May 18, 2014
Before the obnoxious trend of humanist we-are-the-world-and-everyone-is-connected films like that putrid piece of multiculturalist trash Crash (2004) where one sees how various seemingly unrelated characters of all colors and creeds are magically linked together in the end, Venezuelan-born cult queer auteur Temístocles López (Bird of Prey, Home - The Horror Story) made a little movie that is now all but forgotten featuring an eclectic all-star cast entitled Chain of Desire (1992) that depicted how various perverts with different perversions who did not know each were all connected via genital juices and STDs. Indeed, like Robert Altman’s Short Cuts (1993), except with AIDS, sexually flexible gays, neo-cabaret, and a tinge of high-camp, López’s film seems like a superficial softcore flick upon a superficial glance, but as a work that features Malcolm McDowell as a TV journalist who screws young twink prostitutes behind his sexually repressed wife’s back, Elias Koteas as a lecherous Latino family man who finds time to bang fine white chicks in between cleaning crucifixes, and Cassavetes veteran Seymour Cassel portraying a hack modern artist in the spirit of Julian Schnabel who has made a second profession out of screwing every woman aside from his wife, Chains of Desire is cultivated kitsch with a number of titillating and anti-titillating twists and turns that manages to be both erotic and provocative despite featuring next to nil nudity and largely taking place in crummy apartments. Featuring a somewhat intricately spun web of wantonness during a time and place where even heteros were scared of contracting gay cancer, López’s work is certainly packed with cultural pessimism that is quite liberating and the perfect antidote to the ungodly aesthetic sins of Hollywood sentimentalism. When auteur López came out of the closet at the ripe age of 18, his machismo-oriented padre gave him the following fatherly advice: “There’s only one thing for you to do: shoot yourself,” so it should be no surprise that many of the characters featured in Chain of Desire use sex as a self-destructive and even sometimes suicidal force, with virtually everyone screwing up their life in some fashion by screwing. Featuring a purgatory-like cabaret where a creepy, semi-drag-queen acts as the Master of Ceremonies and declares with a grating Brooklyn accent that, “The sex apocalypse is upon us,” Chain of Desire is a debasing descent into the NYC underworld where nearly everyone has made a figurative pact with the devil of debauchery. Whereas López’s first feature Exquisite Corpses (1989) was a warped campy reworking of both Midnight Cowboy (1969) and George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, Chain of Desire is an unhinged update of Max Ophüls’ Arthur Schnitzler adaption La Ronde (1950). Directors including Roger Vadim, Otto Schenk, and Fernando Meirelles would also attempt cinematic reworkings of the original Schnitzler play yet none of these films are quite as slimy, grimy, immoral, and dejecting as Chain of Desire, which is a work where the characters are indeed chained to something, but it is hardly love.
Sassy yet classy Guido gal Alma D'Angeli (Linda Fiorentino) is upset that her ex-boyfriend Michael, who she is still in love with after all the years, keeps calling her, so she goes to a church and cries about it. A savior of a Hispanic custodian with the rather apt name Jesus (Elias Koteas) sees Alma crying and consoles her and before they know it, the two olive-colored strangers are having passionate sex around the little lady’s apartment. After getting done playing with the nice Italian girl, Jesus goes home to his family and is yelled at by his mother for describing their ancestral background as “third world.” Jesus’ young wife Isa (Angel Aviles) helps give her hubby a bath, thus unwittingly washing away the carnal juices of another woman off his body as he discusses how he will one day achieve the American dream by becoming a business owner. Isa is a maid and one day her TV producer boss Jerald Buckley (Patrick Bauchau) catches her looking at an antique copy of the Kama Sutra. Of course, Jerald gets aroused at the sight of a sub-literate third world girl attempting to read erotic literature, so he forces Isa to drive her high heel into his genitals until he achieves orgasm. Needless to say, Isa quits the job and Jerald pays her off so that she does not tell anyone about their depraved ‘sexual’ encounter. Naturally, Jerald hires a new maid named Linda (Grace Zabriskie), but he does not pay her as she is a sexually repressed housewife that is looking to spice up her nonexistent sex life. In fact, Linda’s husband, Hubert Bailey (Malcolm McDowell), is a hack TV journalist who works for Jerald and the two have just finished a series on JFK’s extramarital affairs. Among other things, one learns that JFK had a thing for arrogant Jewesses, forced ladies that he foolishly knocked up to get abortions, and had a fleeting fetish for negresses, with one black mistress complaining, “It was bam bam, thank ya’ man, except he didn’t say, “thank you”.” Regarding the JFK tabloid trash he produced, Hubert states, “It was a disgusting masquerade. All those women were fakes” and confesses to his wife, “I hate this goddamn business.” That night, the husband and wife discuss the lack of passion in their relationship, with Linda even admitting she is screwing Hubert’s boss Jerald, yet he does not care for reasons that will soon be revealed. Linda tries in vain to get her husband to have sex with her, even telling him how he was the best man she ever slept with, but Hubert falls asleep. Of course, Hubert no longer sleeps with his wife because he is a closet homosexual who regularly has hustlers sent to his apartment. The next day, Hubert has a young twink from Iowa named Keith (Jamie Harrold) delivered to his door, but their little get together is abruptly aborted after the hustler’s pimp calls and attempts to blackmail the journalist out of $20,000 by threatening to tell the media about his secret poof proclivities. After Keith leaves, he goes and smokes some crack and gets in a scrap with his pimp, who he beats up, but he loses his shoes and what little is left of his dignity in the process. Keith is later approached by a gay government worker with a broken leg named Ken (Tim Guinee) whose job is to find homes for young homeless homos. As Chain of Desire makes quite clear, NYC is not a very nice place for sensitive young gay boys looking to escape from their conservative hometowns. Of course, Keith learned that the hard way.
Ken takes Keith with him back to his apartment where he lives with his bisexual rocker/cabaret singer boyfriend David Bango (Dewey Weber), who does not take too kindly to young homeless homos crowding up his home, so he goes and stays with his hot virgin friend Diana (Holly Marie Combs), who offers him her virginity but he respectfully declines because he “couldn’t be 100%” with her, plus they are both high on ecstasy. Instead, Diana hooks up with a successful yet totally talentless modern artist named Mel (Seymour Cassel). Meanwhile, Mel’s sexy Spanish wife Cleo (Assumpta Serna) is waiting for her husband to come home so they can celebrate their anniversary, but he has forgotten it and is too busy trying to get in Diana’s panties. Unfortunately for Mel, Diana is unimpressed with the con-artist, especially after he says, “Let’s not talk about art, it’s a bore,” thus revealing he is a fraud with no interest in art. When Mel attempts to give Diana what he describes as the “Lolita treatment” upon learning that she is a virgin, she laughs in his face and leaves. Of course, when Mel gets back home, his wife threatens to divorce him due to his pathological lying and cheating. The next day, Cleo goes by Mel’s art studio and discovers evidence that her husband was cheating on her after Diana calls and leaves a message. Suddenly, Cleo gets a devilish smirk on her face, walks up to a muscular worker named Joe (Kevin Conroy) that was hired by Mel, puts her hand up his shorts, and begins jerking him off. Needless to say, the two begin to have sex and ruin one of Mel’s degenerate paintings while rolling around it. Of course, Mel walks in on them and fires Joe, but Cleo merely laughs in her husband’s face, stating, “That was a lot of fun. My very first…but a lot of fun.” Out of work, Joe takes up the respectable trade of being a phone sex worker where he pretends to be everything from an Italian stallion with a heavy Guido accent to a psychopath WASP Wall Street stockbroker, but he really is not cutout for the job. After failing to turn on ladies via telephone, Joe begins peering out of his window with a pair of binoculars at the people that live in the apartment complex across from him and eventually his eyes catch sight of a black chick that he finds arousing, so he begins masturbating in front of his window in plain sight. In easily the sleaziest homage to Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) ever directed, Joe and the black chick, Angie (Suzzanne Douglas), have non-contact sex via window-to-window voyeurism session, with a young teenage wop boy even joining in. At the end of Chain of Desire, the work comes full circle when all the characters come together at a cabaret and it is revealed the first character featured in the film, Alma, is a friend of the final character Angie, as the two friends work at the club together as singers. Alma receives another phone call from her ex-boyfriend Michael while at work just as she did at the beginning of the film and this time she actually agrees to here what he has to say. Ultimately, Michael reveals to Alma that he has AIDS, which causes her to break down. Although Alma refuses to sing that night, Angie eventually convinces her do so because, after all, the show must go on.
In describing his film Chain of Desire, director Temístocles López once offered the following insights: “My film is about desire, with moments of love…I wanted to say that no matter what your sexuality, there’s no wrongs or rights, sex is to be seen as a force—relentless—which has no boundaries of any kind. It is true that the gay material was longer than any other part of the script, but that is what I wanted as a gay director.” Actually, the film is only 40% gay-themed and virtually none of these scenes feature sex, not to mention the fact that it does not exactly include the most flattering depictions of gay life. Indeed, while an ostensibly erotically-charged work, Chain of Desire ultimately leaves one with the feeling that they need to take a shower after watching it and not in a good way, as the film is inhabited by dead souls whose whimsical sexual encounters are mostly a form of desperate escapism from their decidedly dreary and insufferably humdrum lives. While Chain of Desire is clearly a more coherent and cultivated work, the director’s first feature Exquisite Corpses proved to be a much more rewarding experience for me as a work of contemptible camp that never wallows in misery and melancholy in the malignant fashion that the director’s second film does. Indeed, a sort of Basic Instinct (1992) meets Cabaret (1972) for the morbidly depressed, López’s Chain of Desire is like a romance for hopeless heterosexuals that live sexual lifestyles similar to those of gay men and is thus, rather unfortunately, more relevant today than when it was first released. Co-produced by Scottish actor Brian Cox (Manhunter, Rushmore) of all people, Chain of Desire is a rare erotic drama that has the power to scare people away from promiscuity. It is also notable for being a rare semi-gay-themed work where it is the heteros and not the homos that become victims of AIDS. Needless to say, I doubt Rosa von Praunheim would approve.
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 11:23 PM
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