Thursday, October 30, 2008

Porn Lovers Unite

I've been in a dither about the upcoming US elections, so I almost forgot to write about last week's high (or low, depending on how you look at it) point, the opening night party of the Berlin Porn Festival. I've been quite a shut-in lately, so after a bout of hand-wringing over whether I should venture out on a butt-clenchingly cold Berlin Wednesday night, I finally assented to my friends' pestering. We'd be skipping the actual film and heading straight for the after party, in an old Supermarkt on Adalbertstrasse.

After a couple of the requisite Jager shots as buffer against the bracing cold, we lit out. I suggested walking instead of biking, as the idea of straddling a cold machine didn't appeal to me. We arrived at about 12:30, to two handsome appointed guards standing sentry at the door, paid the Eintritt, wove our way through a concrete maze to the Hinterhof, swung open a massive door and entered a long white tiled room, which was somewhere between clinical and high-school cafeteria-ish, but inventively appropriated. The atmosphere was warm, friendly and decidedly non-sexual. And -- shock! -- most, save for a few preening bikini-clad boyz, were fully clothed. Past the garderobe to the left was a small stage, dancefloor and dj decks. To the right lay a large bed with PVC sheets (no guessing their raison d'etre) on which several punters sat and chatted. At the end of the hall was the bar and beyond that a changing room for the evening's entertainment.

The performance artist took the stage at around 1, opening the fest with a would-be bang. It was Leonard, a male-to-female trans, essaying a travesty of male sexuality by coming out in one of those gas station attendant boiler suits, humping a chair, chugging along to some kind of Dick Dale surfer ditty and licking her chops like some testosterone-fuelled mongrel. S/he then pulled out a huge bratwurst from the folds of his crotch, bit a chunk off the top, spat it out, chucking the remains, which struck my friend Mary dead in the hair. Talking away, she swatted at the fleshy missile distractedly when I pointed it out.

The prole boiler suit was soon doffed to reveal a, to be charitable, less than conventionally attractive hairy leather-daddy physique. I said to Mary, "Looks like he bore some children when he was a girl." The black pvc hotpants anchored with a nude rubber dildo were a surreal touch, but what else is a poor dude with a snatch to do? Well, maybe, maybe he would grab a strategically placed bottle of motor oil for a simulated, face-contorting wank! And then splosh the goo all over his hairy chest, undulating wildly to the tinny wah-wah surfer music! And then, he might turn, back to the audience, for the piece de resistance, hinted at by a metal protuberance dangling behind, or rather in front of, fleshy untoned buttocks!

The audience now rent with suspense, he might, as motor oil dripped from chest and orifice, yank the chain with a flourish, a good half a meter's length of industrial strength chain appearing from his nether regions! In spite of the blank looks on the jaded faces of seen-it-all Berliners, the "Paparazzi", in formation at stagefront would burst into action at the last splash of motor oil, and metaphorical yanking of the chain. Leonard would beam triumphantly, breaking character and taking to the mic. A surprisingly mild-mannered, unprepossessing voice would issue from this most self-created and manly of men. People would be charmed by the real, complicated Leonard, in spite of the shortcomings displayed by his cartoonish pisstake of modern masculinity.

"I just flew in from London about an hour ago, went straight to my hotel and prepped myself for the show. I tell ya, nothing cures jetlag like shoving two feet of chain up yer pussy." I'll remember that, I thought, feeling suddenly as if I was at a genderfucked Catskills resort. The crowd was loudly gabbing, in spite of their jadedness, worked up to a degree by the whole display. Or maybe they were just ready to dance.

"Can you keep it down while I make a few announcements?" Leonard asked politely, to no avail.

"Hey, I know I'm not Buck Angel," he brayed, name-checking his more-famous man-with-a-snatch porn star sis/brethren. "But how many men here tonight are you going to see pull a chain out of their vagina?" (Way to leverage some power there, Leonard!) Frankly, I hope it's the last one I see for a looong time. I mean, props to Leonard for his self-awareness; underneath the rough, masculine exterior he does seem a gentle soul, the kind of guy you could take home to Mom. A life as, I'll say it again, a man with a pussy, can only mean trading in contradictions. Here's hoping he's not just a one-trick pony.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Wake-Up Call

Today's events were tinged with the otherworldly and the mundane. I awoke to the doorbell ringing, scampered down the ladder of my hochbett, and opened the door. I was expecting to greet the DHL guy. My roommate Joscha, who is out of town, mentioned that a packet may be coming for him. There was no one there. Whoever it was had disappeared. Then I heard the tentative reversal of footsteps on the landing below. After a moment a young slim brunette woman appeared. At first I thought she was the lithe, friendly young mother who lived in the flat below, Djzene (pronounced "Jenny") from whom I had picked up a packet, kept in my absence last week. But no, this was a new gal, a dead ringer for Djzene with a similar slight build, reddish brown hair and doe eyes. She had a sense of purpose. We had a quick exchange in German in which she asked me whether I had seen her friend Constantin. She said something about his dog and, half asleep, I thought she had told me that his dog was missing. Sein hund? Nicht sein hund. She switched to English and said that the dog was inside the apartment (you could hear it barking) but that her friend had been missing for two weeks. She said he often played music. What kind of music? Techno. There was someone who had been playing techno, but it had stopped days ago. Then again, there are many people playing similar music at various times during the day. Of course, she said, there was no way to tell for sure where the music had come from. I took her name and number, promising to inquire with Joscha when he returned from Hannover. She then pulled a sign out that was peeking out of the mail slot. It was like a Do-not-disturb sign, only it said "Ich strieke". She laughed resignedly. "He's on strike," she said. I laughed as well. About an hour later I hear voices outside the door. The police had been called and were trying to access the flat. They banged several times on the door and surveyed the outside. Then my doorbell rang again. The very friendly Polizei wanted to know if I had seen Constantin. "Ich wohne hier nur fuer ein Monat. In diese Zeit habe ich ihn nicht gesehen." Or had I? I think he had had his door open one day, all day. Or was that the guy on the next floor down? Oh well, I had neither seen nor heard anyone in the last couple weeks. I closed the door and hopped in for a long, gas-consuming shower. As I was drying off I heard more voices outside the door. Naked, and still drying myself, I peeked through the keyhole. The next few minutes unspooled in exorable, real-time surreality. Several people were now in the flat, but I couldn't ascertain if they were friends or authorities. The conversation was in the normal, hushed tones of sober Germans. But nothing sounded out of the ordinary. I thought maybe they were allowing his friends to look through the apartment. I heard more voices, this time fairly jaunty, in an all-in-a-day's work cadence. Apparently the landlord had let the police in. Strange. I milled about, back and forth between my room, the bathroom and kitchen, as I often do due to my ADD. Still naked a few minutes later, I again looked through the peephole. I felt like the observer at a double remove. Voices came from the bottom of he stairs. Two men in uniform ascended the stairs with a gurney. The entered the flat and disappeared down the corridor. There was writing on the wall opposite as you entered, written in what appeared to be blood, Manson-style, covering the length of the wall. The inscription read simply, "Thanx" . Still naked, I opened my door to get a closer view. The inscription now appeared to be painted dramatically in red paint. Above it hung a large meat cleaver, and below it an arrow, like you'd see pointing to the exit in a movie theater, only it pointed to the back room. I retreated into the flat. The men came back into the hall. They were dragging a body. I can only assume it was Constantin's body. They set it down and opened the body bag, which I heard them unzip. The bag sounded crisp and crunchy as it was laid out, like a brand new tarp. The body went in the bag, was strapped to the gurney, and walked out of the building. Two people remained in the apartment, one of whom chatted blithely on the phone with a colleague or family member -- it could have been either. I couldn't get it all. Then the man and woman quietly left the empty apartment. They could have been real estate agents for all anyone knew. I was left with a need to find out what happened to Constantin. All the signs point to suicide. I have the dark-haired girl's number, and I'm tempted to call her. I feel really bad for her. I'll be keeping up with this case, and doing some research on Constantin in the days to come. My friend Mary asked me if I was spooked out and melancholy from this. But no, I'm not spooked out. I am a little spooked out by the fact that I'm not spooked out. So I guess I am meta-spooked out. I thought of the banality of it all, and the old saw about the banality of evil (a quote which I believe was generated in the wake of the Holocaust, in reference to the vast murder machines). But this didn't seem evil. A young man took his life, albeit in a somewhat hammy way, in a gaudy tableau. I think he was going for Grand Guignol, to make a big statement, but in the end he just left a cold corpse in an empty apartment. Just another day's work for the fuzz.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

In Just Seven Days I Can Make You a Man

Halloween is only a recent import to Deutschland, and though many here may raise their eyebrows at the notion of trick-or-treating and jack-o'-lanterns, any pretext to indulge in Dionysian celebration is met with unmitigated zeal. It is this anything-goes Bacchanalian spirit which marks the ushering in of a new stage revival of The Rocky Horror Show ("reloaded" by original creator Richard O'Brien). It's refreshing to see stark black billboards at every other Haltestelle (bus stop) splashed in the characteristic Rocky font (opting for subtlety, without the vermillion disembodied Mick Jagger lips) with various catchphrases from the stage show, which, depending on your age bracket or degree of interest in film history, may or not pique your memory/interest, zB. "I Can Make You a Man"; "Whatever Happened to Fay Wray?"; "Don't Dream It, Be It". For the uninitiated, these fragments have an enigmatic effect. For everyone else, the idea of a Rocky revival is going to inspire either nostalgia or a shrug.

When I was in high school, the film was considered a badge of alternative cool. Whether or not you believed in the film's message of unbridled pansexualism (and I knew some who enjoyed such hedonistic Saturday nights for whom the reality of homosexuality was anathema), the act of seeing, nay, participating, in the spectacle was a rite of passage. Lobbing rotten vegetables, rice and toast at the screen, shielding oneself from phantom rain with old newspapers , und so weiter, was all done in a spirit of knowing decadence, at a slight remove. One could even dress as one of the film's many colorful characters without fear of reproach. The make-up, and the social stigma, rubbed off with a dab of cold cream come morning. And I knew several girls with quivering pubescent quims for whom Tim Curry's Frank-n-Furter was a reluctant sex symbol, vacillating, much like beleaguered Brad and Janet, between fear, repulsion and titillation. Yes, Rocky Horror ultimately became a catalyst for the "Queer" (Tm) in even the most vanilla cinema-goer (mirroring the transformations in the film of uber-nerdy Brad and Dr. Scott, into fishnet sporting chorines), a democratic sort of way of accessing one's own "funkiness", and an instant badge of quasi-punk cool. And if the collective flesh was willing, the individual spirit was weak at the knees, "quivering with antici....pation." The winking irony fostered by audiences brought up on MTV bent in on itself like a Uri Geller spoon, but the film's power soon snapped under the hyper-meta-consciousness and tongue-in-cheek-ness of the self-same American pop culture.

The message of the original show was quite seriously inspiring, a call to arms for the sexual revolution. The key players who remained from the Broadway show gave an edge to the otherwise watered-down B-Movie conventions of the film's script. But by now it had become so mainstream as to contain all the mojo of a wet noodle. With the advent of video, and the concomitant disappearance of midnight-movie culture, the Rocky Horror phenomenon became superannuated. The film was eventually released to deafening silence in the 90's on VHS and DVD. To me this was the absolute death knell of the cult film.

For some reason, it feels right to have a revival of the show in Berlin now, and the ubiquitous appearance of Rocky ephemera has raised some serious goosebumps on mein Hals. Though the culture wars are still raging in the US, many of the red states are coming out in blue drag for this election. With Obama importuning the world to "Look at Berlin", perhaps, for a season anyway, we can put aside our differences and our You-Tube accounts and revel in the freak nation-state of the German Hauptstadt, where East meets West, Dietrich donned suit-and-tails for von Sternberg, sexual ambiguity reigns and life's a bloody (post-post-modern)cabaret.

*Read an interview with Rocky Horror creator Richard O'Brien at Siegessaeule magazine (leider ist alles auf Deutsch):

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Annals of Terror

The epiphanies come fast and furious in the new German drama The Baader-Meinhof Complex. The first one drops like a live shell about an hour in (the film is a good two and a half) when the parents of Gudrun Ensslin are being interviewed by the media outside the courtroom where their daughter has been indicted, along with accomplice Andreas Baader, for blowing a department store to smithereens in protest of the Vietnam War. The father, a clergyman who had hitherto had a philosophical rift with his child, in a volta-face, glows with pride, gushing that her actions have only enhanced her standing within the family. Then the previously timid mother steps forward and, eyeballs roving, says that her daughters actions have carried the unexpected consequence of "liberating me from fear." It's a transgressive moment for the audience, and a pivotal one for reporter Ulreke Meinhof, who overhears the exchange. An idealistic key turns within her, and she is soon helping Baader escape from jail following a sojourn in Italy after his rejected appeal. It is during this somewhat bungled escape (due to some pesky unplanned casualties) that Meinhof abruptly joins the group, and is soon punctuating each of their wildly chaotic operations with surly, pithy dispatches, read in voice-over, the manifesto of the nascent RAF.

For Meinhof, the violence of putting pen to page wasn't enough, and she took it a step further by joining Baader, Ensslin and the others. The film muddies this ethical line by delineating the scribe as a roiling cauldron of guilt and conflict, peer pressure, sophisticated and naive ideology, a vessel of stymied goals and enervated causes. She is the conscience of the group, the yin to Baader's charismatically sociopathic yang. The ambiguity is underscored by scenes in a Jordanian terrorist training cell, where Meinhof finds herself at yet another crossroads, giving up her children to an orphanage and allowing Ensslin to falsely expose her husband as an Israelite.

Of course this all begs the question, is it effective to fight state violence with more violence? The film offers no easy answers. As Meinhof eloquently puts it in one of her missives, "If a man sets fire to one police car it's arson. If he sets fire to a thousand, it's a revolution." In one scene, when asked point blank, "Why do they do it?" the German chancellor, in between slurps of lobster stew, telegraphs: "Mythos." This rather obvious message is re-capped in a scene in which the female leader of RAF's second generation importunes the heirs to this terrorist mantle when a botched hijacking leads to the mass suicide of all the founding RAF members. In this dramatic speech she reminds the youths none of them had ever met Baader, Meinhof or any of the other OT's (Original Terrorists).

By including scenes like this film tries to have it both ways by refusing to glorify the RAF's behavior, while maintaining a moral relativist stance, as quick cuts of Western Imperialist interventions in Vietnam, Bolivia and Palestine flashing across the screen make abundantly clear. This editing style is overlaid with a healthy dose of fucking in between terrorist operations, betraying not just the other front in the revolution, but the sensually muscular allure of violence. We are also given an anatomical view of the organization and the disorganization, personal rifts and cracks that lead to amputation of certain "limbs" of the group -- e.g., bungled machinations within the prison and court systems, including partisan judges and a fast gone awry -- and its ultimate demise.

Yet the film's message is muddled by the Karen-Silkwood-style mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of Ulreke Meinhof, in solitary confinement after having betrayed the group, on the eve of the release of the hijacked hostages. Uli Edel, the director, calls into question her suicide by hanging by cutting away from the rent-with-despair journo just before she is about to do the deed. Another character later blabs that the feds topped her in a conspiracy. Martyrdom assured. Potential glorification is again tempered by the existential doubts of RAF Mark II.

Verdict: like its characters, deeply flawed. Still, it merits four stars for a stunning lesson in Deutsch Geschichte for the uninitiated, and ultra-convincing performances. Overall, the filmmakers opt for gritty realism whilst not totally eschewing conventional biopic formats. But somehow it all works. I was completely absorbed in the characters and at times forgot I was watching a film.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Lust auf Männer

Hans von Marees is a brilliant painter whose work is virtually unknown outside Germany. A search on Wikipedia's English site yields this rather paltry passage:

Hans von Marées (24 December 1837 – 5 June 1887) was a German painter. He mainly painted country scenes in a realistic style.

Well, yes, but this is a gross oversimplification of Marees' work and unconventional life. I first stumbled on these works in a room of Deutsch Impressionists at the Altes Nationalgalerie, and was awestruck by his dark, autumnal depictions of male desire,especially amongst the working class. He is especially obsessed with the leitmotif of male nudes in orange groves.

Marees started off painting scenes from Greek antiquity, and later repaired to Italy where he completed his most famous work, the frescoe at the Zoologischer Station in Naples. Remaining in Italy for the balance of his years, Marees had a long-term relationship with one of his male models, who ultimately opted for a heterosexual union, and renounced his former moral turpitude.

Fascinatingly, Marees' work had been the subject of some controversy due to his skills as a colorist. He was accused by some scholars as having used experimental materials, as his paintings were in a state of constant and progressive degradation. Definitive chemical tests in the 1980's proved that the Maler had relied solely on traditional materials for his oeuvre. It it is precisely this quality that appeals to me in his work -- a faint whiff and aura of decay, conflated with an intense desire for Gemeinsamkeit,or community. Especially a community of men, in a natural surrounding.

Nowhere is the dialectic of community and homo-centric solipsism more present than in Marees' portrait of Narcissus, and his painting The Ages of Man. It is in this latter work that Marees depicts not just Gemeinsamkeit in a society of men, but the communities that dwell within each man, the older man in dialogue with his younger selves. No matter how much the man changes, the one constant in the work is always the ineffable sense of desire.

I'm excited to announce a new exhibit at the Altes Nationalgalerie focusing on this fabulous unsung painter, "Kult der Gemeinschaft"