Monday, December 28, 2009

Otto; or, Up With Gay Israeli Soldiers

Like most minority-driven film factions, GLBT cinema has, for years, been repeating the same stories (coming out and/or being a whore) in the same settings (white, middle-class suburbia or NYC/LA). Every once in awhile, a film or an auteur breaks the mold and offers something different, but for the most part, we are stuck with the same old same old. This is why it is so refreshing when films as unique in perspective and delivery as Yossi & Jagger and Otto; or, Up With Dead People come along to offer something new. Both films may not be perfect, but they should be celebrated anyways.

Yossi & Jagger is an Israeli film from director Eytan Fox about a day in the life of a group of overworked soldiers. The main focus of the film follows the title characters, a gay couple whose relationship is blossoming amid unpredictable surroundings. With a runtime of 64 minutes, the film is forced to move quickly in introducing characters, setting up dynamics and moving forward with the plot. It's a shame since the film spends so much time doing this that it almost ignores Yossi and Jagger. Think about it. Until the end of the film, the only glimpses we get of their relationship are a soft core porn-esque sex scene and an emotionally revealing scene where Yossi admits to Jagger that after their time in the military is over with he can't live openly with him. The problem with this is that the suckerpunch of a tragic ending losing some of its impact since we aren't given a chance to truly know them. I imagine it was budgetary restrictions that prevented the film from being longer (and lent to the film's downright ugly digital video cinematography) so I must give Fox credit for making what does appear on screen work so well. The ending, as is, is devastating. If I had more of a heart, I would have been bawling. But with just a few more scenes between the two of them, the ending could have reached Brokeback levels of devastation. B-

If the tragedy of Yossi & Jagger feels familiar in the gay cinema universe, Otto; or, Up With Dead People, director Bruce LaBruce's "avant fag" ode to the zombie movie, is in the far stretches of said galaxy, so completely alien from anything in existence it is almost unclassifiable. The film is a hardsell to even the savviest of cinephiles and its first 20-30 minutes are an endurance test for anyone annoyed with the endless pretentious babble about the biggies: life, who we are, our place in the world, etc. But if you stick with it and give Otto a chance, the film will ultimately reward you. Eventually, Otto acknowledges that all of its pretentiousness is nothing but a joke, a parody of self-important indie/avant garde films that talk and talk for hours on end but really have nothing to say.

The main character Otto is not your typical protagonist. He's mute and unblinking throughout most of the film and there's the little fact that he's a homosexual zombie with vague memories of his life before rising from the dead. The most surprising thing about Otto is the fact that you care so deeply for this, for lack of a better word, monster. As the film moves on, you realize that Otto is the zombie equivalent to WALL-E: all he wants is someone to love. In a scathing attack on the gay community, LaBruce presents Otto's mates as less emotionally responsive and feeling than Otto. The guy who picks Otto up outside of a gay bar having a zombie-themed party does not care about Otto in the slightest except for a quick fuck. Even after the sex turns violent and Otto leaves the guy a bloody mess all he wonders is if Otto is up for doing it again. And then there's Otto's boyfriend from before his zombification. Throughout the movie, there are flashbacks of the two of them together, giving the impression of a loving and happy couple. When we finally meet him, we realize that Otto's memories are nothing but flashes of a now-dead reality. The boyfriend bailed as soon as things got rough in their relationship (it is revealed that Otto ended up in an institution for some time) and didn't care enough about Otto to help him through whatever he was going through. This realization crushes both Otto and the audience. Okay, maybe just me, but I was initially surprised by how much I cared for this muted and unresponsive person. Then I remembered my love for emotionally damaged and/or distant male characters and realized that Otto is just another facet of this character type, albeit in a vaguely unrecognizable form. And if loving emotionally damaged boys is wrong, Lord I don't want to be right. B


Jose said...

I agree with you in both cases. I loved Yossi & Jagger's economy and the things they did with that budget are remarkable. Plus that cheesy pop song scene in the snow is a thing of beauty and with Otto I too was surprised I cared so much about this flesh eating weirdo.
Despite the fact that the film was filled with usual LaBruce oddities-that black and white chick for example-it's Otto who remains most haunting.
I'm sure it has a lot to do with them using Antony and the Johnsons at some point, but it works.

thom said...

only two days ago I watched Yossi & Jagger for the first time, I have revisited it and feel more in those 62 minutes than I do about any other film to date. The sequel Yossi's Story will, I ,prove to be as moving and touching as the 2002 film, I cannot wait for it to be released to the public & I root for it at the Tribeca Film Festival.