Norman McLaren

film 24 of 24


Film Review by Dean Duncan Jul 10, 2015

This is a sour, wan swan song, and a rather unpleasant film. From the exalted wonder of Pas de Deux and Ballet Adagio we come to this dire thing. It is full of McLaren’s accustomed fluidity and expertise, but it’s also rife with a sense of betrayal and repudiation. Who has betrayed whom? Uncertain, but there’s sure a big dose of self and other-loathing here. What has changed? One thing might be that for the first time the electronic score, and maybe some of the optical printer stuff (the blurring is technically and contextually cool) starts to feel mannered, anachronistic. He hadn’t really done anything for more than a decade. Did he feel passed by, or irrelevant? Was he? Another obvious difference would be that this is a final, explicit acknowledgment of what’s been between the lines all along. He’s gay, of course, and it doesn’t come across as a positive value. Is that unfair of me? Maybe, and maybe emblematic of the self/attitudes that prevailed until AIDS raised the profile and deepened our sense of duty and fraternity. In some ways Narcissus echoes Luchino Visconti’s The Damned and Death in Venice. Aging gay artists, and they’re unhappy about something, maybe most of all about themselves.

This also echoes another gay Italian artist who didn’t manage to reach old age. It’s Pasolini of course, except that his Theorem (1968) scenario is reversed. In that film the Terence Stamp character is a mysterious juggernaut that basically destroys the bourgoisie. Here, the beautiful, polymorphously perverse juggernaut gets around to destroying himself. In that, finally, Narcissus resembles the dire narrative trajectory of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. All is good at first: we have youthful awakening, hopeful sensuality, then beautiful bodies, dancing beautifully. A man and a woman, of course. Then the perversions/”perversions”. Maybe the metaphor is that McLaren’s last sin and final self-condemnation lies in his self-absorbed aestheticism. Is it gender that’s bothering him? Maybe not, given how everyone knew, for so long, and given how very beloved he was. Maybe the problem is that he should have been a communist!

I don’t know. A prison conclusion ties up the threads, but it all feels contrived, conventional, insufficient. Altogether, sad. Altogether, this sad envoi casts not a shadow on an incomparable oeuvre, and an incomparable man.