Film Reviews Of Chris & Don: A Love Story; Black White + Gray: A Portrait Of Sam Wagstaff And Robert Mapplethorpe; Before Stonewall: The Making Of A Gay And Lesbian Community, And For The Bible Tells Me So
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 3/15/12
I recently watched four documentaries on Netflix on the subject of homosexuality in America, and, as some may not expect, it was a mixed bag; not only qualitatively, but in the approach to the subject matter within. I state that some may not expect this because humans often lump each other into these vast categories from which escape is impossible: all Jews are- , all blacks must be- , all queers- , and so on. The four documentaries in question were, in order of viewing: Chris & Don: A Love Story; Black White + Gray: A Portrait Of Sam Wagstaff And Robert Mapplethorpe; Before Stonewall: The Making Of A Gay And Lesbian Community, and For The Bible Tells Me So.
The first of the documentaries I viewed was directors Tina Mascara’s and Gino Santi’s Chris & Don: A Love Story, and it is a 90 minute film, from 2007, that charts the lives and romance of two artists: British writer Christopher Isherwood, and his thirty years younger partner, painter Don Bachardy. The film starts out with the premise that Isherwood was the great artist who performed a Pygmalion on Bachardy, and, initially, this seems apt, for the California born Bacharcdy- now in his 70s, sports a fake British accent, and is an open flamer. One almost thinks some joke has been played on him as one views this seemingly none too bright survivor of the sexually open relationship (Isherwood having died in 1986). But, then something interesting happens: the film progresses, and, instead of Bachardy being the hanger on, we see he is actually a highly skilled portraitist, whose work is very comparable to that of painters like Egon Schiele and Alice Neel. We don’t see enough of his work to make a realistic assessment, but, having read Isherwood’s mediocre prose, it’s clear that Bachardy, in reality, is likely the artist whose work will last longer, thus resigning Isherwood to the role of his ‘discoverer’ and hanger on, to later generations.
The film is narrated by actor Michael York, who starred in Cabaret, the film version of Isherwood’s stories on his time in Germany, The Berlin Stories, in the Weimar Republic era, and the soundtrack and cinematography do just enough to not distract from the central tale, which the directors weave in an increasingly unconventional way. The only big negative in the film are the cartoon segments of a cat and a horse, culled from the two men’s relationship, which represent them. It is too subjective, childish, and silly, and undercuts the seriousness of the film’s otherwise increasingly engaging narrative. The film starts out seeming to be a conventional biography, and the viewer is utterly clueless to the fact that Bachardy is anything but a vapid nobody, for he flits and plays the part of the vapid fruit so well that when the film reveals he went to art school, at Isherwood’s urging, and that he’s actually quite talented, Isherwood quickly shrinks into the role of the afterthought, who’s only being held onto because of his relationship to Bachardy- the real center of the film. The relationship, such as it may have been, was a rather banal and dull one, only made ‘interesting’ by the professions of the two participants.
Generous use of archival newsreels, home films, reenactments, photographs, and talking heads, such as Leslie Caron, John Boorman, Jack Larson- yes, the guy who played Jimmy Olson on Adventures Of Superman in the 1950s, and Liza Minnelli, make the film an oddly engaging film that rises above mere curio status. Is it a great film? Doe sit explore human sexuality or creativity in any great depth? No, but it is a good film, and, days after viewing it, and writing of it, at this moment, images and scenes return to me. Yes, Bachardy is an offputting figure, with his fey fakery and obvious desires for fame, above all else- even art, but, in a sense, he’s a genuine fake, not unlike Rodney Bingenheimer, the subject the documentary The Mayor Of The Sunset Strip. But, unlike the vapid and sad Bingenheimer, one does actually sympathize and empathize with Bachardy, especially in the latter stages of the film, wherein we view the almost daily obsession he had with painting and sketching Isherwood in his final months of dying from cancer, and after his death, and the resultant good it produced.
The second film I viewed was the best of the four, and it also featured art and obsession, and the relationship of an older man to a much younger artist. The film was Black White + Gray: A Portrait Of Sam Wagstaff And Robert Mapplethorpe, also from 2007, directed by James Crump, and clocking in at a mere 72 minutes in length. This film follows the two titular persons, also gay lovers, with Wagstaff- a rich arts patron as the Isherwood, and Mapplethorpe, the 25 years younger lover, in the Bachardy role. The difference is that Wagstaff was no artist and Mapplethorpe was a bad one- more a high end pornographer with a schtick than a serious photographer. Then there’s the omnipresent bad poet and former rock star, Patti Smith, who adds little of value to the film, save her own shilling and bad musical lyrics.
Yet, this film is a significantly better work of art than Chris & Don: A Love Story. While the Isherwood and Bachardy film starts off poorly, ends well, and is overall a good film, this film clicks on all cylinders, from the first scene to the last, and this all DESPITE Smith’s annoying presence. It does not get into the area of greatness, but it is engaging and informative. Both of the gay lovers died from AIDS, in the 1980s, but, in reality, neither AIDS nor homosexuality is at the center of this film: the machinations, manipulations, and money of the arts world is, and, in this regard, Wagstaff was a master, taking the talentless and opportunistic Mapplethorpe from the gutters, literally, and foisting him into the chi-chi New York City arts scene by branding him, so that what Mapplethorpe MADE was never as important that MAPPLETHORPE made it. Wagstaff learnt this lesson when he became involve din the market for historical photographs, and, not unlike many would be manipulators of the stock market, he learned to drive up the prices of things by slowly releasing things onto the market after first cornering a market- in fact, he later made a second fortune in the silver market in the same manner.
Yet, despite the manipulations, Wagstaff’s role in the New York art scene seemed to recede in the glare of Mapplethorpe’s bizarrely popular posthumous star, and director Crump clearly seeks to redress this state of affairs, by showing that Mapplethorpe was nothing without Wagstaff’s hype. Indeed, many of the commentators in the film go even farther- denouncing Mapplethorpe as a golddigger, user, and worse. In fact, a better comparison of the two men, than Isherwood and Bachardy, can be made to Oscar Wilde and Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas- save adding in a leather fetish twist.
The film is narrated by Joan Juliet Buck and multiple cinematographers
worked on the film, but it is carried along mostly on the legendry of Wagstoff
who, although a quarter century gone, still radiates a vibrancy that makes one
understand director Crump’s attraction to him. Fortunately, that’s not all
the film provides, for it is through this attraction that Crump exposes the
corruption- ethical and financial, that explains why bad artists like
Mapplethorpe get material success while far better artists do not. For this,
gratitude should be abounding, for artists, art lovers and not.
The third film that I watched was not a recent one, but a n 87 minute long PBS film from 1984, Before Stonewall: The Making Of A Gay And Lesbian Community, and the wear and tear on the print, plus the fonts that introduce the names of the talking heads, bears witness to this film’s production. It is a standard historical documentary that features a few dozen talking heads of no real import, with little of any real depth to speak of, on life in homosexual America before the 1969 Stonewall riots that marked a turning point in gay life; where homosexuals who were persecuted by assorted civil authorities stood up and said no.
Directed by Robert Rosenberg and Greta Schiller, with cinematography by Jan Kraepelin, Sandi Sissel, and Cathy Zheutlin, and narrated by writer Rita Mae Brown, the film shows its limitations of time and space. Much of what it proffers does not hold up, and some of the talking heads are downright embarrassing to listen to as they seemingly try to trump each others’ experiences, in terms of who suffered more, or who did more for the cause. Especially guilty of this nonsense are the late poets Allen Ginsberg and Audre Lorde. In a wider purview, the film tries to install the gay rights movement into the larger perspective of the civil rights movement, the anti-Vietnam War movement, the Black Power movement, and the Women’s Liberation movement, mostly by using stock archival footage that is often at odds with the things being discussed at the moment of their being shown, but it fails to address the more basic questions of what homosexuality is, and why it is, and how people who are homosexual get that way, and why some people who are not homosexual are pushed to revile it so much. Yes, there are the natural feelings of disgust, due to many of the practices done by the people, but this film is, in a sense, only a surface scan of the condition and how it has had its effect on this country. In fact, the film even fails to address why the term gay came into being, and why it’s such a poor term, especially in contrast to the term queer. This is all odd since the filmmakers reference Magnus Hirschfeld briefly, yet don’t even address his import on human sexuality research, which was infinitely more important than that of Sigmund Freud.
Because of this lack, and the rather conventional approach the film takes on its subject matter, it is, rather easily, the worst of the films in this review. Yes, it won a bevy of awards, upon its release, but that was likely more an exultation over its subject matter than its presentation, and now, a quarter century on, the bloom has faded, and the film stands naked in its mediocrity, at best.
The final film on homosexuality, that I watched, does not suffer from the ills of Before Stonewall: The Making Of A Gay And Lesbian Community, as it opens with the 1977 pieing incident of Anita Bryant- a singer and anti-gay activist who is almost wholly forgotten these days. Rather, the 2007 documentary, directed by Daniel G. Karslake, and running 97 minutes, tackles the issues of homosexuality head on- starting with homophobia; although, in reality, I’d’ve preferred to see it tackle homotaedium- the disgust heterosexuals feel towards homosexuals, rather than the inaccurate homophobia (who, after all, actually fears homosexuals, as a group?). The film explores a number of families, black and white, average and famous- including former Congressman and Democratic Presidential candidate, Richard Gephardt, whose daughter is a lesbian. The film basically shows varying degrees of the families’ reactions to their children’s coming out: from acceptance to tolerance, to one woman, Mary Lou Wallner, whose bigotry drove her lesbian daughter Anna to suicide, which spurred her to advocate on the cause of gay acceptance. Other subplots to the film include the ascension to the Episcopalian Bishopric of New Hampshire, by Gene Robinson, the historical deconstruction of Bible quotes that condemn homosexuality to show that many of the claims that Fundamentalist Christians make about the matter are based in poor translations and out of context claims; as well as some ludicrous ones; such as passages that also condemn people to death for planting two seeds in the same hole in the ground.
Yet, despite this debunking, by clergy as noted as Bishop Desmond Tutu, the film does its best not to vilify the bigots on the other side of the equation- most notably James Dobson, a family counselor turned profiteer in gaybashing. Instead, the film tries to show how the fear of The Other, initially a good evolutionary adaptation, gets misused in modern contexts, and how homosexuals are merely the latest group at the head of the line for this fear, hence, in a roundabout fashion, perhaps finally justifying the long abused term homophobia, in an en masse, rather than individual, way. Of course, the real question, underneath this film, has little to do with homosexuality- for same sex pseudo-sex is common in the animal kingdom, but the far baffling human trait of religiosity- believing in the unseen and unprovable, and then taking a text that has obviously been written by zealots, butchered many times, and basing one’s precepts on such- but, then again, this would have likely required a documentary approaching 97 hours, not minutes, in length.
Technically, the film has solid cinematography and scoring, but midway through it, the film makes a big error, by inserting a cavalier cartoon that is nothing but mere propaganda- a stark contrast to the serious nature of the rest of the film. In fact, the cartoon features a stereotypical lesbian character, a gay male character, and an ignorant straight male character called- ahum- Christian, whom the two homosexuals try to ‘educate’ by using political consensuses from assorted medical groups, rather than logic, to persuade Christian he is wrong. The cartoon, called Is Homosexuality A Choice?, is narrated by the infamous voice actor Don LaFontaine, of movie trailer ‘In a world….’ Notoriety. Unfortunately, because of its lack of scientific underpinning, it actually skews the issue of homosexuality by denying personal agency and reducing human beings and free will to mere genetic determinism, rather than the multivalent issue it really is, with many causes and reasons. After all, homosexuality is a normally recurring abnormality throughout the animal kingdom. But that does not mean that all homosexual thought, emotion, nor behavior is genetically based, as there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that it can be a learned trait- just look at ancient Greece or modern male prostitution. That it could also be a fetish or neurosis, in some instances, is not to be dismissed. Let us not forget that the same medical associations cited in the cartoon also claim that things like alcoholism and drug addiction are diseases, even though they are definitionally and obviously not that. The forces of Political Correctness are every bit as noxious as those of Christian Fundamentalism; but that’s another film unto itself.
All in all, the four films give a good overview of homosexuality in America- the first two in their specificity, and the latter two in their general approach, although notably absent from all of the films is the reality that gay males are the most promiscuous humans on the planet. To state this is factual, and easily admitted to by many gays, yet to engrain this into a documentary is somehow verboten, for still the fear lingers that by admitting the negatives of homosexuality one merely bolsters the opposition. The opposite is true- one only succeeds in winning arguments by openly admitting downsides and errors. I learned this as a child; too many artists are ignorant of this reality. Nonetheless, Chris & Don: A Love Story; Black White + Gray: A Portrait Of Sam Wagstaff And Robert Mapplethorpe; Before Stonewall: The Making Of A Gay And Lesbian Community, and For The Bible Tells Me So are worthwhile films to see, even if not all in the same proportion. Sorry, but see that admitting downsides thing above.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Salon website.]
Return to Bylines