Thursday, April 19, 2012

JOBRIATH A.D. dir. Kieran Turner (Florida Film Festival Orlando, FL)


So I'd never been to a “film festival” & was eager to soak up the whole experience. Getting in line with a few arty-looking folks with a feeling of doing something arty together, we headed into a drab movie multiplex that ended up being a little more than half-full (or half-empty?), as the lights dimmed & the tale of an obscure deranged Glam singer played. "I would say he was borderline schizophrenic," his manager, Jerry Brandt, sighs onscreen, as the credits roll & everyone is fascinated & has a million questions since he's here! Not a Satanic Svengali, as some were prepared to believe, but an old man in nondescript clothes moving along slowly as the director, also on hand, leads the way.

I was a strange attendee, perhaps, in having spent the last few years researching the same subject, and nearly three decades after his death, the first full-length treatments of the life of Jobriath, née Bruce Wayne Campbell, appeared within days of each other: this film, and my long Roctober #50 article on the late, great (?) Glam singer. Director Kieran Turner has amazing photos: the blond androgynous angel staring out with a pained intensity. A star of some kind? Even as he was falling. It was like meeting a long-lost twin who grew up in a wealthy family (Kieran self-financed the film) and is a bit spoiled. Much of the narrative is confused: chronology off, photos misidentified, chatter presented as fact, and the major find, a taped interview with Jobriath & Jerry, weirdly out of context.
It's not all his fault. The memories of key players are shot, especially Eddie Kramer, the engineer with whom Jobriath recorded three albums. "Jobriath is morphing into this creature," he says, describing the first Elektra album cover. I'm thinking he's referring to David Bowie's Diamond Dogs album cover, in which the British singer turns into a canine. When I interviewed him, Kramer had no recollection of the 1971-72 period in which he recorded Jobriath's first Creatures of the Street album. But Kieran should have known better than to maintain that Brandt presided over the album, which remains unreleased. They met when it failed commercially & Jobriath, in late 1972, was fully an alcoholic & occasional junkie, with an air of tragedy over him. We see him bouncing around in Hair, then meeting Brandt, yet the period in between may be the most important of his life. It's when he gave up on himself & created the character of a demon queen, mind beset by terrors & Christlike dreams. And that's who, or what, the world met as Jobriath.
As I watched I found myself picking apart everything, I'm afraid. A year in Hollywood in 1975, recovering from the Glam phase, in which he launched into a study of yoga & Tantra & work as a TV writer, is omitted, instead creating the fiction that Jobriath spent the time living with his mother, though when he did visit later that year en route to New York, he screamed at her ("You never gave a fuck about my talent!") and she kicked him out.
The early photos of Jobriath & his mother are fascinating, a glimpse into the mystery: each a version of each other, given to seizures of love & loathing. In 1971, he'd deny she was even his mother, as the period of gender oscillation which followed (the film has a photo of him in full drag) was the fallout. She was the female within him, however identifiable as Marlene Dietrich or other 'movie queens' he'd sing about. As her fourth son came on-screen talking about how pretty she was, I recalled a neighbor telling me, "She was a little masculine looking." But Bruce? "He was pretty."
Unfortunately, for the narrative of his youth, the film relies on a single, highly unreliable source: the half-brother who saw him infrequently, didn't like him, and is fiercely protective of their shared mother, creating fiction after fiction to conceal her. His first public comments, while she was still living, were biting ("even animals have better maternal instincts"), but there's a Willie for every occasion. Watching him onscreen, all peaceable, playing his piano, it all came back to me: amid rounds of disclosures from my research (some passed along in the film), that her second husband killed himself & she, a "nymphomaniac" with a violent side, went to work as a prostitute, Willie launched into a series of bitter attacks on me, attempting to poison relationships with all possible sources. The calmed down, sepia-toned version of history he tells now, of an emotionally restrained woman mostly beloved by her favored son, is cobbled together from dreaming & longing, and I suspect even he is bored by it.
But many speakers are restrained from times I'd interviewed them, omitting the colorful details, the life. Though it was work getting them there. The first rule of Jobriath research, as one discovers, is nobody is supposed to talk about Jobriath. In the Q& amp;A following the film, Kieran noted that the sources' stories we'd just seen were demure glosses over what they wouldn't say on camera. "Of course the minute the camera was turned off they would pull me to the side and say, 'Let me tell you what happened,'" he said. His strategy? To ignore these disclosures. "It felt like gossip after that and I didn't want to hear it," he says. There were stories of "suicide attempts" & "absolute mental breakdowns" never mentioned in the film, as they'd run counter, I suspect, to his overriding thesis that Jobriath was a victim of anti-homosexual discrimination. Thankfully, cartoons could pick up from where the evidence left off, and an animated Jobriath, in a series of fictional scenes interspersed throughout, becomes the sacred victim he appears to require.
But he "didn't want to be who he really was," as director Sarah Kernochan, the film's most articulate commentator, notes, in a moment that sits awkwardly with the rest. As Dick Christian, Jobriath's boyfriend in latter years, notes, "Everybody else was an audience." Kieran's stance requires him to ignore, as well, Jobriath's two major musicals of his post-Glam period, though each were thinly guised autobiographies, each love stories with women. He could be a 'sissy'; he could be straight; he could be a man or woman, in dizzying succession. His career in music was a series of studies of genres & performers: analyzing, assimilating them, in a series of open imitations the motivation for which is puzzling. Even as he longed to be a crashing, messianic star, famous as he was passive to a controlling manager? Like Elvis & the Colonel, or Streisand to Walter Pidgeon in Funny Girl. It's then he met the star of the film about him: Jerry Brandt.
It's useful to hear Jerry tell his story, as it is to keep in mind that he changes it as required. "I tried to break Jobriath in New York 'cause I was accepted there," he says. "Jerry Brandt is New York." The refutations streamed through my mind. In 1974, Brandt dismissed New York (his last major venture was in L.A.) & said the act would be launched in Paris, which reflects, he told Music Week (in their paraphrase), "the elegance and
glamour that is Jobriath's basic image." As he told Rolling Stone, "Paris is the best place to come from." Jobriath was surely giving all the cues.
In Blonde Venus, Marlene Dietrich re-invents herself as a glittering Parisian androgyne in a white tuxedo & ape suit, costumes he adopted as his own, as he had a profound identification with the Phantom of the Opera, hence the significance of the Paris Opera House where he was purportedly to debut. A theme song of his later Popstar musical is "Phantom of the Disco." Inside, he too was a brilliant but disfigured musician in hiding, sending out a female singer to be his public self. Jobriath.
The major find of Kieran's research team is a 1974 interview of Jerry & Jobriath on a couch being interviewed for the L.A. news in August 1974. "Asking me if I'm homosexual is like asking James Brown if he's black," Jobriath says. "There's a lot of people running around, putting make-up on and stuff, just because it's chic. I just want to say that I'm no pretender." Kieran presents this as characteristic of Jobriath's run at stardom, which isn't true. In late 1973, a year before, when he first started giving interviews, he was coy about his sexuality, calling himself a "fairy" — like Tinkerbell! — but only on stage. He calls himself "schizophrenic" instead, making him the first openly schizophrenic pop star? Never calling himself 'gay' or 'homosexual'. And did, it seems, only as his act was crashing & burning, in a clip that may never have aired. The poignancy is that Brandt will dump him within hours of the taping as it becomes evident the act is a flop. Drugged on angel dust & cocaine, skin & body in revolt, Jobriath was in a totally detached state, giving interviews in airy, delusional abstractions. His mannerisms are ripped from the Warhol queens, whom he'd studied up close, as he did everyone he'd try to imitate, as imitation was for him, I suspect, a form of mockery, most of all of himself. "Jobriath is little more than a homosexual impersonator," as the L.A. Times noted in a review of the L.A. show. There is nothing appealing about his corpse-like figure in eyeshadow, radiating death.
The tension with Jerry is pronounced, as the love between the two had turned to hatred. "They definitely did not have a sexual or a romantic relationship," Kieran said in London in a Q& amp;A after the film's premiere. He'd asked and Jerry answered. "I don't think he would lie about it." Standing next to him was Marc Almond, who added, "It was a strange, symbiotic love affair." In fact, Kieran had on hand a source, Jim Fouratt, who suggests with some acute insight that the two might've been involved physically, at least briefly, as Brandt certainly suggested they were. A few years ago, curiously, I noticed him advertising online for a roommate. Wanted: "young straight person…" But he remains, biographically, a sphinx, never to reveal his secrets, as whatever he says cannot be believed. I went up to him afterwards, hearing him say that after the Jobriath fiasco, "I had a nervous breakdown, I just couldn't handle it." Was that before or after Fanne Fox took him to court for ditching her in jail — in Orlando! I shook his hand (it was soft), and asked about the involvement in Jobriath's stage show of Donald Cammell, the director of Performance, who was living in Brandt's Malibu house when he brought Jobriath there in 1973. Brandt's face lit up with recognition of a name, it seemed, he hadn't heard in years. "Yeah, I supported him for awhile," he says. He's being pulled away for a TV news segment. Was Cammell involved with the Jobriath act? I asked. "No, no," Brandt says. "That was before Jobriath."
I know it was the same time, and left the theater, entering the beautiful night. Dismayed Kieran chose not to rebut the myth that Jobriath died alone, rotting in his room, etc., though he'd communicated to me he disbelieved the story, and allowed a source to relay it even though she'd told me she last saw or heard of Jobriath in 1974. Gossip, I guess. I was thinking about the program distributed at Jobriath's memorial service in 1983, briefly flashed onscreen, but I noted the hymn listed: "O Sacred Head Now Wounded." And remembered his girlfriend, Debbie, told me he'd done an arrangement of it in church as a teenager. In photo after photo, Jobriath the Glam singer is doing crucifixion poses, and other shots of Jesus-like imagery are not included. It was so often on his mind, as in the hymn, sung to a crucified Christ, which I sang to myself as walked away:
Be Thou my consolation, my shield when I must die;
Remind me of Thy passion when my last hour draws nigh.
Mine eyes shall then behold Thee, upon Thy cross shall dwell,
My heart by faith enfolds Thee. Who dieth thus dies well.

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