Blab June 2001
Published Feb 01, 2000I suppose it's a compliment, being offered a retrospective of your cinematic oeuvre over the last decade or so, as I have been lately in such far-flung locations as Birmingham, South Africa, Dallas, and now Buenos Aires. But somehow I can't help but think that everyone would prefer that I die already so they can properly immortalise me without the inconvenience of having to deal with me in the flesh. Well not so fast. It is true that I've never really fully recovered from the one-two punch of the loss of Kurt and River, which for me also signified the death of punk and Hollywood, respectively. That's when I realised what Andy Warhol meant when he confessed how he felt when one of his cats died in the late 50s; "that's when I stopped caring." But that doesn't mean that I'm ready to throw in the moist towellette quite yet.
Buenos Aires is one of those cities that I've always wanted to visit largely owing to its representation in the movies; in this case a cross between Starship Troopers and Wong Kar-Wai's Happy Together fuelling my desire. In Happy Together, Buenos Aires is the setting for one of the great fucked up gay relationships of modern times, between the two hot Hong Kong stars Tony Leung and Leslie Cheung, the latter of whom, as a bonus, came out of the closet during the publicity tour. That movie made the city seem like an exotic destination at the end of the world, full of tango bars and tortured romance. And Starship Troopers of course represented Buenos Aires as the city of the future, populated by the Aryan descendants of escaped Nazi war criminals of the Third Reich. (The city was blown off the face of the earth by the evil intergalactic insect empire, but never mind.) Dysfunctional gay relationships and fascism: two of my favourite themes. How could I resist?
The twinkling lights of this sprawling city of 14 million people seemingly extended into infinity as we landed, giving me the same kind of thrill that arriving at Los Angeles always provides, the feeling that you are about to be devoured. One thing I had heard about Buenos Aires was that more people go to shrinks and have plastic surgery per capita than any other city in the world, which made it seem awfully futuristic and urbane. This impression was reinforced when I arrived at the airport at six in the morning to witness the arrival of some soccer megastar in dark glasses being followed by a throng of journalists, TV cameras, and paparazzi. It was modern in that way that Fellini movies from the 60s still seem modern today, where everyone is hopelessly glamorous and soigné no matter what time of night or day. Could this replace L.A. as my new spiritual homeland?
I was greeted somewhat less glamorously by a single driver who whisked me off to my hotel, a deluxe Holiday Inn situated in a formerly rundown part of town that has more recently begun to be gentrified. Exhausted by the long trip (three hours to Miami, eight to Buenos Aires), I ordered breakfast from room service, took a shower, and fell into a deep sleep. When I emerged in the evening, I opened the curtains to see the full panorama of the city sparkling before me, a dense sea of high rise buildings and communication towers, just like in J.G Ballard's novel Hi-Rise. It kind of made me feel like throwing myself out the window, but I was afraid I might land in the pool and live.
As it turns out, I don't have much time to explore the city considering personal appearances before and after my ten screenings, interviews, parties, and long, languorous meals at five star restaurants all paid for by the festival. But my host, Javier, who arranged my trip, and my "angel" (the moniker charmingly chosen for the assistants of the guests of the fest), Maranaro, do provide me with a crash course in their culture. I discover that the other honourees at the festival include the late flaming faggot Jack Smith, the late French auteur Francoise Truffaut, documentarian Chris Marker, and Hong Kong action director Johnny To, so I'm in pretty heady company.
My first impression of Buenos Aires is that it's the perfect modern city. Perhaps owing to the proliferation of shrinks, the volatile Latin temperament that one might expect to encounter seems to be toned down and under control. Despite the city's vastness endless streets of boxy, balconied eight- to 18-storey buildings, some with a '50s and 60s, almost Soviet austerity, some with more Colonial flourishes, all in subdued beige and off-white there seems to be a certain affluence, with the denizens dressed in tight, fashionable clothing day and night. Black and yellow mini-cabs bottleneck the bustling streets, while the subways are clean and brightly illuminated by fluorescent lights. Naked supermodels on billboards hover above your head with moral immunity.
I get the impression, however, that my hosts are ignoring certain ugly realities hidden behind the glimmering facade. Attempts to talk about the extreme right wing dictatorship that ended only in 1982, as bloody as Chile's in its day, are casually derailed. My requests to visit the vast, labyrinthine poor sections of the city I glimpsed on the trip from the airport are brushed off; I am told that these neighbourhoods are too dangerous to drive through, and even the police have no jurisdiction there. And although Buenos Aires itself seems suspiciously affluent, apparently the rest of the country suffers from widespread poverty. Even my inquiries about the huge hole in the ozone that I read about are evaded or dismissed as myth. If I didn't know better, I'd say there might be hidden cracks in the walls of paradise.
Unfortunately, as I have been in a relationship of sorts of late, I decide not to fuck my way through town as I would normally do. I'm feeling very adult and beyond my promiscuous, irresponsible past, dutifully calling my special friend when I get back to my hotel room in the evenings. Little do I know that when I return to Toronto he will unceremoniously dump me because as a fundamentalist Muslim he has decided the homosexuality is evil and will prevent him from entering the kingdom of heaven. Damn, I wish he would have told me that before I left.
Tom International, Soviet pop icon and the star of my last movie, however, is under no such restrictions, so when he arrives as a guest of the festival, he is horny and ready to rape and pillage. He has that frightening look in his eye that he sometimes gets, like that of a predatory beast, so I know trouble is brewing. He ends up allowing Javier to give him a blow job, which will lead to all sorts of annoying complications, considering that he's the boyfriend of one of the highest officials of the festival, who also happens to be a cultural minister. This little imbroglio comes to a head, so to speak, when one evening, before one of my screenings, Javier and Tom and I are having a little toot in a washroom adjacent to the theatre. The irate boyfriend has apparently seen us enter the washroom together, follows us in, and starts banging on the door of our stall. He threatens to call security and fires Javier on the spot. I have visions of spending the night in a damp jail cell, of being interrogated and tortured in the style of previous South American dictatorships. But somehow everything is smoothed over the next day.
So Tom International and I spend the rest of our days eating in expensive restaurants and being chauffeured around the city. On our last day Maranaro takes us to a working class neighbourhood to eat at a famous restaurant called El Obrero, "the Worker." There we are served a particular Argentinean delicacy whereby every conceivable part of a cow is barbecued and served up in large portions: ribs, intestines, the bladder, the lungs, the hooves, what have you. We politely dine on this terrifying meal while portraits on the walls of famous indigenous soccer players like Maradona leer down at us. After that we wander around the soccer stadium and the surrounding hood of multi-coloured houses. We run into Jim Jarmusch, another guest of the festival, whom I previously met at the Toronto film fest. He's with his cute adopted Latino nephew. Jarmusch is as handsome and soft-spoken as ever, with those big baby blue eyes and that wild shock of white hair.
Later Maranaro takes us to his family's apartment so that we can watch a videotape of Asia Argento's movie Scarlett Diva, which I need to see because I will soon be flying to Milano to interview and photograph her for Index magazine. Maranaro offers us a special tea with a vaguely druggy quality that Argentineans drink communally, like passing around a joint, while his crazy psychologist mother drifts around the hall outside his bedroom door. I laugh and laugh at Asia's magnum opus, a send-up of her jet-set lifestyle in which she routinely gets drugged and raped and ripped off in every major city in the world. Kind of like what would have been happening to me in Buenos Aires had I known that I would soon be abandoned by the Muslim. Unfortunately, there will be no more estupro for Bruce.