Monday, August 9, 2010

Antarctica - A Film Review

Tel Aviv is the unchallenged gay capital of the Middle East, a gay presence right up there with San Francisco and Sydney. It hosted a sex festival in 2008, sent nine athletes to the 2009 World Outgames in Copenhagen, hosts an annual LGBT Film Festival, and was able to draw 100,000 to its 2010 Gay Pride Parade. So I should not have been surprised by Antarctica, Israel’s latest film depicting its gay subculture. But I was.

I’ve never written a review of a porno film before. I’m not doing that this time, either, but I’m getting pretty close. Antarctica is all about sex and it is very graphic, right down to the weenies. OK, they are flaccid weenies, but weenies nonetheless. Guys masturbating in their shorts and sex that might actually be not simulated. If this is how you define pornography, this is probably it. If, on the other hand, you feel that the porno quotient goes down as the story line goes up, well, this is just a sexy story. In any case, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

I don’t know when I’ve had quite the reaction to a film I had to Antarctica. The first time I watched it, I found it boring. Silly. Occasionally offensive, full of superficial characters you don’t particularly want to know, doing self-destructive things. It’s Yair Hochner’s second film, and I wasn’t crazy about Yeladim Tovim (Good Boys), his first one, either. He’s still getting his feet wet, and in my view is not ready for prime time. There were moments when I wanted to fast forward, and when it was done, I went to bed thinking I’d give it the Netflix rating of two stars. The “Didn’t like it” rating.

By the following morning, I realized I had not been able to get it out of my mind. Probably it was the Omer character, I said to myself. Really liked looking at Tomer Ilan, who played the role.

One character is not enough to carry an entire film, however, especially an ensemble piece, and I realized it was the look you get into the gay subculture of Tel Aviv that most fascinated me. And more than that, the very fact that a film like Antarctica could be made at all. Americans sort of expect gay-themed films to be still to some degree about the problems associated with being gay. In this one, the latest in an ever growing number of gay-themed Israeli films, the characters deal not with the challenges of coming out but with what to do with the freedom of being out. That, in the end, is the film’s main appeal. The fact you find yourself asking questions like whether there is a connection between life lived on the edge and this degree of sexual abandon.

One of my all time favorite gay movies is Big Eden. Big Eden shares three features with Antarctica: it is an ensemble movie, where the team works together to create a self-contained community that is greater than its individual members, and that world is pure gay fantasy. A romance (spoiler alert) where everybody lives happily ever after. In Big Eden, it is the home town that every gay man who ever ran to the city recreates in his wildest flights of fancy. In Antarctica, it is a world made up of gay men and women and the straight family members who are behind them 100%, with absolutely no concern for other people.

Antarctica differs from Big Eden in quality. The latter is tightly scripted and flows. Antarctica is disjointed as hell, has way too many characters to keep track of, too many subplots, and goes off the tracks into badly acted camp, cynicism and absurdity. Besides Miki, who falls in love with Ronen who prefers Omer, who likes Danny, who is still in love with Boaz, who loves only the chase, there is Michal who loves Shirley, Omer’s sister, two singers, who make you wonder what they're doing there other than to give the film a theme song until you realize they must have meaning to Israeli audiences that eludes non-Israelis. Plus Eitan, friend of Shirley’s, whose function is to show us how fast track gays can have sex with each other and not remember they have met before. And Tzachi, who is part gorilla and pure ego and comic relief. And if this too rich a diet of characters were not enough, there is still the two/three totally wacko characters at the center of the plot: Matilda, a woman who leads the subculture of folk who believe they have been abducted by aliens, and Shoshanna/Amran. Shoshanna is a drag queen stereotype of a Jewish mother (she is Omer and Shirley’s mother) who lives to feed her children and drive them insane with endless appeals for grandchildren. Amran is her lover, whom her son mistakes for a troll (gay stalker). Both roles are played by Noam Huberman, aka “Miss Leila Carry,” a character I understand is known to everybody in the Tel Aviv gay subculture.

Omer is turning thirty, and to the pretty boy set, that’s the gateway to sexual irrelevance, so naturally Omer is looking for love. But so is everybody. Except Boaz, who starts the story off by tricking with them all one at a time, and then throwing them out.

I decided to watch it again, if only to get a handle on who’s who, and to figure out what, besides the eroticism was making it grow on me. What could be compensating for Shoshanna’s hamfisted acting? For the desperate need for editing?

A second go led me to conclude that underneath the rough edges writer/director Yair Hochner’s stretch was working. The acting is quite good and that has to do with the fact that the cast includes professionals like Guy Zo-Artez (Ronen), who appeared in Munich, and Rivka Neuman (Matilda), who has at least fifteen movie and TV credits to her name, as well as both Tomer Ilan (Omer) and Yuval Raz (Miki), both of whom appeared in Hochner’s earlier Yeladim Tovim (Good Boys). But even the first-timers, Yiftach Mizrahi (Danny) and Ofer Regirer (Boaz) are quite good as well. And even the one misfire, “Miss Laila,” who plays the mother, Shoshanna, should probably be given some leeway for channeling Divine, the “filthiest person alive” lead character in John Waters’ 1972 raunchy (OK, disgusting) classic, Pink Flamingos.

The plot is well crafted. It opens with a kind of “rondo,” the plot device used by Schnitzler in 1900, where the characters are all introduced two by two and present a cross-section of society. It is centered on getting everybody together for Omer’s thirtieth birthday party, where the wheels are put back on the cart and everybody who’s going to, gets matched up. And it ends in a blaze of light. I won’t tell you what that’s about – I’ve given away too much of the plot already.

If you plan to see it, allow enough time to see it twice, as I did, to get the characters straight. And expand the horizons of your friends who spend their time arguing over whether it’s San Francisco, Amsterdam, Copenhagen or Sydney which deserves the title of the world’s most gay friendly city.

Print out the cast of characters and a guide to the opening rondo, soak up the eye candy and the eroticism. And be thankful you’re not in your twenties again and don’t have to live with all this angst.

(If you are in your twenties and do have this much angst, well… You can at least enjoy the suggestion that happy endings are sometimes in store.)

And whatever your age, get in line behind all the gay men who have seen this film and run right out to buy tickets to Israel, where apparently nothing, if this movie is to be believed, gets in the way of sex.

Cast of characters:

1. Boaz – ballet teacher; center of opening rondo; the Peter Pan who never quite makes the transition from yearning for new flesh to somebody who can give enough of himself to attract a partner in life; a minor character in the end
2. Ronen – journalist, just back in Israel from London; interviews Matilda, the alien abductee; shares an apartment with Danny
3. Miki – works in a clothing store, yearns for a man who will control him
4. Danny – ballet dancer, looking for a relationship with Boaz, the man in his life least likely to establish one with him; shares an apartment with Ronen
5. Eitan – runs an appliance store, hangs out at Pola’s, Tel Aviv’s hotspot run by Mihal; also a minor character
6. Omer – son of Shoshanna, brother of Shirley, librarian, friend to Miki
7. Shirley – sister of Omer and daughter of Shoshanna, whom she is no longer speaking to, struggling to repair a relationship with Mihal, uses the question, “Would you follow me to Antarctica?” as a means of testing the strength of a relationship
8. Mihal – owner of Pola’s, in love with Shirley
9. Yaeli – singer #1, whose real name is actually Yael Deckelbaum, popular singer in Israel
10. Shirly Solomon (not to be confused with Shirley, Omer’s sister), singer and songwriter who provides the musical score for the film
11. Tzachi – a Russian gorilla who measures refrigerators for use in holding dead bodies; meets Omer on a blind date. Appears only in those two scenes
12. Shoshanna – Mother of Omer and Shirley; puts on a birthday dinner for Omer’s 30th; also plays Amran, her secret lover.
13. a handful of minor characters: women at the hairdressers; Danny’s dancing partner; others.

Opening rondo:

1. Boaz tricks with Ronen
2. Boaz tricks with Miki
3. Boaz tricks with Danny
4. Boaz tricks with Eitan
5. Boaz tricks with Omer
6. Danny returns and asks Boaz to let him move in temporarily

The rest of the film begins three years later. To figure out who’s dancing (yes, that’s a euphemism for doing the dirty) with whom after that, you’re on your own.

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