starring Glenn Close, Elizabeth Banks, Jesse Bradford, James Marsden
screenplay by Amy Fox, based on her play
directed by Chris Terrio
starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Brady Corbet, Elisabeth Shue, Michelle Trachtenberg
screenplay by Gregg Araki, based on the novel by Scott Heim
directed by Gregg Araki
IT'S ALL GONE, PETE TONG
starring Paul Kaye, Beatriz Batarda, Kate Magowan, Mike Wilmot
written and directed by Michael Dowse
by Walter Chaw Obsessed with doors and passages, façades and captured images, Chris Terrio's Heights takes on the dour, dark, and twisted interpersonal machinations of The Scottish Play its diva Diana (Glenn Close) rehearses for some of the twenty-four hour period covered therein. Heights is a sexual film steeped in betrayals and unmaskings at its root, clothed in symbols for discovery and disguise that are almost literary in their uniform complexity. It's therefore through a cloud of signs that its insular roundelay emerges. Wedding photographer Isabel (Elizabeth Banks), daughter of Diana and fiancée of Jonathan (James Marsden), is fired from her job on the day--on the hour, almost--that a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to cover a foreign war is offered her by an ex-boyfriend. Jonathan, meanwhile, has an ex-boyfriend of his own to suppress as pretty young actor Alec (Jesse Bradford) catches Diana's eye in the hours before she discovers her husband is honouring their open marriage with her understudy. Questions of female sexual jealousy abound, hand in hand with the ruthless barbs of ambition (the price of success weighed against the cost of failure), tied into a messy bow by big ugly truths and the inescapability of our pasts.
Where Isabel hides behind the camera in gestures that remind a little of the unmanned camera that closes Thomas Mann's Death in Venice (notice how she fails to take any pictures at a Jewish wedding ceremony she's sent to cover--a situation complicated by her own impending Jewish wedding), a few nudes of Jonathan threaten to turn up in the exhibition of a long lost gay lover who's suddenly the flavour of the month in the art-chic community. With pictures serving as the instrument of concealment and revelation, a framed photo of a door doubles as an invitation to cinema--a portal pressed beneath glass--even as all the entrances and exits of the film mark transitions in the characters from one of their realities to the next. Photos update the masks of theatre in Heights, thus as Alec sits to watch Diana's Lady Macbeth, what we're engaged in is the process of that transference. The idea that life is a stage, of course, is an ancient one, and the idea that film can be tactile and self-reflexive likewise weathered, so Heights isn't original as much as it's a serious work by a serious writer (Amy Fox) and director (Terrio), both of whom betray an interest in treating film as a viable medium for telling adult tales. Close is transcendent--every scene with her elevates with the force of her subtlety. The picture avoids the temptation to proselytize and contextualize, while its third act especially demonstrates a certain comfort with winsome resolutions, if not flat, aggressive ambiguity. Though it may be just a little better than average, at least it's the kind of debut that suggests a noble direction instead of a typical one. Like the sins of its characters, only time will out.
More troubling by half is veteran maverick Gregg Araki's Mysterious Skin, which feels like a regression from the lawless peak of The Doom Generation (and even the pop-smirk of Splendor) in that his trademark ironic nihilism this time poses as a brazenly inappropriate reference to Psycho for giggles in a situation that calls for shits. Beginning as an ape on flashback nostalgia flicks along the lines of A Christmas Story, it proceeds with a wry equation of molestation with alien abduction--Todd Solondz territory without Solondz's measure of outrage and essential human tenderness. Araki's intellectual remove rears its ugly head again, and in so doing transforms a picture so focused in on the Victorian attitudes still attendant to homosexuality into a puzzle box to no profitable end. Are we still attacking or just representing, safe in the knowledge that those attracted to Mysterious Skin will be predetermined members of the proverbial chorus? Taking the seers in the dark for granted is the first step to obsolescence and, more, there's a lot--a lot--of arrogance in that choice.
The problem with the picture is its suggestion that gays get that way in part because they've been molested, suggesting it no matter how early Araki has eight-year-old Neil (Chase Ellison) confess in voiceover that he finds his little league baseball coach (Bill Sage) sexually hot. Ten years pass between young Neil and teammate Brian's (George Webster) molestations at the hands of their unnamed mentor, with Neil (a magnificent Joseph Gordon-Levitt) now a small-town park hustler and Brian (Brady Corbet) now a sexually-inert sadsack who believes that the black spots he has in his childhood memory are evidence of alien abductions. As Terrio does in Heights, Araki uses still photography as something like an invitation to memory: Coach takes Polaroids of little Neil sucking on Coach's fingers and later that photograph is discovered as the Rosetta Stone to what ails Brian.
The root of dysfunction, then, is homosexual little league coaches. Dig under the mysterious skin of the picture and maybe you find a row of them, offering their Lucky Charms and Twinkies to the picture's relentless gallery of grotesques, not the least of whom is tiny Michelle Trachtenberg, a limited actress weighed down by one of Araki's typical monologues of pop-art awful. (It's a comment on bad, see.) Her fag-hag Wendy warns a chum against falling in love because Neil has a big black sucking hole where a heart's supposed to be. Glib, but it's supposed to be, right? Soon it starts to play like dada, and no matter how offended anyone with a brain in his or her head should be at how gays are generally treated in mainstream entertainments, you reach a point where acting effete and inappropriate stops being meaty and starts being a drag revue. Where it stops being something that demands to be spoken of with thoughtful gravity and starts being something that's safe to disdain, always and again.
More successful in its de facto representation is hyphenate Michael Dowse's It's All Gone Pete Tong, the follow-up to his Canadian headbanger mockumentary debut Fubar. It's another in the growing line of fake documentaries, underscoring how close most documentaries are to fiction in any case. Follow legendary DJ Frankie Wilde (Paul Kaye, transcendent) as he loses his hearing one day, severely hampering his ability to mix at the raves, where he's earned the status of demigod. Interviews with actual club icons are interspersed throughout, but the two-headed monster of a killer soundtrack and a performance all of volatile physicality by Kaye is the real spectacle of the piece. The moment when Frankie realizes that he's got a persistent ringing in his right ear where multi-channel stereophonic used to be is one for the ages: hilarious and sad in the same stroke. His downward spiral is as vertiginous as the path to redemption is arduous, and though it seems just another glib affectation to have flip-flops become Frankie's grail, there is something yet to the idea that the point at which we're connected to the earth becomes the point through which we achieve freedom. An interesting message for a film about myths and legends--that no matter the occupation, no matter the heights or the depths, it's the flat truth that sets you free. Originally published: June 22, 2005.