AI WEIWEI: Never Sorry – Alison Klayman’s documentary is a must-see. The Chinese artist-activist may be equally well-known for designing the “Bird’s Nest” stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics and for being held under house arrest incommunicato by the Chinese government for eight months. The film tracks his courageous commitment to the subversion of oppression and his deep humanity. The film, and his artistic career, pivots on the Chinese government’s reprehensibly stonewalling response to an earthquake in Sichuan where badly built school buildings collapsed and killed hundreds of children. The artist not only made art work in several media documenting the names of those who died (more than the government did) – he also created a beautiful and heartbreaking art installation on the outside wall of a museum in Munich: brightly colored children’s backpacks spelling out, in Chinese, “She lived happily for seven years.”
I WANT YOUR LOVE – Travis Mathews’s debut as writer-director mashes up gay mumblecore drama with explicit sex scenes shot not like porn but with all the fumbling, ambient lighting, imperfect bodies, and squirtation of real-life sex. The ambition somewhat outweighs the execution – your reaction will depend on how interesting you find the central character, a drifting thirtysomething performance artist on his last day in San Francisco before moving back in with his parents in Columbus, Ohio.
MARGARET – Playwright and filmmaker Kenneth Lonergan (best known for This Is Our Youth onstage and the screenplay of You Can Count on Me) had a lot of support and good intention behind his first feature as director, but after four years in the making it limped into movie theaters for a week and then went straight to DVD. It’s a fascinating film – not a triumph but not a failure, either, although it seems indulgently long and pokey at 2 hours 40 minutes, what could it possibly have looked like at its original four-hour length? The story grapples with a teenage girl’s struggle to place herself in a moral universe after witnessing a fatal bus accident that she was partly responsible for. The philosophical and emotional concerns are honest, and they’re played out with the recognizable detail of an Alice Munro story or one of Woody Allen’s more somber New York dramas (Interiors or Crimes and Misdemeanors). Many striking performances, most notably by J. Smith-Cameron (Lonergan’s spouse, below left), Jeannie Berlin, and Anna Paquin (below right) as the main character, whose name is not Margaret – you’ll have to watch the film to grasp the significance of the title, and I hope you will.
NEIGHBORING SOUNDS – Kleber Mendonça Filho’s first film is a knockout debut. Set in Recife (where I’ll be visiting next month!), the film tracks several overlapping stories with an unusual, supernaturally confident ability to court yet dodge genre expectations, boggling between comedy and menace, beautifully shot, full of large and small surprises. Very satisfying. Seeing it gave me an opportunity to check out the new Elinor Bunin Monroe Film Center at Lincoln Center, which is spiffy and comfortable, with unusual tasty snacks for sale.
JACK SMITH AND THE DESTRUCTION OF ATLANTIS – Mary Jordan’s ambitious documentary of the influential yet elusive queer-theater legend Jack Smith (forever associated with his then-racy, now rather tame first major film, Flaming Creatures) rounds up great talking heads and archival footage, putting it all together in a somewhat demanding collage format that suits its subject.
Dead Can Dance, Anastasis – wow, just when it seemed Lisa Gerrard had disappeared into the land of making eerie movie soundtracks forever, a new Dead Can Dance album. With lush orchestral arrangements, even, some of which suggest North African Arab orchestras. The plush sound really adds something. Often this group wears me out fast – a little bit of Gerrard’s keening vocals in her made-up language and Brendan Perry’s leaden earnestness can go a long way. But there are only two tracks that drag here (“Kiko” and “Opium”), otherwise it’s a welcome return to form.
Justin Vivian Bond, Silver Wells – I’m not always a fan of La Bond’s singing when it gets shrieky and histrionic, but damn, V has excellent taste in songs. Reclaiming Ronee Blakley’s “Dues,” the climactic ballad from Robert Altman’s Nashville, already wins my heart, but Bond’s second solo album also includes good choices by Kate Bush, Tracy Chapman, Joni Mitchell, and Leonard Cohen (“Famous Blue Raincoat,” one of my all-time favorite songs, frequently performed, but rarely with the same attentiveness to the gender-slipperiness of the lyric’s love triangle). Aside from “Dues,” my favorite track is Joni’s “Let the Wind Carry Me,” in which the songwriter recalls her stormy teenage relationship with her parents. Bond’s deep personal engagement with the lyric justifies shifting a couple of key words. “She don’t like my kick pleat skirt/She don’t like my eyelids painted green /She don’t like me staying up late/In my high-heeled shoes/Living for that Rock’n'Roll dancing scene/Papa says “Leave the boy alone, Mother/he’s looking like a Movie Queen…”
Edmund White, SACRED MONSTERS – The great novelist’s anthology of essays about artists (most but not all of them gay) shows off all his best traits: staggering erudition (he happens to know that a close friend of Ford Madox Ford was Lewis Carroll’s cousin), generosity to other artists, relish of gossip, and disarming self-effacement. “In those days I was a resentful young man,” he says in one essay, and he describes himself as “one of the duller bulbs” in the orbit of poet James Merrill, which I doubt. He writes about Martin Amis and Nabokov as well as he does big names like Tennessee Williams and Christopher Isherwood and nearly forgotten folks like Glenway Wescott and Howard Sturgis. He expands my vocabulary (“mute” is the word for a falcon’s shit, and the French expression en secondes noces is marvelously precise and useful). And he tosses off great lines with satisfying regularity: “I learned from that experience that you can say someone is the best poet since Dante but if you mention in passing that he should stop dying his hair or lose ten pounds he will never ever forgive you.
Julie Salamon, WENDY AND THE LOST BOYS – I confess that I put off reading Julie Salamon’s biography of Wendy Wasserstein for a long time because I assumed the title to be an insulting infantilization of the gay men who formed the center of the late playwright’s social circle. After starting and then happily, avidly consuming the book, I realize that the author meant something else completely. It’s not that playwrights Christopher Durang and Terrence McNally, producer Andre Bishop, director Gerald Gutierrez, and designer William Ivey Long were aimless lads stuck somewhere between adolescence and adulthood. It’s that however much time each of these guys spent being the love of Wendy’s life, they were lost to her by virtue of sexual preference. (In an earlier, more closeted era, she might have wed one of them and created a perfectly satisfying mariage blanc. That she and McNally did indeed conduct a clandestine sexual relationship is one of the book’s more gossipy tidbits.) There’s more to be written about the particulars of Wasserstein’s theatrical achievements, but this volume thoroughly documents Wasserstein’s extraordinary birth family and the ins and outs of her professional associations. Wendy was someone I knew slightly and liked very much — but then she was like Nora Ephron that way, a famous and accomplished woman who was such a down-to-earth New Yorker that it was easy to feel like the story of her life is also the story of yours.