March 19, 2011

Queer Review: Cabaret (1972)

Director: Bob Fosse
Writers: Jay Presson Allen. Based upon the works of Joe Masteroff, John Van Druten, and Christopher Isherwood.
Cast: Liza Minnelli, Michael York, Helmut Griem, Joel Grey, Fritz Wepper.

Cabaret was credited in The Celluloid Closet as being the first Hollywood movie to openly celebrate the gay lifestyle. My understanding is that in the early seventies, merely having a gay character made a movie notable. Unfortunately though, however notable it might have been back in the day, the only reason for watching Caberet now is for historical interest, as this is not exactly a great movie. For myself, I did not find the story or the characters exactly compelling and only a couple of lines of dialog would need to be changed for almost all of the gay content to be eliminated.

Set in Germany during the Nazi's rise to power, the story centers around English Professor Brian Roberts (Michael York) who is living in Berlin, where he becomes the roommate of cabaret performer Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli). In spite of Roberts allegedly being gay, the two fall for each other. Complications arise in the form of Maximilian von Heune (Helmut Griem). Sally meets Maximilian by chance and when discovering he is a Baron, decides he can make her a movie star. Both she and Brian end up falling for him, which turns into the main source of drama. While these events take place, a friend of Brian, Fritz Wendel (Fritz Wepper) is struggling with his relationship with his Jewish girlfriend.

The Queering
As I suggested earlier, Cabaret has almost no queer content. Brian claims that he is gay to Sally and later that he had sex with Maxmilian but it does not take a lot of persuasion on her part before Brian ends up having sex with her. Also, while there are a few transvestite performers, their screen time is limited to a few scenes.

Most of the time while watching Cabaret I was trying to fend off boredom. I never found myself caring for the characters or their plights. Liza Minnelli shows some energy on occasion and Michael York has some chemistry with Helmut Griem, but otherwise the acting is nothing to rave about. The musical numbers have a certain energy to them, but they only seem tangential to the main plot itself and that their sole reason for existing is that otherwise the film would become a complete bore.

This is actually the biggest problem I had with the movie, none of the disparate elements come together to form a compelling narrative. The setting features the rise of the most dangerous and influential political party of the 20th Century, but the Nazi's never feel like a real threat. Many elements of the movie are like this. Like Brian's suggestions of being gay, so much of what could been used to create a greater sense of urgency or drama is toned down to the point where only a bland shell remains. The ultimate effect is akin to watching a music video with the volume turned off.

Ultimately, I can only recomend Caberat for those who are interested in the history of cinema and/or the evolution of how queer characters are presented on film. It's not a terrible movie, merely one that I would describe as mostly uninspired.

The Rating:

March 12, 2011

Queer Review: She Hate Me (2004)

She Hate Me
Director: Spike Lee
Writers: Spike Lee and Michael Genet. Based upon the book by Michael Genet.
Cast: Anthony Mackie, Kerry Washington, Ellen Barkin, Woody Harrelson

She Hate Me can be considered a lesser effort by Spike Lee, but even one of his lesser effort stands head and shoulders above nearly everything else. Like many other Spike Lee films, She Hate Me has attracted it's fair share of controversy, the label of homophobic being among the more common.

John Armstrong (aka Jack) (Anthony Mackie) is the youngest Vice President of the biotech company that he works for, which is developing a cure for AIDS. When Jack finds out the company is engaged in an elaborate Enron type scandal that was concocted by the CEO Leland Powell (Woody Harrelson), he informs the authorities. This results in Jack being fired from his job and his bank account frozen. In order to maintain his upper class lifestyle, Jack finds himself turning to an unusual form of prostitution - impregnating lesbians who are willing to shell out $10,000 - a career started after being approached by his ex-girlfriend, Fatima (Kerry Washington).

The Queering
Controversial and provocative are two ways of describing pretty much any Spike Lee endeavor. Lee is never one to hold anything back, and She Hate Me is no exception. The opening credits are not even finished before there are deliberate jabs at President George Bush and the Enron disaster and later there are several sequences depicting the events surrounding the Watergate scandal.

The biggest controversy that I'm aware of relates to the treatment of the lesbian characters. Naturally, this refers to the fact that the lesbians in this movie all end up sleeping with Jack. However, there is more depth here, than simple hetero male fantasizing though. While events start out on the silly side, they become more serious as the plot progresses. At the end, Jack finds himself facing the consequences of his actions. Furthermore, the film is sympathetic to the lesbians who wish desperately to be moms and shows the difficulties any gay couple that wishes to become parents must face.

Underneath it all, Lee has a few messages to preach, but at this point in his career, should anyone be surprised? Spike Lee includes messages in his movies, the way Michael Bay does explosions, loud and all over the place. For She Hate Me Lee has several targets, including George W. Bush and Enron. Plus there's also references to the fate of Frank Willis - the security guard who exposed the Watergate Scandal and died penniless - a fate that Jack finds himself facing as well. However, the final product is a bit of a muddle. Whereas Lee has managed to explore complex thematic material before in the past while still managing to make his underlying themes perfectly clear, here he fails miserably.

On the other hand, from a strictly technical perspective, there are few directors who can compete with Spike Lee. There is some nice cinematography, in particular take note of an early shot early on where a character is looking straight up into the sky. Anthony Mackie gives a strong performance and is ably supported by the rest of the cast.

Recommended primarily for those who have enjoyed Spike Lee's previous efforts as the unfocused thematic material does not entirely diminish the final product. However, this ultimately can be enjoyed by anyone who will keep an open mind while viewing.

The Rating

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