Connect with us

Arts & Entertainment

‘Wojnarowicz’ burns with a queer icon’s brilliant fury

Published

on

Self portrait of David Wojnarowicz. (Courtesy the estate of Wojnarowicz)

If we want our heroes to be remembered, sometimes we have to tell their stories ourselves. That’s especially true in the LGBTQ community, whose entire history before the mid-20th century has already been all but erased by mainstream (read: hetero) culture, save for what can be conjectured from scraps of information in the public record or the personal remembrances of elders who were brave enough to write them down. 

Today, queer Americans are lucky enough to live in an era with a much more inclusive attitude about history, and there is no shortage of information available about the people who have helped to make that situation a reality. Even so, it’s become an oft-lamented observation that many of us, particularly among the generations who came of age after the eighties, are sorely lacking in our knowledge of the history that got us here. 

Thanks to an outstanding new documentary about an AIDS-era icon for whom art and activism were one and the same, it just got easier to educate yourself. 

“Wojnarowicz: F*ck You F*ggot F**ker” (currently screening through Kino Lorber’s VOD Marquee platform) carries a title that might feel uncomfortable coming out of your mouth, but its subject would undoubtedly have approved. After all, it’s borrowed from one of his own artworks. Directed by Chris McKim, who as an executive producer who worked alongside RuPaul to create “Drag Race” is something of a queer icon himself, it profiles one of the most controversial and polarizing artists to come out of the New York art world of the eighties. 

David Wojnarowicz came up in the same queer art movement that gave us Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, though his name never achieved an equal level of familiarity to theirs – not just because it was harder to pronounce (it’s “voy-nah-ROH-vitch,” for the record), but because the scalding anger and confrontational queerness of his work pushed far beyond the comfort level of all but the most radical glitterati. Raised in a household with an abusive father, he left home early to live on the streets of New York, surviving as a teen hustler in a city ravaged by some of the worst crime and economic blight in its history. He found expression across multiple mediums – photography, writing, filmmaking, painting, and more – and gained notoriety as an underground street artist, creating “guerilla” installations that expressed a rage more aligned with the percolating punk movement than the celebratory hedonism of the soon-to-be-waning sexual revolution. 

Though he rose to prominence among the cloistered East Village arts scene of the early eighties, it was his response to the AIDS crisis that brought him greater fame; after being diagnosed with HIV in 1988, he “weaponized” his art against the indifference of an establishment – indeed, of an entire society – to the suffering and death taking place in plain sight, leading to a courtroom confrontation with the religious right (which he won) over NEA funding for an exhibition of his work. When he died from the disease in 1992, at the age of 37, his funeral became a protest, and his ashes were eventually scattered, as part of an “Ashes Action” by ACT UP in 1996, on the White House lawn. 

In McKim’s comprehensive and immersive chronicle of Wojnarowicz’s short and thorny life, we are transported in all but body to the heady and tumultuous time and place in which he lived. Constructed as a cinematic collage, it sets aside the conceit of objective narration and instead carries us through the timeline of his life and career by putting us, as closely as possible, into his own mind. This would be an audacious and impossible task were it not for the treasure trove of archival material left behind by the artist himself, who obsessively recorded his thoughts and experiences not only through his work, but in written, audio, and film diaries he maintained throughout his career. It’s Wojnarowicz himself who tells his own story, supplemented by remembrances from those who knew him and illuminated by the visual eloquence of his work. We are even allowed a glimpse into some of his most intimate relationships, thanks to never-erased answering machine messages – particularly with fellow artist Peter Hujar, whose life story was inextricably interwoven with his own. 

While the film relies extensively on material created and archived by Wojnarowski himself, McKim allows for the inclusion of other perspectives, too. Interpolated throughout is new interview material from the artist’s contemporaries, friends and associates whose memories not only reinforce his image as a passionate iconoclast but reveal a deeply human side that is not always apparent – or obvious, at least – in his work. Reminiscences from figures like Fran Lebowitz, Nan Goldin, and Gracie Mansion, as well as Wojnarowski’s surviving partner, Tom Rauffenbart, help to round out our picture of the man with glimpses from outside his own fiery mind. They also serve to illuminate the lightning-in-a-bottle environment of New York’s underground avant garde scene of the early eighties, a place and time where a dizzying array of soon-to-be legendary figures met, mingled, and melded in a social and artistic circle not unlike that of Paris in the pre-war twentieth century – and the skill with which Wojnarowicz moved between the worlds of the street and the gallery, his difficulty in balancing his disdain for the wealthy elite with his need to sell them his art, and his ability to keep all his personal connections so neatly and meticulously compartmentalized. 

There’s another, almost accidental aspect to “Wojnarowicz” that lifts it out of the past, adding a layer of urgency in the here and now and drawing a direct line from the events of history to the world of today. The unmistakable echoes of the eighties political landscape – the glorification of capitalism, the conservative conflation of nationalism with patriotism, the bigotry of the religious right, and the ravages of a deadly and mysterious disease – are impossible not to notice from our seats in 2021; and while we may have achieved a respite from the dark days of Trump-ist MAGA-ism, only the most naïve among us would think the threats it posed have been quelled forever. This gives the words and work of Wojnarowicz a timely immediacy, and underscores the need to keep his ferocious, rebellious spirit alive. 

Fortunately, McKim’s film is heavy with the almost corporeal substance of its subject. One can almost feel him in the room while watching it – his presence is immediate, something we experience first-hand, thanks both to the intensity and passion with which he recorded his own life and the skill with which McKim delivers him to us nearly three decades after his death. This was a man who was more than an artist; he was an incendiary rebel who saw his own body as a weapon against an establishment, and McKim honors that spirit by bringing him to tangible life before our eyes. 

The resulting film packs a cumulative punch that leaves us feeling both humbled and inspired, while also enjoining us to take up the torch of its subject’s righteous rage. 

Based on what it shows us, he would be proud.

Continue Reading
Advertisement

Theater

Broadway gathers to honor Sondheim in Times Square

They were gathered to pay homage to legendary Tony, Academy Award, and Grammy Award-winning composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim

Published

on

Broadway gathers to honor Stephen Sondheim (Screenshot via YouTube)

NEW YORK – Light snow flurries swirled around the stars of theatre and stage of New York City’s ‘Great White Way’ as they gathered Sunday in Times Square- members of every Broadway company assembled singing in a powerful chorus “Sunday,” the powerfully emotional act one finale to “Sunday in the Park with George.”

They were gathered to pay homage to legendary Tony, Academy Award, and Grammy Award-winning composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim. That piece being performed had garnered Sondheim a Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1985.

Broadway’s best were joined by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Sara Bareilles, Josh Groban, Kathryn Gallagher and Lauren Patton at ‘Sunday’ Performance in Times Square.

The man who was heralded as Broadway and theater’s most revered and influential composer-lyricist of the last half of the 20th century died at 91 Friday at his home in Roxbury, Connecticut.

“This felt like church,” Bareilles told Variety after the performance on Sunday. “In his remembrance, we did what theater does best. We sang and raised our voices and came together in community.” 

Variety also noted that during the celebration, Miranda offered a sermon of sorts. Foregoing a speech, he opened Sondheim’s “Look I Made A Hat,” an annotated anthology of the composer’s lyrics, and read from a few passages before the crowd.

“Sunday” from Sunday in the Park with George memorial for Stephen Sondheim

Continue Reading

Movies

‘Tick, tick… BOOM!’ explodes with the love of Broadway

A perfect film for fans of musical theater

Published

on

Andrew Garfield shines in ‘Tick, Tick… BOOM!’ (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

If you are a person who love musical theater – or if you know someone who does – then you know there is something about this particular art form that inspires a strong and driving passion in those who enjoy it, often to the point of obsession. For this reason, perhaps it’s no surprise that those who work in musical theater – the creators, performers, and all the other people who make it happen – are often the biggest musical theater lovers of all.

Because of this, “tick, tick… BOOM!” (the new film directed by Lin-Manuel “Hamilton” Miranda and written by Steven “Dear Evan Hansen” Levenson) might be the most perfect movie ever made for such fans. Adapted from an autobiographical “rock monologue” by Jonathan Larson, it follows the future “Rent” composer (Andrew Garfield) for a week in the early 1990s, when he was still an unknown young Broadway hopeful waiting tables in a New York diner. He’s on the cusp of turning 30, a milestone that weighs on his mind as he prepares for a showcase of a musical that he hasn’t quite finished – even though he’s been writing it for eight years. With limited time left to compose the show’s most crucial number, his race against the clock is complicated by major changes in his personal life; his lifelong best friend Michael (Robin de Jesús) has quit acting in favor of a five-figure career in advertising, and his girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp) is moving away from the city to accept a teaching job and wants him to come with her. With reminders everywhere of the ongoing AIDS epidemic still raging in the community around him, and with his own youth ticking away, he is inevitably forced to wonder if it’s time to trade in his own Broadway dreams for a more secure future – before it’s too late.

As every musical theater fan knows, the young composer’s obsession with time (hence the title) is laced with bittersweet irony in the context of what eventually happened in his real life: the day before “Rent” opened on Broadway and became a smash hit that reshaped and expanded the boundaries of what musical theater could be, Larson died of an aortic aneurysm at the age of 35. He never lived to see the full fruition of all those years of hard work, and that tragic turn of events is precisely what makes “tick, tick… BOOM!” relevant and provides its considerable emotional power. In that light, it’s essentially a musical “memento mori,” a reminder that the clock eventually runs out for all of us.

That doesn’t mean, however, that it’s not also a celebration of life in the theater, and Miranda is probably better suited than anyone to make us see that side of the coin. Now unquestionably in the highest echelon of status as a Broadway icon, he came of age in the era of “Rent,” and he takes pains to make his depiction of Manhattan in the ‘90s as authentic as possible.

Capturing the era with touches like Keith Haring-inspired murals and the use of “Love Shack” as a party anthem, his movie keeps Larson’s story within the context of his time while drawing clear connections to our own. His reverence for Larson – whom he cites as a seminal inspiration for his own future work – manifests itself palpably throughout. Yet despite that (or perhaps because of it), so does an infectiously cheery tone. Yes, things get heavy; there are hardships and heartbreaks at every turn, because that’s what a life in the theater means. But at the same time, there’s just so much fun to be had. The camaraderie, the energy, and the joy of simply living in that world comes leaping off the screen (often thanks to the enthusiastic choreography of Ryan Heffington) with the kind of giddy, effortless ease that might almost make us jealous if it didn’t lift our spirits so much. No matter that the lead character spends most of the movie second-guessing his path; we never doubt for a moment that, for him, the rewards of following his passion outweigh the sacrifices a thousand times over.

That’s something Miranda also understands. His movie drives home the point that the joy of doing theater is its own reward, and he’s willing to prove it by turning up in a bit part just for the sake of being a part of the show. And he’s not the only one. The screen is littered with living legends; in one memorable sequence alone, a who’s-who of Broadway’s brightest stars – Chita Rivera, Bernadette Peters, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Andre DeShield, Bebe Neuwirth, Joel Grey, and at least a dozen more – serve as a high-profile backup chorus of extras for a song at the diner, but there are blink-and-you’ll-miss-them cameos in almost every scene. It almost feels like a gimmick, or an effort to turn the movie into a “spot the star” trivia game for hardcore fans – until you realize that these are the best and brightest people in their field, who have willingly chosen to show up and participate even though they did not have to. They are there purely for love, and you can see it in their faces.

Miranda scores big across the board as a director – this is his feature film directorial debut, which confirms the standing assumption the man can do anything. But “tick, tick… BOOM!” is a star turn for its leading player, and full credit must also go – and emphatically so – to Garfield, who surpasses expectations as Larson. The one-time “Spiderman” actor trained extensively to be able to master the demands of singing the role, and it shows; he comes off as a true musical theater trouper, worthy beyond doubt of sharing the screen with so many giants. Even better, he integrates that challenge into the whole of a flamboyantly joyful performance that makes Larson endearingly, compellingly three-dimensional. It’s a career-topping piece of work.

The rest of the principal cast – a refreshingly inclusive ensemble that reminds us that Larson was instrumental in making Broadway a much more diverse place – are equally fine. De Jesús gets a long-deserved chance to shine as Michael, and Shipp brings a quiet calm to the easily-could-have-been-overshadowed Susan that makes her the perfect balance to Garfield’s high-octane energy.

Joshua Henry and Vanessa Hudgens contribute much more than their stellar vocal talents to their pair of roles as Larson friends and collaborators, and there are delicious supporting turns by Judith Light and Bradley Whitford – who gives an affectionately amusing and dead-on accurate screen impersonation of Broadway legend-of-legends Stephen Sondheim, one of Larson’s (and Miranda’s) biggest influences and inspirations, who accordingly looms large in the story despite his relatively short amount of screen time.

It should be obvious by now that “tick, tick… BOOM!” is a delight for people who love musical theater. But what if you’re not one of those people? The good news is that there is so much to enjoy here, so much real enjoyment, so much talent, so much hard work on display that nobody will have any reason to be bored.

Even people who DON’T love musical theater.

Continue Reading

Books

James Ivory on movies, beauty — and a love of penises

If you enjoy film and wit you’ll love ‘Solid Ivory’

Published

on

(Book cover image courtesy of Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

‘Solid Ivory: Memoirs’
By James Ivory
C.2021, Farrar, Straus & Giroux
$30/399 pages

Few things have been more pleasurable to me during the pandemic than Merchant/Ivory films. COVID becomes a dim memory as I ogle the costumes, beautiful vistas from Italy to India, music and spot-on dialogue of “A Room with a View,” “Maurice,” “Remains of the Day” and other Merchant/Ivory movies.

For decades, fans from gay men to grandmas have enjoyed these films, directed by James Ivory and produced by Ismail Merchant in partnership with the writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.

In “Solid Ivory,” Ivory, 93, gives us his memories of movie making, growing up gay, his decades-long romantic and professional partnership with Merchant and (you’re reading this correctly) the penises he has known.

If you believe that elders don’t enjoy sex, Ivory’s memoir will blow your ageism to smithereens.

From watching the movies he’s directed and knowing his age, you might think (as I did) that Ivory would be shy about talking of his sexuality. Wow, was I wrong!

Ivory appreciates penises as a sommelier savors fine wine.

Ivory knew that he liked boys early on. Ivory recalls playing at age seven with a boy named Eddy. He and Eddy were “putting our penises into each other’s mouths,” Ivory writes, “…I made it clear that Eddy’s dick must not touch my lips or tongue, nor the inside of my mouth. I had learned all about germs at school by then.”

Though Ivory and Merchant were devoted partners, they each had other lovers. Bruce Chatwin, the travel writer who died from AIDS, was Ivory’s friend, and sometimes, lover.

Chatwin’s penis was “Uncut, rosy, schoolboy-looking,” Ivory writes.

Ivory’s memoir isn’t prurient. His sexuality doesn’t overpower the narrative. It runs through “Solid Ivory” like a flavorful spice.

The book is more an impressionistic mosaic than a chronological memoir. Ivory, often, tells the stories of his life through letters he’s written and received (from lovers, friends and professional contacts) as well as from diary entries.

Many of the chapters in the memoir were previously published in other publications such as The New Yorker.

“Solid Ivory” was originally published in a limited edition by Shrinking Violet Press. The Press is a small press run by Peter Cameron, a novelist, and editor of “Solid Ivory.” Ivory grew up in Klamath Falls, Ore. He was originally named Richard Jerome Hazen. His parents changed his name when they adopted him.

Some of the most engaging moments of the memoir are when Ivory writes about what life was like for a child during the Depression.

Ivory’s father lost his savings when the stock market crashed, and his mother frequently gave food to “tramps” who came to the door.

His “eating tastes were definitely formed during the Depression,” Ivory writes.

Since that time, Ivory has lived everywhere from England to Italy. “But although I consider myself an advanced expert in the more sophisticated forms of cuisine,” Ivory writes, “My gastronomical roots remain dug deep in the impoverished soil of the American Depression.” Ivory became smitten with movies when he saw his first picture when he was five.

He and Merchant, a Muslim from India who died in 2005, fell in love when they met on the steps of the Indian consulate in New York in 1961. I wish Ivory had written more about the 30+ movies that he made (mostly with Merchant and Jhabvala, who died in 2013).

Yet, he provides tantalizing recollections of filmmaking, actors and celebs.

The chapters on “Difficult Women like Raquel Welch and Vanessa Redgrave” are fun to read.

Welch, a bombshell brat, doesn’t want to play a love scene in “The Wild Party.” During the filming of “The Bostonians,” Boston is captivated by the drama of Redgrave’s off-screen politics.

Ivory isn’t that impressed when in 2018, at age 89, he becomes the oldest Academy Award winner when he receives the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for “Call Me By Your Name.” “Its fame eclipses even Michelangelo’s David and the Statue of Liberty,” Ivory says, with irony, of the Oscar statue.

If you enjoy the movies, beauty and wit, you’ll love “Solid Ivory.”

Continue Reading
Advertisement
Advertisement

Follow Us @LosAngelesBlade

Sign Up for Blade eBlasts

Popular