L.I.E. Has Three Memorable Moments of Truth; Bravo, Vengo

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

Three scenes
keep L.I.E. off the trash pile. Here are two of them: First, when
high school student Howie Blitzer (Paul Franklin Dano) finally susses out the
sentimental weakness of local pedophile Big John (Brian Cox), recites a Walt
Whitman poem to him, takes an outdoor piss–making sure John is watching–and
then walks away. Second, when Howie is abandoned by his father and seeks solace
at Big John’s; instead of sex the older man teaches him to shave–a
fatherly, loving gesture.

In these moments
director Michael Cuesta’s debut distinguishes itself as more than just
an indie calling-card and more admirable than one of Larry Clark’s chickenhawk
fantasies. Each of these remarkable scenes–from the script by Stephen M.
Ryder and Gerald and Michael Cuesta–adds fascinating complication to the
film’s premise about men (young or old) whose lives are lies. (That’s
the import of the awkward title, which is also an abbreviation for the Long
Island Expressway–a strained metaphor for life’s dangerous thoroughfares.)
Cuesta unmasks hypocritical Long Island: the Jewish Howie suffers bigoted taunts;
affluent parents like Howie’s father Marty (Bruce Altman) hide their criminal
dealings; and males from Howie and his trampy best friend Billy (Gary Terrio)
to Big John, the community hero, mother’s favorite son and nighttime pimp,
create a small-time sexual pornocracy to vent their conflicting sexual impulses.
Intent on defining a troubled place, Cuesta centers his film on its
characters’ emotional contradictions.

adult potential complements Big John’s damaged manhood. From a first sinister
encounter (after Billy coerces Howie into stealing Big John’s gun collection),
their relationship reveals common suffering and parallel histories of misled
affection–Howie’s bad-boy teasing with Billy and Big John’s closeted
exploits. This all looks like typical quasi-gay indie stuff until Big John responds
to Howie’s poetry-pissing coquetry with a question that shows the sudden
reversal of power: "Are you seducing me?" These two social casualties,
from different generations, have discovered each other’s soft spots. Howie
knows how to seduce only because he senses that Big John shares many of his
own stifled interests–and at last the kid has the chance to flash them.
The seduction isn’t only sexual, it is, more importantly, one of emotional
affinity. Cuesta doesn’t always gauge that correctly; some of the bare-chested
shots of Howie and his Joe Dallesandro nips dare delectation rather than candor.
It’s as if Cuesta were manipulating his subject rather than exploring it.
But in the later shaving scene, staged in the dark, gloomy house where Big John
lives with another kept adolescent, Cuesta’s titillation unravels, leaving
something unexpectedly ambiguous and surprisingly frank. Howie’s submission
to Big John’s desire (complete with the threatening device of a straight
razor) seems horror movie cheap (or homophobic), but then what starts out lurid
turns toward filial intimacy.

And then there’s
’s third good scene–almost a coda to the second–where
Howie aggressively but chastely displays his affection. Here, the film achieves
a combination of emotional and erotic power once associated with Visconti (especially
Rocco and His Brothers and Conversation Piece). Aside from that
Spielberg film there’s no other American movie this year with a scene that’s
half as affecting. Howie and Big John’s problems are resolved in stock,
not necessarily believable, ways that suggest the filmmakers’ intentions
were not as profound as what they discovered on the way. L.I.E. starts
off as a Peyton Place expose but somehow–in Dano’s sincere
performance, in the sensitivity to Big John’s pathos–the film gets
to the essence of men’s personal, sexual interaction. For anyone sick of
the lies Larry Clark tells about errant sexuality, L.I.E. offers three
memorable moments of truth.


Directed by Tony Gatlif

Junior media
execs crammed into the screening for Marky Mark’s Rock Star, and
none of them guffawed at the film’s many ludicrous, patently false representations
of metal and other pop music cultures. Their respect for "the product"
was greater than their sense of truth. Not nearly as many people attended the
screening of Vengo, but it’s a far better movie. Vengo not
only resists glorifying careerism but it shows respect for flamenco by seriously
explicating its emotional roots.

Set near Seville,
Vengo’s story shows a rivalry between two clans of flamenco-loving
families. Both tortured by a history of senseless killings and blood feuds,
the handsome, black-garbed men flock to the musicians and singers who make art
of anger and passion. ("Your death burns me!" a singer testifies.)
There isn’t the contemporary American puritanical alarm here that these
folk artists irresponsibly encourage murder. Instead, Vengo follows suave
Caco (Antonio Canales) in loyalty to his family and mourning his daughter, as
he gathers strength from having his need for vindication explained, recognized,
validated. Problem is, the warring Caravaco family seek the same emotional sanction.
When the two sides converge on the deck of a cruise ship–amid the furor
of performers in spangly costumes, bright red and blue veils and wine hoisted
in gold-trimmed goblets that sparkle against the black night sky–Vengo
verifies the deep and immediate ecstasy of folk culture as few movies ever have.
Next to this, the pyrotechnics and gender-bending makeup of Rock Star
belong in kindergarten.

Too bad America
has no equivalent to Vengo’s director Tony Gatlif–an anthropological
visionary who makes movies that accurately imagine a culture’s ethnic history.
(He won deserved international acclaim for the 1993 Latcho Drom, a joyous,
widescreen musical history of Gypsy culture from its origins in Asia and expansion
to Western Europe.) Vengo’s brilliance comes from the way Gatlif
transforms his anthropological curiosity into wonderful fiction without cheapening
the music or the emotions behind it like Rock Star, Almost Famous
and almost every piece of mainstream hiphop criticism. Hiphop, especially, has
foundered of late because of misreadings and aberrant celebrations by journalists
and media execs who only want their basest prejudices–or their careers–enhanced.
That’s why they encourage hiphop’s romanticizing of American pathologies.
Vengo enhances flamenco in better ways than Carlos Saura’s stodgy,
ethnomusicological films like El Amor Brujo.

Gatlif has
innovated the roots musical. Vengo is another widescreen spectacular
(blessedly not shot in digital video, therefore the images have sweep, the colors
are vivid and detailed and the soundtrack gives amazing depth and clarity to
handclaps, dance steps and the vocal timbre of various singers). One dark-haired,
hard-staring woman, La Caita, seems pure Gypsy–her voice raspy, coarse
and emotional. "Hurray for art!" soldiers shout to her. And Gatlif
connects the violence on the Andalusian plains to the thunderous music, clapping
and dancing. Gatlif the artist is somewhat like Caco, whose devotion to his
handicapped nephew Diego (Orestes Villasan Rodriguez) is tied to an overall
ethnic appreciation; pride defines both men’s endeavors. Born in 1948,
Gatlif is of the rock generation, with an intense love for the musical culture
he grew up with, yet he puts that experience and energy into film, making roots
music culture a great visual experience as well. (Last year’s Korean song
film Chunhyang attempted something similar.)

Despite Vengo’s
thin thread of a story, it works like a concept album; every scene presents
an extravagant yet thematically connected moment. A Caravaco threat to "Get
your knives out!" jumps to Caco picking pomegranates, his knife thrusting
among the tree branches. Gatlif’s constant juxtaposition of violence and
nature, emotion and existentialism, is a unique kind of movie lyricism. It also
helps that Gatlif’s knowledge of folk verities gives his storytelling classical
clarity. Vengo’s clannish compulsions feel Shakespearean-rich rather
than film-noir hip.

Though not
quite as fully dramatized as, say, Zorba the Greek (still the ranking
modern view of timeless ethnic customs), Vengo at least avoids the tainted
chic of Spain-set films like Sexy Beast and Stephen Frears’ The
and of Hype Williams’ Belly. Gatlif’s sense of ethnic
tragedy feels fresh–and unsentimental. After buying a whore for his pitiful
nephew, Caco inquires about the fun but is surprised by the sincerity of Diego’s
response: "It was good, but it wasn’t love." Scenes like that
make Vengo extraordinary. Seeing it should make you despise the idiocy
of Rock Star, the shrillness and superficiality with which American writers
and filmmakers have responded to their own musical culture.

takes folk art seriously. An aged female singer, El Moror, a gray-haired woman
with a still strong, percussive voice (flamenco was a vocal art before it was
a dance), shouts, "My soul, it hurts so bad. I’m telling you all because
I’ve loved too much." Such direct performance stirs up the Andalusian
spirit (including its infamous, all-too-human lack of reason). Gatlif also includes
flamenco’s Arab and African influences, sometimes visualizing the cultural
mix–as in a montage of Caco’s delirium. Images of a fly, dervishes,
a funeral, a photo, a spider are better than Apocalypse Now’s opening
montage to the Doors’ "The End," because they’re about something
clear, something you can feel.

By concentrating
on flamenco’s rituals of vengeance, Gatlif shames how much we disrespect
our culture when appreciating it only as product and not as soul or social expression.
The simplicity of hiphop’s and classic blues’ Saturday rituals is
now interfered with by social deprivation and perpetuated by various media execs.
Our own cultural industry has confused pure feeling, pure theater, pure art.
Its essence is lost and distorted with almost every new hit–and with garbage
like Rock Star. Gatlif commemorates flamenco music’s personal tragedies
to avoid a greater cultural tragedy. Bravo.