Monday, September 30, 2013

Swoon (1992): Avant-garding the past

Swoon (1992)
dir: Tom Kalin

In the late '80s and early 1990s, there was a cinematic movement of sorts that came to be dubbed New Queer Cinema.  This was marked by an outburst of films that were made by queers for queers, whether they were gays, lesbians, trans, bi, fluid, or any of the other letters in the LGBTQ alphabet soup of inclusion (though mostly gay men).  Two directors came from the scene and into the mainstream:  Todd Haynes, who started with Poison and would go on to make Far From Heaven and I'm Not Here (and was also an uncredited script polisher on Office Killer), and Gus Van Sant, who made Mala Noche, but would go on to make Good Will Hunting and Milk. Other films included Gregg Araki's The Living End, Rose Troche's Go Fish, and Jennie Livingston's Paris is Burning.

New Queer Cinema was simultaneously rebellious and demanding of acceptance.  It was about the explicit rejection of cultural norms, while wanting to be embraced by the mainstream as normal.  The Living End, for instance, concerned a pair of HIV+ gay men who decide to go on a murderous criminal rampage in a fit of rage against their position in the system.  Poison was inspired by the works of Jean Genet who expressed gay themes through lurid subjects like horror and the murder of parents. Paris is Burning documents the drag and transgendered balls in Harlem and the illicit behavior that is required to sustain such a lifestyle in New York at that time.

Swoon retells the true story of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, two gay socialites in the 1920s who would become lovers and commit a series of escalating crimes, culminating in the murder of an 11-year-old boy.  The Leopold and Loeb murder was most famously the inspiration for Hitchcock's Rope, about two implicitly gay men who murder a friend of theirs and throw a party while the friend rotted in the trunk in the living room.  The Leopold and Loeb murder was sensationalist because it was committed by homosexuals, it had significant power dynamics, it was particularly gruesome (they used hydrochloric acid to try to dissolve identifying parts of the body), and it was essentially a thrill kill.

With Swoon, Tom Kalin takes a second look at the murder and subsequent trial with a modern set of eyes.  Throughout the first half of the movie, Kalin deconstructs the relationship between Leopold and Loeb and reconstructs it with modern sensibilities.  In the second half, he does the same with the ensuing trial.  Kalin reconstructs the whole story in a way that is reminiscent of the foreign art house directors of the late 60s and 70s.  French New Wave like Godard and Truffaut, and Fellini can be seen in the stylistic edges and artier-than-thou acting and direction.

Kalin is removing the artifice of reality in an attempt to force people to realize that what they know about the crime is false, and what they are watching about the case is also an artificial re-enactment that is not getting at the heart of the crime, but at the themes of the crime.  Those themes being homosexuality in society, rebellion, and bored socialites.

Throughout the first half of Swoon, we watch Nathan and Richard manipulate each other into doing as the other wants.  Sometimes it's for money.  Sometimes, it's for sex.  Sometimes for love, and sometimes for the thrill.  At one point, Nathan tells his psychologist that he fantasizes himself a king, and Richard as his slave.  At another point, Richard offers himself as payment for Nathan's participation in a crime.  They write kidnapping letters on a typewriter at a party.  They exchange rings. They're intrinsically tied to each other, and they are both as responsible for the crime as each other is.

The trial of Swoon gets even more stylized as the court recounts the immorality of the homosexual relationship.  At one point, in the middle of the trial, Nathan and Richard are making out on a bed put in the middle of the courtroom as the lawyers talk about their devious sexual acts.  Even though they both turn on each other blaming each other for the crime (so romantic), they're both still tied to each other.

Swoon is challenging what we know about the trial because everything we do know was colored through the biases and judgments of the era.  They were biased against homosexuals, so the homosexuality was really up for trial.  The murder is never shown as being false, however.  Kalin never suggests that it never happened.  Kalin never suggests that they were railroaded for that crime.  He mainly is making the challenge that everything we know is colored by the biases that the era held.

By association, Kalin is also suggesting that the biases that we have now also color how we view the events of the modern era.  As such, morality is relative.  Sure the murder is brutal and despicable, but what we think about it is colored by who we are and who we were.  Any crimes that we hold judgement on are inherently colored by the way we judge the people involved in the crime.  If we inherently don't like somebody, we will rule against them, and if we do like somebody we rule in favor of them.  This type of emotional response is manipulated by the lawyers all the time.

Swoon, while full of fascinating morality and an interesting take on a lurid and compelling crime, is not a great movie.  It is too artsy by a factor of at least 10.  The acting and direction is reminiscent of what Dr. Caligari was mocking in 1989.  While it sees everybody else with a distinct view of irony and derision, it has no such views of itself.  It's technique is super serious and Kalin almost thinks what he is doing is as serious as it is humorous.  There is no winking.  There is no easy way out.

If you can take the technique, then I can recommend the movie.  If you can't, than I can't...even if I do find the movie completely compelling in its ideas.

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