Social Buttons

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Putting the Homo in Homicide: Swoon at 20

On Thursday, September 13, BAMcinématek celebrates the 20th anniversary of one of the seminal films of the New Queer Cinema movement, Tom Kalin's debut feature Swoon. The program includes a screening of a pair of Kalin's short films at 6pm and a special screening of Swoon at 8pm, followed by a Q&A with Kalin, groundbreaking producer Christine Vachon (Boys Don't Cry, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Far From Heaven), and actors Daniel Schlachet and Craig Chester.

Kalin spoke with us about the film, which retells the story of legendary Chicago killers Leopold and Loeb, and looked back on his role in New Queer Cinema.

1. Swoon was preceded by two other major films about Leopold and Loeb. Did you envision your film in conversation with Rope and Compulsion, as filling in something that was missing in those depictions? And did you draw any inspiration from them?

Though Rope and Compulsion were inspired by Leopold and Loeb, both films indulge in an ambivalent identification with the killers. When Jimmy Stewart and Orson Welles enter their respective pictures, the focus shifts to the moral dilemma of these figures of “the Law.” Movies like Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket or Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde gave me the courage to fully identify with my flawed protagonists and to tell the story from inside the hothouse atmosphere of obsession and murder.

In the original conception of Swoon, Richard Loeb was supposed to be channel surfing in the first scene, changing between Rope and Compulsion on TV. Fortunately I couldn't afford to use clips from these films—the “postmodernism” of this idea is, I fear, too cute. I was, however, inspired by directors like Derek Jarman who include intentional anachronism in their films to ask critical questions about how we perceive “official history.”

Nathan Leopold hated the novel Compulsion (written by Meyer Levin) and tried unsuccessfully to sue for willful misrepresentation of his character. (His autobiography Life Plus 99 Years offers an intriguing correction.) Of the two films, Compulsion cleaves more closely to the facts of the case, in some cases changing only the smallest of details. Some of the anti-Semitism or homophobia embedded in the public reaction to the case finds its way into these films—intentionally or not—and one of my goals was to provoke the audience to look again at the crime and its reception for what they represented about the 1920s and the 1990s.

Finally—as homage—I had considered casting Dean Stockwell as State Attorney Crowe but in the end cast Wooster Group actor Ron Vawter instead. Having the openly gay Vawter (who died of AIDS) play the virulently homophobic Crowe added another intriguing layer of friction.

2. The film is such a rich and compelling visual experience—can you tell us a bit about your collaboration with Ellen Kuras and how you came up with such a striking visual concept?

Remarkably, Swoon was Ellen’s first feature film and first time shooting in black and white. We both had significant backgrounds in photography, and this training and shared visual language quickly forged a bond between us. Hampered by an extremely low budget, we could not afford to process dailies while shooting and instead relied on a series of black and white Polaroids to determine the look of the film. Without the mutual training, and the development of a passionately shared visual language, we would have been lost. I had studied as a painter, and this naïveté about "the rules" of narrative film also served to liberate me and allow for unusual choices.

Swoon was filmed in 14 shooting days (nearly every day six pages of the script was shot) and this breakneck pace and our limited resources forced us to be inventive. Leaving things off camera, relying on the audience’s imagination, showing a detail to stand in for the whole—these approaches helped us to conjure a world far bigger than the one we put on screen. Thinking not literally but expressively was key. We gobbled up the work of directors like Ingmar Bergman or Carl Theodor Dreyer for inspiration.

At the time of the film, many advertisers (notably Calvin Klein) were adopting a "revisionist aesthetic" that quoted from previous eras. I wanted both to reference 1920s style as well as the 1990s reinterpretation of it. So this mixture of silent film era "expressionism,” 1920s still photography, and contemporary fashion work (to name three influences) provided an evocative pool of references and pointed to the style we eventually adopted for the film.

3. Looking back on being an integral part of New Queer Cinema, how do you feel about that movement and its reception? How do you see your work in relation to some of the other major queer filmmakers of our time? In your observation, how does New Queer Cinema compare to queer cinema now?

The late 1980s and early 1990s were socially and politically charged times. Much of New Queer Cinema is impossible for me to disentangle from the Reagan years, the impact of AIDS and the "culture of the 1980s." Organizations like ACT UP revived civil disobedience as an effective political tactic. This desire to both reflect—and change—the world around us was shared by all of the so-called New Queer Cinema directors.

Many of the directors in this "movement" share an interest in genre narrative. (And like all movements defined through criticism there was an ambivalent embrace of being "labelled.") Many of these films tell stories while also being quite self-aware about the process of storytelling itself. This "meta" or "critical" approach is surely reflective of the way we benefited from the directors that preceded us, from Fassbinder to Sirk to the great urgent films of the film noir period, to name just a few.

It's exciting to see another wave of so-called "queer" films and with more films being made to see a diversity of voices and interest. I'm personally intrigued by the political urgency that seems to have bubbled up again. There was a period in the late 90s where many "queer" films turned to domestic drama/comedy and avoided bigger political or social issues. Ultimately I think the solution to the representational "desert" is more films, not less—and as more films are made with greater variety, less burden is put on any one film to "represent the community."

As movies like Brokeback Mountain demonstrated, it becomes tricky to define a queer film in any case. Must it be made by a sodomite? Starring gay people? Embraced by a queer audience? What's the criteria?

We'll have made real progress when films like Weekend or Brokeback Mountain are discussed not for their representation of homosexual desire but instead, simply, desire.

4. You have gotten flak from people who think Swoon’s portrayal of two gay killers might perpetuate negative images of gays. How did you respond to such criticisms at the time?

At the time, Christine Vachon and I were fond of stirring the pot by embracing unpopular movies like Basic Instinct (what's wrong with a lesbian that kills straight men?) or The Silence of the Lambs (the feminism in the film outweighs it alleged homophobia). Films are not always the most effective form of political speech or consciousness raising. I was intrigued by the unruly, unconscious desires that motivated my characters. And honestly, I was jealous of the "durability" of heterosexuality—an institution so unshakable that films like Mike Leigh's Naked or Bergman's Scenes From A Marriage could show the lengths people go to hurt each other without every worrying about toppling heterosexuality.

As I have said many times before, I am all for equal opportunity homicide. (At the time I liked to say Swoon "put the homo back into homicide.") We all have a little murder or larceny in our hearts—and admitting to the complications of our identities makes us stronger, not weaker. Homosexuality can afford to have "bad homosexuals" just the same way heterosexuality can. Humanity is flawed—separate from our sexual identity, we are all complicated customers.

Some progress has surely been made on this front. But recent screenings of Swoon have also reminded me that we still have a long way to go with these charged issues of honestly representing "human nature."

1 comment:

  1. One of the most important aspects of "Swoon" is the way it shows how Clarence Darrow in saving L&L's lives pathologized gayness, putting a then-nascent movement back for decades. He couldn't have his clients plead insanity, but he could make gayness "insane." Thanks a bunch, Clarence.