This week’s column is brought to you by the letter “F.” A pair of documentaries, each available to rent through virtual cinemas, employ profane F words in their titles as they separately capture the energizing spirit of artists giving the middle finger to the establishment.
Director Chris McKim’s film about the queer New York artist, photographer, and activist David Wojnarowicz takes its confrontational title from one of his best-known works. Wojnarowicz: Fuck You Faggot Fucker traces the path of its subject’s life, from his abusive childhood to his career among the East Village art scene that blossomed in the 1980s, to his death from AIDS at the age of 37. Wojnarowicz kept a journal on audio cassette, and McKim uses those recordings, as well as a plethora of fascinating archival material, to recreate the feel and spirit of the fertile subculture that also produced Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Karen Finlay, Richard Kern, and so many others. In more recent interviews, gallerist Grace Mansion and (of course) Fran Lebowitz share their memories of David and that gloriously grimy scene.
Wojnarowicz fled a violently abusive father and ended up hustling on the streets of New York City as a teenager, an experience that, unsurprisingly, influenced much of his later work as well as his unabashed hostility toward hypocrisy and homophobia. His most important personal and artistic relationship was with the photographer Peter Hujar, who became a mentor to the young Wojnarowicz before succumbing to AIDS in 1987. That plague, and the federal government’s willful and deadly neglect toward its victims, inspired some of Wojnarowicz’s most bracing and furious work, which in turn led to him becoming embroiled in the culture wars over funding by the National Endowment for the Arts. (He once sued the Christian moralist Donald Wildmon for illegally reproducing images of his photographs in a pamphlet denouncing them.)
It’s a mark of Wojnarowicz’s ability to provoke that he was still making waves decades after his death: In 2010, an excerpt from his short film A Fire in the Belly was removed from a Smithsonian exhibition following complaints from the Catholic League and threats of reduced funding from Republican politicians. (The clip in question depicted ants crawling on a crucifix.) This incident isn’t mentioned in McKim’s film, but it doesn’t need to be, choosing as the film does to focus on his fervently focused life more than his tragically premature death.
I’ll give you three guesses what the F in F.T.A. stands for, and I’ll even give you a hint. The T stands for “The” and the A stands for “Army.” In 1971, Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland, fresh from making Klute together, and inspired by the increasingly vocal opposition within the military’s rank and file to the war in Vietnam, headlined a sort of countercultural alternative to Bob Hope’s jingoistic USO tours.
Featuring comedy sketches, songs, and ramshackle ribaldry, the show drew appreciative audiences of G.I.s at sites around the Pacific Rim, including Hawaii, The Philippines, Japan, and Okinawa (where rare attention is paid to the Indigenous Okinawan population’s exploitation by both Japanese and American occupiers). While director Francine Parker ably captures the stage shenanigans, providing a contemporaneous portrait of both Fonda and Sutherland as freshly minted icons of the antiwar, anti-square movement, the real treasures in F.T.A. are the scenes of the service members in the audience. Whether laughing uproariously at seeing their superiors lampooned, or expressing their disgust with the American war machine from their perspective as cogs in it, they embody a cynicism and individualism that would be both rare and untolerated in today’s all-volunteer force.
The film was released to theaters in 1972, in the same week that the infamous photo of Fonda posing with a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun gained wide circulation. According to the “cancel culture” of the time, this meant that she became persona non grata to mainstream America, and F.T.A. was summarily yanked from distribution. Most of the film prints were reportedly destroyed, and it became nearly impossible to see for decades. It did have a DVD release back in 2009, but now it’s been digitally restored and features a new introduction from Fonda, the recent recipient of the Golden Globes lifetime achievement award. Perhaps more valuable as time capsule than cinematic treasure, it nevertheless stands as a potent reminder of some of the cultural divides that continue to plague us today.
NEWS & NOTES:
The Hollywood Theater has announced the next installment of its Movie Madness University Online series. Former Oregonian film critic, acclaimed author, skilled raconteur, and all-around upstanding gent Shawn Levy will host “Elastic Time: A Richard Linklater Masterclass.” Over three online sessions in April, Levy will discuss three of Linklater’s best films: Boyhood, Dazed & Confused, and Before Sunset. (And, yes, the Dazed & Confused class will be held on 4/20.) He’ll be joined by author Melissa Maerz, whose recent book Alright, Alright, Alright: The Oral History of Richard Linklater’s ‘Dazed and Confused’ is, shall we say, highly entertaining, and by, not to bury the lead, Linklater himself. Should be a blast. It’s $35 for the three classes (less for Hollywood Theatre members) and you can sign up here.
The Northwest Film Center announced that the winner of the Portland International Film Festival’s Future/future competition, which seeks to reward “boundary-pushing new cinema from emerging filmmakers,” is Fernanda Valadez’s Identifying Features. Valadez’s first feature follows the quest of a mother who is determined to find out what happened to her son after she is told that he died trying to cross the border from Mexico into the United States. Although the festival is over, the movie was, coincidentally, just released on DVD, and can also be rented or purchased online at KinoNow.