4 April 2005 | gftbiloxi
A Fascinating Failure
The artist David Wojnarowicz (1954-1992 was not exactly the sort of person you'd like to have drop in to meet mom: the product of an abusive home, he spent his teenage years working as a Time Square prostitute and much of his later life on the road, trading sex for a ride, for a meal, for nothing at all. Over time, he would begin to turn his extreme experiences into art: a series of writings, paintings, and sculptures that would eventually gain him a small but influential following. He came to national consciousness when the National Endowment for the Arts, under pressure from Senator Jessie Helms and Rev. Donald Wildemon, withdrew funding for an exhibition of his work--and instead of going quietly into night Wojnarowicz responded by suing Wildemon for copyright infringement and misrepresentation.
POSTCARDS FROM America is based on both Wojnarowicz's life and two autobiographical books he wrote: CLOSE TO THE KNIVES and MEMORIES THAT SMELL LIKE GASOLINE, both of which might best be described as a series of essays that sketch the horrors of his childhood, his sexual experiences as a prostitute and on the road, and his battle with AIDS. And like many art films, it has many good ideas; unfortunately, and also like many art films, it doesn't always know what to do with them.
The style of the film, directed and scripted by Steve McLean, tears a page from D.W. Griffith's silent masterpiece INTOLERANCE: instead of presenting us with a sequential biography, the film slips through time, mixing scenes of Wojnarowicz's childhood, his teenage years, and his later years on the road. In each case Wojnarowicz is played by a different actor at each stage of his life, and overall the effect is quite interesting and the performances are quite a bit better than you might expect. The cinematography by Ellen Kuras is also quite fine.
Where the film falls down is in the script, most of which is lifted word-for-word from Wojnarowicz's writing--which at its best explodes memorably in the ear. But director/writer McLean scripts the piece as a series of monologues, some done as voice-overs, some delivered directly to the camera. It would take a truly extraordinary ensemble to pull it off, but for all the directorial and acting gifts involved the overall feel that emerges is a mix of the static and the stagey. But the real failure of the film is its inability to convey the absolute fury that Wojnarowicz's writings possess and the sense of exploding anger that the best of his art conveys. Ultimately, Wojnarowicz emerges as a guy who had bad luck instead of a person who deliberately chose the adult life he led.
All of that said, it's rather difficult to know to whom this film is supposed to appeal. Obviously, the film has a strong gay element--and it is rife with same sex scenes, casual encounters in bathrooms, truck stops, a truly vicious rape that occurs when Wojnarowicz accepts a ride from a man in a van, all of which the character actually seems to take in stride as the "givens" of life. But individuals who live this particular lifestyle are unlikely to sit down and watch an art film about it, and for the rest of us--be we heterosexual or homosexual--it is off-putting to say the least.
That off-putting element might have been overcome by bringing us more deeply into Wojnarowicz as a person, but the film never really does this, and when it ends we are really left no wiser than we were before. I am tempted to give POSTCARDS FROM America three stars--but for all its failings it is in many respects a haunting film, filled with unexpected moments of visual beauty and a host of remarkable performances (especially from James Lyons, Michael Tighe, and Olmo Tighe, who play Wojnarowicz at the different stages of his life.) And so I'll be generous and give it four. But don't say I didn't warn you.
Gary F. Taylor, aka GFT, Amazon Reviewer