Bully’s Viewers Should Cry, “How Fake!”

Written by Armond White on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

give up on me, sir!" was s&m gay porn code spoken in American
as a teenager, knocked to the floor by his father, licked blood off
his lip. Lots of similar sexual dishonesty describes Bully, Larry Clark’s
latest tawdry voyeuristic fantasy. While the new film The Adventures of Felix
presents being gay as part of a way to feel free in the world, that hard-earned
fanciful expression is denied by Bully–a regressive film that mixes
a lurid gay sensibility with fake seriousness and sham realism. Clark exploits
the implicit social failures of working-class life. Sneakily enthralled by marginalization,
he presents the frustrations of adolescent sexual confusion and timidity with
a pedophile’s drool. It’s his Columbine wet dream.

Marty (Brad
Renfro) takes punches from high school friend Bobby (Nick Stahl), then strips
at a gay nightclub and makes gay porn videos as Bobby commands him. (He calls
Bobby "Boss.") Both profess to be straight (evoking the best friends
at the start of Pearl Harbor); that, too, is part of Clark’s hustle.
His shamelessness and sexual stealth pander to middle-class curiosity about
poor folks’ (and wild teens’) sexual habits. Passing as hipster anthropology,
Bully isn’t about the shy affection that keeps one (possibly gay)
kid attached to another, it’s just a furtive love story among damaged proles
that turns into a killing spree. Think Boys Don’t Cry without good
intentions, and intentions are basically what separate serious filmmakers from
hacks, honest pornographers from dishonest ones.

Critics praised
Clark for the vile 1995 Kids as if he displayed an interest greater than
just taking ass, crotch and nipple shots of any youth (especially desperate
ones) who’d let him get away with it. Bully encourages more misreading
of Clark’s motives by stressing more of the same lower-class pathology
that Harmony Korine (Clark’s spawn) concocted for Gummo. Plus, Clark’s
got a new alibi: Eminem, the white rapper who inspires Clark’s exploitation
of white teens’ nihilism as they emulate hardcore rap’s black machismo.
Bully gives no hint that what poor blacks do in society’s margins–having
just enough room to destroy themselves–makes for a pitiful white fantasy
of power. It’s merely a source of decadent delectation. Movies from River’s
to I Know What You Did Last Summer told more expressive tales
of adolescent trauma, and Carl Franklin’s little-seen Punk braved
dramatizing a young neighborhood pederast’s isolation. At his most boring,
Clark plays Macbeth (one girl screams, "I smell blood! There’s
blood on my fucking shoe!"), then finger-wagger in the moralizing courtroom

Instead of
exclaiming, "How awful!" Bully’s viewers should cry, "How
fake!" Marty’s girlfriend, the pregnant, unstable Lisa (Rachel Miner),
decorates her room with a Dr. Dre poster and International Male cut-outs.
Bobby’s leering father coaxes him, "You’re smart, you have ambition,
you have presence!" Rent-a-brat Bijou Phillips tells a boy, "You remind
me of my first husband. I’ve got a kid; it’s no big deal, my mom takes
care of it." Laughter’s probably the best response (in case you forget
your raincoat) because Bully only makes sense as a chickenhawk tease.
Clark shoots the tanned Marty like pastry–a sweaty croissant–and Nick
Stahl is cast as trade, presumably as wish fulfillment of his debut role as
boy bait in The Man Without A Face. Clark has earned that title with
his smutty sociology; he’s got a less trustworthy face than pornmeisters
like Paul Barresi and Old Reliable. He’s brought shame to poverty, sex
and the movies. It’s time we give up on Larry Clark.

Adventures of Felix

directed by Olivier Ducastel
andJacques Martineau

Felix (Sami
Bouajila) makes a conquest while hitchhiking on the road to Marseilles. In the
front seat of his pick-up’s car, their eyes meet, their smiles combust.
Later, when both men step out of the woods together–jaunty, post-tumescent–their
satisfaction makes you think, "Thank God for the French!" It’s
the sexiest movie stroll since Sheila E., wearing a one-legged white body stocking,
paced downstage in Sign O the Times.

nothing campy or theatrical in The Adventures of Felix, just the joy
of living, which is a recurring, surprising part of what must be described as
the film’s naturalistic artifice. Felix, who is HIV-positive and
gay, gets laid off during a labor strike and sets out to find the father he’s
never known (but whose last letters to Felix’s mother bore Marseilles postmarks).
En route Felix discovers a lively range of contemporary French people. Whether
urban or exurban, these rueful elders, quizzical youth, busy women, desperate
men relate to Felix happily or unhappily, and their temporary connections suggest
to him his possible place in the world. Sure, the journey’s pointed, but
it’s played with appealing lightness and the buoyancy springs realistically
from the politics surrounding labor, immigration, feminism, sexual orientation
and the family.

Yet it’s
during the countryside trek that Felix shakes off all that anxiety and becomes
unselfconsciously hopeful. He sings a song, "Lift up your eyes to the blue
sky/The sky will show the way to Marseilles/Go to the sea/Father awaits there."
For a moment, the diagnosed gay man of Algerian descent–a poster boy for
Difference–exults in being a part of France, a part of nature. Felix’s
sense of citizenship–of belonging–is quietly moving, similar to the
esprit Jacques Demy created in the quaint towns and fanciful communities of
his best films (Lola, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg).

Olivier Ducastel
and Jacques Martineau, the writing/directing team behind The Adventures of
, are the most sweetly daring of committed filmmakers. They share Demy’s
charmed view of the world but update it to an era when love and sex and art
have been subjected to political scrutiny, thus quantified and disillusioned.
Either their talent is very close to Demy’s genius for everyday piquancy
or Ducastel and Martineau know more than almost anybody out there about combating
disillusionment intelligently, joyously. They evoke the exuberance of a Rufus
Wainwright track but without the grating drone (the actual soundtrack features
an uncanny choice: Blossom Dearie). Attuned to the art of filmmaking, they use
the wide Cinemascope frame, always taking in more of the world. (This is the
only new movie I’ve seen that doesn’t seem measly in the wake of A.I.)
Befitting The Adventures of Felix’s picaresque storyline, the vivid
settings allow us to enjoy the pictorial and social balance of each elegant

In their 1998
debut Jeanne and the Perfect Guy (not an opera but a sung-through musical),
Ducastel-Martineau presented a tale of cultural, sexual and political identity–a
response to the AIDS crisis with uplifting political faith. The Adventures
of Felix
is even more beguiling. They’re smart enough not to make Felix
a paragon, yet they honestly show how he and his boyfriend Daniel (Pierre-Loup
Rajot) stay together through loving, open negotiation. The key to Ducastel-Martineau’s
schematic fiction is the humor they find as characters work toward politically
correct situations. Esthetic and political activists, they use farce as force–which
is not so simple as it sounds. Martineau-Ducastel transcend point-making by
emphasizing actors’ personalities and intellect. When Felix confesses his
fear about witnessing and reporting a crime (which Bouajila acts with even more
endearing desperation), Ducastel-Martineau show that his trepidation makes him
a moral being, if not always a p.c. one. In a way, they’re ideal filmmakers;
they know that by positing political facts of gayness, race, nationality, morality
they vivify Felix’s lust for life.

It’s bold
of Ducastel-Martineau to make the dark-skinned, winning Bouajila their cultural
archetype. Felix’s confrontation with the world, and with himself, reveals
complexes that few gay artists have articulated. That sudden assignation with
the traveling salesman (Antoine Marneur) is so exhilarating because it appreciates
genuine, clear, erotic attraction. Most other gay feature representations of
sexuality seem inhibited and old-fashioned, or brazen yet confused. Over-agonizing
undoes the current Come Undone, a typically worried coming-out story
not helped by being French. Stephane Rideau, the rough trade symbol of France’s
gay art cinema, plays Cedric, the working-class babe who opens Mathieu’s
(Jeremie Elkaim) closeted eyes. Director Sebastien Lifshitz explores the purely
amatory conflicts of coming out. Cedric obsesses Mathieu until he opens up and
moves on to Pierre (Nils Ohlund). It’s a simple tale stuffed with typical
French bourgie filler. Ducastel-Martineau and Andre Techine (who discovered
Rideau in the memorable Wild Reeds) have made us want better.

various encounters provide classic delight–the doctor’s office discussion
where several patients trade reactions to "bitherapy" and "pentatherapy";
matriarchal Mathilde’s (Patachou) discourse on regretful love; a family
outing with Isabelle (Ariane Ascaride), the mother of three children with three
different fathers; even the running gag of Felix’s idiosyncratic tv habits.
Each segment (titled "My Little Brother," "My Grandmother,"
"My Cousin," "My Sister," "My Father") recalls
Demy’s wishful operatic narratives that simplified–and beatified–domestic
crises. Instead of anti-family propaganda, Ducastel-Martineau (probably taking
a cue from Patrice Chereau’s Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train)
enrich our conception of society by suggesting the extended family Felix creates
to substitute for the family he doesn’t have.

In the extraordinary
"My Little Brother" segment, Felix befriends Jules (Charly Segue),
a teenager who develops a fast crush Felix cannot return. For both, it’s
a quintessential (though rarely shown) step toward self-knowledge. Ducastel-Martineau
feature the overlapping platonic, fraternal and sexual feelings that frequently
confound gay men (though I defy any viewer not to smile in warm recognition).
This complex and tender negotiation aces anything in the British Queer as
series. It’s a bracing denial of "transgressive" gay
cliches in favor of more humane complication–as in the ambiguous resolution
of the "My Father" segment. Teaching an old man in Marseilles to fly
a kite, Felix assumes the longed-for filial role and–surprise!–he
doesn’t sacrifice his own maturity. That’s the one relationship Jacques
Demy’s great films never showed. Demy had children in real life (with filmmaker
Agnes Varda) but Ducastel-Martineau are his spiritual offspring. They may always
be in Demy’s shadow, but it’s breezy there.