Tsuyoshi Shoji’s“Old Narcissus” may draw its inspiration from the Narcissus myth. But it’s doubtful previous interpretations of the myth included erotic spanking.
70-ish Kaoru Yamazaki is a successful children’s book author who hires handsome 25-year-old escort Leo for an erotic spanking session. Yet that supposed one-and-done job soon turns into a life changing relationship for these two gay Japanese men from decidedly different generations.
The individual needs that keep these two men in each other’s orbit are revealed gradually. Yamazaki cherishes Leo’s youth and beauty, reminiscent of the author’s younger self. Leo, in turn, needs the older man to fill the father figure-sized hole in his life.
As the film progresses, the personal tragedies creating these main characters’ needs stand exposed. Yamazaki let his internalized homophobia kill his relationship with former flame Mikki. Leo never knew parental love thanks to losing his father at a young age and continual friction with his mother.
The present day crises facing these two gay men ironically involve solutions which the other person lacks the power to give. The artistically blocked author can’t reclaim his youth or slow the progress of his possibly worsening prostate cancer by telling others Leo’s his boyfriend. The escort’s fears of plunging into domestic partnership with his boyfriend Hayato can’t be calmed by using Yamazaki’s lonely existence as a reference point.
To its credit, “Old Narcissus” does offer brief glimpses of the generational change in Japanese society regarding gays. Yamazaki’s father badmouthed art-making as a “sissy” activity and forced his son to become a good baseball player. Hayato’s family, by contrast, instantly accepted Hayato’s boyfriend after meeting him for the first time. Legal recognition of a gay relationship with such benefits as hospital visitation and inheritance availability via a simple City Hall application process was something unavailable in Yamazaki’s time. On the other hand, having these benefits geographically limited to just the ward Leo resides in indicates Japan still has a long way to go towards full LGBTQ+ equality. An offering of a pair of rainbow flag pins, though, does give reason for hope.
However, “Old Narcissus” shies away from any sort of full-bodied critique of Japan’s still-evolving attitudes towards gays. Yamazaki’s main conflicts aren’t with the legacy of his father’s toxic masculinity. Instead, they’re with such personal problems as publisher pressure to put out a new book and his denial of his age. The only reason offered for Leo’s reluctance to become Hayato’s domestic partner seems to be cold feet.
As the reader will have guessed from the background music and the quirks of the characters, Tsuyoshi emphasizes a more sentimental approach to his film’s story. Add into the mix story beats seen in earlier (and better) road movies, such as Yamazaki’s inevitable reunion with former flame Mikki, and the overall impression left by “Old Narcissus” is generally pleasant but forgettable. Had there been more fantasy sequences such as a spank which figuratively shatters Yamazaki’s body, the assessment would be far more celebratory.
- D. Smith’s Sundance award-winning documentary “Kokomo City” delivers a fabulous cinematic clap back to haters of its central subjects. The film interweaves interviews with a quartet of Black trans sex workers from New York and Georgia as well as the men who love them. Using a heady mix of candor, autobiography, and even a wild story or two, D. Smith’s film transforms its central quartet from objects of racist transphobic demonization into people whose life journeys are more honest than expected.
Georden West’s documentary-fiction-experimental hybrid film “Playland” takes a far different walk on the wild side. Instead of relying on anecdote and historic pictures to recount times long vanished, the film could be likened to a cinematic seance to invoke the spirit of a queer space over twenty years gone. Viewers who enjoy some of the more esoteric films of Derek Jarman or Isaac Julien will have an inkling of the feel of West’s work.
The title refers to the Boston queer space known as The Playland Cafe. From 1937 to 1998, this queer hangout operated in the Boston red light district known as the Combat Zone. While Boston was affected by shake ups large and small, from World War II to fights over school busing to the coming of punk, Playland endured until it couldn’t.
The audio clips provide a mental grounding regarding the queer space’s connection to the larger Boston community. Respectable society tried to run the place out of business for alleged problems of noise, traffic problems, and prostitutes. (Oddly enough, this writer is reminded of S.F. condo owners complaining about Folsom Street gay bars.) Under the guise of removing urban blight, developers eyed the land the Playland Cafe resided on.
West doesn’t romanticize the Playland Cafe as a model business. The owner of Playland was more interested in the money the cafe could generate. Working at the Cafe resembled a semi-chaotic machine where the staff danced as fast as they could to minimize the effects of any blips that occurred, such as the Club DJ not showing up for a dance night. A prominent and apparently long unrepaired hole in a wall near the stage exposed plaster and an underlying piece of the building’s wooden structure.
Despite these very real flaws, the Playland Cafe’s patrons cherished this lovably ratty place for something that has no real price: a space for society’s outliers to exist. The larger society may regard such personages as a steampunk inventor and a queer diva as freaks to be belittled. But Playland offered these personages and others like them a place where they could be treated equally. Playbills of shows that would probably be booed at more conventional bars became unique entertainments for Playland’s patrons. LGBT+ PDAs and more were part of the scene, not an aberration.
West primarily relies on symbolism and apparent non-sequiturs in creating the film’s impressionistic feel of Playland’s legacy. Whether a viewer will be interested in analyzing the film’s allusions or get bored out of frustration turn out to be equally likely outcomes. An open umbrella to protect against a rain of gold coins probably alludes to the gentrification pressures on the Combat Zone. But what is a confused viewer to make of a scene where a Playland waitress and another character lip synch to excerpts from Act III of Wagner’s “Lohengrin?”
Perhaps a viewer with a more nimble mind will decipher West’s metaphors and allusions with ease. As is, this viewer is unfortunately forced to claim membership in the highly puzzled club.
Brazilian drama “Rule 34” takes the familiar fictional scenario of “student takes outside job to pay for education” as a launching point for a morally complicated study in the boundaries of law and sexual desire. Director Julia Murat’s engrossing debut feature, which took home the Locarno Film Festival’s prestigious Golden Leopard award, knots together the intellectual and the carnal into a cinematic rope pulling the viewer in some disturbing directions.
During the day, Black bisexual Simone receives classroom lectures and hands-on training to eventually become a “public defender” in Brazil’s court system. She pays for her education by moonlighting as a camgirl who does everything from fully baring her breasts to doing erotic dances to earn redeemable tokens. Her learning how to handle domestic abuse cases soon gets entangled in her growing interest in BDSM play. Will her new carnal interests lead to greater understanding of herself or personal disaster?
Finding parallels between the world of laws and the world of sex play isn’t the mental stretch some viewers may think it is. Both worlds depend on at least some common standard rules to provide order to any human interaction. But the higher risks posed by BDSM play that goes badly wrong (e.g. rapeplay) makes actual consent, not assumed agreement, essential.
The tricky part in both cases is agreeing that consent has been given and that both parties understand the terms. There certainly is an implied consent to be subject to a nation’s laws by virtue of residency in the nation’s land. But it’s very likely the average citizen finds out through breaking them the downside of the laws they’ve consented to be subjected to. For example, does agreeing to obey one’s husband mean staying silent when said husband actively sabotages any attempt to get an education? By comparison, it may seem an agreed upon safe word before BDSM play begins ensures the play never enters bodily danger territory. Yet when Simone performs solo self-asphyxiation for her clients, she never considers having limits to ensure she doesn’t die from lack of oxygen.
Complicating Simone’s descent into the BDSM play world is her willingness to leave behind friends who won’t join her in pushing the boundaries between pleasure and pain. Lover and sparring partner Lucia stays at the mere curiosity level. A male lover is willing to use a broken jagged wine glass in play, but draws the line at having a knife stroking his throat back and forth. Nat, Simone’s more experienced friend in the world of BDSM play, tries to prevent the law student’s aroused desire from leading her to self-destruction.
Murat further complicates both threads of her story by making her main character Black. Can laws which ignore the realities of Black life truly be called consensual for the people subject to them? Does Simone’s popularity as a camgirl come from her being an “exotic beauty?” The director does not attempt to stake out a position on these or other ambiguous subjects in the film. She prefers to throw the questions out to the viewer and let them draw their own conclusions.
Murat’s approach to her story pays off with its skillful finale. Through much of “Rule 34,” the director has left ambiguous whether Simone’s explorations of BDSM came out of a sense of guilt, sexual curiosity, or self-destructiveness. A prolonged closeup of Simone’s face sets the stage for viewer tension. Which of the aforementioned emotions will appear on her face and signpost the student’s next course of action? Sol Miranda, who plays Simone, challenges the viewer to guess what her true feelings might be.
A bit of bad translation may also deter non-Portuguese speakers from fully immersing themselves in “Rule 34.” Simone and the other students in her class are studying to become “public defenders.” Yet the viewer never sees Simone involved in defending a criminal client. Instead, her work seems more akin to a combination of mediator and District Attorney..
Murat’s artistic restraint ultimately manages the tricky task of providing sufficient space for her film’s bigger questions to breathe while not backing away from showing the more dangerous aspects of Simone’s erotic journey. Had there been more blood seen on screen beyond that generated by Lucia’s misplaced punch to Simone’s mouth, “Rule 34” would be a far different and far less effective film.
Kevin Smith’s romantic comedy “Chasing Amy” definitely qualifies as art…assuming a person’s definition of art is “anything that evokes strong emotion in the viewer.” The problem, though, is what happens when circumstances outside the film evoke stronger viewer emotions than anything contained within the film itself. In the case of Smith’s comedy, there’s its association with the notorious movie studio executive whose heinous actions inspired the #MeToo movement. There’s also a denouement relying on the homophobic trope of sex with a man supposedly turning a lesbian straight.
So why did director Sav Rodgers credit Smith’s film with saving their life as a teen? The answer to that question can be found in Rogers’ entertaining and heartfelt documentary “Chasing Chasing Amy.” Not only is it a personal film about the effect this controversial work had on the director’s life, but it also questions whether the opprobrium the film accumulated over the years was justified or deserved.
The film, for those unfamiliar with it, concerns Holden (Ben Affleck), a comic book artist who falls for talented female comic book artist Alyssa (Joey Lauren Adams). The only trouble is, Alyssa’s a lesbian.
Rodgers’ love for “Chasing Amy” came out of their hellish teenage years in rural Kansas. Back then, homophobic bullying in high school was a hateful discipline-free frequent occurrence in Rodgers’ pre-transition life as a lesbian. Her only solace, thanks to her Ben Affleck obsession, turned out to be watching “Chasing Amy” at least once a day. Smith’s film was the first one they’d seen in which lesbians led open and satisfying lives. Rodgers would explain many years later in a highly popular TED Talk how “Chasing Amy” saved their life.
This documentary is, in a way, a continuation and expansion of Rodgers’ TED talk. It’s also a way of paying back several of the creative people who made a work personally important to the director. But by letting naysayers such as Andrew Ahn (“Fire Island”) have a say, Rodgers’ film makes it possible to judge more clearly the successes or failures of Smith’s seminal work.
For example, one of “Chasing Amy”’s more controversial aspects is the Jason Lee character Banky. Holden’s professional partner happens to be the one who regularly spouts incredibly hateful statements about gay people. Does Lee’s fears of being hated for his performance and Smith’s describing Banky as an idiot compensate for the obnoxious things the character does say? It turns out the issue isn’t as cut-and-dried as some viewers would have it. Banky is intended by Smith to be the naive viewer surrogate regarding LGBT+ life. On the other hand, does being a member of two different minorities (a phenomenon known as “two-ness”) whitewash the offensiveness of that member’s utterances about one of the minorities they belong to?
Rodgers does get their movie fan itch scratched by visiting Jack’s Music Shoppe and other actual locations used in “Chasing Amy.” But “Chasing Chasing Amy” is ultimately more interested in stepping over the “pop culture that influenced me” puddle to find the creative wellsprings behind Smith’s romantic comedy. Thus, the viewer learns that the model for Holden and Alyssa’s relationship was the real life romantic friendship between actress Guinevere Turner (“Go Fish”) and producer Scott Mosier. But the conflict that develops between Holden and Alyssa came out of an incident between Smith and Adams, who was the director’s girlfriend at the time.
Yet it turns out the emotional heart of “Chasing Chasing Amy” is Rodgers’ unexpected discomfort with announcing his transitioning to male. This part of the film may seem unrelated to “Chasing Amy.” However, Rodgers’ lesbian girlfriend Riley faces flak for her supposedly not being a real lesbian because she’s dating a “soon-to-be” guy. And Rodgers is so hesitant about even saying out loud he’s transitioning that they stop filming rather than have that announcement be on the record. In a way, both Rodgers and Riley need to reject having their lives limited by social labels so they can be as emotionally free as Alyssa.
The great irony of “Chasing Amy”’s legacy has been that despite Smith and Adams’ relationship problem being a core inspiration for the film, only Smith has achieved emotional catharsis from his romantic comedy. As Adams notes, if “Chasing Amy” had been more reflective of her viewpoint, it’d be a far different film than what audiences saw and loved. As is, all she can do is put the film behind her.
(“Old Narcissus,” “Playland,” “Rule 34,” and “Chasing Chasing Amy” are now available for encore streaming between June 24 to July 2. For tickets and further information about these films, go to www.frameline.org/festival.
“Kokomo City” has been picked up for distribution by Magnolia Pictures and will be released later this year.)Filed under: Arts & Entertainment