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Fiennes’ fine film

Actor-turned-director gives bold, homoerotic spin on Shakespeare classic

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The final image in Ralph Fiennes’ fine adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus” is riveting — two men in a war-torn landscape locked in a deadly embrace. Their final coupling sums up the passionate love-hate relationship and the series of personal and political betrayals that have led them to this fatal climax.

One of the men is the Roman general Caius Martius (played by director Fiennes) and the other is his sworn enemy, the Volscian leader Tullus Aufidius (played with brooding intensity by Gerard Butler, probably best known to gay audiences as the title character in the movie version of “The Phantom of the Opera” and the buff, scantily clad Spartan general in “300.”) When the movie opens, Martius is at the top of his game. He brutally but effectively suppresses an uprising by the starving plebians and almost single-handedly halts an attack on Rome by the Volscian army. (He is given the honorific Coriolanus to mark his conquest of the Volscian city of Corioles.) The tables turn, however, when his mother and their well-meaning patrician friends try to push the warrior into a political career. The skills that serve him so well on the battlefield (rage, invective, decisive action, foolhardy risk-taking) fail him in the public sphere. The fallen war hero is banished from Rome and joins forces with his former Volscian enemies.

Screenwriter John Logan (Gladiator) does an excellent job of streamlining and updating Shakespeare’s timeless and timely tale. He and Fiennes present the story in a modern-day setting yet retain the richness of Shakespeare’s language, story and characters. The text is tidily trimmed throughout, but the only major excision is the famous fable of the belly, a charming parable used to keep the lower classes in check. Several expository scenes and messenger speeches are transferred with great facility to television anchors and pundits (on the wittily named Fideles TV). Battle scenes were shot in Belgrade and most of the secondary roles are filled by Serbian actors. Cinematographer Barry Atkinson (who worked with Fiennes on the award-winning The Hurt Locker) captures the noise, rage, terror and brutality of contemporary warfare in horribly effective detail. The savage intensity of the battle scenes contrasts nicely with the suave treachery of the political scenes.

Fiennes and Logan also follow Shakespeare in highlighting the homosocial bonds between the politicians and the soldiers and the explicitly homoerotic nature of the relationship between Coriolanus and Aufidius. Soldiers routinely greet each other by declaring they are happier to see their returning colleagues than they ever were to see their wives. Politicians taunt each other with charges of feminine or boyish behavior. Aufidius declares that Coriolanus is his enemy, yet welcomes him gladly to the Volscian camp. Under Fiennes’ assured direction, the two men literally cannot keep their hands off each other, yet they cannot stop battling for dominance. Their smoldering glances burn up the screen and their scary fight scenes only stop when one of the participants loses consciousness.

Fiennes’ focus on the homosocial and misogynistic world of the battlefield and the halls of power (in this case, smoke-filled bars, marble hearing rooms and brightly lit television studios) give a clear context for Vanessa Redgrave’s chilling performance of Coriolanus’ monstrous mother Volumnia, clearly one of the most intelligent people in this Rome, but there she has no effective outlet for her brains or passion. Instead of participating in the great events at the Capitol, she is forced to watch them unfold on TV. Her thwarted ambition is poured into her son, an inadequate vessel for her grand dreams, and the result is tragedy. Redgrave shines in every scene, whether chastising her daughter-in-law for her fears, tenderly dressing her son’s wounds, attacking the opposition or pleading with her son to return to Rome. The picture of Redgrave as Volumnia giddily applauding her warrior son while wearing the same junior military uniform as her young grandson is an unforgettable image of the societal price of sexism.

The rest of the cast is also uniformly strong. Brian Cox (Menenius) and John Kani (Cominius) give nuanced performances as leaders of the patrician party and they are well matched by the oily Tribunes of the People, James Nesbitt (Sicinius) and Paul Jesson (Brutus). Newcomer Jessica Chastain (“The Help”), one of the breakout performers of 2011, makes a surprisingly vivid impression as Coriolanus’ wife Virgilia, who he describes as “my gracious silence.”

For many years, “Coriolanus” was rarely produced, although there has been a resurgence of interest in the play in recent years. Shakespeare’s tricky political tale is very well-served by first-time director Ralph Fiennes (who has played the role onstage). He deserves extra credit for highlighting the homoerotic undertones that many directors shy away from, especially since the end result is a nuanced and fascinating portrayal of thwarted ambition, military bravado and political treachery. This is not a warm and fuzzy film, but it is a compelling and important one.

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PHOTOS: High Heel Race

Spectators cheered along drag queen contestants for the 24th annual event

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@dragqueenathena and Dan won the 24th annual High Heel Race. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The 34th annual High Heel Race was held along 17th Street on Oct. 26. The winners this year were @dragqueenathena and “Dan.” D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, D.C. Police Chief Robert Contee and members of the D.C. Council joined drag queen contestants and hundreds of spectators for the event.

(Washington Blade photos by Michael Key)

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Movies

New music documentary is ‘Velvet’ perfection

A piece of pure cinema that exemplifies its genre while transcending it

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The Velvet Underground (Photo courtesy of Apple TV)

When it comes to great music documentaries – the ones that stick with you after you watch and make you want to come back to them again and again – there is one ingredient that stands out as a common thread: immediacy.

From D.A. Pennebaker’s fly-on-the-wall chronicle of young Bob Dylan’s 1965 tour of the UK in “Don’t Look Back,” to Martin Scorcese’s joyful document of The Band’s final concert performance in “The Last Waltz,” to Jonathan Demme’s thrilling cinematic rendering of the Talking Heads in performance at the peak of their creative genius in “Stop Making Sense,” all of these now-revered films have endured – indeed, even grown – in popularity over the years because they captured the talent, the personality, and the power of their subjects on celluloid and preserved it for the ages, allowing generations of audiences, fans and soon-to-be-fans alike, to feel as if they were there.

But none, perhaps, have ever done it quite so viscerally as Todd Haynes’ “The Velvet Underground.” This is a remarkable feat when you consider that the films listed above, as well as most of the other highly regarded “rockumentaries” of the past, were all concert films, showing the performers at their center in the full bloom of their musical gifts, and Haynes’ film is not that. It’s something else, something singular, a piece of pure cinema that exemplifies its genre while transcending it entirely.

The basic outline of the band’s story is well known, now. Coalesced in the early ‘60s New York art scene around a pair of charismatic geniuses (John Cale and Lou Reed), the Velvet Underground was swept into the orbit and under the wing of Andy Warhol, who turned them into the house band at his famous “Factory,” added to their mix an exotic European chanteuse named Nico, and launched their record career by producing their first album – and designing an instantly iconic cover for it featuring a banana, to boot. They were, for a while, the darlings of the New York underground set, birthing a handful of additional albums across the latter years of the decade; but their sound, which was experimental, rough, and a far cry from the flower-power sound being embraced within the status quo of Middle American music fans, did not catch on. That, combined with the volatility of the relationships at its core, ensured an ignoble and unsung dissolution for the band; though its two front men went on to forge expansive solo careers on their own, the Velvets themselves remained a kind of blip, an ephemeral presence in the history of rock – and the history of New York – remembered by anyone who wasn’t actually on the scene as nothing more than a buzzy band they never actually heard with a catchy name and a familiar album cover.

As one of the voice-over interviewees in Haynes’ movie points out, however, the counterculture wasn’t actually the counterculture – it was the culture. The rest of the world just didn’t know it yet. Decades later the Velvet Underground is credited with, among other things, providing early inspiration for what would become the punk rock movement, to say nothing of influencing the aesthetic palate of (surely without exaggeration) thousands of musicians who would go on to make great music themselves – often sounding nothing like the Velvets, but somehow cut from the same raw, edgy, white-hot honest cloth, nonetheless. Yet in their moment, they were doomed before they had even begun to become a sideshow attraction, hurling performative realness in the face of a curious-but-disinterested glitterati crowd that was already embodying the superficial fakeness that would be so aptly monikered, both as an ethos and a watchword, as “Plastics” by Buck Henry and Mike Nichols in “The Graduate” barely a year after their first album was pressed.

Frankly, it’s the kind of story that makes for a perfect rock ‘n roll legend, and the kind of legend that deserves to be explored in a film that befits its almost mythic, archetypal underpinnings. There’s nobody more qualified to deliver that film than Todd Haynes.

Haynes, of course, is a pioneer of the ‘90s “New Queer Cinema,” whose body of work has maintained a consistent yet multi-faceted focus on key themes that include outsider-ism, dysfunctional socialization, and the fluid nature of sexuality and gender. Each and any of these interests would be enough to make him a perfect fit as the person to tell the story of the Velvet Underground, but what gives him the ability to make it a masterpiece is his ongoing fascination with music and nostalgia. Beginning with his controversial debut short “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story,” the musical landscape of his formative years has been inseparable from his milieu, and films such as his glam-rock fantasia “Velvet Goldmine” or his post-modernist Dylan biopic “I’m Not There” have dotted his career like cornerstones. Likewise, his painstaking recreation of the past in period pieces like “Far From Heaven,” “Carol,” or “Wonderstruck” has proven his ability not just to capture the look and feel of a bygone era, but to transport audiences right back into it.

In “The Velvet Underground,” it’s more like he transports the era to the audience. His comprehensive chronicle is not just the story of the band or its members, but the story of the time and place that allowed them to exist, in which a generation waking up from the toxic artificiality of their parents’ “American Dream” took creative control of the future through an unprecedented explosion of art and culture. Art was a by-any-means-necessary endeavor that now demanded a fluency across various forms of media, and a blending together of any and every thing that worked to get the message across. And yes, sometimes the media itself was the message, but even within that depressingly superficial reality was room for an infinite layering of style and substance that could take your breath away.

That description of the era in which the Velvet Underground thrived, in which Andy Warhol turned the shallow into the profound (whether he knew it or not), in which music and film and photography and poetry and painting and every other form of expression blended together in a heady and world-changing whirlwind, is also the perfect description of Haynes’ film. Yes, there are famous veterans of the age sharing their memories and their insights, yes there is copious archival footage (including the godsend of Warhol’s filmed portraits of the legendary faces in his orbit), yes we get to hear about Lou Reed’s struggle with his sexual identity – and it’s refreshing that Haynes makes no effort to categorize or finalize that aspect of the rock legend’s persona, but merely lets it be a fact. But even though “The Velvet Underground” checks off all the boxes to be a documentary, it’s something much more. Thanks to Haynes’ seamless blend of visuals, words, history, and – always and above all – music, it’s a total sensory experience, which deserves to be seen in a theater whether you subscribe to Apple TV or not. It puts you right in the middle of a world that still casts a huge shadow on our culture today.

And it’s unforgettable.

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PHOTOS: Best Of LGBTQ DC party

Blade’s 20th annual awards celebrated at Hook Hall

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Cake performs at the Best of LGBTQ D.C. Awards Party on Oct. 21. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The Washington Blade presented the 20th annual Best of LGBTQ D.C. Awards at a party at Hook Hall on Thursday, Oct. 21. To view this year’s winners, click here.

Event sponsored by Absolut, DC Brau and Washington Regional Transplant Community.

(Washington Blade photos by Michael Key)

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