Gay Generational Divide Explored in Low-Key Israeli Drama ‘Sublet’

Arriving in Tel Aviv, Michael Green (John Benjamin Hickey), a 56-year-old American travel writer, finds the apartment he’s arranged to sublet still occupied by its owner, Tomer (Niv Nissim), a 20-something student and budding filmmaker. Tomer and his friends shoot scary movies in his apartment and the cluttered, disorganized space is clearly a bit of a horror to the buttoned-up Michael, who decides to go find a hotel. Alarmed, Tomer grabs a bottle of cleanser and begins using his feet to scrub a towel across the floor before admitting that he really needs Michael’s sublet cash. Travel weary and charmed by this handsome gay man, Michael agrees to stay.

Sublet is the first film in seven years from the New York born, Israel raised writer-director Eytan Fox, whose 2002 debut feature, Yossi & Jagger was a sensation the world over. Detailing a love affair between two men in the Israeli Army, it remains a daring and much-admired film. In subsequent movies, including the excellent Walk on Water and The Bubble, Fox has continued to draw nuanced performances from first-time actors, while clearly drawing inspiration from Tel Aviv’s youth, many of whom prioritize sexual freedom and personal expression over politics and tradition.

When it becomes clear that Tomer doesn’t have another place to stay, Michael invites him to sleep on the sofa. Equating Michael’s sight-seeing itinerary to “a Jewish princess on her birthright tour,” Tomer begins showing Michael the city, and eventually takes him to meet his mother (Miki Kam) at a kibbutz in the countryside. It is there that the tightly-held Michael will reveal the recent trauma that’s led to a depression he’s done a poor job of concealing.

Michael’s reality, in which the pains of the near yet distant past lay against nearly every moment of his present, runs counter to Tomer’s insistence that life be sex-filled and complication-free. He’s young, in other words, and Fox and co-writer Itay Segal have fashioned for Hickey and Nissim  —a consummate pro and a gifted newcomer — a series of conversations that lay out the classic generational divide. Typically cavalier, Tomer dismisses AIDS out of hand  (“It’s so depressing. Why does everything always have to go back to that?”) only to be left speechless when Michael tells him he lost his first boyfriend to the disease.

Despite their continuing debates, it’s in their silences that the two men ignite change in one another. Tomer’s kindness loosens the knot within Michael, while the visiting writer’s soulful presence appears to move Tomer to feel more deeply than he usually allows. Like Michael himself, Sublet is almost painfully restrained — you might long for a stirring speech or two by the end, but both men would surely hate such a thing. Real friends don’t need speeches.   ❖

Quad Cinema

CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM 2021 From The Archives

Love Conquers All in ‘I Carry You With Me’ – REDIRECT

Not long after Iván (Armando Espitia) meets and shares a passionate kiss with Gerardo (Christian Vasquez) in a gay bar outside the small Mexican town of Puebla, he talks on the phone to his mother, who tells him, “You sound different. I can almost hear your smile. Tell me who the lucky girl is.” It’s the mid-1990s, and the 20-something Iván, who has a son his ex-girlfriend is reluctant to let him see, dare not tell his mother, or anyone at all, that he’s falling in love with a man. The smile his mother senses is real but its source must remain a secret.

For I Carry You with Me (Te Llevo Conmigo), Oscar-nominated documentarian Heidi Ewing (Jesus Camp) creates an imperfect but moving narrative feature debut, finding inspiration in her friendship with the real-life Iván and Gerardo — footage of whom she cuts to extensively in the film’s final third. This structural leap is daring but it’s also jarring enough to throw you out of the film, unfortunately. The real-life couple, bless them, can’t quite compete with the glow cast by their fictionalized counterparts, played with quiet, haunting grace by Espitia and Vasquez.

In the most mundane of ways, Iván’s ex-girlfriend discovers he’s gay, prompting him to risk an illegal border crossing to America, and to New York, where he’s convinced he’ll quickly make enough money to be able to return to Mexico and not only fulfill his dream of owning his own restaurant but win custody of his son. Recognizing this plan as muddled and naive, Gerardo refuses to go with Iván but promises to remain true to him, a pledge he’ll end up going to great lengths to keep.

The film is at its best in its first hour, as Ewing and the gifted cinematographer, Juan Pablo Ramirez place the couple’s love against the shadowy half-light of clubs, rooftops, and one-lamp apartments. Their first kiss, the one that sets Iván to smiling, is framed by the filmmakers against the night sky, as if to suggest that these two men, and their burgeoning love, are an integral part of the natural landscape. It’s the most sensual kiss in recent film and the power of it carries Iván and Gerardo, and the film Ewing has made about them, forward through all the complications that follow.

Those complications include the lingering damage done by a father dismayed at having a gay son. “Aren’t you a man?” asks Gerardo’s enraged dad. Powerful too is the moment when Iván’s friend Sandra (Michelle Rodriguez), who accompanied him on the terrifying journey to America, admits that she’s miserable and longs to return to Mexico. “They hate us here,” she declares.

Thanks to Ewing’s gift for drawing deeply felt performances from a cast of relative newcomers, as well as an achingly plaintive score by the great Jay Wadley (Driveways), I Carry You with Me casts a dreamlike spell that not even the abrupt home stretch infusion of documentary footage can break. A love as deep and abiding as the one Iván and Gerardo share is destined, it would seem, to surmount all obstacles be they political or cinematic.    ❖

CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM 2021 From The Archives

Herzog Found the Real Midwest in His Surreal ‘Stroszek’

Herzog tells it this way: He and Errol Morris, sometime in the mid-70s, decided to meet in Plainfield, Wisconsin, and rendezvous at the Plainfield Cemetery under the cloak of night, where they would dig up Ed Gein’s mother once and for all, to settle what was apparently unsettled business: whether Gein had or not already dug her up himself. (Which is what Robert Bloch, in the story for Psycho, hinted.) Morris shrugged it off and never went; Herzog, of course, showed up in Plainfield on the appointed date, figurative shovel in hand. Uninterested in performing his Geinian task alone (“I was kind of scared, because people open fire easily in this town”), Herzog loitered, tasted the plain, totemic American-ness of Plainfield, and decided to make a movie.

 Stroszek (1976), showing in Metrograph’s Whole Lotta Herzog series, is Herzog’s Amerika, just one of his 70s masterpieces, and possibly the greatest film a European ever made about America. From a fart lit on fire to a compulsively dancing chicken, it is Herzog’s most bittersweet film, in which everything utterly ordinary in the  Midwest feels outrageously absurd and bruisingly sad on celluloid. Typically, Herzog relies on encountered reality to do a lot of his strange-planet legwork, beginning with the central personage of Bruno S., a mentally impaired street musician who spent a good chunk of his life in institutions, and who Herzog had cast in the lead of Kasper Hauser two years earlier. 

Here, in a role written for him that uses aspects of his actual life (including his own accordion and bugle), Bruno is that miraculous Herzogian figure, something so disobediently authentic and un-self-consciously unpredictable that we’re glued to his every discombobulated glance and gesture. He’s not acting, yet he is, pungently, in symphony with both experienced actors (especially Fassbinder vet Eva Mattes) and real Wisconsinians essentially playing themselves. (That includes, uncomfortably, randy mechanic Clayton Szalpinski, whom Herzog on his Geinian sojourn met when his car broke down.) Bruno’s is the greatest of non-performances, a Herzog specialty (which, when you think about it, suggests that Klaus Kinski wasn’t a pro in Herzog’s cosmos so much as another haywire found object).

The film’s tale follows Bruno, fresh from institutional release, trailing along with Eva (as a prostitute getting battered by her pimps) and the diminutive Mr. Scheitz (Clemens Scheitz), as the three abandon a brutal Berlin for Scheitz’s nephew’s Plainfield spread. The story is all texture, familiar stranger-in-a-strange-land beats executed with Herzog’s distinctively freakish eye and appetite for crazed detail, from the rifle-armed tractor drivers to the bizarrely jabbering auctioneer (very real, featured in a Herzog short made the same year, How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck) to that pathetic chicken, trapped in her arcade prison. 

In fact, Herzog could’ve pushed the American surrealism if he’d had a mind to, but he’s too much of a realist — his Wisconsin is as indelible as the midlands of native-made ‘70s road movies, from Easy Rider to Two-Lane Blacktop to Scarecrow, all “looking for America.” Yet here we’re stranded in just another territory of Werner’s World.

Is it a comedy? There’s nothing funny, only something Herzogian, about the preemie ward Bruno visits early on, with a kindly doctor demonstrating a wailing neo-human’s defiant grip instinct. By the film’s square-dance-like ending, a choreography between runaway tow truck, frozen turkey, hunting rifle, and ski lift, the film attains the kind of mundane majesty Herzog mustered as effortlessly from the Amazon and the Sahara.   

Metrograph and online through July 4


“Stroszek’ arrives on the pages of the Voice in the July 18, 1977 issue, alongside ‘The Island of Dr. Moreau,’ ‘Cousin Cousine,’ and film smorgasbords in the rep houses.

Nights of Alienation in the Noir Classic ‘Le Cercle Rouge’

However supercool and desperate and retroactively magnificent it is, American film noir rarely had — film for film — much deliberate philosophical torque. They were mass-made factory product, and came by their collective resonance after the fact, first in the hearts of French cineastes, and then for everyone. It was Jean-Pierre Melville, looking from the outside in, who transformed the noir paradigm into a self-conscious night of modern alienation, and he did it coldly, remorselessly. He never winked. His thieves and crooks and nowhere men are all resigned to their dooms, and never see any reason to get upset about it.

Melville was a one-man filmmaking combine who famously lived in an apartment above his own studio; both Bertrand Tavernier and Volker Schlondorff schooled there, and the Cahiers du cinema crowd loved him. Le Cercle Rouge (1970), his penultimate film, is something of a summation, slicing through its overcast, uncaring, starkly capitalist world by way of Alain Delon’s weary shark-like gaze. He’s a hood released from prison on the condition of a corrupt warden’s idea for a heist. Simultaneously, Gian Maria Volonte (looking every bit of Joaquim Phoenix a few years from now) is an escaped crook chased by a massive manhunt led by grimly toast-dry detective Andre Bourvil (ending a long career as a comic playing against type). 

Diners, rainy street corners, winter fields — the fraught paths meander and cross, but neither the film nor the characters are in a hurry; fatalism is, after all, the long story. Eventually, Yves Montand, as an alkie sharpshooter (suffering the DTs in a cheap, oddly Lynch-like room), is recruited, and the silent jewel thievery begins, but the spirit of the film hardly gives us hope that they will succeed — even when they do — because the trouble comes around again, as it must. In Melville’s trenchcoated nexus (a suite of eight films, over 17 years) the social crisis of noir becomes a steely fable of Godlessness.    ❖

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CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM 2021 From The Archives

‘Werewolves Within’ Kills Good Humor with Cliché

At first blush, you shouldn’t care that the new comedy-horror indie Werewolves Within is based on a VR video game, and is produced by the French gaming company Ubisoft. The film freely launches into a precision-timed farce mode, in which a guileless replacement Forest Service ranger (Sam Richardson) arrives in an intensely conflicted but super-cute Vermont town, which has been simultaneously invaded by a fracking company, a subpopulation of wealthy urban forever-tourists, and, apparently, a lycanthrope. 

The familiar-face cast has a collective century of comic seasoning, from CollegeHumor to SNL to Veep to Glee to Drunk History, and everyone’s a quick-talking, hairpin-turn riot, especially Milana Vayntrub’s chatty-pixie mailwoman, Michaela Watkins’s frazzled battle-ax, and Michael Chernus’s sarcastic schlub. Written by stand-up memoirist Mishna Wolff and directed by Josh Ruben with overlap-busy deftness, this satiric portrait of new New England in full bicker battle is light enough on its toes to make you wish the film didn’t have to swerve toward dealing with rampaging beast attacks. Even the tame plot references (Jaws, The Thing) and full-blown caricatures — flouncy gays, uptight Karens, crazed hermits — go down like Prosecco.

Unfortunately, in the end, the game-ish-ness in the DNA isn’t the handicap — it’s the cliched concept and the rote guess-who-it-is shouting matches, all leading to a run of tasteless murder humor (not so funny, when the characters are so likable), the inevitable surprise ending (with exposition), and the unsurprising wolfperson face-off, stretch, yawn. You can’t have everything.    ❖


CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM 2021 From The Archives

F9: More Muscle Cars and More Muscular Heroes

The films in the Fast and Furious franchise — somehow on its ninth installment — are nearly impossible to dislike. They may not always be good, but they are guaranteed to be exciting.

The often silly and outrageous, exceedingly entertaining movies about muscle cars and muscular heroes continually find new ways to top each other. You thought Vin Diesel driving off a cliff was cool? Wait till you see Vin Diesel driving off a cliff while a train explodes in the background. That not good enough for you? How about Vin Diesel driving off a cliff in the middle of Thailand, while a fighter jet soars above him and a pack of sharks swim below? Now we’re talking.

Diesel returns as Dominic Toretto, who has risen from the Los Angeles street racing scene to become an international driver specializing in the extraction, transportation, and delivery of highly classified materials. He’s living off the grid with his wife, Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), when a message sends them on another mission. They team up with Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Tej (Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges), Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel), and Mia (Jordana Brewster), then go up against their scowling nemesis, Jakob (John Cena of WWE fame).

At first, it seems that director Justin Lin might be grounding things in a more dramatic world this time — he doesn’t open with sky-diving cars, but rather, on an exposition dump that introduces Dom and Jakob as brothers. It’s a gut-wrenching moment, a run-down on their sibling rivalry. But then all drama is left in the dust. The next scene involves a high-speed chase in Thailand, featuring tanks, fighter jets, Ferraris, machine guns, vast expanses of jungle, and electric blue water, along with the aforementioned cliff jump.

The rest of the film centers on Jakob’s end-of-the-world operation, and the final hour is essentially one big stand-off between Dom and his team and Jakob and his team, including Thue Ersted Rasmussen and Charlize Theron (who shows why action movies are becoming her forte of late, fleshing out her femme fatale with steely glances and muscular stunts). She’s the latest in a long line of empowered female warriors in the franchise, a counterbalance to Rodriguez’s good-girl, badass heroine.

Dom stands out among these jocular characters, and “unfazed” doesn’t begin to describe his ability to stay cool, calm, and collected in the face of danger. Diesel has cornered the market on performances that are stoic and reserved, and that’s all Lin asks of him in F9, surrounding him with a murder’s row of quick-witted, fast-driving eccentrics. Lin packs the frame with over-the-top characters, over-the-top explosions, and over-the-top sets, that way Diesel can be the calming eye of the storm.

Title cards like “London” and “Edinburgh” lend a sense of playfulness to Lin’s globe-trotting adventure, executed with a brawny, bombastic chutzpah. The plot is basically an excuse to jump from one place to the next, so to delve into the details would be a waste of time, and the film is far more engaging when all semblance of narrative is thrown out the window.

Besides, action movies don’t need storylines, so long as they wow us. The best moments in F9 are the ones where Diesel is driving off a cliff or Cena is zipping through traffic in London, followed by what seems like half the city’s police squad. The next installment, Fast 10: Hang on to Your Seat Belts (or whatever they’re going to call it), is going to have a hard time topping this ballet of bombast.    ❖

Starting June 25.

CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM 2021 From The Archives

Bella Thorne’s Badass Approach to Acting and Life is Paying Off

For child stars, changing and maturing in the public eye is almost always difficult. When they choose to pursue both music and acting as they transition into adulthood, it’s almost a given that formidable challenges will accompany their more artistic expression. Add to this, discovering their sexuality and daring to show it on social platforms, and growing up in the spotlight is harder to do than ever. Bella Thorne has dealt with all of this and more, and at 23 years old, she’s emerged as an unapologetic (and successful) actress, singer, and businesswoman.

One of her most recent roles — as a member of The Relentless, the rock band at the center of the new-ish Amazon Prime series Paradise City — gave her the opportunity to explore both sides of herself at once. The storyline concerns her character, Lily Mayflower (the band’s bass player/backup singer), who gets fired following the group’s reunion on the series.

After a drugged-out tryst with lead singer Johnny Faust (Andy Biersack), Lily sent a video of the romp to his girlfriend in hopes of breaking them up. Faust is now sober and as the band works toward a comeback and he gets engaged to his forgiving girlfriend, Lily — who has moved on and now has a girlfriend — becomes collateral damage. The show, from record producer Ash Avildsen, is a sequel to his film American Satan. Lily was played by another actress in the movie, but Thorne fell into the series’ sexy female rocker role rather seamlessly, donning punk chick gear and makeup, and playing the bassist in a badass yet vulnerable way that feels pretty authentic.

“I just really loved the character. I totally felt at home with her,” Thorne says via phone, during a break on set for her latest directorial gig — a video for rapper Juicy Jay.  “I usually don’t play characters that are as close to home for me. I usually play characters that are opposite of my personality so it was fun to play someone more similar, but show a different side.

“I relate to her in a lot of ways, especially on the sexuality front, on being misunderstood, and being the only female in the band, even though there’s drama there,” she continues. “Of course she’s the first one to be kicked out, which I think is very interesting. It’s kind of her living in a boys crew and I’ve always kind of felt like that, like a tomboy. Lily’s ‘I don’t give a fuck’ attitude too; you know people say I don’t give a fuck, and yeah it’s true, but I do and I’ll always tell you the truth. It’s also obnoxious to say ‘I don’t give a fuck what anyone thinks about me.’ I think that the honesty that I put in the character that wasn’t originally there, I think that part of me coincides nicely.”

Thorne’s own music is a rock-rap-pop hybrid, but she says she grew up listening to ’80s and ’90s rock music and drew inspiration from the likes of Joan Jett, Billy Squire, and Nirvana for her stage performance in City, adding that she admires “the realness and the rawness,” and imperfect mojo of older rock sounds. “It’s much different from the music now,” she adds. “So I’m always going back to listen to older rock.”

As we discuss our favorite artists, she emphasizes a passion for rap and rock together and shares that Linkin Park have always been tops for her. She knows “every word to every song of theirs” and she says, “these are two genres that pretty much make up everything in my life. Rap and rock are both methods of preaching.”

Her latest sermon of sorts is called “Phantom,” and lyrically it’s an empowerment anthem about ghosting on controlling dudes, but the video, which Thorne directed, comes off like a creepy yet come-hither monster movie. Thorne raps and writhes throughout, donning wigs and skimpy glam get-ups as guitarist Malina Moye shreds on the track.

Her previous self-directed video ditty, for a song called “Shake It” got a lot of attention last year. So much so that it was temporarily taken down by YouTube (it’s back now). Starring porn star Abella Danger –who was also in Thorne’s award-winning adult film directorial debut called film Her & Him — it features the actresses kissing, romping in bed together and shaking it in white lingerie. Whether or not the title is meant as a subtle/subliminal ref to Thorne’s best-known TV show, Shake It Up in which she co-starred with Zendaya on the Disney channel, is unknown, but as we start to discuss the public and media’s quick-to-judge tendencies of former Disney stars, it’s clear that she’s long been ready to move on from that part of her past.

Like fellow former Disney stars Miley Cyrus and Demi Lovato, Thorne is proudly queer (she came out as pansexual in 2019, though she is newly engaged to Italian pop star Benjamin Mascolo as of March). Like both actors/singers she’s received her share of online haters and trolls simply for being who she is whether she’s dating men or women. In terms of her roles, we ask if she’s chosen more provocative ones in hopes of breaking out of the Disney kid mold (two recent memorable turns included a Fight Club-style boxer in Chick Fight and a snarky cheerleader in The Babysitter series) but she’s understandably a bit weary of the question.

“Everyone asks me that and it’s like no, but I guess so? Everyone perceives it that way but before I did Disney, I was on HBO. I was on Entourage. I was on Showtime. You name it, I was acting,” she says matter of factly. “Producers were like, ‘well she can scream and cry on cue,’ get her in here. If you have some fucked up child role, get her. I had never done comedy before in my life and I never thought I’d get comedic roles, ever. People are like ‘Disney, Disney, Disney’ and I’m like, nah… I started years before and I’ve been busting my ass.”

As Lily Mayflower in ‘Paradise City’

Though some assume she’s been trying to be a wild child in her actions (such as creating her popular Only Fans page) and film choices, Thorne insists her career has always been about challenging herself. “I just want to tackle roles that showcase my acting,” she adds.

In addition to film and TV, Thorne clearly likes to have lots of other endeavors and irreverent irons in the fire. A few years ago she turned her L.A. home into an art installation, with a hot pink exterior, thematic muraled rooms, and more. Known as “The Trippy Twins Funhouse,” she used it for photoshoots and as an events space. Though she put it on the market last year, she says her love of real estate has remained and she plans to do something similar, but “not as crazy” at another property soon.

Her production company Content X, has a multitude of projects coming up, including some she can’t really talk about yet. Paradise City season 2 is still tentative, and she’s currently focused on a still-unannounced project she wrote and created, which she has been working on since she was 18. “I finally signed contracts with the team and I’m excited to see my baby come to life,” she says, trying not to reveal too much until official announcements are scheduled.  “This show is everything to me. What I can say about it is it’s dark, it’s noir, and it’s very close to home.”    ❖

CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM 2021 From The Archives

Sensory Overload and Stupidity Hit Hard in ‘The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard’

The first thought that might run through your aching head as you slog through the insipid action/comedy sequel to The Hitman’s Bodyguard is that Hollywood has reached a new low. The original was mindless, but at least there was a sliver of humor and an interesting chemistry between its stars. Not this time. Oh boy. The original was like Citizen Kane compared to its successor.

The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard’s (sigh, the title alone) is not only dreadful, but deeply depressing. If this is the trajectory that Hollywood continues to take, we’re in for a long road of shallow characterization, racial stereotyping, nauseating action sequences, and flat jokes that make your drunk uncle look like a comedian. This is the movie we’d be forced to watch if the robots in The Terminator won the war against humanity.

Ryan Reynolds is back as softie bodyguard, Michael Bryce (you see, he’s undergone therapy and is taking a sabbatical from killing — ho ho ho, hilarious). He’s hired to protect Samuel L. Jackson’s Darius Kincaid, but he’s also protecting Darius’ wife, Sonia, played by Salma Hayek in full screech mode. Bryce accompanies his cohorts on a mission to take down a Greek billionaire (Antonio Banderas) who plans to utilize a deep-sea drill with a computer virus that will destroy Europe’s internet. Or something like that. If the filmmakers don’t care about the story, why should we?

Jackson looks like he’s falling asleep and collecting a paycheck at the same time, while Reynolds can’t stop mugging and chipping away at his inner goofball as if he’s sculpting the dumbest character in movie history. Hayek looks fantastic, but she exhibits the nuance of an MMA fighter. The action scenes are cartoonish to the point of futility. In fact, this movie is so noisy, you wonder what grates more, the continuous gunshots and explosions or paper-thin characters yelling at each other about absolutely nothing. Take the scene where Michael and Darius walk down a hall arguing about something, only to be interrupted by assassins who they shoot in the head with shrugging ease before continuing to bicker. It’s like the high school bully’s version of clever.

The filmmakers behind this debacle are obvious disciples of the Michael Bay school of storytelling, a doctrine that believes you shouldn’t spend any time formulating characters in fear that your audience will get bored, so you lob grenades of frenetic action scenes and tedious jokes at them until they’re numb and stupefied, or just plain stupid. Traditionally, there have been plenty of good action comedies with empathetic, full-blooded protagonists. Why has that become a lost art?

What director Patrick Hughes (returning from the first Hitman) doesn’t understand is that action sequences, taken on their own merit, are incredibly dull, unless you care about the players involved. And in this case, we don’t care at all. In fact, you hope they get caught in the crossfire so you can go home and stream something substantial.  Sadly, this is why Netflix and Amazon Prime are winning the war in entertainment.

When it comes to blatantly dumb, Adderall-induced garbage like this, you can only hide behind words like “escapism” and “entertainment” for so long (if two words ever defined relativism, these would suffice). The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard isn’t just plain bad, it’s inherently cruel. These so-called “heroes” shoot people with such passivity and lack of soul, you wonder where the heroism exists. After watching God knows how many millions of dollars invested in a movie about vapid assassins and hundreds of people getting shot in the head with their brains splattered on the wall, you wonder if Hollywood should stop speaking out against the NRA and just take a cold, hard look in the mirror.    ❖

CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM 2021 From The Archives

Michelle Visage on how ‘Explant’ Surgery Led to Her Revealing New Doc

With Pride month in full swing, it’s time to commemorate the struggles of LGBTQA+ people and acknowledge allies too. No doubt, one of the most beloved and high-profile supporters of the gay and drag community, in particular, is Michelle Visage, RuPaul’s bestie and the gal who always tells it like it is on their hit TV reality competition. Visage might be Drag Race’s toughest judge, but unlike say, Simon Cowell, she doesn’t relish critique in a mean-spirited way. Rather, Visage’s keep-it-real style is meant to release what holds the show’s contestants back and help them to achieve their full reigning queen potential.

But for the last 20 years, Visage herself didn’t feel like she could fully reign over her own body. Last year, the pop singer turned TV personality revealed that she had Hashimoto’s Disease caused by her breast implants, and that after years of suffering she was having them removed.

In the new World of Wonder documentary, Explant, Visage takes us along on her personal journey — from her days as a young singer in the girl group Seduction, to her busty transformation and career as a radio and TV figure, to her recent decision to have “explant” surgery due to a host of debilitating symptoms.

Visage and Ru in EXPLANT

Beyond her own journey, Visage takes on the role of investigator in the film, exploring the link between severe health problems and implants via interviews with other women who’ve suffered similar ailments and a host of doctors, including the man who invented the silicone-filled bags initially used for the enhancement (which later evolved into saline, but curiously still utilized silicone materials to encase the liquid, despite it being linked to health issues).

The documentary, directed by Jeremy Simmons (The Last Beekeeper) and produced by Visage and her husband, is extremely well-researched, providing detailed information about the history of the breast implant. Visage is, as she is on her hit TV show, uncensored and candid as can be, sharing everything from the insecurities that led her to get the boob job in the first place to her frustration with the medical industry’s lack of transparency about the risks of getting enhancement. She was just as forthright when we spoke to her via Zoom about the doc and what inspired it.

“I felt all alone so I kind of went, ‘okay maybe this is just me.’ But if you have an auto-immune condition, that means your body is attacking a certain part of your body, whether like in my case — it’s your thyroid, or some other place,” says Visage about of her initial struggle and search for answers. “As a layperson who reads far too much medical literature, it just made sense that my body had an invader 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It just so happened it was attacking my thyroid, but I had these two huge blobs of silicone in my body that didn’t belong there. So the link made sense to me, but at the same time, I didn’t have anybody that was on my team 100%. They were like, possibly, perhaps… So I just kept googling and googling and reading papers like the Harvard Medical Journal and literature that I could barely understand. It led me to believe that I was right. I ended up in a Facebook group and there were thousands of women experiencing similar problems. Some women have Lupus, some have cancer, some women have rheumatoid arthritis, whatever it is. It’s all in the same wheelhouse. It made me go, oh my God, not only am I on to something, I’m pissed off. I’m pissed off that the FDA has been completely glossing over us and I’m pissed off that our medical field here in the United States doesn’t listen to women.”

Post-Op in EXPLANT

When Visage started talking to doctors, she says they made her feel like she was crazy or hysterical. She insisted she was not imagining the link and that it was real and her research eventually confirmed it. The documentary, which was her husband’s idea, highlights what Visage went through and more. She says she is not against plastic surgery of any kind, but she does feel that more information needs to be provided to patients before making the decision to go under the knife, which can impact their lives in ways they’d never imagine.

“I want to live to be a century and I want to be here for my great-grandchildren, you know what I mean,” the 52-year-old mother of two shares. “My husband was like, ‘why aren’t you documenting this’ and I was like, ‘oh my god, what a great idea.’  I told Randy [Barbato] and Fenton [Bailey] [World of Wonder Productions heads] my idea and they loved it, and mostly because it’s a great subject– not just breast implants, we’re talking about boobs in general.  They started out as documentarians, and that’s their passion. So I knew that they would get it, because I didn’t want it to be all gloom and doom. I wanted it to be factual and tell my story, but also interesting… we’re talking about boobs!”

Visage’s explant surgeon Dr. H. Jae Chun was one of the first to specialize in removal and he provides an educational and credible voice supporting the mounting evidence in the movie. The Newport Beach doctor switched from doing implants to explants exclusively, after woman after woman came to him with problems obviously linked to the procedures.

“The reason for this documentary is to say to women that you are not crazy. This is new, but it is very real, and people are starting to take notice, including the FDA, and it’s not about a rupture or what kind of implants you had.  It’s not about silicone or saline because I have had three sets; it’s the shell that is going in your body and is made up of 40+ chemicals including the same chemicals that are in inkjet printer ink. You wouldn’t believe what is going in your body and we lay there and ‘go yes, put it in us.’
Ultimately, Visage’s desire for “black-box warnings” on implants like cigarettes has come to fruition but she says that with patients under anesthesia when packaging is opened, nobody sees the box. “Doctors should be handing the box to their patients and saying ‘read this before I put them in your body,’” she insists. “It’s un-fucking-believable that we still have to fight just to be told what they’re putting in our body.”

Her platform via Drag Race will hopefully help the cause. “I’m so blessed that people love our show as much as they do because it means so much to be not only part of this incredible legacy but to change lives the way that we’re able to,” she enthuses, adding that this issue affects the the LGBTQIA+ community as well. “Tits don’t make a woman. These health complications don’t know gender.”

Though she reiterates not being against plastic surgery per se, she does plan to fight for informed decisions about getting work done. And she hopes to encourage alternatives to feeling good. “For me, it was about self-love and self-worth and sharing that and I think it’s very important within our community to show that vulnerability and to show that you know, we need to love ourselves first despite what society says we should look like.”

“The most important lesson of all of it is to find a way to start loving yourself just as you are,” she concludes. “Let me be the catalyst because if I was happy with who I was at 21, I wouldn’t be here today, and I probably wouldn’t feel the way that I do and have for the past 20 years.”    ❖

Explant premieres online this Sun., June 13 as part of the Tribeca Film Festival. More info here.


Tribeca ‘21: What We Do in the Shadows, All Together in the Dark

Boy, are we ready. Nineteen years after the Tribeca Film Festival was invented as a kind of annual team-building retreat for all of a wounded New York, here we are again, emerging from a fog of trial and tribulation to get together, and reacquaint ourselves with the communal nature of moviegoing. It is, after all, a festival.

But will we? Even with our inner Eberts straining at the bit after over a year of being home-screen bound, it might be an uphill climb. For one thing, the fest’s Tribeca at Home virtual hub opens the gates on most of the films to anyone in the country, in their living rooms — which is different from a streaming service how? In a larger context, we may well have passed the point of no return in seeing or even caring about the difference between “going to” a movie, taking it in under the classic theatrical circumstances, and simply staying home and watching it on the best screen we’ve got, which in many cases may be very good indeed.

But that’s not a “festival,” is it? Nor is it anywhere close to the “event” context that moviegoing had for many decades, back when movies were a place you went to, and an individual film could change your life. Tribeca was from its beginning a defiant party, a self-celebration that framed itself as being bigger than its britches, gradually evolving into the downtown institution it always thought it was and bringing the measure of starfucking and showbiz pomp that the NYFF had always haughtily deferred. Of course en masse moviegoing was always the stock in the soup; without it, as we saw last year, the effort felt less like actual sex and more like internet porn, to evoke a very contemporary parallel dilemma.  

Or, put it like the critic David Thomson, who likened the difference between watching a movie on TV and watching it in a full-sized theater to the difference between looking at an aquarium and watching a whale swim past you underwater. The last 15 months may have made our already convenience-first home viewing habits practically intractable, but there’s a classic and rather unshakable argument supporting the necessity of the cinema. (We’ll get to this year’s Tribeca docket in a minute.) In 1969 the doggedly sensible philosopher Stanley Cavell wrote about how, in a traditional live-theater situation, “the first task of the dramatist is to gather us and then to silence and immobilize us,” and then, via the story on hand, “to show that this very extraordinary behavior, sitting in a crowd in the dark, is very sane.”

No Man of God

Helplessness has been an imperative mechanism, forcing us to experience movies as classical audiences enjoyed Shakespeare — “paralyzed” by decorum in the “black box,” and therefore forced to share the characters’ fates, empathize with their sufferings, fully engage in the emotional moment. The drama unfolds within a window of time you cannot alter, and is comprised of decisions, tragedies, fates and fortunes you cannot mitigate or prevent. Being helpless is our role, and we must accept it. Cavell retells an old anecdote, in which a Southern yokel instinctively jumps onto the stage during a performance of Othello in order to save Desdemona from the homicidal rage of a black man. Cavell doesn’t even touch on the scenario’s inherent racism — he instead looks at the man’s reaction as the antithesis of what it means to partake of and participate in dramatic art.

The Southern man ignores the difference between reality and “pretend,” but more vitally he fails to understand that there is no reason to act or interfere, because there is absolutely nothing a spectator can do to help Desdemona or deter Othello. It is precisely our inability to alter the course of the story, as we sit and are forced to endure it from beginning to end, that guarantees our emotional investment and cathartic involvement. It is our hostage status, the norms that define the audience and the stage as two complementary but separate worlds, that makes the drama work. The feelings of alarm and empathy a play or movie musters is why we’re there. We can care about Desdemona, but we can never save her.

It is, virtually by definition, inconvenient — anti-convenience, even. At home, of course, the spell can be destroyed in a thousand ways, and routinely is, and if you’re going to theorize about how our moviegoing habits have mutated over the last decade or two — toward hyperextended or even endless TV narratives, toward CGI’d explosiveness, toward re-binging thoughtlessly, toward the unthreatening safety of sequels and reboots — Cavell’s thesis may be a good place to start. The endgame question might be, do we — or even can we — care about Desdemona anymore?

My Heart Won’t Beat Unless You Tell It To

Black box, take me in. Rousing from her coma, the new Tribeca fest returns with a rich docket, a hearty helping of which are actually holdovers from last year, COVID having robbed them of their fest premieres. (Awards were still doled out.) Typically, it’s a robust cross-section of what’s being made out there, beyond the multiplexes and Netflix menus, and for better or worse. Jonathan Cuartas’ My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To did, in fact, win a Best Cinematography jury laurel last year, and its off-center, claustrophobic intimacy perfectly manifests the secretive world of its protagonists: a brother (Patrick Fugit) and sister (Ingrid Sophie Schram) who kidnap and kill loners and nobodies in order to secure blood for a sickly quasi-vampiric third sibling (Owen Campbell). It’s an EC Comics scenario dished out with funereal solemnity, as what is obviously an untenable situation (“He’s not getting any better,” Fugit’s guilt-bundle mutters) helplessly spirals into cataclysm. The whys and hows and what-the-s are blessedly left dangling.

No Man of God

A fellow grim brooder without answers, Amber Sealey’s No Man of God takes on the last death row days of Ted Bundy, seen through the exploratory interviews conducted by FBI profiler William Hagmaier (Elijah Wood). As the infamously manipulative and seductive Bundy, Luke Kirby is the movie’s gasoline; his performance is often leeringly lurid and menacingly flamboyant, but so was Bundy; his strange performative psychopathy was a kind of a complex acting job all its own, devious and untrustworthy but always played in the key of Watch Me. Even so, the filmmakers deserve credit for the puncturing moments of context — as when the camera hones in, during a prison interview with a televangelist, on a young female crew member we know nothing about, watching Bundy spin his web, tears welling up in her eyes.


Otherwise, navel-gazing Gen-Z mood pieces are of course thick on the fest’s ground, as they are everywhere, with Noah Dixon and Ori Segev’s diaphanous and rather odd Poser leading the pack. Newcomer Sylvie Mix plays a decidedly passive hotel maid and music-scene wannabe who begins a podcast for what seems to be large parasitical purposes, attaching herself to a local vampy singer named Bobbi Kitten, played by Bobbi Kitten. Which is the odd part — the film, a kind of All About Eve for the Phoebe Bridgers set, is split between being a satire on the “scene” and a distended promo for Kitten and her band, Damn the Witch Siren, when it’s not simply dallying in dark clubs and watching the beguilingly lispy Mix watch everyone else.  


Samantha Aldana’s Shapeless is similarly fuzzy, following a budding jazz singer (Kelly Murtaugh, also the screenwriter) as she battles with bulimia, gorging and puking (Fruity Pebbles!) over and over. Swamped with filter distortions, lighting flares, and song interludes, the film has a handful of startling Cronenberg moments — that eyeball — suggesting bulimia’s body alienation, but they’re reflecting only the character’s internal state, and they’re too brief to stick. 

See For Me

Randall Okita’s See for Me moves more confidently, by virtue of its very simple genre set-up: a prickly blind girl (Skyler Davenport) cat-sitting in a McMansion is beset by an armed team of safecrackers — which she evades and works against with the help of a phone app connecting her with a sighted staffer (Jessica Parker Kennedy). A Wait Until Dark plus iPhones and virtual sisterhood (even gunplay is doable for the girls), it’s a spiffy résumé B-movie and unpretentiously fun.

The Neutral Ground

As you’d expect, the line-up is also filthy with inspirational profile docs: drag queens, skateboarders, activists of all kinds (in and out of a subprogram celebrating Juneteenth), woman conductors (Marin Alsop), wise old Nobel Peace Prize winners, gender-fluid Nigerian youths, female war-zone camerawomen, adolescent Olympians, Leonard Bernstein, and so almost infinitely on. If that’s your jam — more provocative, non-fiction-wise, is the Michael Moore-ish strategy Daily Show vet CJ Hunt uses, in The Neutral Ground, to investigate Southern racism through the ongoing argument around Confederate monuments — the dumb, brazen absurdity of which effortlessly musters an all-American sense of surreal comedy.

Enemies of the State

Sonia Kennebeck’s Enemies of the State is another refresher, marching us through, in Errol Morris fashion (he’s an exec producer), the insidious federal persecution of Anonymous cohort Matt DeHart, and in the process reminding us, after four Trumpian years of looking at the FBI and CIA in a heroic light, how deep-dish criminal those agencies can get.  

Dear Mr. Brody

It often helps if a doc has a solid and unique starting point, and for Keith Maitland and Melissa Robyn Glassman’s Dear Mr. Brody, it’s a cache of 30,000 unopened letters, sent in 1970 to one Michael Brody, a hopped-up 21-year-old Scarsdale millionaire who announced, foolishly, that he would give away $25 million to whomever asks. An irritating, starry-eyed loudmouth with a serious PCP habit, who managed only a handful of giveaways as he battled with the press, Brody made himself a tortured celebrity for a while, but the film brightens when diving into the letters and, sometimes, the now-aged writers, reading their hopeful notes 50 years later. Your eyes will sting.  

Brighton 4th

Of the more inspired features, I wouldn’t miss Levan Koguashvili’s Brighton 4th, a tiny but near-perfect, semi-comic portrait of the low-rent Georgian enclave in Brighton Beach, visited from Tbilisi by an elderly ex-wrestler (Levan Tediashvili), whose ne’er-do-well son (Giorgi Tabidze) is drowning in gambling debt owed to gangsters. It’s quite like a wintery, shabby day trip to Coney Island, because the film fans out, embracing a dozen or more vivid, craggy-faced characters and their struggles and grifts, less to drive a story than to thumbnail a weathered, hard-smoking community.


Regrettably, Brighton 4th goes where you think it will, but Wyatt Rockefeller’s Settlers, a polished sci-fi drama shot entirely in Namibia, doesn’t quite — we’re with a homesteading family in an outpost on Mars, where threats from unexplained outlaws are ever-present, suggesting to us a social-conflict parable we can’t quite pin down. But the Mom and Dad (Sofia Boutella and Jonny Lee Miller) are on the razor’s edge of homicidal dread (as seen from the POV of the nine-year-old daughter, played by Brooklynn Prince), and what seemed like a home invasion scenario with orange skies changes and changes again; deaths occur off-screen, and we’re never sure where the story’s sympathies will go. The unarticulated macro view, of a human colony failing and collapsing over generations into a feral wasteland, is daunting.


And, a fave: Rob Schroeder’s Ultrasound is another kind of beast altogether — a clever wedge of mindfuckery that invokes the adjective “Shane Carruthian,” no small praise. Many balls are in the air — a stranded motorist (Vincent Kartheiser) and the odd couple who take him in and cajole him into sleeping with the wife (Chelsea Lopez), a tense psychologist (Breeda Wool) rehearsing a transcript of the motorist’s and wife’s conversation, an underground research complex of mysterious ends, several pregnancies and many memories that may not be real, a whiff of The Manchurian Candidate, a trace of David Cronenberg’s Stereo. Centered on a relentlessly garrulous performance by Bob Stephenson — we learn quickly he’s not who he says he is — the movie is a dizzying puzzle you don’t quite want to solve itself. It does and it doesn’t, ultimately, and sticks to your frontal lobe like a sweaty shirt.   ❖

The Tribeca Film Festival runs from June 9 – 20