity, forced to unlearn its Soviet ways of being. The Student not only follows Venya’s emerging orthodox religious faith, but questions its role within institutions. Putin’s face, in front of the Russian flag, watches over the teacher’s conference. On the bus to one of mother Inga’s three jobs, icons of Mary form a shrine. Cinematographer Vladislav Opelyants injects the frame with a constant church-like presence through the shadows of the long, overbearing windows of the pool and school.
Venya’s school grants unofficial power to Father Vsevolod, teaching classes on Orthodox culture. Vsevolod might only go in odd days, spending most time in church, but assembles children in the gymnasium to bless with water and carry Jesus’ icon; Vsevolod attends teacher meetings on Venya’s odd behaviour, reading liturgical passages. Venya’s hard-line orthodoxy rejects Vsevolod, though he should be a source of religious community, arguing the Bible rejects organised religion, monuments and the act of forgiveness, instead favouring private connection to God.
Venya quotes the Bible selectively to find rebukes to almost anything, carrying his Bible constantly. Liberal Biology teacher Elena tries to best him, enraptured reading scripture online to boyfriend and fellow teacher Oleg’s frustration, not even breaking for birthday cake, covering a wall with alternative interpretations on post-it notes. She is never wrong: the phrasing between Venya’s print Bible and her online Bible, and perspectives and worldviews, differ. Serebrennikov questions how we approach the Bible today, and whether we should still accept its teachings.
Venya fights against modernity and industrialisation, sitting poolside full clothed, Bible by his side, refusing to go in because of girls’ immodesty, juxtaposed against Venya’s dramatic narration of 2000-year old words of battle and conflict. But the school allows Venya power. The school principal questions whether girls unwittingly sexualise themselves towards the ogling gaze of Oleg, seeking answers between the lines of policy as vague as the Bible itself. Elena counters that, maybe, men should wear swimsuits too. At the beach, Oleg and Elena submit themselves to sheer sexuality, almost masturbating each other, as teenagers accept the elements, entering waters naked, an easy answer. Venya becomes a carpenter, building a cross out of loose wood outside his family apartment, carried as a weight upon his back through streets, ducking an underpass, set to the edgy industrial metal of Laibach’s God is God. Erecting the cross in school as though it were a chapel, Venya isn’t reprimanded: the police and principal bless the cross themselves.
Venya’s faith acts as rebellion and escape against the agnosticism and maternal relationship he grew up within. In the opening, Inga laughs off his convictions, telling him he has no religion, but what does she know? Venya’s beliefs allow licence to act like a dick, informing her she shall spend all eternity in Hell unless she finds her faith again, decrying her adultery, divorce and unclean bed as he strips the room of wallpaper, leaving only a mattress. Venya illuminates his innocence, speaking words without knowing how the world works. As Venya tells her he will meet his Father again soon, the film plays verbal double entendre: Inga pushes against it, without realising he actually means God. Inga meets with Vsevolod, hoping to find solution to his behavioural difficulties; frustrated by his insistence “God works in mysterious ways”.
Venya, thinking himself a disciple, manipulates power dynamics. Teachers accept him as a teenager, not a threat, allowing sympathy; the psychologist doesn’t want to tread too hard; other kids revel in the anarchy. During a sex ed lesson, Venya strips naked, showing how it’s really done. During a lesson on evolution, he runs around in an implausibly acquired monkey costume, throwing plastic bones about, as though 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) lost its matte paintings and nature photography. Venya accepts extremes, decrying in his teenage isolation implicit support for Chechnya and Afghanistan, seeing dying for God as a suicide bomber as noble.
Although The Student never gives answers, it depicts religious visions. In the living room, a wooden cross appears to Venya, seemingly giving him answers. The static of the TV remains on, relaying signals from the beginning of the (non-Biblical) universe. For each verse Venya quotes, the film footnotes its source.
Though Venya is the focal protagonist, he never elicits sympathy; Elena’s liberal perspective encourages support. Elena fights against the syllabus, giving lessons on sexual orientation, protection and evolution, constantly seeking compromise. Though Venya’s outbreak is extreme, it raises a good point: demonstrating how to put condoms on might be a good idea to reduce pregnancy, but a carrot is still a pretty poor substitute for a dick. She stands at risk of promoting gay propaganda, what the principal considers a “lifestyle choice”. Her teaching on Darwinian evolution is met by the suggestion she teach creationism to let the children decide. Elena, in both the certainty and uncertainty of science, fights against a brick wall, through the same logical fallacies that plagued me as a kid. Who created the Big Bang? Who created God?
Elena is cast aside as victim. Venya’s anti-Semitism is dismissed as nothing to take offense at; Vsevolod reads aloud anti-Semitic verse in Venya’s favour, as the principal keeps on laughing. Venya fabricates an incident of sexual abuse, expelling her from her position and dragged out by security, as she forces herself to stay, nailed besides the cross: just as much a victim as Jesus was.
The Student’s most intriguing aspect might be in how it handles sexuality. Inga’s worries about her son are as much a fear against bullying as fears against queerness, from body image to worrying about spontaneous erections in the changing rooms. Venya rejects sexuality, waiting until marriage, not even allowing himself to jerk off. Lidia coerces him to making out, taking her top off and pushing him against the window, but his rejection is clear.
Grigoriy offers an intersection between queerness and faith, but is so underwritten he hardly acts as positive representation. Grigoriy is as gay as Plato is for Jim in Rebel Without a Cause (1955): his attraction is obvious from the first moment we see him, almost falling over Venya as he offers support. Grigoriy is bullied relentlessly, pushed into a bin by classmates. Grigoriy and Venya’s relationship acts as a manifestation of Elena’s reading of the Bible, where Jesus’ disciples were in fact an early gay rights group who all loved each other, becoming a mechanism for the only queer contact he can get, within a culture that rejects any notion of queerness as social outcasts. Grigoriy becomes the boyfriend he brings home unexpectedly: in a dinner scene, framed as a tableau akin to the Last Supper, Inga struggles to split food, as Venya insists the fish can feed the 5000. Grigoriy’s ambivalent faith struggles to balance spirituality and the physical world: as Venya insists they say grace, inviting Grigoriy to speak, he doesn’t know what to say, simultaneously thanking God and thanking Elena for her hard work.
Grigoriy pushes physical contact between himself and Venya, pulling arms around him in lovelorn embrace; Grigoriy and Venya pushing each other around in a fight might as well be fucking. Venya offers his hand, as though it were Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam (1512), never allowing him to blaspheme. Grigoriy insists his limp is genetic, but Venya persuades him he can be cured of the sins of the father. Grigoriy strips down, removing his pants as he revels in Venya touching his bare leg as healer, supernaturally asking for his leg to grow. Attempting for a second time in class, the pair are caught by Lidia and her mobile, convinced Venya is queer.
In Grigoriy and Venya’s confrontation upon the beach, blessed as disciple, the emptiness of Grigoriy’s character becomes clear. Grigoriy leans in to kiss as Venya firmly rejects him, quoting Leviticus and dismissing him as Judas, breaching sacred trust. Handing him the Bible, Grigoriy becomes yet another queer victim: his skull cracked open, stoned to death, discovered by police as joggers pass by. The film offers no redemption or indictment to Venya: Venya lives, without any chance to mourn for Grigoriy, nor see his loss affect family or classmates. His spirit, dressed in angelic white, appears to Elena, but with little to say. Depicting any queer character in Russian cinema – even an independent one – may have limitations, but Grigoriy acts as a plot function and contrivance.
The Student acts as an intellectual debate, though questions around secularism might work better in its native Russia: the UK has long precedent for separation of church and state and acceptance of a multiplicity of views, although religious traditions still cast a long shadow.
The BBC built a minor industry from TV movie biopics, illuminating controversial and celebrated great lives, touching upon queer figures in films like Christopher and His Kind (2011). But TV movie don’t necessarily lose ingenuity, even within limitations. Alan Clarke, Mike Leigh and Ken Loach honed their craft on TV movies, through anthology series like The Wednesday Play (1964-70) and Play for Today (1970-84), confronting social issues through humanised characters. International directors like Ingmar Bergman and Roberto Rossellini, finding their careers in decline, turned to television for funding. Even when TV movies fall into ethereality, years after broadcast, they can remain important documents of time and place, transcending limitations.
Love is the Devil was developed under relative freedom from producer George Faber, with funding from the Arts Council and Japanese and French financiers. As Maybury relates in a Q&A at the BFI, when the original cast, Malcolm McDowell and Tim Roth, backed out, he took a year to develop the script and find a story. Maybury wasn’t just approaching it as an obligatory biopic, but telling a queer perspective, having worked with queer icons like Sinead O’Connor and Boy George in music videos and studied under Derek Jarman, one of the most notable voices in underground British cinema.
Maybury met Francis Bacon a few times before he died, but never more than briefly. As an art student, Maybury looked up to him, but Love is the Devil never glorifies its subject: it does the exact opposite, making both artist and art seem repulsive and toxic. Anyone hoping to leave the film with an appreciation for his life and work won’t find it. Bacon (Derek Jacobi) is both manipulative and self-righteous. As George Dyer (Daniel Craig) stumbles into his studio through a skylight, Bacon immediately asks Dyer to bed, without much room for an alternative answer. Without ever agreeing their relationship isn’t monogamous, Bacon leaves Dyer in the pouring rain late at night, banging on the door and screaming, as Bacon receives oral from a man he met at the local casino. He isolates himself from Dyer, framing his studio as his own space, not letting him come in with his keys.
Bacon brushes off Dyer’s suicide attempts as childish and immature, never grasping the reality, immature in himself; self-righteous to both his own and all others’ art, openly utilising Dyer as muse to fit his canvas, never appreciating the real person. In the Colony Room in Soho, he dismisses an enamoured fellow artist as a bad artist on instinct, purely from the tie he wears. Watching Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) at a local arthouse cinema with Isabel Rawsthorne (Anne Lambton), bodies and pushchairs trampled on the Odessa steps, he refuses to shut up as he intellectualises our own mortality through the death of the photographed subjects. Isabel wants to relax; he refuses the very thought. He adapts Dyer into a role he was never in, displaying covert homosexuality as he takes him to a tailor’s, trying on a suit, ties and shirts. Through his femininity, in his vain mirror routine, putting on eyelashes, powdering his face and parting his hair, he forces Dyer into feminine terms of address, using “her” pronouns and calling him his “girlfriend”. Bacon conceals an internal loneliness: he stands on the Tube, unable to think; in his studio, he can’t process Dyer’s suicide and loss.
Dyer was but one chapter of Bacon’s life; the film’s source text, The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon (1993), contained little about him. As Maybury reflects in the Q&A, Maybury’s friends interviewed for the film (many appearing as extras) had little to say, barely remembering him, leaving Craig little to go on. Instead, Maybury used poetic licence to extrapolate their relationship. Craig’s role as Dyer might seem unusual. As Bond, Craig is a ladies man; he emerges from the ocean in Casino Royale (2006), showing off his chest. Even as Jewish rebel Tuvia Bielski in Nazi-occupied Belarus in Defiance (2008), Craig cannot escape his action-oriented roles. Dyer’s entrance jumping through Bacon’s skylight might as easily be James Bond leaping across Italian rooftops in the opening to Quantum of Solace (2008).
Though lacking Bond’s musculature, Dyer still has a scruff, working class masculinity incompatible with Bacon. There’s no emotional connection; directly before his suicide in Paris, he confesses to Bacon he loves him, but Bacon refuses to reciprocate without a dismissive joke. They wander through art galleries and the British Museum, looking at other people’s paintings, but their bond never goes farther. Bacon forces Dyer into the art world he was never part of, torn from his own circle of friends, unable to transcend class differences, though still living in a grubby bathtub next to the kitchen sink. He travels across the world, attending exhibitions and openings in Paris and New York City, away from the place he calls home.
Dyer becomes Francis Bacon: in a drunken stupor, in a bar filled with sailors and Nazi costumes, he offers to spend money on other men, reutilising Bacon’s own philosophy on the image of dead people in photographs to the dismissal of others, adopting Bacon’s lack of monogamy. Dyer’s descent doesn’t feel so far apart from Franz Bieberkopf in Fox and His Friends (1975), trapped within a toxic queer relationship he stumbled into, unable to escape class. Dyer lies asleep in the casino at night, woken by a woman hoovering the floor the following morning; unable to sleep next to Bacon. Bacon pushes him into his final overdose: bottles of pills and swigs of alcohol. Maybury, living through the AIDS epidemic, drew upon his own experience. As he relates in the Q&A, he transposed his experience from the 1980s of his own boyfriend, Trojan, dying of an overdose in his London flat whilst he was away in Los Angeles shooting a music video, onto Bacon’s life, using it as a lynchpin to invest the film with currency. All around him, Maybury’s friends were dying.
Dyer’s tragedy is familiar, falling into a trope of “Bury Your Gays”. Love is the Devil is never life affirming or endearing. Biopics like I, Olga Hepnarova (2016) walk a delicate line between veracity to historical events and sensitively handling issues of mental health and sexuality. But which stories are told is a choice, for as much as authenticity wants to be held.
Love is the Devil carries visceral and intense sexuality. We see Bacon and Dyer engaged in BDSM; the camera clinically holds on the pair stripping down and taking their clothes off. In animalistic close-ups, sexuality becomes repulsive. As Maybury relates, he wanted to show the “non-beautiful side of homosexual activity”. Model Henrietta Moraes (Annabel Brooks) becomes an object for the camera. Laid bare and naked, we sense vulnerability; the photographer becomes a creep, asking her to accentuate her vagina and butt, zooming inside her, seemingly justified because Bacon lacks attraction to women.
The Colony Room becomes a meeting place for a generation of artists and painters; Maybury used local London art students as extras, whilst lacing Colony regulars with alcohol. Maybury creates a sense of the grotesque, staring through glasses and ashtrays as out-of-focuses lenses, with the same experimentalism Vertov afforded to the patrons of a Moscow bar in Man with a Movie Camera (1929). With Vertov, it felt revolutionary and a neat trick; here, it feels cheap and amateurish, attempting to apply the same techniques to narrative cinema. We stare down the faces of men and women eating live lobster, as Dyer struggles to understand the need for different sets of cutlery, though it were the scathing, bourgeois class critique of an earlier generation. Ancillary female characters in the Colony are never given their due; Muriel Belcher (Tilda Swinton) never has the presence to Swinton’s many other roles, from maternal roles in films like Thumbsucker (2005) and We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) to the rock and roll vampire lover of Only Lovers Left Alive (2013). Swinton can fit into basically any role and make bad movies great, yet struggles to even be recognisable. International locations like New York City never feel authentic, showing the limitations of the TV movie. Dyer stands upon the roof of a hotel about to jump, as worried hotel clerk try to intervene. But the constraints of the hotel feel false, a studio set: Dyer stands in front of the American flag as identifying symbol, cars passing underneath. Actors fail to provide American accents with even a hint of realism.
Setting a film within the queer subculture of 1960s London should underline the film with political undertones. By the late 90s, queerness was still taboo: a marketing technique used by advertisers, yet Section 28 was still in effect, without an equal age of consent, a community reeling from the still very real effects of AIDS. Series like Queer as Folk (1999-2000) proved liberating and confrontational to a generation of queer (and straight) youth. Half a decade earlier, directors like Gus Van Sant and Gregg Araki opened the floodgates within American cinema through the movement dubbed New Queer Cinema. But Love is the Devil struggles to feel as revolutionary as New Queer Cinema’s strongest moments. Victim (1961), reportedly the first film to ever explicitly use the word “homosexual” on film, created a perfect sense of the isolated and underground community in 1960s London, and dangers of blackmail and law enforcement. Bacon’s flat is raided for drugs by police, Bacon displaying openness and brashness, but we never sense any ulterior motive. In the sauna, we sense an encoded queer space for sexual meeting, yet the film never makes this stated.
Perhaps the film’s most interesting aspect is it’s aesthetic. The Marlborough Gallery, on behalf of Bacon’s estate, issued injunctions against the film, disavowing the screenplay and refusing access to Bacon’s studio or use of his artwork. Maybury found this liberating: production designer Adam MacDonald made the most of limited resources, allowing them to “abandon rules of narrative cinema” in favour of the abstract, using what Maybury describes in the Q&A as “celluloid as paint”. Maybury allowed the film to have theatricality, evoking Bacon’s tableaus and triptychs, relying upon the stationary image; as he comments, “the real director of the film is Francis Bacon”.
Naked bodies bathe in blood, leaping through a swimming pool; Bacon, in his studio, turns the canvas into himself, forming internal duality between orange and blue paint. Dyer drunkenly pisses into a painting of a toilet, dripping down in yellow stains, thinking it to be real. The closest we see of Bacon’s own art is through workbooks and boxes of photographs and newspaper clippings Dyer stumbles into; Dyer’s face on his desk stares into him, a source of inspiration. Although we never learn why Bacon is considered a talented painter, we’re given a sense. Limitations of time and space transcend, moving between the interview in the TV studio and the television playing at home, words still playing over in his head. The camera looks down upon Maybury in his bedroom, trapped.
The film’s cinematography pays close attention to symbolism: Bacon sharpens his knife, looking at Dyer in the reflection behind him, as though about to stab him as a serial killer victim. He sits in the photo booth, solemn, framed by lines around him. Bacon conjures a car crash from his own words, a family laying outwards upon tarmac, blood and shards of glass around them as he admires the beauty, positioning Dyer within. Dyer’s internal struggle becomes surreal: he walks down an infinite staircase; falls into the blackness of the void, an ever-decreasing circle, until becoming nothing. The bathroom is inverted as though a stage, red pillars and black interior.
In editing, the film has the late-90s edginess of films like Trainspotting (1996), yet without the same aesthetic effect, a superfluous and out-dated trope. Composer Ryuichi Sakamoto delivers the most transcendent element in its score, embodying the film’s mixed emotions of romance, desire and internal reflections. Although more melodramatic scenes focus too heavily on the piercing screams of the synthesiser, at its best, Sakamoto reaches the beauty of his score to The Revenant (2015).
Love is the Devil has many impressive elements, but Maybury, for all his technical brilliance, struggles to create a compelling portrait of an artist, nor a beautiful queer love story or tragedy. Actors like Jacobi and Swinton are capable of far more with their less repulsive characters. Love is the Devil is of interest, but ultimately disappointing.
How did we get Moonlight? Jenkins might seem a product of the film school generation, but as he relates on Awards Chatter, he studied at Florida State University, the only school he could afford; the film program was run out of a football stadium. Jenkins interned at Telluride, watching films, handing out tickets and making popcorn, meeting filmmakers like D.A. Pennebaker, Lynne Ramsay and David Cronenberg. He worked as assistant on Their Eyes Were Watching God (2005), jaded with the Hollywood system, moving to San Francisco. He was a stagehand and carpenter trying to pay bills, unloading boxes at Banana Republic. Jenkins made Medicine for Melancholy (2008) with people from film school, influenced by Linklater’s Before films, using $15,000 from a friend and paying only 3 people, wanting to “prove to myself that film school wasn’t a fluke.”
Jenkins worked on other projects, becoming a programmer and moderator at Telluride, working on branded content with his largest budgets ever. As Kevin B Lee explores in his video essay Barry Jenkins Before Moonlight, his distinct style and focus upon character begin to emerge, illuminating minority perspectives from the Latina protagonist of Chlorophyl (2011) to the Arab American couple washing flags in a Laundromat in the wake of 9/11 in My Josephine (2003). We sense Jenkins’ entire aesthetic and technical brilliance, through out-of-focus shots and depth of field.
What the fuck are you doing? Why haven’t you made a fucking film?
Producing a film about African Americans in a Miami suburb was always going to be a struggle. Working with Plan B, Brad Pitt’s studio, alongside A24, the studio’s first in-house production, Jenkins had a $1.5 million budget and 25 days. Romanski “ignore[d] the idea that the industry couldn’t make a black, gay movie with no big stars”, with a budget where, as Jenkins describes, “other people can’t fuck with us”; Jenkins couldn’t even afford rehearsals. Jenkins adapted the film from an unproduced play by Tarell McCraney, a cinematic, non-sequential piece, writing the screenplay in 10 days from a hotel room in Brussels. Jenkins felt a personal connection, as though “Tarell took these memories of my memories and put them in a dream state”.
Moonlight is a queer film, a black film, an Oscar winning film and an independent film about drug abuse, poverty, masculinity, mothers and sons. It’s a punchline about how La La Land lost its Oscar, sitting alongside Gone with the Wind (1939), Casablanca (1943), Ben-Hur (1959), The Godfather (1972) and Schindler’s List (1993) and other Best Picture winners. Moonlight deserves it, carrying weight to anyone who was a kid, had a mom, was bullied in high school, had a crush, without sacrificing its specificity as a film about a black queer kid growing up in Liberty City with a drug-addicted mom. Jenkins felt his aggressive empathy could only go so far, but tried to “mine my life for what was true and authentic”.
Studying at FSU, Jenkins found “everybody’s movies looked and sounded the same”, dominated by Wes Anderson knock offs, turning instead to Criterion laserdiscs and the films of Claire Denis and Wong Kar-wai. In early pitches, Jenkins stressed the importance of “Queer Black Cinema”, collating his influences, but found no financiers. For Jenkins, cinema bridges emotion between cultures as a “global art form”; Miami and Hong Kong are not so far apart.
Many of Jenkins’ influences were unconscious. Speaking at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, Jenkins cited the influence of a scene in Beau travail (1999) coming back in the moment of shooting, years after he saw the film.
I go to André [Holland]. He was standing against this wall; he looked like James Baldwin. I was like “bruh, you still got that cigarette?
Moonlight’s triptych structure might seem innovative, delineating each act into its own episode whilst keeping an overarching narrative, but Moonlight’s narrative is linear: the 3-act structure is the most conventional model of narrative storytelling within film. Jenkins took influence from the triptych structure of Three Times (2005), charting relationships across different time periods, leading to “a deeper understanding”. Moonlight’s structure could draw parallels to Boyhood (2014), where Linklater sought a universal portrait of adolescence, filmed in real time over twelve years, yet Linklater spoke largely to the white middle class art school kids he grew up around. Playwright Tarell McCraney felt the film could be more poetic and gritty than Linklater’s approach. Jenkins made each section distinct, refusing to let actors see each other’s work, not wanting Chiron or Kevin “to bear the responsibility of trying to carry the same walking style, the same delivery of lines”.
Moonlight’s most radical aspect might be its visual aesthetic. Working with long-time cinematographer James Laxton, Jenkins knows how to construct visual images. Laxton creates unreality and ethereality through the brightness of lights and subdued lighting, beyond a naturalistic aesthetic to a “dreamlike state”. Jenkins recreated Miami as he remembered it, “super vibrant, super bright, and super colorful” in its “greenery and open sky” and “massive spaces”, relying upon the anamorphic frame. Speaking in Rotterdam, Jenkins argues the naturalism of social realism is itself artificial, pretending the camera isn’t there; Jenkins never hides it, embracing cinema as situated space.
Shooting on the Alexa 235, Jenkins found versatility. Jenkins drew attention to the human face, relying upon “moment[s] between the lines”, allowing actors to “be human”. Like photojournalist and director Khalik Allah, abstracting vocal from the visual in Field Niggas(2015) by framing poverty-stricken minority residents of Harlem in close-up, Jenkins disorients the viewer, shifting between a dissonant 48 and 24fps, seeking an amplified emotional state and intensity where he could “promote those emotions”. Jenkins’ moving camera becomes fluid and uncomfortable, recalling Alan Clarke and Kubrick’s disorienting use of Steadicam. In pink and green hues, colour takes on a symbolic resonance, creating a duality between Chiron and his mother.
Between each chapter, Jenkins utilises repeating leitmotifs, a perfectly organised construction. Jenkins mirrors shots, drawing parallels from images of the controlling tides of the ocean and moon, positioning water and the ocean as a “place of possibility”. Water and nature become insistent: as Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) describes, he “catch[es] thissame breeze” in the hood, that “everybody just wanna feel”. In the final scene, as Jenkins describes in the screenplay, Little locks his gaze “right at us, staring plaintively, plainly, nothing requested, no expectation: just a clear, undisturbed openness”, leading us into the ocean.
I’ve been thinkin’ bout you (You know, know, know)
I’ve been thinkin’ bout you, do you think about me still?
Do ya, do ya?
– Thinkin’ Bout You – Frank Ocean (2012)
Moonlight is a film about identity, between three Chirons, Little (Alex Hibbert), Chiron (Ashton Sanders), and Black (Trevante Rhodes), and three Kevins (Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome, André Holland), including non-professional actors, some recruited from community centers. McCraney sought the film to be a process of discovering the “innermost self” between “the macro, micro, personal and even spiritual”, manifesting within “slivers of moonlight”. Identity construction is an ongoing process, as McCraney continues to evaluate “questions about my own identity and my own self-worth”. Chiron holds his self back, taking the world in yet never speaking, unable to form his identity. As a teenager, he pretends to smoke, yet Kevin can tell it’s a ruse. His name is created and rejected by others. Chiron stresses to Teresa (Janelle Monáe) that his name is no longer Little, yet she tells him he has to earn his name and make it true. Kevin re-christens his name as Black, a name he initially rejects.
As an act of autobiography, speaking in Rotterdam Jenkins argued he “made this film for an audience of two”, but audiences can find empathy in their own soil. Jenkins feels “audiences are actually champing at the bit for really personal unique visions of things”, rather than the directing committees of cinematic universes. But its entire cast and crew were affected: as Jenkins relates on Awards Chatter, Sanders needed a moment to breathe, having issues with his own mom; Monáe knew “cousins who sold drugs [and] cousins dealing with sexual identities”.
McCraney entrusts Jenkins with his own experiences. Blackness and queerness intersect between two marginalised communities, with internal biases. As McCraney comments:
My gayness doesn’t give me any pass. I’ve still had the police pull me out of a car, put guns to my head, lock me in handcuffs and leave me face down in the pouring rain for no reason. […] There’s no gay card that gets you off the hook.
Did any gay man who came of age, as I did, in the era of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and AIDS, think he’d survive to see a version of his life told onscreen?
McCraney comments he “never had a coming out moment”, but “small moments”; Chiron never states his identity. We can read Kevin as bisexual, or bicurious, or in denial, but the film never makes this explicit. It tells as much as it needs within the frame, allowing us to fill in gaps. Jenkins reminds us of the lack of linearity to sexuality: I never came out once. I came out as gay, as andro, as pan, as ace. I feel confident in my identity now, but this might not stay stable.
Jenkins refuses to stylise sexuality, never eroticising Chiron’s experiences. Kevin and Little wrestle as kids in Cherry Park with intimate contact, falling to the ground. As a teenager, Kevin brags, telling Chiron about screwing Samantha in class; in Chiron’s dream, Kevin’s experiences distort amid sounds of ocean waves, to music video logic. As Chiron is jerked off on the beach, Jenkins emotionalises queer sexuality beyond physical acts, amid the waves of the ocean. Speaking with Jerome about the scene, he determined “Chiron had never kissed anybody, period.”
As he describes in the screenplay:
These are waters they’ve never charted, the culmination of invitations they’ve been sending since day one.
As Josh Lee writes, Jenkins is “showing queerness as we recognise it”, not the “forbidden, shadowy sex” of Brokeback Mountain (2005) but “allow[ing] queerness to surface in other ways”, letting queer viewers “reconcile feelings of loss and resentment towards our childhoods, and begin healing in a way that no sex scene could.”
As an asexual, identifying as gay as a teenager, Jenkins’ depiction feels the most honest. My sexuality was a string of awkward handjobs. School was dominated by a culture of pressure, behind half-truths and hyperbole, sexuality an act of performance. Chiron instinctively apologises to Kevin. I still do this to this day. But queerness is never something to apologise for. Kevin accepts him, asking “What you got to be sorry for?” Queerness concealed the odd boyfriend here and there and desperate longing. As university started, sexuality felt an obligation.
As Lee argues, as Black, Chiron builds a “hardened exterior” to survive, retreating within and erasing his own identity. McCraney found the final act of the film difficult to cope with: as Jenkins relates in Rotterdam, after screening the film “he just sat there, staring into space for about twenty minutes”; in the play, Kevin’s phone call was the ending; McCraney “had not reconciled what that relationship was”. Jenkins emphasises sexuality through glance and gesture and the act of making food. Kevin cooks food he’s never able to serving coffee, throwing together black beans, rice and chicken in a fetishised dance. Speaking at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, Jenkins comments that he wanted to “retain the repetition” of the circular narrative of McCraney’s script. The act takes on different meanings, “happen[ing] to us over and over again”; food takes on a paternal function as an “act of nurturing”.
Kevin takes a photo out of his wallet, revealing his family, Samantha as wife; Black never has a chance for a child. Black drives 12 hours for an uneasy reunion, dancing to Barbara Lewis’ Hello Stranger, going back to Kevin’s apartment together, hinting at something, but still shaking. Even as adults, Jenkins plays restraint with sexuality; speaking in The Village Voice, Jenkins comments that the importance is in what Chiron “seemed prepared to accept”, not if anything actually happened. As Lee writes, Chiron’s experience, for the privileged, is “an exaggerated reflection of our own experiences”, whilst “to-scale” for others, as an unarticulated queerness in a culture where HIV is concentrated within black poverty.
Everything black, I don’t want black
I want everything black, I ain’t need black
Some white some black, I ain’t mean black
I want everything black
– The Blacker the Berry – Kendrick Lamar (2015)
Black filmmaking is inherently politicised. Early black filmmaking acted independently through segregated audiences, dislocated through integration, filmmakers like Oscar Micheaux responding to the racism of The Birth of a Nation(1915). Jenkins found inspiration in UCLA’s L.A. Rebellion of the 1970s, “where Spike [Lee] had taken his cues from”. Black cinema seems defined by projects narratives, through the New Black Wave of the 80s and 90s like Boyz n the Hood (1992); in Fresh(1994), we sense uneasy responsibility placed upon young black kids. Spike Lee embraced the ghetto, unapologetically playing to black audiences issues of representation and racism. American History X (1998) provides uneasy counterpoint to ‘hood’ narratives: sympathy is placed in swastika-emblazoned neo-Nazi Danny, following his murder of a black teenager in brutal detail.
Being a black filmmaker carriers a burden. Jenkins found launching a project after Medicine for Melancholy difficult amid recession, studio-owned independent distributors like Paramount Vantage and Warner Independent dissolving; projects with Disney and Focus Features, like Stevie Wonder time travel story Wonderland and his adaptation of Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man falling through. Jenkins sought a project with FSU friend Adele Romanski, producer of Kicks and Morris from America, pitching a film he described as “‘Die Hard’ on the Bay Bridge” to Romanski’s frustration. Black narratives often rely upon microbudgets, with Gimme the Loot (2012) utilising smaller voices within a big city, whilst Tangerine (2015) embraced iPhone cinematography. Fences acted as a passion project for the already established Denzel Washington. Jenkins found allies in directors like Ryan Coogler, Kahlil Joseph and Terence Nance, watching early cuts of the film.
Moonlight is unapologetically black: its characters black, its music black, its identity struggle queer and black in a world where queer black narratives are difficult enough to see even in porn. Film and photography have nullified our vision of black skin, but Jenkins embraces the shirtless black body; fought against a cinematic medium calibrated towards white skin, rejecting powder but using oil to sheen “moist, beautiful black skin”.
Central to Moonlight’s racial identity is its musical identity. In the opening credits, over A24’s logo, Jenkins immediately assaults us with blackness with Every Nigger is a Star, though it were the 20th Century Fox fanfare in Star Wars, offering cues to the film’s tone. Jenkins wanted to create “a very aggressive, radicalized depiction of my version of a black experience where I grew up” in Blaxploitation’s vein, bringing “art house to the hood” without code-switching or concessions. As Kambole Campbell comments, Black’s embrace of chopped and screwed R&B reflects his upbringing; hip-hop, as storytelling platform, has a “complex relationship with homosexuality and images of masculinity”, aided by the reflexive hum of Nicholas Brittel’s score.
Little finds peace dancing; as Jenkins describes in the screenplay, “the first time all film, it looks like he might be having fun” in the rhythm and silliness. Chiron undergoes repentance for his sexuality in a playground fight with Kevin, becoming performance as other kids cheer, framed in circular motion. Like Marieme’s fight in the Parisian banlieue in Girlhood (2014), it becomes a show of strength neither party is entirely willing. McCraney comments black hypermasculinity is an “emasculation”, craving attention within uneasy domestic situations.
Masculinity builds through vocabulary, oscillating between violence and empowerment in “faggot” and “nigga”; words, yet powerful. Queerness manifests as masculinity as kids compare dick size: it’s ugly; it’s a peanut; it’s Freddy Kruger. In one of the most powerful scenes, over a glass of juice, Little asks Juan (Mahershala Ali) and Teresa (Janelle Monáe) what a faggot is. Juan disconnects word and identity, implicitly reiterating it’s okay to be queer: Chiron can be gay, but “you don’t have to let nobody call you a faggot.” Little asks how he knows, and Juan doesn’t have an answer; he just thinks. The scene becomes a confessional within open space, barriers lifted; Little asks if him and Paula (Naomie Harris) do drugs. He nods.
As a teenager, Chiron endures constant bullying and taunts from Terrel (Patrick Decile): in Mr Pierce’s class, he reiterates that “gay niggas” croak of AIDS from white blood cell deficiency; implies Chiron is on his period. On the street, Terrel defends his heterosexuality, whilst attacking Paula’s sexual availability. Terrel’s attacks becomes almost flirting: he blows kisses and smiles, threatens to fuck his ass up, points out his “tight ass jeans”. Queerness became a target; pulled aside by the teacher, or threatened for fighting back, but without a solution to make bullying stop with half-hearted apologies. High school was a daily, isolating struggle, without anyone to talk to. Chiron conceals unvoiced emotion: he cries so much, he might “just turn into drops”. Black performs masculinity, having gone through juvie. Black doesn’t drink, refusing wine, choosing water; Kevin asks who he’s “doin’”, and he isn’t. Black and Kevin form duality, spending time in prison and in an exhausting job in Jimmy’s Eastside Diner, not “makin’ more than shoe money”, but content; Black has tried to block out his past life. Kevin escaped the streets; Black can’t escape it.
Race involves constant negotiation. As Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in Between the World and Me (2015), “the black body is the clearest evidence that America is the work of men”, disembodied as an act of terrorism. As Mahersha Ali comments, he requires “dexterity”, editing himself “in order to try and not draw attention” through how he walks, talks and dresses; even within the Muslim community, Ali faces controversy. As Coates describes of his childhood in Baltimore, “fully one third of my brain was concerned with […] the culture of the streets”.
Juan becomes a father figure, in the streets of Liberty City in a condemned crackhouse. As Hilton Als writes, “Juan is looking at his past while the boy looks up at a future he didn’t know he could have”. For Als, Juan subverts “Negro hyperbole”; rather than making Little a pimped drug runner, he feeds and nourishes. As Jenkins relates at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, our image of the black male is tainted, not controlled by black men; Jenkins refused so subvert the stereotype, but acknowledges its currency as something that walk[s] in with the audience into the cinema”. As Charles Bramesco writes, Jenkins imbues “stock figures native to fiction about poverty” with “finely shaded humanity”. Speaking at TIFF, McCraney acknowledges Juan derives from his own mentor, a drug dealer nicknamed Blue he misses dearly, who taught him how to ride a bike, admiring his “generosity of spirit”.
Ali appeared in Moonlight on days off from Luke Cage (2016), but his shadow dominates. Even in smaller roles in films like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), Ali elevates. In the cool, sea breeze, relating being a “lil’ bad ass”, Juan reminds Little that black people “was the first ones on this planet”. As Ali comments, Juan “sees a little piece of himself” in Little because of his otherness; as a dark skinned Cuban, Juan “identified with black culture” and tried to assimilate, without being African American.
Jenkins took advantage of bad weather as he moves the camera along with the waves of the ocean, water hitting the lens, working with Laxton to create a breathtaking sequence. As he acknowledges at the BFI, the scene is a “baptism”; “African-Americans in the Atlantic Ocean” is a powerful image, swimming “out into the abyss”. Little’s relationship with Juan embodies black ritual, what Wesley Lowery describes in They Can’t Kill Us All (2016) as the “talk”, a “set of warnings” passed down generationally of “self-awareness”, acknowledging one’s own embodiment as a “threat”. Chiron develops an awareness of his own black identity. As Coates reflects in Between the World and Me:
I understood the grip of my mother’s hand. She knew that the galaxy itself could kill me, that all of me could be shattered and all of her legacy spilled upon the curb like bum wine.
Chiron’s narrative is cyclical: he becomes Juan, driving a Chevy Impala with a BLACK license plate, adopting fake gold teeth, a crown on the dashboard, peddling drugs, unable to escape and construct his own identity. But Black realises his own construction: in the diner, he takes his teeth out; meeting his mother again, he cries. Black reaches into both theological and sociological debate: is his fate predestined, written into sins of the father, or is he able to escape it and perform his own self? Jenkins leaves open symbols and ambiguity, confronting us only with Chiron’s limited perspective, never experiencing Juan and Paula beyond his own world. As McCraney reflects, Chiron’s transformation is “emulation”, attempting to become “the thing he craved or loved” yet “missing out on the fundamental thing you want most”.
Jenkins embodies a rarely seen in cinema; film seems more interested in the water resorts of Tampa. Jenkins wanted to make the film for “people who might’ve grown up under similar circumstances”, depicting Liberty City as it actually is, chipped paint and cinderblocks, beyond the San Francisco of Medicine for Melancholy. Jenkins’ childhood was cramped, with “seven or eight of us in a two-bed apartment”, often going without food. Paula acts as a composite between McCraney and Jenkins’ mothers; McCraney’s late mother suffered from HIV, whilst Jenkins’ was an addict and nurse, never knowing who his real dad was. McCraney wrote the script in 2003 in the aftermath of his mother’s death and his rejection from Yale. As he tells the BFI, the play became a cathartic diary:
My mother had just died, I had no school to go to, no job to go to, and I was just sort of stuck, in a way, so I sort of created this thing, and it was full of pain; it was full of me trying to recount how I got to this painful moment, how I got to this guilt moment.
Harris was conflicted on Paula’s representation, feeling there were enough “one-dimensional black women in the media”, but, as she tells at TIFF, found she “had so much judgement” around crack addiction, not seeing the “beating heart”, self-hatred and the “demon” within Paula. In the hallway, Jenkins sought to symbolise distance that cannot be traversed between Chiron and his mother, a space of darkness. Chiron and Paula maintain an uneasy relationship, through poverty, addiction and sexuality, seeking time both away from and with Chiron. Desperate for money, she forces Chiron to give her the last of his, because she is his flesh and blood. Teresa becomes a friendly figure to Chiron, teaching what his mother can’t: allowing him to stay any time, showing how to make a bed. Speaking in the commentary, invoking Eisenstein, Jenkins argues “information is in the cut”, creating an understated sense of Juan’s “sudden absence” and its effect on Paula and Teresa’s relationship. As Black, he visits her in rehab in Atlanta; Paula, in desperation and anguish, acknowledges she “fucked it all up”, and that Chiron can escape the streets.
Chiron becomes trapped by institutions supposed to protect him. As Coates writes in Between the World and Me, society only protects some with “a safety net of schools, government-backed home loans, and ancestral wealth”, whilst allowing a black “infirmity before the criminal forces of the world”. Principal Williams lends a sympathetic ear to Chiron, insisting he isn’t being punished, doing nothing wrong, suggesting he identify the culprit to the fight and press charges; Chiron has no response but silence. Chiron’s school emanates a sense of entrapment. As Jenkins describes in the screenplay:
This building did not exist a decade ago; its older, decrepit predecessor demolished and replaced with this vision built most in the image of a prison, constructed by the same money and resources used to erect those spaces and ultimately with the same intention: to keep all who enter watched and in.
Chiron gives into impulse, neither in right nor wrong, voicing the violence teenage selves wished to perform, breaking a chair on Terrel’s head in retaliation, paying the price in handcuffs within a classroom built upon fighting. As Coates reflects, “the streets and the schools” are “arms of the same beast” in a culture of fear and violence, falling back into the streets. Speaking of the scene in a broadcast interview in The Atlantic, Coates reflects on how Chiron is now in the system, punished for attempting to stand up and protect himself. Jenkins was inspired by a real-life incident he witnessed on the Metro, as a group of friends tripped each other over; the kids were never the same again. Jenkins wonders if the film can allow the kid to “understand what was lost in that moment”, still feeling guilt over his subjectivity.
Black cinema’s position is redefined from the visibility gained from the protests surrounding Ferguson and the Black Lives Matter movement, revealing inequalities present for decades. As he tells the BFI, Jenkins feels conflicted over the film’s temporal position, developed “under a completely different regime”, carrying different currency under a new president. As Adam Shatz argues, unlike the historical 12 Years a Slave (2014) and Parker’s The Birth of a Nation, Moonlight is not an act of protest, but affirmation.
As years pass, cinema’s space inhabiting Ferguson’s spaces is shifting, Warner Bros developing a biopic on Brown’s life. Through protracted production cycles, Ferguson’s impact is felt more deeply through the realms of documentary, comics and fiction, with series like Material (2015) and Black (2016-17) responding to events and seeking empowerment. In the young adult novel The Hate U Give (2017), Angie Thomas closes the gap between Tupac and our current generation, showing he still has lessons for us to learn. Short film pieces like Stop (2014) allow us to witness the indignities of racial profiling on a young black athlete.
I Am Not Your Negro offers perhaps our closest cinematic post-Ferguson narrative, juxtaposing the words of Baldwin against news images of Ferguson protests, expressing continual relevancy. But in shaping a “popular narrative”, Peck divorces its context from the 1960s and diminishes Baldwin’s queer identity. But black revolt carries forth through other ways: in Chi-Raq (2015), Lee empowers black women against male sexuality whilst attacking the prevalence of gun violence, establishment use of the confederate flag and the double-bind between gangs and the police. In Get Out (2017), we sense the fear of erasure of culture and assimilation into white neighbourhoods, where black bodies become fetishized and police violence a looming threat.
Though Moonlight never focuses explicitly upon institutional police brutality or other forms of racism or oppression, it remains insightful with clues to how the black community is perceived and perceives itself, beyond heavy-handed white-serving narratives.
Rainer Werner Fassbinder was a genius of New German Cinema, making 43 films in his 37 year life. As Charlie Fox writes in This Young Monster (2017), he was a “compulsive”; in his cocaine addiction, he felt an immense energy, experiencing a “shorter lifespan significantly more intensely [and] more imaginatively” within an unstable film industry. Recently, the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation have prepared new restorations, allowing his films to be seen by new audiences thanks to the efforts of the Criterion Collection, Arrow Academy and cinema re-releases. Fassbinder, often starring in his own films, portrays Franz Bieberkopf, carnival act Fox the Speaking Head, symbolically reflecting Fassbinder’s own persona. In its style, Fox and His Friends is undeniably Fassbinder, from his melodrama to the composition of the frame.
Although American cinema struggled to explicitly depict queer identity beyond subtext until the 1960s and 70s, in part through the Hays Code, German cinema tackled issues of homosexuality since its inception. As Robert Beachy describes in Gay Berlin: Birthplace of a Modern Identity (2014), Different from the Others (1919) had been a box office success on its release, before protests by Protestant, Catholic and anti-Semitic groups led to censorship. Beyond the effeminate stereotypes of American cinema, Weimar cinema became caught in a cultural zeitgeist through the aufklärungsfilm genre, invoking queer relationships in films like Sex in Chains and Pandora’s Box (1929), and Mädchen in Uniform (1931), many of whose cast and crew became victims of the Holocaust.
As Beachy argues, Berlin as a city had been central to academic discourse around homosexuality as a distinct identity beyond individual sexual acts, through the work of people like Karl Maria Kertbeny and Magnus Hirschfield, altering understanding of gender identity in the process. By the 1970s, Paragraph 175, a law enabling a culture of blackmail and prostitution within queer subculture only worsened through the Nazi Party, remained in West Germany’s constitution, demarcated difference between queer and straight despite some reforms. Fassbinder creates a portrait of the subculture within this: Franz becomes viewed as a prostitute by Eugen, cruising at public bathrooms, yet Franz rejects this identity. Fassbinder represents the unity of community, gathered together between drag performers, young men, older men and English-speaking American servicemen, in everyone’s own uniqueness.
Fassbinder explored masculinity throughout his work, like Hans’ destructive alcoholism in The Merchant of Four Seasons (1971), caught in an abusive relationship with his wife. Fox and His Friends carries these themes forward. Franz is not a likeable protagonist, becoming a manifestation of Fassbiner’s “uniquely loathsome personal aura”. Forming a bond with Eugen, Franz rapidly elevates their relationship to sex, without time to think. Franz finds himself drawn to Eugen’s father, Wolf, enjoying a degree of privilege as Wolf accepts Franz on instinct, saying that he “like[s] him much better than the last one”, giving Franz an unofficial role as a bookbinder. Franz’s sister Hedwig becomes torn apart by his actions, leaving Franz alone by the end of the film. In one scene, we see her disassociation from the entire subculture, bemoaning the lack of heterosexual men in a party built upon diverging relationships, jealousy and the sexual gaze. All men screw the same men.
Fox and His Friends is filled with full-frontal nudity, yet Fassbinder is clinical, refusing to eroticise the male body, presenting desexualised flaccid genitals in a swimming pool. Yet Fassbinder keeps a continual sense of sexual gaze, as we sense eternal desire and unfulfilment. Going on holiday to Marrakech in Morrocco, Eugen and Franz seek further sexual fulfilment. Franz sets his gaze on a Tunisian migrant worker, portrayed by El Hedi ben Salem, one of Fassbinder’s former lovers, as he and Eugen follow him, inviting him back to their Holiday Inn as they take a taxi. Taking a seat at the hotel restaurant, the pair are caught in a dialogue split by cultural boundaries, trying to take him back to their room. Fassbinder focuses upon eyes and silence, creating an unsettling atmosphere. As they walk to Franz and Eugen’s room, ben Salem’s character is barred, because he is an Arab, experiencing internal discrimination within his own country.
Fassbinder goes beyond the subculture to explore themes of capitalism and class. Society never rejects Franz for his queerness, but for his class position. Franz exists as a social outcast, his carnival show broken up by police leaving him with an identity he cannot adapt to. Franz is a swindler, betting on the lottery every day, racing in Eugen’s car to hand in his lottery ticket at the last possible minute, bartering with the store clerk; stealing money from a local florist. Franz is elevated to high society, receiving a 500,000 marks jackpot, never deserving it. He rebuilds a new life with Eugen, making an apartment for themselves, antique furniture juxtaposed against modern aesthetics. In his new life, he becomes in constant search of new loans to only further is wealth and physical ownership.
Franz’s identity becomes false. Eugen tries to force him to adapt to the conventions of high society. Going to a French restaurant, Eugen must explain the illegible menu to him, ordering the food for him as onlookers judge in disgust. Eugen bemoans Franz’s lack of cutlery, telling him the dessert fork is on “the left of your plate” as he attempts to eat a cake whole. At the table, he performs fairground tricks. He goes to tailors, trying on expensive clothes, using the iconic Fassbinder reflection shot, projecting front and back in dialogue simultaneously. Yet Franz can never escape his iconic, emblazoned denim jacket. Franz and Eugen’s holiday is booked at random, with no preplanning or worldly knowledge, based on brief descriptions from the travel agent. Franz finds a works for Wolf without any skills, mucking up a print run, never realising he wasn’t actually employed.
In the film’s most emotional scenes, Leonard Cohen’s Bird on the Wire becomes Franz’s personal anthem.
Like a bird on the wire
Like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried in my way to be free
Rejected by Eugen, taking control of their flat, Franz undergoes a devolution, ostracised by his own sister. For all he tries, he cannot move beyond his origins. Selling his modern car at a dealer’s, Franz is met by casual anti-Semitism, joking that he isn’t a Jew as he swindles Franz, buying the car for peanuts within a crumbling market.
In the closing scene, Franz becomes a symbol of Fassbinder, a corpse laying in a subway station, overdosing on valium prescribed by his doctor. Franz’s worldly possessions are taken, a group of kids stealing his iconic jacket and his money. As Charlie Fox writes of Fassbinder, “death was waiting for him, smoking a cigarette in the alley.” For all of Fassbiner’s “Dionysiac excess”, Franz and Fassbinder could not escape death.
During the 1980s, George Harrison’s short-lived HandMade Films provided a minor industry for British independent cinema, from comedies like Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979) and Time Bandits (1981) to dramas like The Long Good Friday (1980) and Mona Lisa (1986). Even on its £1 million budget, Withnail struggled to get made. Producer Denis O’Brien lacked confidence, not seeing it as humorous. A few days into production, filming was cancelled; Robinson walked off. Many of scenes were paid for out of the cast and crew’s own pockets, not acquiring permission when the car drives around Finchley.
Akin to directors like Mike Mills, Robinson uses cinema as autobiographical narrative, adapting his experience living in Camden in the mid-to-late 1960s with housemates Vivian MacKerrell, Michael Feast and David Dundas, condensed to the space of two weeks. Working as an actor in the 1960s and 70s on films like Romeo and Juliet (1968) and Private Road (1971), Robinson uses cinema because he has a story to tell. As he relates in The Peculiar Memories Of Bruce Robinson (1999), he seeks primacy of authorial voice, wanting absolute creative control, aghast at changes to Fat Man and Little Boy (1989) and Jennifer 8 (1992). Robinson struggles to even allow actors to improvise, with specificity over performance.
Withnail (Richard E Grant) and I (Paul McGann) are unemployed thespians, caught between drama school and achieving acting dreams at the cusp between the 1960s and 70s and their 20s and 30s. In their rat-infested flat, the pair struggles to get by, between antique furniture and postcards on the mirror, suggesting they’ve travelled at least somewhere. A globe sits alone; a union jack is wrapped around a lampshade; I drinks coffee out of a soup bowl, in absence of a clean mug. Without heating and a broken thermostat, Withnail walks around in underwear, modesty protected only by his coat.
In the bathroom, as I shaves, they eat fish and chips, turning the toilet into a bin. Behind him, a poster of Harold Lloyd in Safety Last! (1923) hangs, bathed in anarchic specks of multi-coloured paint from the childlike door and yellow pipes. The pair are in constant battles with the landlord, dealer Danny (Ralph Brown) keeping the checks for himself. Sam Bain, co-creator of Peep Show (2003-15), took influence from the basic sitcom format, framing a dysfunctional male friendship and their interactions with their drug dealer. Driving to Monty (Richard Griffiths)’s house in a beat down Jaguar with a light torn off, navigating the motorways at night with one working window wiper, I can barely park his car vertically. McGann notes on the commentary on the Anchor Bay DVD he had only known how to drive for 3 weeks; Robinson often doubled for him, reality meeting fiction.
Like with Trainspotting (1996), the viewer finds joy in protagonists navigating their addictions. In the opening, as I lights a kettle on an open flame, we sense paranoia and anxiety in insomniac bloodshot eyes. Withnail and I drink in the middle of the day, buying multiple rounds at once.
Grant, a teetotaller, method acted, throwing up violently on an expensive rug. Robinson writes drunk, taking a couple of glasses of wine before injecting his dialogue with serious energy. Withnail has become one of cinema’s most iconic drunks, drinking lighter fluid in pursuit of more alcohol. Driving down the motorway, shot on the M25 two days before it opened, I awakens in a daze, finding Withnail driving between lanes. In desperation, evading the breathalyser by switching his piss with a child’s “uncontaminated urine”, he pretends not to be drunk, telling the officers he’s “only had a few ales”. Danny, in his radically cool sunglasses, seeks ways to distribute merchandise, stuffing shoe soles and plastic babies. Withnail and I arrive home to find Danny and Presuming Ed (Eddie Tagoe) as squatters, smoking the most powerful weed in the western hemisphere.
As a thespian, Withnail imagines himself the greatest actor who ever lived. In the Penrith cottage, he brandishes sword and cigarette, wanting to be the best Hamlet, one of Robinson’s favourite plays. Atop the mountain, he yells out to the town below him, “I’m gonna be a star!”, an image Robinson attempted to recreate with Grant in the final scene of How to Get Ahead in Advertising (1989). Yet Withnail is selective, refusing to shadow a part in The Seagull (1896), speaking to his agent from a telephone booth with frustration. Uncle Monty asks I if he’s published, keeping a constant diary of events; Robinson wrote the unpublished novel that became Withnail back in 1969. I’s worldview is a literary one, expecting villagers to be drinking cider in the garden like in a H.E. Bates novel, unable to escape books, carrying everything from Journey’s End (1928) to David Copperfield (1850) and Against Nature (1884).
Adopting a performance identity, Grant and McGann touch upon their experience as actors, playing actors, played by characters based on real people who were indeed actors. Withnail and I adopt a dishevelled Camden identity that doesn’t quite fit them; Withnail walks around the mountains, seeking a pseudonym to escape into. In The Mother Black Cap, he creates an Irish accent and fictitious wife when arguing with a patron. Escaping to Penrith, they play roles as journalists as location scouts, unable to understand those around them. Withnail receives a free round, convincing the drunk elderly bartender he served in the forces. In one of the film’s most hilarious scenes, they drunkenly adopt the roles of multi-millionaire entrepreneurs, planning to install a jukebox amid pensioners during afternoon tea, as I scoffs down another scone.
Inspired by a real holiday Robinson went on with Michael Feast, the pastoral landscape becomes actively hostile against them. Withnail and I are fish out of water, yet they were out of water in London. Arriving at the house, I uses a lantern to find his way around. With no heating or food, they acquire logs and a chicken from a farmer, throttling and gutting it for themselves, often left with only a plate of vegetables as they try to find something for their “pot”. Away from their life of drugs, they try and find new ways of living, awoken in the morning by birdsong, putting on a cap and walking stick, using plastic bags as Wellingtons. Monty tries to show the delights of the country as they go on walks, yet I can’t begin to imagine romanticised pastoral life.
Receiving the lead part, I undergoes rites of passage, adopting a new hat and shorter haircut. Withnail is unable to escape squalor, caught between Danny and Presuming Ed as he chants. I avoids the entire culture, refusing a joint or swig of Withnail’s paper bag of wine. Unlike the original ending, where Withnail kills himself with his shotgun, this sequence is far more powerful. Departing in the rain at Regent’s Park, Withnail adopts “the Dane” wholeheartedly, rehearsing his soliloquy as the credits roll amid the wolves. Withnail’s future seems bleak; we know he’s going to die, whilst I has a future. Danny’s drug-blazing skull tattoo might as well be predicting his own demise.
[I] can’t believe Vivian is dead. He got cancer of the throat and they tore his voice out. And the fellow I’d always thought of as being the biggest coward I’d ever met materialized into the bravest bastard I’d ever known.
In the final months of 1969, the film captures a world in upheaval. The soundtrack is littered with music: a King Curtis rendition of Procol Haram’s A Whiter Shade of Pale in the opening, While My Guitar Gently Weeps, and Jimi Hendrix’s Voodoo Child and All Along the Watchtower, the most expensive yet rewarding aspects of the film. As a wrecking ball demolishes a building to All Along the Watchtower, we see the shifting landscape, the city and country remapped in post-war degradation. Robinson places us at the end of what Danny dubs “the greatest decade in the history of mankind”, before the death of Hendrix and Morrison and a new music scene and counterculture.
Robinson also creates political critique, invoking carries classist undertones: Withnail acquired his tailored suit from Saville Row, whilst Monty only accepts Eton as a place of study. As Withnail and I drunkenly threaten a local teashop with corporatisation, he tackles the destructive effects of capitalism and market liberation in the 1980s. Even Danny touches anti-establishment feeling, comparing the effects of drugs to politics. I sits in a café reading a newspaper in paranoia; Robinson attempts to confront tabloid sensationalism, just as with the twisted marketing promises of How to Get Ahead in Advertising, and the televised images of war in his screenplay to The Killing Fields (1984). I stares closely at an article about Dawn Langley Simmons, a trans woman, whilst judging the woman eating an egg sandwich in front of him, as though she could be the same person; he looks over to the person next to him, reading a News of the World article on a “Nude Au Pair’s Secret Life”.
Perhaps the film’s most controversial element is Uncle Monty, played by Griffiths over a decade before Vernon Dursley as pure camp, acquiring a house of extravagance of paintings, busts, a furnished sofa, endless books and a tightly groomed moustache. His cottage is just as extravagant, with paintings of tsars and expensive bedposts. Monty speaks in double entendre, and gets in strops as his cat becomes a nuisance. Monty likes “firm young carrot[s]”, not petunias; he doesn’t like “touch[ing] meat until it’s cooked”. According to McGann on the commentary, Griffiths was concerned about this portrayal because of his gay friends.
Robinson tries to present the vulnerability of being a young actor, inspired by the abusive behaviour directed towards him by Franco Zeffirelli during Romeo and Juliet. Monty maintains his gaze on I, flirting constantly. Preparing luncheon, he hands him a woman’s apron, trying to bend over him. Monty is a rapist, refusing to accept rejection. He asks if I is a “sponge”, a line lifted directly from Zeffirelli. I repeatedly tells Monty he’s “terribly tired”, yet Monty enters his room in the middle of the night unannounced, blackmailing I. Monty adopts his queerness and abuse as costume, applying blue and red eye shadow to his face. He tries to convince I he’s homosexual; Withnail “need never know”, taking off his dressing gown in a sense of entitlement. Monty is self-aware of his abusiveness, saying he must have him “even if it must be burglary.”
What is so uncomfortable about Monty is not that he is a dated and offensive stereotype. It’s because it’s so familiar. Even within queer and safe spaces, abuse still goes on. Rape is a systemic issue, too often justified, defended through personal desire. Monty’s sexuality is complicated against a culture where it’s “society’s crime”, without support structures or open partners, recently decriminalised yet socially taboo. But Monty’s entitlement cannot excuse rape.
Withnail and I are thespians, carrying inherent queerness; I often plays to femininity, drying himself with a pink towel. Yet the film plays gay panic, within culturally internalised homophobia. In the urinals, I reads graffiti saying “fuck arses” amid the “Kilroy was here” carvings in the wall, running from the pub in fear of being raped as a patron calls him a “ponce”. At the cottage at night, they fear the sounds of a village poacher arriving, sharpening his knife; it turns out to be Monty, just as terrifying, wanting to leave the house as quickly as possible. Withnail and I become laced with homoerotic subtext, sharing a bad in fear in underwear, coats laid on the bed to give warmth, evoking a comic convention of Morecambe and Wise. In Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987), a similar scene is played, as Neal fears his hand is resting on a “pillow”.
Withnail and I must perform queerness to avert Monty’s advances, emphasising monogamy and faithfulness, grabbing Withnail by the waist as he takes him upstairs, creating a cover story. Monty treats them as a couple, holding their hands as he calls them “my boys!” Withnail crafts a yarn to Monty that I was a “toilet trader” on Tottenham Court Road. Yet I’s indignation is not at Monty for being a rapist, but at Withnail, for the mere suggestion he “tell him I love you”.
McGann would be cast as the Eighth Doctor, and there’s a sheer joy to what could have been as he interacts with the Shalka Doctor. I manifests enough Doctor-esque qualities it’s easy to see why McGann was cast: his pacifism, telling Withnail not to “point guns at people”, avoidance of drugs, humanity, introspection. Even Withnail and I’s wardrobes carry a Doctor-esque quality, from Withnail’s long coat and scarf to I’s leather jacket. Yet for all of its problematic invoking of queer stereotypes, Withnail & I remains a wonderful, instantly quotable experience, a cult film for all the right reasons.