If “Angels in America” is an epic Manhattan AIDS novel, then “The Dying Gaul” is a poem from Los Angeles via Craig Lewis to the playwright Tony Kushner. The imdb.com comments are fascinating and so are the more-numerous-than-usual reviews. This was one of the better ones:
It’s a little mysterious how “The Dying Gaul” got on my Netflix list except that the title refers to a famous ancient sculpture of a wounded Gaul. (A Gaul in those days was a Celt was an Irishman.) He has a small wound but is dying from it. He is nude because Gauls famously fought naked, unprotected, which freaked out the armored opponents and made their wounds into red banners. The title of the movie is also the title of a script being sold by a writer but we never see the script. We just know that it’s about his male lover (also his brother-in-law) who died in a horrendous way, saying “Promise me you’ll write about this -- make something lovely out of it.”
This movie is several generations along since “Angels in America” introduced the public to gay culture. In fact, it’s also generations along from “You’ve Got Mail.” I would call it a philosophical love story: what exists and doesn’t, what can you believe, how should you guide your behavior, what is death? The turn-on here is “mind-fucking.” It’s remarkable that so many episodes of sex show only the heads, gripped or even face-masked by the hands of the lover. The head is the key to human identity, not the tail.
I watched this film three times, the last time with a clipboard in my lap, taking notes. (Crackers was affronted. SHE wanted that place, but she went off to sleep under the lamp with her paws over her own face.) This is serious business because doing it is one of the ways I learn about writing: scene management, character clues, timing, and so on. I don’t watch plot in the way that many people do. This particular movie has little plot until the first half sets up the movement board -- then the flips and twists begin. Some people liked it better at that point and others liked it less.
Here are some things that set it up. The “set,” to begin. All reviews that I read took the house to be an indicator of money and glamour. “The End of Violence” and “The Limey” are two of my fav movies with houses like this. They are “see-through” houses with huge glass walls, only possible because of the climate and armies of maintainers. Aside from that, this house is so abstract that it nearly disappears. We barely see any living areas, except the tops of beds and the patio with it’s “infinity pool” merges with the vast horizon of sea against sky. It is an infinity view, an eternal view, a vision of what we think is Heaven.
In one inspired pan the house structure merges continuously with the screen of the wife’s computer. An early researcher on what happens in people’s minds when they work on a computer suggested that we go “into” a virtual space with no characteristics except what we project into it and then “see” as a virtual reality. (I’ve wrestled with definitions of “virtual” since seminary with very little luck. It seems to be a construct of the mind that is even “realer” than real. I sometimes use “liminal” -- over the threshold -- as a synonym.) It’s very powerful. Even religious.
I should know -- my entire relationship with Cinematheque and Tim Barrus is “over the threshold” via email and blogging. Sometimes they seem realer than Valier. Cats are my guardians. They are real.
The excellence of the actors in this movie is crucial because everything happens in their minds: their power plays, their manipulations, their desires and separations. This is almost the definition of Hollywood, always defined by power-over, rarely by creative power. Into this kabuki world walks Robert the Innocent, who clings only to his truth while around him people try to pry secrets and force lies, or at least illusions.
I gather that thought about male gays started way out there with Oscar Wilde, came forward through a lot of silliness, went to LA bedecked with tinsel, traveled north into a spectrum of thought soon invaded by the feminists and lesbians of San Franciso, and suddenly the archetype (not “arkeangel1966” -- what happened in ‘66?) was a muscle man smeared with baby oil -- a gladiator fit for a game of “Mortal Combat.” Now we’re past that into a time of searching for the essential humanity of each individual and the mutability of desire.
The children in this film are larval, always cocooned. Their nanny is naturally Hispanic, but the housekeeper is Egyptian, sexually ambiguous. Her? father has told her that if she dares to set foot back in Egypt, he will cut off her head. (There’s that head again, but no one in this film “gives head” in the sexual sense.) The only time the wife seems comfortable and in her body is sitting alongside the Egyptian while they try to figure out the battery-operated shutters on the windows.
The power shifts are subtle. Allusions abound. I don’t know specific sculptures well enough to say for sure, but some of the sexual encounters end in still poses that echo Roman wrestlers, naked bodies clenched together. The woman, who has been playing God but -- dare I say? -- doesn’t have the cojones for it, nevertheless becomes increasingly powerful because of the knowledge she is accumulating. She moves to the other side of the bed, the side by the phone and the bathroom, the husband’s side.
Bob Scriver used to say to me, “I can’t keep you from finding out things or even from searching for them, but if you DO find something, I won’t help you handle it.” And he didn’t. He also used to say, “Your head is way up in the clouds. Get your feet on the ground!” While “Elaine” swims in her infinity pool and the clouds scud by her house, “Robert” is in his small earth-colored basement apartment. He is innocent, grounded by his earnestness. He eats vegetables, even poisons with a plant. (Monkshood is a member of the buttercup family and is really poisonous, but isn’t bright red. It looks more like the delphinium or larkspur planted next to the “monkshood” in the movie.)
Notice that Robert, after chewing the root (it was a parsnip), takes the pose of the Dying Gaul at the swimming pool edge -- then drinks from it “doggie style.” He rejects death. Very little in this film is not significant. Repeatedly the Buddhist “Middle Way” is invoked. “The Middle Way refers to the concept of direct knowledge that transcends seemingly antithetical claims about existence.” In short, stick to the reality -- don’t play whatif or maybe or couldabeen. This married couple becomes lost in their minds, not believing in their lives. The desire for glamour, for immersion in power, has dissolved what is human in them. This is a more serious affliction than AIDS. And more contagious.