Monday, 24 August 2015

Gay Japan

Last month I went to Japan. I'd been wanting to go ever since I saw Lost in Translation a decade ago (sometimes you need to admit to clichés) but I always thought I'd be a better cultural explorer than Bill and Scarlett and pierce right into the country's psyche. I didn't. If anything, the trip brought up more questions than answers.

What I found particularly puzzling was Japanese gayness - or its apparent mainstream absence. The 7/11s don't stock a single gay magazine, you'll never see two men holding hands, and all gay bars in Tokyo, the biggest city in the world, seem to be concentrated on a couple of streets in Shinjuku. How is that possible? 

The notorious Japanese writer Yukio Mishima posing as Saint Sebastian

Before getting on the plane, I read Yukio Mishima's "Confessions of a Mask" (1958), arguably Japan's first gay-themed novel. In it homosexuality is always a source of shame, and it is also closely linked to a fetish for violence. The author himself famously committed ceremonial suicide (seppuku) at the age of 45. 

I presumed Mishima's self-hatred and alienation from himself was an exception or a sympton of his times. But upon visiting one of the gay bookshops that I'd read about, hoping to find some literature, I was rather surprised: It pretty much only stocked porn, most of which involved either bondage or overweight or underage-looking boys. The whole thing felt very creepy. I left quickly.

The late pornstar and campaigner Koh Masaki

A beacon of hope amidst the apparent ghettoization of queer culture was Koh Masaki, a brilliant Japanese porn star, who was a fervent supporter of gay rights. Unfortunately Masaki died two years ago, aged 29. Here a video interview of him and his boyfriend, conducted by Vice, showing them living a rather conventional gay life. Let's hope there are many many more like these out there. 

ps: For deeper insights into queerness in Tokyo, check out this expat's blog post and this article from The Independent. Also, Ellen Paige's excellent documentary about gay Japan, here

Thursday, 30 July 2015

Rebel Beauty

Last year I visited the Sergej Parajanov museum in Yerevan. I had not heard of the filmmaker (1924-1990) before coming to Armenia, but everything I learned about him I liked - his slightly crazy house, accounts of his visually arresting films, and his courage in resisting the Soviets by depicting minority cultures (such as Ukraine's Hutsuls and his native Armenia).

As is so often the case with things you hotly promise youself to do, it took me some time to actually see one of Parajanov's films. It is only today that I got around to watching his probably most famous work, The Colour of Pomegranates (1969). The film traces the life of the Armenian 18th-century poet Sayat Nova through an series of elliptical and otherwordly tableaux vivants

The whole thing is extremely beautiful and extremely bizarre - you cannot quite grasp the effort all these scenes must have taken. What also struck me was the queer undercurrent of the scenes: The men are handsome and sensual and often half-naked, and the poet Sayat Nova is played by an androgynous actress (think Tilda Swinton in Sally Potter's Orlando)

In the museum I'd read that Parajnov had spent many years behind bars for his confrontation with the Soviet system and his refusal to submit to the socialist realist style. What was totally omitted, however, and what some research soon unearthed, is that two of Parajanov's arrests were for "homosexual acts".  Parajanov reportedly denied these charges and he was subsequently married twice, but James Steffen, a specialist on Parajanov, states that the filmmaker was "probaby bisexual, with a preference for men." 

The whole issue is rather nebulous, which is why a recent Ukrainian-produced feature explores this controversial aspect of Parajanov's life. I cannot wait to get my hands on it. And more importantly, I cannot wait to see more of Parajanov's films. Gay, bi, or whatever you want him to be. 'Genius' will cover it either way.

"Parajanov" (2013), Serge Avedikian

The Colour of Pomegranates (1969)

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Bon Voyage

Two great travel stories caught my eye this week. The first, Prada in Cuba, shot by Arena Homme + magazine, has that really rare quality of merging with the location, not just using it as an exotic backdrop. I love the expressions of the boys' faces, and the clothes look like second hand finds Cubans would actually wear. It doesn't make me want to buy Prada, it makes me want to go travelling.

Next, an India photo journal by photographer duo Sean and Seng, whom I just realized, writing this sentence, shot the Prada in Cuba story (!). So much for coincidences and coherent taste. The two went to India last year to relax from work but couldn't resist taking photos there, "a place where something extraordinary is never further than round a dusty corner, beyond a shadowy street or in the crowded market place..."
Here some of the earthly erotic results. I have never seen a better photo journal of India.


Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Picture of the Day

From exhibitions to exhibitionism.

Keith Haring, showing all. 

Friday, 27 March 2015

Fifty Shades of Gay

The other day I stumbled upon "Matka Joana of Aniołów" (or: Mother Joan of the Angels), a 1960 feature by Jerzy Kawalerowicz. The film recounts the story of a priest who is sent to a convent to purify the soul of Joan, the mother superior, who thinks that the devil has taken possession of her.

The photography is breath-taking, and so is the atmosphere.

With its black and white format and its religious theme, Matka Joana is also more than a little reminiscent of Paweł Pawlikowski's Ida. And which other films can you name where nuns lie face-down on the church floor? Another less obvious parallel is that Ida won the Oscar and Matka Joana the Prix Spécial du Jury at Cannes - are the Poles the world masters of quiet intense films about struggles with faith?

From Ida (2013)

Either way, Matka Joana takes the theme of temptationa and sin much further than Ida. And that is no coincidence, seeing that the film is based on a book by Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz (1894 - 1980). The famous writer had a wife and children and grandchildren, but he was also one of the most notorious homosexuals in Poland (pre-WWI, in between the wars, and under the communist regime).

Iwaszkiewicz in 1914 - a bit of Gaspard Uliel, non?

A photograph taken by Iwaszkiewicz in 1921 that appeared in an album entitled "Dionysia"
"Memories from the heart, to Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz. Jean Cocteau, Warsaw, October 1960" (just after the film was finished)

As with many other artists, Iwaszkiewicz's life has been much degayed by his biograhphers (the Iwaszkiewicz museum, the villa in which he lived most of his life, doesn't even hint at his sexuality). Thankfully, Krzysztof Tomasik's excellent book "Homobiografie" puts an end to the hypocrisy, and retraces the queer lives of some of Poland's most venerable writers, including Witold Gombrowicz.

But before the book gets translated into English or you learn Polish, check out Mother Joan of the Angels for a peek into Iwaszkiewicz's soul.

On YouTube with Spanish subtitles...

Mother Joan of the Angels, 1960, Full Film

...and in London as part of the Martin Scorsece Presents Masterpieces of Polish Cinema series. Amen. 

Thursday, 12 February 2015

2 Sides, 1 Sweden

When I went to the hairdresser the other month I flipped open the September 2014 copy of Interview Magazine and stumbled upon this treasure. Grown-up, stoic, with a hint of Bergman. Never before had I fantasized about spending the summer in Sweden. But who wouldn't want to chop wood with Daria?

Daria Werbowy shot by Mikael Jansson near Stockholm

And when I started to wonder whether the country up North could only do demure, then came US Vogue. Karlie Kloss in the incredible Tree Hotel - and on the occasional golden meadow - is a summersault-inducing feast of colours and nature which makes you want to be there (and deserves to be shown in blog-unfriendly Original Size). 

See you in summer 2015, Sweden? 

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Every Summer

In our age of instant visual gratification it is a rare pleasure to take one's time with photographs. Which is why I love to develop my summer films in the midst of winter.

Things you can find in the desert: a florist...

...and beautiful wheat-like plants looking down on the Azeri border

It was exactly a year ago that I did the same thing with my 2013 Sicily photos, and there is something wonderful about delayed reflections. Little else is as reassuring as seeing the sun that warmed you not so long ago and to remember that it will happen again soon.

Flowers in Tbilisi
Warm wind under the skirts of Kutaisi

This is why we still yearn for photo surprises.