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

Celebrating one of the most controversial artists of the ‘80s

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David Wojnarowicz, gay news, Washington Blade
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.

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Dance icon gets luminous treatment in ‘Ailey’ doc

A real-life story that feels authentic, despite the secrecy of its subject

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A scene from the new documentary ‘Ailey.’ (Image courtesy Neon)

When it comes to the history of dance in America, few names loom larger than that of Alvin Ailey.

A trailblazing pioneer of the art form who blended styles of modern dance, ballet, and jazz into breathtakingly theatrical presentations that explored and uplifted Black experience in American culture, his works earned him accolades and honors throughout a long career that gave him name recognition even among people with little or no interest in dance. His choreographed masterpieces became touchstones within the medium, with many of them still among the most frequently remounted dance productions more than 30 years after his death, and the company he founded in 1969 – the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater – remains one of the most lauded and prestigious dance organizations in the world today. Yet despite his status as one of the most famous American choreographers of the 20th century, there are many today, even among the aficionados of dance, who would be hard-pressed to tell you much about his life.

That’s not entirely due to neglect or lack of interest, as a new documentary by filmmaker Jamila Wignot – simply titled “Ailey” – helps us to understand. Ailey was a genius who kept his private life as far out of the spotlight as possible. As a Black gay man, he was keenly aware of his doubly marginalized status, and rather than inviting controversies that might overshadow the creations he worked tirelessly to bring into the world, he preferred to let the work itself become his public identity. He even took measures to obscure himself after death, ensuring that his passing from AIDS (in 1989, at the age of 58) would be reported as the result of a terminal blood disease.

In Wignot’s dreamily eloquent film, she presents us with a portrait of a man who seemingly sublimated his entire being into the creation of his art, documenting Ailey’s magnificent career with a wealth of archival footage and interviews. Along the way, she also offers exploratory deep dives into the creation and legacy of some of his most iconic ballets, illuminating some of the themes that wove themselves into his body of work throughout his life. Finally, she follows the creative process as dancers at today’s Ailey American Dance Theater work on a new production of “Lazarus,” one of the late master’s most renowned pieces. In the process, she delivers the biographical facts of his life side by side with the artistic passions that drove him, and places it all in the context of the larger cultural history of late 20th century America – as well as how Ailey’s legacy continues to resonate within the changing social dynamics of our own time.

Yet throughout this feast of information, illuminating the facts and counterpointing the remembrances of those who worked at his side, Wignot also gives us Ailey’s own commentary. Culled from recordings and interviews made during his lifetime, this posthumous self-narration of his own story lets us glean for ourselves what insight we may. In retrospect and alongside the memories of his surviving companions, Ailey’s own words tell us more about the man himself than he perhaps meant to do when he said them, inserting a layer of intimacy within the vast scope of the biography as it unfolds, and the film is all the richer for it.

It should come as no surprise that Wignot has painted such a reverent, yet deeply personal portrait of her subject. She’s been inspired by Ailey’s work – and his vision – since attending a performance of the Ailey Dance Theater during her sophomore year at Wellesley College more than two decades ago. Her admiration is evident from the way she gushes about Ailey in her director’s statement about the film.

“Nothing prepares you for the experience of Ailey,” she says. “The emotional, spiritual, aural, and visual overwhelm the senses … Ailey’s dances — celebrations of African-American beauty and history — did more than move bodies; they opened minds. His dances were revolutionary social statements that staked a claim as powerful in his own time as in ours: Black life is central to the American story and deserves a central place in American art and on the world stage. A working-class, gay, Black man, he rose to prominence in a society that made every effort to exclude him. He transformed the world of dance and made space for those of us on the margins — space for Black artists like Rennie Harris and me.”

The Rennie Harris to whom Wignot refers is the founder of Rennie Harris Puremovement, a hip-hop dance theater company based in Philadelphia, who as guest choreographer of the AADT production of “Lazarus” is featured prominently in the film. He is just one of many professional dance veterans whose voices, featured throughout, seem united in singing the praises of Ailey’s passion, creative power, and timeless aesthetic – and Wignot makes sure we don’t have to merely take their word for it.

Like most dance documentaries — or good ones, anyway — the greatest gift of “Ailey” is the chance to see the dancers in motion. It’s a film filled with electrifying footage of some of Ailey’s masterworks, giving us a rare opportunity to revel in the sheer visual poetry of his style. In pursuit of his ideal to capture “truth in movement,” he built choreographed expressions of the Black American experience, executed with grace, strength, and unparalleled beauty. His work celebrated that history while bearing witness to its injustice, with an emphasis on the dignity, humanity, and hope that makes it possible to look toward a transcendent future for all. It was, of course, social activism through art, though Ailey and his original dancers might not have exclusively intended it that way, and it is not an overstatement to say that it changed the world. Wignot cannily gives us the privilege of seeing just enough of it to stand as testament to its impact, and more than enough to make us want to grab the next opportunity to see the Ailey American Dance Theater perform in person.

In the meantime, you are encouraged to seek out “Ailey,” which premiered in NYC on July 23 and expands to theaters nationwide on Aug. 6, to whet your appetite. It’s a documentary that succeeds far more than many others in telling a real-life story that feels authentic, and despite the carefully guarded secrecy of its elusive subject, it presents as true and complete an impression of him as we are likely to get.

Outside of watching his work, that is.

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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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