Films

Sex, love and human remains

Pushing the envelope—-with gender-bending, sensual healing and nights of the living dead

Brian D. Johnson November 1 1999
Films

Sex, love and human remains

Pushing the envelope—-with gender-bending, sensual healing and nights of the living dead

Brian D. Johnson November 1 1999

Sex, love and human remains

Pushing the envelope—-with gender-bending, sensual healing and nights of the living dead

Films

Brian D. Johnson

Boys Don’t Cry

Directed by Kimberly Peirce

It is an archetypal American tragedy, the story of a young rebel with a secret who shows up in a small town and becomes a martyr to romance. It is also a true story. In 1993, two ex-cons committed a multiple murder in a ramshackle farmhouse near the small Nebraska community of Falls City. One of the victims was known as Brandon Teena, a reckless 20-year-old who was adored by beautiful women left and right. But after his death, people were shocked to discover that Brandon Teena was really Teena Brandon, a young woman masquerading as a man.

Brandons life has since become the stuff of tabloid legend, and the subject of an acclaimed documentary, The Brandon Teena Story (1998). Now, American director Kimberly Peirce has turned it

into an intensely compelling drama. Boys Don’t Cry, Peirces feature debut, conveys the story with unadorned realism, yet somehow transcends the grim facts of the case. The story’s shattering finale of rape and murder is hard to watch, but the catharsis is well-earned. By then, Brandon has become such a vivid, captivadng presence that the character stays with you long after the shock subsides.

Hilary Swank, who happens to come from Brandon’s home town of Lincoln, Neb., is a revelation in the starring role. With her square jaw and Jaggerish mouth, Swank is convincing enough to pass as a man, a boyish man who is both delicate and aggressive—splitting the difference, say, between Matt Damon and James Dean. With her hair cropped short, her breasts bound by a tensor bandage and a sock stuffed into her jockey shorts, Brandon heads out on the town to drink with the boys and pick up girls.

Test-driving the new identity, he bellies up to the bar with the naïve swagger of a juvenile trying to look older. He gets fag-baited by rednecks, ricochets through his first brawl and laughs off the dangers of being male. He gamely tries to be one of the white-trash boys, drinking and driving, “bumper-skiing” on the back of a pickup, shoplifting a ring for his honey. The love he setdes on is Lana Tisdel, a factory girl played with seductive diffidence by Chloë Sevigny {Kids, The Last Days of Disco). But Lana has a dangerous friend, an ex-con named John Lotter (Peter Sarsgaard) with sleepy eyes that turn mean with drink—Lotter is now on death row for Brandon’s murder.

Brandon undergoes a remarkable metamorphosis. First, he comes out as a man, a seducer who turns out to be the most sensitive guy these Nebraska girls have ever known: with Lana, he devotes himself to her pleasure while artfully concealing his lack of equipment. But later, as he gradually surrenders to her, he comes out as a woman, and the final taboo melts away with his clothes and his tears. Sevigny, meanwhile, plays the ambiguity of their romance with extra-

Mary-Louise Parker, Marco Leonardi in The Five Senses: alienation and loss

ordinary subtlety. Boys Dont Cry, a tale of crucified gender, is not a freak show or a lurid melodrama. It is something one rarely finds at the movies: a revolutionary love story with universal power.

The Five Senses

Directed by Jeremy Podeswa

Now here’s an unusual premise. While a single mother receives a massage, she entrusts her three-year-old child to the therapist’s sulky teenage daughter, who loses the kid in the park across the street after abandoning her to spy on a couple making out in the bushes. And that is just one of the multiple story lines that make up The Five Senses, which won the prize for best Canadian feature at the Toronto Inter-

national Film Festival in September after its acclaimed première in Cannes. With his second feature, writer-director Jeremy Podeswa refines the style of his first {Eclipsé), and reaffirms Canadian cinema’s fetish for episodic narrative.

The Five Senses is an elegant fugue that weaves the lives of five troubled characters in the same apartment building. Each represents one of the senses. Ruth (Gabrielle Rose), the massage therapist, has lost touch with herself, and unburdens her guilt over the missing girl with the child’s distraught mother (Molly

Parker). Ruth’s delinquent daughter (Nadia Litz) explores voyeurism with a cross-dressing boy. Robert (Daniel Maclvor), a bisexual housecleaner with a sensitive nose, takes an inventory of ex-lovers while being courted by a married couple. His best friend, Rona (Mary-Louise Parker), a baker who makes flavourless cakes, warily shares her bed with an Italian dreamboat she met on vacation. And Richard (Philippe Volter), a French eye doctor who is going deaf, creates a mental library of sounds and finds solace in the arms of a friend (Pascale Bussières).

It all sounds terribly schematic. But Podeswa pulls the elements together with surprising grace. As a fluid counterpoint of precise, richly composed images, The Five Senses does indeed appeal

to the senses. And the performance buffet offers an impressive spread, from Mary-Louise Parker’s skittish charm to Molly Parker’s lucid empathy, from Maclvor’s wry cynicism to Litz’s delinquent angst. Still, the drama seems restrained by the film’s synthetic design. And as Podeswa circles through themes of alienation and loss, the muted tone and brooding pace suggest Atom Egoyan lite. It may be a comforting sign to find stylistic consistency in Canadian cinema. But now that Podeswa has more than proven his talent, perhaps he should extend the hothouse horizon of his own five senses and, like Egoyan, try adapting someone else’s fiction.

Bringing Out the Dead

Directed by Martin Scorsese

No movie by Martin Scorsese can be lighdy dismissed, and this one seems full of promise. Based on the 1998 novel by former paramedic Joe Connelly, Bringing Out the Dead takes place in the heart of Scorsese country, Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan. It is the odyssey of an ambulance driver on the edge of insanity, and it was scripted by Paul Schrader, who wrote Taxi Driver, which concerned another demented saviour scraping scum off the streets of New York. As the opening credits roll, with Van Morrison wailing the unearthly T.B. Sheets, all the elements appear to be in place for a hallucinogenic trip to Scorsese heaven, or hell, which amount to the same thing. But the movie is a disappointment.

Nicolas Cage stars as Frank, a priesdy paramedic burned out from too many nights on the graveyard shift. In a job that is about saving lives, he is on a losing streak, haunted by zombie-like apparitions of those who have died in his care. Frank works with a succession of gonzo partners, played by John Goodman, Ving Rh ames and Tom Sizemore. And he reaches out to the bereft Mary (Patricia Arquette), a former drug addict with a father in a coma.

Racing from crisis to crisis like E.R. on amphetamines, Bringing Out the Dead is a nightmarish excursion into blood and squalor. The visceral details offer some grim fascination, but the surreal interludes are jarring, and Scorsese veers towards kitsch with a subplot involving a black drug lord who holds court in a blood-red den while Rivers of Babylon plays on the sound track. The Roman Catholic themes, always present in Scorsese’s work, are more heavy-handed than usual, right down to the pietà tableau in the final frame. But in the end, it is the ragged script that lets the director down. (Schrader wrote it in three weeks; perhaps he should have taken four.) Like a paramedic trying to shock a heart back to life, Scorsese pulls out all the stops to save Bringing Out the Dead. But this one is beyond salvation. E3