Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Beards of Modern Music, Vol. 1

Here's the first post in a new series I've been wanting to do for while now. It's all about bearded men making mighty fine music. There's a facial hair renaissance going on out there, folks.

Alex Clare. This British singer-songwriter released his first album, The Lateness of the Hour, in 2011. It failed to get much attention until one of its songs was featured in an advertisement for Internet Explorer 9 in the spring of 2012. That put his music on charts around the world. Personal stuff: He's an Orthodox Jew who plays a half dozen instruments and once dated Amy Winehouse. Want more? Go here.

Alex Clare in all his full ginger glory.

Song & Video: "Treading Water"

Manchester Orchestra. Emerging from the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia, in the mid-2000s, this indie rock quintet is fronted by rhythm guitarist-singer-songwriter Andy Hull. The band's breakout album, Simple Math, arrived in 2011. An extraordinary video for the album's dynamic title track became one of my favorites for the year. Trivia about Andy Hull: Although born in Atlanta, he spent a large portion of his childhood in Ontario, Canada. He chose his band's name as a nod to one of the most popular alternative rock bands to ever emerge from Manchester, England -- The Smiths. There's a new album and tour for 2014. Check them out here.

Manchester Orchestra; that's lead singer Andy Hull front and center.

Song & Video:"Simple Math"

Horse and Hammer. They're a musical comedy duo otherwise known as Ben Johnson and Eric Daniel Schiffman. You can hardly blame them for wanting to affectionately mock the hipster beard and glasses trend you've seen everywhere the last few years with a goofy song and video. Sure, they've got a sense of humor, but the fact is, these guys look great with their beards and glasses, too. Even if you don't like the song enough to buy it, you can always get a t-shirt.

Ben Johnson (left) and Eric Daniel Schiffman (right), Horse and Hammer

Song & Video: "Beard and Glasses"

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Queer Cinephile(s) #8: Pretty Woman

I'm a cinephile. Studied film in college and got to review movies for a TV station (don't get excited; it was way back in the 20th century). My Netflix queue swelled to over 400 titles in 2013, filled with movies I never got around to seeing. So, for 2014, I gave myself an assignment: watch 50 films that I've never seen before and write something about them. I'll be watching a little bit of everything -- Oscar bait, indie darlings, black & white classics, cult flicks, blockbusters, big-budget flops and weird shit my friends have been recommending for years.

Pretty Woman (released March 1990)

Richard Gere & Julia Roberts, Pretty Woman

Here's the original theatrical trailer...

What the Queer Cinephile Says: Geezus. Where do I begin? This movie asks you to believe
Julia Roberts as a wholesome hooker. It wants you to believe she's delightfully quirky because she flosses her teeth before a blowjob, or worries that her blonde wig makes her look like Carol Channing. It assumes that you will think there's some kind of integrity in her answer to the question, "What do you do?" "Everything," she responds confidently, "but I don't kiss on the mouth." You see, Roberts' hooker character, Vivian, has a no-kissing-the-customers rule. "It's too personal," she explains. This movie also assumes you don't think about anal sex when she says, "Everything." And maybe the target audience for this movie wouldn't think about it. But I'm gay, so...

I'm willing to believe some high-end prostitution services around the country employ women as attractive and engaging as Julia Roberts. But I've lived in Midtown Atlanta for decades and I've seen my share of women working the streets. They're usually scrawny. Their skin doesn't look healthy. Their hair doesn't look like it was done by a salon professional. Their clothes do not appear to have been selected especially for them by a celebrity stylist. In short, they never, ever look like Julia Roberts. About 22 when she made this movie, Roberts is all radiance, megawatt smile and superhuman hair. Seriously, it would take about five more years before Jennifer Aniston's hair finally upstaged Roberts' tresses in the mid '90s.

Okay, the plot and stuff. Richard Gere is Edward, a very wealthy New York venture capitalist who's in Los Angeles to negotiate the purchase of a flailing company. Essentially, he's the not-Mormon Mitt Romney. After his girlfriend breaks up with him on the phone, he impetuously hops into his attorney's car and drives off in search of his Beverly Hills hotel. Lost in Hollywood, he asks for directions from a hooker named Vivian (Roberts). After some banter, Vivian gets behind the wheel and drives him there herself. Smitten, lonely, horny or something, Edward purchases her services for the night and there's an awkward scene of suggested sex while an I Love Lucy rerun plays on the TV. The following morning, Edward offers Vivian $3000 for a week's worth of companionship. To make her more presentable at business dinners and the opera, she gets a makeover montage scored with Roy Orbison's "Pretty Woman." They have one more awkward sex scene, bicker occasionally and fall in love. Vivian doesn't want to be treated like a hooker anymore. Roberts looks fantastic through it all.

I suspected the movie was written by a man -- yep, J.F. Lawton. It's hard for me to believe a woman could have written a character like Vivian. He gives her a backstory that sounds patently false the second Roberts delivers the lines. Vivian is just a sweet Georgia girl who followed a guy to Hollywood, got immediately dumped, worked some unfulfilling low-wage jobs and turned to prostitution because she was too ashamed to return home and tell her family her big move west was a failure. Seriously. So she'd rather be a prostitute than go home and say, "I made a mistake; I fucked up my life over a guy." And here's the thing: In every scene that involves Vivian walking down a street or through a hotel lobby, everyone watches her. Everyone. The movie consistently affirms that she's got good looks and presence; she's special. But her only alternative was working the streets? Really? No modeling jobs, no open casting calls? Can't be a movie or TV extra? A restaurant hostess? I mean, Vivian looks like Julia Roberts, folks.

Pretty Woman was also directed by a man -- Garry Marshall. If Garry Marshall sounds familiar to you, it's because he's the man behind a lot of popular sitcoms -- The Odd Couple, Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, Mork and Mindy. At times, the movie feels like a sitcom with just enough adult material to earn an R rating. In fact, I'm somewhat surprised no network ever tried to turn this into a series.

Stray Gay Observations: By the time Pretty Woman was made, Richard Gere had famously appeared naked or nearly naked many times: Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977), Broadway's Bent (1979), American  Gigolo (1980), An Officer and a Gentlemen (1982), Breathless (1983). Curiously, for a film about hiring a prostitute to be your companion for an entire week, we barely even see his chest. With the exception of two bathtub scenes filled with bubbles (and seriously, who takes bubble baths except children or people in movies?) Roberts is never nude either. In fact, this film revels in showing us how good she looks in clothes -- whether it's her streetwalking attire or the glamorous Rodeo Drive wardrobe Edward buys her; it's like a fashion show. The film's R rating? It's purely for some coarse language and an implicit blowjob.

Before They Were Famous: There's Jason Alexander as Philip Stuckey, Edward's uptight and ruthless attorney. A couple of months after the film's release, American TV audiences would get to know him as George Costanza on Seinfeld. What few people probably know is that Alexander already had a successful stage career going before Pretty Woman or Seinfeld -- he'd won a Tony for Best Lead Actor in a Musical (Jerome Robbins' Broadway). And that's Laura San Giacomo as Vivian's fellow hooker and roommate, Kit De Luca. She'd made a bit of a splash in 1989's sex, lies and videotape, but this was her biggest film success before heading to television and sitcom glory co-starring with George Segal and David Spade in Just Shoot Me.

Should You See It? The best I can do is a qualified yes. If you want to see the vehicle that propelled Julia Roberts to stardom and began her reign as the most formidable female star of 1990s, go for it. She earned a freakin' Oscar nomination for this thing (side note: historically, the single most surefire way for an actress to get a nomination is to play a hooker). At the time of its release, plenty of mainstream critics gushed over Pretty Woman. Roger Ebert actually called it an "openhearted love fable." New York Times critic Janet Maslin claimed that it "manages to be giddy, lighthearted escapism much of the time." Gene Siskel, of the Chicago Tribune, acknowledged that Roberts' character was unrealistic, but deemed it "just a solid piece of commercial  filmmaking." I think Pretty Woman is a wholly improbable, dishonest, self-consciously cute rescue fantasy. That said, it's got panache, too. I have to reluctantly accept it as a beloved cultural touchstone that lots of people will vigorously defend. I don't get that, but I think it has something to do with the alluring blend of Roberts, the amount of conspicuous consumption on display and the predictable fairy tale trappings involved.

Next Week: Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985)

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Queer Cinephile(s) #7: The Man Who Fell to Earth

I'm a cinephile. Studied film in college and got to review movies for a TV station (don't get excited; it was way back in the 20th century). My Netflix queue swelled to over 400 titles in 2013, filled with movies I never got around to seeing. So, for 2014, I gave myself an assignment: watch 50 films that I've never seen before and write something about them. I'll be watching a little bit of everything -- Oscar bait, indie darlings, black & white classics, cult flicks, blockbusters, big-budget flops and weird shit my friends have been recommending for years.

The Man Who Fell to Earth (released March 1976)

David Bowie as Thomas Jerome Newton in The Man Who Fell to Earth

Here's the original theatrical trailer...

What the Queer Cinephile Says: If you weren't alive in the 1970s to witness the ascension of art rocker David Bowie, there's probably no way I could adequately describe it you. Experimental, innovative, influential and enigmatic, Bowie successfully navigated multiple stylistic shifts while simultaneously playing with his public image, even creating an androgynous glam alter ego named Ziggy Stardust at one point. His sexuality was ambiguous -- and the subject of great debate. He appeared to be distinctly unlike any other famous person on the planet back then. So, it's not surprising that he was cast in a film about an extraterrestrial; there's something otherworldly about him.

Bowie plays the titular character in The Man Who Fell to Earth, a humanoid alien whose small spacecraft plummets into a New Mexico lake. He walks to the nearest town, a little place called Haneyville, and attempts to sell a ring to the proprietor of a jewelry store for cash. When asked for identification, he produces an old passport -- implying that this might not be his first visit to Earth. After a time jump, it's abruptly revealed that our visitor has turned himself into a businessman named Thomas Jerome Newton. Armed with plans for a series of advanced technologies, he approaches an attorney named Oliver Farnsworth (Buck Henry) for assistance in attaining patents that will make hundreds of millions of dollars. Before you know it, he's the head of a conglomerate called World Enterprises. Newton has a mission on Earth, but it's slowly revealed and details are mostly left to the audience's imagination. It's never explicitly stated, but his plan appears to have something to do with saving his home planet from a catastrophic drought. (I'm told that this is all spelled out in the 1963 book upon which the film is based.)

Succumbing to the need for companionship, Newton gets involved with a hotel maid, Mary Lou (Candy Clark), a simple but sweet creature who can't navigate the complexities of life without gin. They end up living together in a house he has built near the site of his initial landing in New Mexico. Simultaneously, his search for a scientific advisor that can put him back into space leads to an alliance with Dr. Nathan Bryce, (Rip Torn). Newton's trust in Bryce has disastrous results. And the disclosure of his true identity to Mary Lou leads to one of the film's most outstanding sequences, including an impressive freak out by Candy Clark.

Believe me, I've made this sound quite a bit more straightforward than it is. Screenwriter Paul Mayersburg and acclaimed British director Nicholas Roeg have deliberately made a fractured, wonky and often disorienting film. The narrative structure, with it's time jumps and elliptical editing, forces the viewer to fill in a lot of blanks and connect various storytelling dots. Watching it, I was reminded of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), another film that I'd describe as unapologetically incoherent and a little frustrating. But The Man Who Fell to Earth has David Bowie. In his debut film, he makes a damn convincing alien. So much so that when he calmly states, "I come from England," it's one of the most sublimely wry moments I've ever seen captured on film.

From the research I did after watching this, a lot has been written about Bowie's performance in the 38 years since the film's release. Some reviewers weren't sure Bowie was acting at all, others have wondered how much impact his well-documented 10 grams a day cocaine habit had on his characterization at the time. Very recently, Malcolm Jones of The Daily Beast declared, "With him as their star, they were halfway to weird before they got out of bed." Well, weird will only take you so far; Bowie is genuinely mesmerizing. Newton is diverted by the earthly pleasures of sex, television and gin -- a beverage he has a hard time distinguishing from water -- but the character's arc is compelling and Bowie is restrained and credible no matter how trippy the movie turns.

Stray Gay Observations: There's a moment in the film where it becomes obvious that two characters are incidentally gay. There's nothing stigmatizing or patronizing about the revelation -- and that's fucking remarkable for a film made in 1976. But then this was a British production; American films of 1970s were still portraying us almost exclusively as creepy deviants (Vanishing Point, 1971), murderous cross-dressers (Freebie and the Bean, 1974) or self-loathing and suicidal aberrations (Ode to Billy Joe, 1976).

The Lust Factor: There's quite a bit of uninhibited full-frontal nudity in this picture. Bowie, Candy Clark and Rip Torn are all naked in well-lit rooms without body doubles or strategically placed sheets.

Should You See It? There's much to admire about The Man Who Fell to Earth, but it's going to be slow going for people who were raised on Star Wars, and it has nothing in common with an alien invasion movie like Independence Day. It's ambitious, contemplative and occasionally surreal. I can say, without reservation, that a movie like this would never get made today. My advice? See it with someone else; you're going to want to talk about it afterwards.

Next Week: Pretty Woman (1990)

Friday, February 14, 2014

A Valentine Jam

Check out this special Valentine's Day love jam from Big Dipper, America's queer bear rapper.

Big Dipper

"Love Jam" -- Big Dipper (featuring SNG & Lil T)

Want more Big Dipper? Go here.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Queerest Thing I Found on the Internet This Week

odd, strange, unusual, curious, bizarre, peculiar, weird, uncanny, eccentric, unconventional...

I consider it a compliment.

The Beef Seeds

According to their YouTube channel, The Beef Seeds are an unsigned and self-funded four piece British country music and bluegrass band from Newport, South Wales, who upload weekly cover videos of modern and classic hits. Or as one Welsh publication put it: "Good ol' boys and a girl causing a stir with country music."

Scott, Adam, Peet and Becky -- The Beef Seeds

Formed in 2013, they use guitar, double bass, banjo, mandolin, harmonica and washboards to create an up-tempo country sound that takes the original track in a completely new direction. They're not afraid to make eclectic musical choices either, thus far covering artists as wildly disparate as Miley Cyrus and Pitbull to Toto and Bon Jovi. You can hear how much they enjoy dissecting a pop song and giddily breaking it down into something irresistibly twangy. Their videos are strikingly simple, self-contained little nuggets of unfettered fun. Here are their versions of two recent Grammy Award winners -- Daft Punk's "Get Lucky" and Lorde's "Royals."

You can visit their website here. The music is available on iTunes and Amazon.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Queer Cinephile(s) #6: Basic Instinct

I'm a cinephile. Studied film in college and got to review movies for a TV station (don't get excited; it was way back in the 20th century). My Netflix queue swelled to over 400 titles in 2013, filled with movies I never got around to seeing. So, for 2014, I gave myself an assignment: watch 50 films that I've never seen before and write something about them. I'll be watching a little bit of everything -- Oscar bait, indie darlings, black & white classics, cult flicks, blockbusters, big-budget flops and weird shit my friends have been recommending for years.

Basic Instinct (released March 1992)

Sharon Stone in the infamous interrogation scene from Basic Instinct.

Here's the original theatrical trailer...

What the Queer Cinephile Says: The erotic thriller is a fascinating sub-genre of film that blends sex and murder. Even though the term wasn't popularized until the 1980s, I think you can easily trace its roots back to Hollywood's classic film noir period of the 1940s and '50s. They couldn't show us the sex back then, but characters did all kinds of bad things that were often sexually motivated. Good examples of film noir include Double Indemnity (1944), Out of the Past (1947) and Strangers on a Train (1951). So what was the first film to rightfully prompt a new descriptive classification like erotic thriller? I'd argue for 1981's Body Heat, a film that deliberately acknowledges its juicy noir origins and then gets on with the business of telling a ruthless, intoxicating and sexually-charged story very effectively. Others might cite 1980's Dressed to Kill. I disagree; it's simply a stylish but implausible riff on the work of Alfred Hitchcock. And that brings us to Basic Instinct, a film that desperately tries to evoke Hitchcock.

Basic Instinct begins with a man and a woman having sex. You can never really get a good look at the woman's face because her blonde hair is in the way. She ties his hands to the bed posts, then stabs him 31 times with an ice pick. I didn't personally count the stabs -- a police officer announces that fact in the next scene, along with lines like, "There's cum stains all over the sheets." and "He got off before he got off." Yeah, it's going to be that kind of movie. So, police detective Nick Curran (Michael Douglas) and his partner, Gus (George Dzundza), are assigned to the case. Their suspect? Well, the dead guy -- "a retired rock and roll singer" -- had a girlfriend, Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone). Catherine is a filthy rich heiress and novelist who owns two amazing San Francisco area homes. She's not at House #1 -- it's just the maid and a woman named Roxy who will eventually be revealed as Catherine's lesbian lover. And because Curran and Gus have obviously never seen a single episode of Law and Order (and Michael Douglas can't remember that he played a cop on The Streets of San Francisco in the 1970s), they don't bother to do some obvious police work, like question the maid about her employer's comings and goings. Nope, they just head to House #2, a beachfront property that's even better than the first house, but has no maids or lesbians hanging around. Catherine assures Curran and Gus that she was not the dead guy's girlfriend: "I wasn't dating him. I was fucking him." Curran is immediately smitten, because in this movie, leaving the scene of perhaps the most gruesome murder you'll ever investigate and finding the person mostly likely to be the psychopathic perpetrator behind it is... arousing.

Before giving us more Catherine, the movie kills time having Curran meet with police psychologist Beth for a scene of clunky exposition to establish that, (1) he has problems with drugs, alcohol and smoking, (2) he's been ordered into counseling because he accidentally killed some tourists, and (3) he and Beth used to be lovers. In other words, Curran is a piece of work. And Beth has no ethical boundaries. Then, Curran meets with a professor who's an expert on the pathology of psychopathic behavior and finds out, (1) the killer has a "devious, diabolical mind," (2) Catherine wrote a book called Love Hurts that depicts the ice pick murder of a retired rock and roll star by his girlfriend, and (3) everybody pretty much thinks Catherine did it.

Catherine voluntarily agrees to questioning in a preposterous interrogation room that only exists in Hollywood movies. I mean, seriously, she's sitting in a chair that's elevated like a thrown, wearing a very short dress and no underwear, crossing and uncrossing her legs in full view of Curran and a half dozen police detectives and investigators. Catherine's vagina casts a magical spell on Curran and he spends the next hour and a half obsessed with the woman and being pretty much the worst police detective in the history of movies. Even the vulgar wisdom of buddy Gus can't break the spell: "She got that magna cum laude pussy on her that done fried up your brain." The rest of the film consists of two absurd car chases, a very rape-like sex scene, several more murders, some swell San Francisco exterior shots, lots of nonessential yelling, and a completely pointless cameo by Dorothy Malone (the woman won an Oscar in 1957 for Written on the Wind and she's given about five lines that do not advance the plot in any discernible way; I just felt sorry for her).

The script is by Joe Eszterhas (he also wrote 1983's wildly successful Flashdance and 1995's camp classic Showgirls). It feels like a first draft. It would be generous to call the ending ambiguous; it's really maddeningly incoherent. Director Paul Verhoeven (RoboCopTotal RecallStarship Troopers) lets rip, but what this thing needs is a tighter rein. He appears to believe that allowing actors to shout their lines at regular intervals is all that's necessary to create tension or sustain momentum. About the acting... Michael Douglas isn't remotely convincing, but to be fair, I don't know how anyone could have made the alternately repellent and idiotic Curran character believable. And then there's Sharon Stone as Catherine Tramell, a role that literally made her a household name. I've seen her give solid performances in other films (The Muse, Casino). Watching this, I decided that one of two things was going on with her. Either she's deliberately mocking all those icy blonde Hitchcock femme fatales, in which case it's a brilliant turn, or she attempted to play the complex archetype in a traditional way and was undermined by a director who was mostly used to making science fiction movies. Whatever happened, you can't take your eyes off Stone -- she's beguiling.

For the record, I watched the unrated director's cut, so it probably contained more sex, stabbings and nudity. It also had two absorbing extra features. Several of the filmmakers confirm that they set out to make a modern Hitchcock movie and seem confident about having succeeded. They are delusional. Basic Instinct is a bad, bad movie. Unfortunately, it never transcends ordinary bad into so-bad-it's-good.

Stray Gay Observations: There was a lot of pre-release controversy about this movie back in 1992. The script was leaked to LGBT activists who vociferously objected to the fact that there are exactly three significant female roles in the movie -- Catherine, Roxy and Beth -- and the audience is led to believe each one of them is a homicidal lesbian or bisexual before the credits roll. First, activists disrupted location shooting, slowing down the production schedule, then publicly revealed whom they believed the killer to be just before the film's release. Both sides are presented in the DVD extras. For me, there's no denying that the movie links queer sexuality and violence. But the film is such a cartoon, filled with underdeveloped characters and lurid, faux-sexy nonsense, that it's impossible for me to take it seriously enough to be offended.

On a completely different note, Sharon Stone gets to wear some pretty terrific clothes -- a couple of her outfits (by Nino Cerruti and Ellen Mirojnick) even echo designs worn by Hitchcock blondes like Tippi Hedren and Kim Novak.

The Lust Factor: I may be gay, but even I know that Sharon Stone had a rockin' body circa 1992. Also, Michael Douglas' butt double earned his paycheck.

Before They Were Famous: Mitch Pileggi, who played Scully and Mulder's FBI boss on The X-Files (1993-2002), has a couple of scenes as an Internal Affairs Investigator, or something. His purpose in the film is never clear, but he does get to restrain Michael Douglas at one point.

Should You See It? If you just want to see what all the fuss was about back in 1992, sure. Otherwise, nope. You see, the thing about Basic Instinct is that, well, basically, it stinks. (See what I did there?)

Next Week: The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Divas vs. Queers

What happens when openly gay singers dare to cover songs made famous by divas?

The Song: "Wrecking Ball"

It was the second single released from Miley Cyrus' fourth studio album, Bangerz (2013). It peaked at number one in nearly a dozen countries. Okay, go ahead and argue that Ms. Cyrus, all of 21 when she recorded it, does not qualify as a diva. All I can tell you is that she appears to be following the modern diva template provided by Madonna (and feebly adopted by the likes of Britney Spears). Cyrus has made a controversial music video (see below), done some crazy look-at-me-look-at-me shit on awards shows and routinely changes her look. She seems determined to make you forget she was ever Hannah Montana, the titular character of her successful Disney Channel series. Sounds like a diva to me.

It took five (five!) people to write "Wrecking Ball" -- Ms. Cyrus was not one of them -- and it received mixed reviews, even backhanded praise. PopMatters called it "the kind of broad mainstream song that shows you how to properly build up to a chorus before hitting us over the head with it." The Los Angeles Times suggested that the track proved she "isn't just a twerk-bot programmed to titillate," but added, "Cyrus' singing throbs with what feels like an embarrassment of emotion." I'm pretty sure that's not a compliment.

And then there's the video. Miley emotes a lot, swings a sledgehammer and rides a wrecking ball. She's wearing a tight little sleeveless shirt, some underwear and a pair of Doc Martens. At first. Eventually it's just the Doc Martens. I sincerely wish I'd been a fly on the wall when she and the director discussed how much better the video would be if she licked that sledgehammer. Decisions like that are what takes a project like this from bad to so bad it's awesome!

At the time of its release I remember telling a friend that "Wrecking Ball" isn't a bad pop ballad. I mused aloud that maybe someone who doesn't need to bludgeon their child star past to death should take a crack at it. Behold, Eli Lieb. The openly gay singer takes a stripped down approach to the song that feels a lot more organic, honest and heartfelt. It's a very satisfying marriage of man and electric dulcimer... an instrument he plays, not licks. (Though to be fair, I realize lots of people would enjoy seeing him play his dulcimer while just wearing a pair of Doc Martens.)

Eli Lieb (photo courtesy of his Facebook page)

Eli Lieb's music is available on iTunes and his website. You can check out more of his videos on YouTube.

To see the first entry in the Divas vs. Queers series (featuring Whitney Houston's "I Wanna Dance With Somebody" reimagined by Matt Alber), click here.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Queer Cinephile(s) #5: Harold and Maude

I'm a cinephile. Studied film in college and got to review movies for a TV station (don't get excited; it was way back in the 20th century). My Netflix queue swelled to over 400 titles in 2013, so, for 2014, I gave myself an assignment: watch 50 films that I've never seen before and write something about them. I'll be watching a little bit of everything -- Oscar bait, indie darlings, black & white classics, cult flicks, blockbusters and weird shit my friends have been recommending for years.

Harold and Maude (released December 1971)

Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon

Here's the original theatrical trailer...


What the Queer Cinephile Says: According to my research, Harold and Maude received very little praise when it hit theaters in late 1971. Critics, including Roger Ebert (yes, the man was reviewing films way back then), were not particularly amused by this this very, very dark comedy about a death-obsessed young man and his relationship with a free-spirited 79-year-old woman. Hollywood loves to make movies that explore relationships between older men and younger women. No one ever seems to mind the fact that The Sound of Music's Captain Von Trapp appears to be about twenty years older than Maria. But flip the situation -- young man falling for a much older woman -- and people get nervous. Thankfully, Harold and Maude is a movie that pulls no punches; it's delighted to screw with you in a variety of ways.

The set-up is simple. Harold (Bud Cort) lives with his wealthy, widowed mother. His life is so meaningless that he spends his days developing and implementing elaborate fake suicide attempts to penetrate her detached obliviousness. When his psychoanalyst asks him what he does for fun, Harold pauses for a long time and then replies, "I go to funerals." So does Maude (Ruth Gordon). And neither of them even know the deceased. "I'll never understand this mania with black," she tells Harold. A friendship evolves and Maude encourages Harold to be more spontaneous and live a little. Meanwhile, Harold's mother (the fabulous Vivian Pickles in a series of hats, hairstyles and wigs), concludes, "In short, Harold, I think it is time for you to get married." She signs him up with the National Computer Dating Service, assuring him, "They screen out the fat and the ugly, so it is obviously a firm with high standards." That leads to a series of blind dates the film juxtaposes with Harold and Maude's flourishing relationship.

All of 23 when he starred here, Bud Cort strikes the right notes as the droll, morose Harold. At 75, Ruth Gordon is a quirky, uninhibited force of nature. The script gives her a surfeit of memorable lines that had me backing up the DVD to relish them multiple times. (Example: Maude, handing Harold an after-dinner liqueur: "It's organic. It has no nutritional value, but consistency is not really a human trait.") This was director Hal Ashby's second film (he went on to direct Shampoo, Bound for Glory, Coming Home and Being There), and aside from the clumsy reveal of some important information from Maude's past, I like his style, which was pretty innovative for a film made in 1971.

Now, for some trivia about the movie...

The trailer contains several shots that do not actually appear in the finished film. That leads me to believe there were plenty of alternate takes on the set and serious conversations in the editing room about the final product. I don't think any of the shots in question would have made Harold and Maude a better film. In fact, I think they would have been, at best, completely unnecessary, and at worst, overkill. There were no extras on the DVD release I watched, but for anyone interested, there's a Blu-ray version with audio commentary from the director.

Bud Cort's father died of complications from multiple sclerosis the same year he made the film. You have to wonder how that impacted his performance. He's worked steadily since Harold and Maude, appearing in over 40 films and numerous TV shows, but this remains his signature role. Ruth Gordon started her career as an extra in silent films, jumped to Broadway, and eventually made the transition back to film in the 1940s. After marrying writer Garson Kanin in 1942, the two collaborated on film scripts (most successfully for Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy). She returned to film acting in the 1960s, winning a Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1968 at the age of 72 for her role as the nosy neighbor with a dark secret in Rosemary's Baby (easily my favorite horror movie of all time).

Beloved (and later controversial) 1970s pop/folk singer Cat Stevens ("Wild World," "Morning Has Broken," "Peace Train") contributed nine songs to the film's soundtrack. At first, his music feels discordant, even insipid. But as the film progresses, his sound inevitably becomes ingratiating and right. In 1976, Stevens nearly drowned off the California coast. That brush with death led to a spiritual awakening and his ultimate conversion to the Islamic faith. He changed his name to Yusuf Islam, abandoned his musical career, and devoted himself to educational and philanthropic causes while promoting peace in the world. He eventually emerged again as a professional singer in 2006, known simply as Yusuf, releasing his first album in 28 years, An Other CupA subsequent album, Roadsinger, followed in 2009. He's one of the 2014 inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Stray Gay Observations: Harold and Maude was the first script from Colin Higgins, the son of an Australian father and an American mother. He went on to write Silver Streak (1976) and write and direct 9 to 5 (1980). By the 1980s, he was one of the few openly gay writers or directors in Hollywood. In 1986, he established the Colin Higgins Foundation, a non-profit humanitarian organization that supports LGBTQ youth. He died from AIDS complications in August of 1988.  

Before They Were Famous: Look for Tom Skerritt, the laid-back captain of the doomed spacecraft in Alien (1979); he plays a highway motorcycle cop listed as "M. Borman" in the credits. While confronting Maude about her reckless driving, he gets some cheerful advice: "Don't get officious. You're not yourself when you're officious. That's the curse of a government job."

Should You See It? Of course! Some great things are not appreciated in their own time. It may have failed to impress many critics in 1971 (Variety's reviewer famously wrote that it "has all the fun and gaiety of a burning orphanage"), but it has aged remarkably well and absolutely deserves its reputation as a cult classic. The central performances by Cort and Gordon are indelible and entirely credible (even when the film puts them in some fairly incredible situations). Harold and Maude deftly flits from outrageous moments to some surprisingly poignant ones. It's not going to work for everyone, but it certainly worked for me.

Next Week: Basic Instinct  (1992)