Friday, January 27, 2012

Spotlight on: Swoon

The infamous thrill killers that stunned the nation. A Bergmanesque shot of Nathan Leopold (Craig Chester) and Richard Loeb (Daniel Schlachet)
I've had a slight stagnation on my Downton Abbey watching so I'm not ready to publish a third installment in the series quite yet, though I would like to instead shine some light on one of the best films of the 1990's and in my opinion, one of the most definitive of that decade; Tom Kalin's Swoon (1992). I'm seeing it at the Billy Wilder theater in Los Angeles next week and am very excited. Thought I'd blog about it to get ready.
Before college took over my life and I moved to New York, I was taking an interest in films on my own and taking my ques from odd documentaries on films that TCM and AMC would show every once in a while. There was one such doc about American Independent Film which of course was born with the work of John Cassavetes back in the 50's and 60's and reached a creative zenith and strength of integrity in the 80's with the film of someone like Jim Jarmusch, it wouldn't be long until Quentin Tarantino and the Sundance Film Festival dissimulated the whole thing but out of that collective in the late 80's and early 90's sprung a couple creative minds including the likes of Todd Haynes, Gus Van Sant and Tom Kalin who's work would be sub-categorized into what B. Ruby Rich coined as 'New Queer Cinema'.
It was unapologetic, low-budget, and brilliantly poignant, but most of all it was honest. The 'New' in its name suggested that it was a break from every cinematic cliche created to illustrate gay culture from the past and tell real stories about real people in the most sincere means possible. This is not to compare it to something like Dogme 95, because the formalistic concepts through which to achieve this sincerity were secondary to the narrative at hand.
One of the most profound films that came out of this movement was tragic yet rather snide drama Swoon (1992) starring Craig Chester and Daniel Schlatchet as Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb; two young men who, one fated night in the 1920's murdered a young boy simply for the thrill of it, believing themselves to be the physical manifestations of the Nietzschean Superman. This story and the subsequent trial that followed were so sensationalized that it actually has had many previous film adaptations of it, most notably Alfred Hitchcock's Rope (1948) and Compulsion (1959) starring Orson Welles. Yet, every film prior seemed to sidestep one big part of the story; Leopold and Loeb were lovers (although to be fair, Hitchcock's version does hint at it a great deal). Note: in 1997 Michael Haneke would loosely adapt the story for his excellent film Funny Games which could also be classified under New Queer Cinema.
Though this was common knowledge and used frequently in their infamous trial, Hollywood always seemed to sidestep this one big notion. There was a romance as timeless and devoted as we've ever seen between the these two young thrill killers that is the centerpiece of Swoon. Beyond the grizzly nature of this murder, there is a love story that motivates the shocking action that lead to both of the lovers' demise. It's bizarre, it's co-dependent, it's passionate, and it's volatile, and most of all it was doomed.  They killed because they could, and perhaps for love. But what Tom Kalin explores is the notion that we would do anything we possibly could to keep the other person interested, and to keep the other person impressed. It's the ego in us.
The visual poetry of this tragic love story is breathtaking. It is shot on grainy black & white film, with minimal and at times anachronistic set dressing and a general stylized aesthetic. It looks remarkable, but that doesn't overshadow the staunch and cynical tone with which it tells it's story. It's very stoic and seems at once detached from itself so that it does not lay on the drama heavy-handedly, which is incredibly effective in that it requires the viewer to experience the narrative objectively.
Of the two main characters, the star of the film is clearly Craig Chester (who plays Nathan Leopold) a character who felt intellectually superior but psychically inferior to most, but in particular to his lover Richard Loeb and to prove his genius incited, planned, and executed the murder (or so it was thought). He is shown as a man who is completely sexually aware and able to therefore control his impulses so that he is able to play mind games on his partner and manipulate him all the while keeping strangely calm...i think that's what we all secretly wish we could do quite honestly. We've all tried to have the upper hand in a relationship, but goddamn emotion always gets in the way.
The narrative functions highly based on the visual style in order to portray the sexual subtext through iconography. Visually, this film draws on techniques of Ingmar Bergman, Kenneth Anger, and even to a lesser extent Andy Warhol and creates a re-imagined aesthetic of sexual representation on film, and I'm going to stop right now before this begins to sound like a thesis.
To conclude, Swoon (1992) is a major important commentary on sex and the mental state. It's wholly psychoanalytical and impeccably honest. It's cinematography is stunning, and it's writing though dated is rather superb. This was a tiny film that wouldn't have had as big a legacy had it not been one of the seminal works of the New Queer Cinema movement, and now will thankfully have a rightful place in the sex-in-cinema anthology.
Here is the trailer: 

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