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Brooding ‘Lizzie’ puts lesbian romance at heart of famous murder

Title character finds kinship with family maid before disaster strikes

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Lizzie, gay news, Washington Blade

Kristen Stewart and Chloë Sevigny in ‘Lizzie.’ (Photo courtesy Saban Films and Roadside Attractions)

Even though the crime of which she was accused took place more than a century ago, the name Lizzie Borden still looms large in the American consciousness.

For those unfamiliar with the details, her father, Andrew, and stepmother, Abby, were brutally murdered with an axe in their Fall River, Mass., house on the morning of Aug. 4, 1892. At the time of the killings, both Lizzie and the household maid, Bridget “Maggie” Sullivan, were at home, but claimed to have seen or heard nothing out of the ordinary. Eventually, Lizzie was arrested and charged with the murders.  After a sensational trial that dominated news headlines across America, she was found innocent by the jury, but has been widely assumed to have been guilty ever since.

Of the countless fictional renderings that have been inspired by this legendary true-crime story, the latest is the simply titled film, “Lizzie,” a dream project of its star, Chloë Sevigny. In development for years, it was slated to be realized as an HBO miniseries until a rival production on the same subject caused the network to pull the plug. Undeterred, Sevigny and her writer, Bryce Kass, bought back the rights and proceeded with production of a feature film instead.

Directed by Craig William Macneill, it stars Sevigny as Lizzie, presented here as a strong-willed and independent woman who chafes at the repression she must endure in the home of her wealthy, mean-spirited father and his cold, callous second wife. When the Bordens hire pretty young Bridget (Kristen Stewart) as their new maid, the lonely Lizzie senses a kindred spirit, turning to her for kindness and comfort. The two women begin a clandestine friendship which deepens into something more, even as the oppressive environment of the household pushes Lizzie ever closer to a breaking point.

Lizzie Borden’s sexuality has long been the subject of speculation — she never married despite the wealth she inherited from her father — but Kass’ screenplay is the first time this possibility has been explored within the context of her alleged crime. It’s a potent addition to the story, but though it plays a part in the way “Lizzie” changes our perspective on these brutal murders, it doesn’t provide an explanation for them. The movie does not take the sensationalist stance of suggesting that a lesbian affair was the real motive behind this notorious crime; the explanation it offers comes from a feminist sensibility that runs much deeper than sexual orientation.  

Lizzie and Bridget — along with all the other women of the late 19th-century world in which they live — are denied agency over their own lives by the whims of a male-centric social structure that deems them as lesser beings, or worse, as possessions. In this light, the murder of the elder Bordens looks like an act of revolution, a blow for freedom struck by a de-facto slave with nothing left to lose and everything to gain.

Kass’ screenplay is able to bring these ideas to the forefront without forcing them, partly because historical record is on his side in reinforcing the idea of masculine autocracy in the Borden household.  Andrew Borden is well-documented to have been a spiteful and parsimonious dictator who ruled his little empire with an iron fist and a stubborn will. Still, it’s not so much that “Lizzie” presents him as a tyrant begging for a fall — although it does — as that it places its emphasis on the slow, cumulative effect of his bullying upon his daughter. We bear witness to a proverbial “death by a thousand cuts” as a smart and self-aware woman, burning for autonomy, is subjected to one humiliation after another, and this century-old piece of history is reframed as an apt and timely fable for the #TimesUp era.

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Will ‘Firebird’ focus attention on Eastern European homophobia?

New film reminds us that equality is still an aspiration for many

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‘Firebird’ is about a young soldier and fighter pilot who fall in love on a Soviet airbase in Estonia.

Retrospective queer films, such as “Milk” (2008), or old classics, such as “Torch Song Trilogy” (1988), share one thing in common: They depict a homophobic world in which queer love faced an iron wall of prejudice — that has largely dissipated in the United States and the West more broadly. Gay audiences can watch these films from a safe distance; we’re dismayed to see how cruel the world once was toward us but we’re relieved that progress has been made and we no longer have to live in secrecy and repression, which amounted to a life half-lived. 

That’s the comforting thought I could not indulge in watching the new Estonian gay love drama “Firebird,” which is currently making the rounds at film festivals and recently had its U.S. premiere in San Francisco. “Firebird” is a beautifully shot film about a young soldier and fighter pilot who fall in love on a Soviet airbase in Estonia. The affair naturally requires discretion (something true for U.S. service members until a decade ago) but even amid the fear that their careers and lives could be upended at any moment if the wrong person stumbled about their liaisons (close calls pop up throughout the film), the two men form a loving bond that stretches over years and long distances. It wouldn’t be unfair to call it a Soviet-era “Brokeback Mountain.” 

No spoilers here but the film does convey the sad fate many gay people suffer when homophobia is inescapable; when gay love and respectability in mainstream society conflict. The film conveys a common tragedy: Individuals compelled to live unfulfilling lives and sacrificing their happiness in order to appease the prejudice of others. A spirit of defiance has always existed alongside this tragedy. Many have opted to preserve their very being rather than conform, no matter the cost of social ostracism. But, if our own history is any guide, most will choose the closest rather than risk being an outcast. In the end, many queers simply lose their essence, and chance at lasting love, living a lie. It’s hard to tell this story (already related in many films and novels) without falling into cliches and a worn-out narrative. “Firebird” avoids those pitfalls and manages to keep its storytelling unique to its circumstances, which, in the end, gives the film an emotionally affecting quality. 

But “Firebird” is more than a beautiful film. It is politically relevant. This isn’t a film about the long-ago unjust reality gay lovers faced but a tale dramatizing the hatred, dilemma, and deep personal anguish that still haunt queer people today in many former Soviet bloc countries. Russia might be the most salient example. The nation’s law banning so-called gay propaganda has been infamous and, sadly, a model for other right-wing governments. Hungary recently passed a law prohibiting depictions of gay people for audiences under 18, precisely the young audiences that need positive gay role models. “LGBT-free” zones have popped up all over Poland, localities where homosexuality is ostensibly non-existent and unwelcome. 

The backsliding on human rights amongst EU member states and American allies cannot be divorced from former President Donald Trump’s devaluation of human rights. Fortunately, President Biden has spoken forcefully on human rights since his inauguration, and the words of the American president matter in those Eastern European countries dependent on American diplomatic and military support, such as Poland and Hungary (both NATO members). But the new administration faces many pressing concerns and gay rights can easily be forgotten. When Russia passed its anti-LGBTQ law in 2013, there was public mobilization in opposition. No similar outcry has greeted Hungary’s copycat law. Public attention needs to be refocused on the threat to LGBTQ+ individuals in Eastern Europe. 

Films have long played an essential role in raising awareness on issues that often seem too complex or too distant for concern. They can humanize injustice, underline the stakes, and present a vision for a better world. As Eastern European nations enact anti-LGBTQ+ laws, “Firebird” (a foreign film released in English) is a clarion call reminding us that for many gay people around the world, equality is still an aspiration. It would be a shame if we watched this film and walked out thinking that the past is past. The tragic love affair at the heart of the drama is the present, too.

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Wahlberg walks for redemption in disappointing ‘Joe Bell’

Bleak film’s tear-jerking tropes produce clunky results

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Reid Miller and Mark Wahlberg star in ‘Joe Bell.’ (Photo by Quantrell D. Colbert; courtesy Roadside Attractions)

If you’ve never heard of the real-life “Joe Bell,” you might spend the first third of the movie that bears his name thinking that you are watching an uplifting story about a father and son taking a marathon walk across America to raise awareness against bullying.

That’s not exactly what is happening, though.

Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green, “Joe Bell” stars Mark Wahlberg as the title character, a rural Oregon dad who undertook a “Walk for Change” in 2013 after his teenage son Jadin was bullied at school for being gay. Intending to journey on foot from Oregon to New York City, Bell connected with people as he travelled, gaining a following on social media and speaking at schools, youth groups, and other community organizations about the devastating effects of bullying, as well as the need for parents to be unconditional in supporting their bullied children – something he himself had failed to do when Jadin’s ordeal was taking place.

Green’s movie puts that inner conflict in high focus by telling Joe and Jadin’s story in an intertwined narrative of past and present events. The domineering, short-tempered father we meet in flashbacks is contrasted with the humbler, gentler dad who engages in banter and sings Lady Gaga with his son on the road. It’s a structure that makes it clear that Joe, once a bit of a bully himself, is walking as much to make amends as to oppose intolerance.

Unfortunately, it’s also a cheat, because the real Jadin – spoiler alert – was never on that walk with his father. After being terrorized in the locker room shower by members of his school’s football team, Jadin ended his own life by hanging himself in an elementary school playground. Joe, who had never been willing to stand up publicly for his son while he was alive, walked alone.

To be clear, the movie does not try to rewrite the real story. Instead, it sets up an end-of-first-act plot twist where we find out that Joe has been talking to a figment of his imagination all along. We get clues, of course, like the fact that other people never seem to engage with Jadin, but these only become apparent in retrospect, after the big reveal.

It’s also after this too that the movie’s tone begins to change, rapidly. Gone is any pretense that we are seeing a feel-good story of family bonding and social advocacy, or that the grim tale of small-town bigotry being spun in the flashbacks is going to lead to a triumphant conclusion, and what we now get is a deeper dive into the soul-searching of a man who recognizes, too late, how his own attitudes and behavior may have played a part in his son’s decision to end his own life. Joe’s walk is a bid for personal redemption, and it’s a difficult journey in ways that are much more painful than the blisters on his feet.

Unfortunately, while it may make for an interesting narrative device, this sudden turn in the movie feels a little like a bait-and-switch. It doesn’t help that “Joe Bell” works overtime to tug our heartstrings with its swelling, elegiac score or its reliance on tear-jerking tropes, nor that the focus on Joe’s inner turmoil effectively upstages Jadin’s torment. Indeed, by making the teen into an otherworldly companion, the movie essentially turns him into a gay saint, cheerfully responsible for shepherding his father toward redemption. While it may not be an intentional effect, it can’t help but feel a little akin to the “magic Negro” cliché that has turned so many well-meaning movies into unintentionally offensive perpetuations of stereotype – to say nothing of begging the question of why the victims of cultural oppression should feel any responsibility at all for helping their oppressors forgive themselves.

Adding still another layer to the vaguely bad taste “Joe Bell” leaves in one’s mouth is the fact that its star once famously revealed in an interview that he had been considered for a role in “Brokeback Mountain” but was glad when he didn’t get it because he was “creeped out” when he read the script. Add to this Wahlberg’s history as a convicted perpetrator of racial violence when he was growing up in Boston – a record that has haunted him for his entire career and for which he has spent a great deal of time and energy trying to atone – and one can only wonder if the actor might be aiming for a bit of redemption himself.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, and as far as his performance goes, Wahlberg certainly seems sincere. The famously conservative macho action star delves to a level of depth and vulnerability we haven’t seen from him since “Boogie Nights,” and it’s hard to imagine an actor who would be a better fit as the conservative, blue-collar Joe Bell. In charting the character’s evolution from toxic alpha masculinity toward a more compassionate world view, he is clearly guided by self-knowledge, and he deserves credit for his bravery in bringing that to the table.

There are other reasons to forgive “Joe Bell” for its clunky and vaguely tone-deaf presentation, most of which come from screenwriters Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry – who also penned the script for “Brokeback Mountain,” ironically enough – and their keen understanding of human nature. They sculpt believable, identifiable characters with a few deft strokes of dialogue, which not only permits us to empathize with them but gives the cast a boost in making them all into fully formed, three-dimensional human beings.

Among the actors who benefit from this are Connie Britton, wearing the patiently weary wisdom of a long-term survivor as Joe’s wife and Jadin’s mother, and Gary Sinise (another actor known for his conservative offscreen views) as a local sheriff who forms a brief friendship with Joe in an intimate and touching scene that is one of the movie’s highlights. Most impressive of all, however, is young up-and-comer Reid Miller, who gives a charismatic and refreshingly unaffected performance as Jadin. It’s largely thanks to him, in fact, that the movie doesn’t come off as just another “gay issues” movie designed to make straight people feel more enlightened.

Yet even if “Joe Bell” avoids that trap, it doesn’t quite rise above the layers of Hollywood sentiment with which it drapes itself. Despite the many small moments of authenticity peppered throughout, there are too many others that are either too precious or too perfunctory, and that makes it hard to care as much about the ones that work. This is especially true in light of its bleakness. Like “Brokeback,” it’s a movie in which the tragedy is unrelenting, and we are left to find whatever scraps of happiness we can find in the ending – but while “Brokeback” had the beauty of an epic love story to transcend its sadness, “Joe Bell” can only leave us to contemplate a senseless waste of a human life.

Faced with that handicap, even with good writing and performances, it’s hard for a movie to be anything but a bummer.

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Dazzling dance doc celebrates legacy of AIDS-era masterpiece

Capturing the will to survive of a beleaguered generation

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‘Can You Bring It’ from co-directors Rosalynde LeBlanc and Tom Hurwitz captures the beauty of bodies in motion. (Photo courtesy Kino Lorber)

Once upon a time in New York City, Bill and Arnie formed a dance company.

They met each other in 1971, falling in love at first sight across a crowded room at SUNY, and spent the next decade exploring their lives and their art together. Arnie was a photographer, at first, but his fascination with the human body and its movement – stoked by his collaborations with Bill, a dancer who was his muse and favorite photographic subject – soon led him to become a dancer himself. Together they found acclaim as a team, creating their own works as part of the American Dance Asylum during a rise that culminated in the birth of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company in 1982. What followed was a brilliant and prolific period in which the two partners were among the most celebrated dance artists in the New York scene.

It was also a period when AIDS was ravaging the dance community, decimating the ranks of companies all over the city and casting its dark shadow over much of the work being produced at the time. Bill and Arnie, charmed as their lives had been, could not escape that shadow, and Arnie Zane died of AIDS-related lymphoma, at the age of 39, in 1988.

That bittersweet true-life love story would make for a profoundly moving documentary on its own strength alone, but the film delivered by co-directors Rosalynde LeBlanc and Tom Hurwitz has its sights on something bigger than that. “Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones and D-Man in the Waters” is the story of what happened after Zane’s untimely passing, and it illuminates the way that art provides a channel for the personal to become universal and give expression to the shared trauma of an entire community.

The new documentary, which debuted at the DOC NYC film festival and opens in select theaters and virtual cinemas nationwide on July 16, is not about Bill and Arnie, nor even about Bill himself – though his name is in the title and he appears extensively onscreen, both in contemporary and archival footage – but about the seminal ballet that came in the wake of Arnie’s passing. “D-Man in the Waters” was mounted in 1989 by Jones and the company he and Zane had started, shaped by a creative process through which both he and his dancers found expression for the myriad emotions spawned by their loss. Set to Felix Mendelssohn’s soaring Octet for Strings, the piece captures the infectious energy, innocence and will to survive of a beleaguered generation, propelled by the non-stop momentum of dancers hurling across the stage in a whirlwind of leaps, rolls, and slides. Though it gives full weight to the inevitable sorrow at its core, it nevertheless maintains an attitude of defiant celebration, embodying strength and resilience over loss, and is widely acknowledged today as one of the most significant works of art to come out of the AIDS epidemic.

“Can You Bring It” utilizes extensive interviews and archival footage to chronicle the history of the original “D-Man” – the title referring to the nickname for Demian Acquavella, a beloved company member who struggled against the virus during its creation before himself dying in 1990 – while also following a contemporary remount of the production by students at Loyola Marymount University. Those students are led by none other than the film’s co-director, Rosalynde LeBlanc (herself a former member of the Jones/Zane Company and a leading figure in maintaining Jones’ legacy and pedagogy), and a large portion of the modern footage is centered around LeBlanc and Jones himself working with these young pre-professional dancers – most of them likely not even born when the AIDS crisis was raging – to help them find the personal connection required to unlock the power of the choreography. Through the juxtaposition of the two creative efforts, original and modern, the movie provides a thoughtful – and unexpectedly gripping – exploration of the process by which art can be adapted to the needs of a different era without losing the essence at its core.

From an intellectual or aesthetic perspective, it’s a rich and nuanced close-up look at the hard work – as much of it mental and emotional as physical – that is the art of dance. What makes “Can You Bring It” profound enough to be an extension of the very piece it documents, however, is the wider lens that allows us to the piece in the context of both periods at once. In 1989, Jones’ tour de force ballet gave physical manifestation to the fear, anger, grief, and hope for salvation that an emerging dance company felt as they were embattled by the AIDS epidemic – but for the group of young dancers tasked with re-interpreting the work three decades later, that experience is something from a history book. To commit to the piece and perform it successfully, they must deepen their understanding of its power – and that means exploring what is at stake in their own personal lives during a troubling time that presents a whole new set of challenges, struggles, and heartbreaks. Needless to say, it’s work not cut out for the faint of heart.

Of course, as any fan of dance documentaries can tell you, the real thrill of such films is the opportunity to see the beauty of bodies in motion, captured up-close on camera and overpowering all other concerns through the transcendent urgency of its perfection. “Can You Bring It” does not disappoint on this level, either.

That should be no surprise. Bill T. Jones, after all, has continued throughout the decades, as has the company he founded with Arnie, which still bears both of their names. He’s gone on to win Tony Awards (for choreographing “Spring Awakening” and “Fela!”), become a Kennedy Center Honoree, and be awarded a MacArthur Grant, over a long career in which he has choreographed more than 120 works, and the dancing we see onscreen all bears the pedigree of having been shaped, either directly or indirectly, by his influence. Add to that the presence of one co-director (LeBlanc) who has been intertwined with his work through most of her own career, and another (Hurwitz) who is one of the most honored documentary cinematographers working today, and you couldn’t ask for a better team to put together a great dance documentary.

Yet what makes a dance documentary truly great is its resonance within a larger world. Dance – and indeed, film, or any other form of art – is at its best when it serves to explore the experience of life itself, through all its levels and nuances. “Can You Bring It” does just that, offering up a lyrical and detailed portrait of artists and their work that is also rich in wisdom, compassion, empathy, diversity, and historical perspective – a testament to the power of art and the triumph of the human spirit.

In a world where the concept of community is often used more to divide us than to unite us, such ideas are a balm for the soul.

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