Postcards from America (1994)
Directed by Steve McLean
Monday, March 19th, at IFC Center
A smug orphan among Christine Vachon's early-90s queer babies, the Steve McLean-directed Postcards from America is to New York-based artist David Wojnarowicz what Todd Haynes's trash culture mash-up Poison is to Jean Genet: Both films brocade hagiographic portraiture, loose adaptations of their designated idol's work, and subversive riffs on his ideology to arrive at a manifesto more elastically sadomasochistic than homoerotic. There's nothing as transcendent in Postcards as the ecstatic spit-shower delivered to Poison's incipiently gay hoodlum, but the former's dearth of reverie-like episodes illustrates the aesthetic and chronological gap between Genet and the quite recently AIDS-martyred Wojnarowicz. In Poison, as in Genet, the concept of sodomy-as-virus is figurative, intuited. In Postcards, as in Wojnarowicz, it concretely menaces the tortuous assembly line of hustlers, crooks, and queens before bringing the action to a thudding cessation.
Postcards's dialog and vignette scenarios were drawn verbatim from Wojnarowicz's roman a clefs, lyrically streetwise tomes cataloguing the author's abusive childhood and meandering adolescence that could have collectively been inscribed the subtitle Oh, the Tricks You'll Turn! At its most effective, the film depicts passages from these books as tour-de-force monologues that occasionally cut away to minimally-staged illustrations of their content, visually approximating Wojnarowicz's syntactically agile prose with slippery lighting cues. ("In my dreams I crawl across freshly clipped front lawns...") We watch the young artist plugging his ears in front of his fighting caretakers; later, an older boy in the neighborhood pays the pre-teen David to tie him up and masturbate him.
Refreshingly, none of this backstory is intended to provide emotional context for Wojnarowicz's mid-life odyssey through urban prostitution; it's instead an elusive ode to desire gone self-destructively astray. By doting obstreperously on Wojnarowicz's texts and internal life and steering clear of the controversies that later made his name in the art world, McLean and Vachon furthermore achieve the rare elegy that emulates rather than narrates the spirit of its subject.