Desire on Cinema’s Dance Floor
By Armond White
Julián Hernández’s films are about gay men seeking happiness and their search describes his method: a flowing, entranced, sensual visual style. Hernandez draws one into his characters’ adventure by highlighting the compulsion of cruising, the suspense of attraction, the spiritual excitement of emotional connection—all conveyed through the confounding intensity and mystery of sex.
Exploring that state of being—of blissful awareness—is the point of Hernández’s new film I Am Happiness on Earth. More autobiographical than his previous “Celestial” trilogy (A Thousand Clouds of Peace, Broken Sky and the epic Raging Sun, Raging Sky), this figuratively mundane drama concerns a Mexican filmmaker, Emiliano (Hugo Catalan), attracted to young dancer Octavio (Alan Ramirez) but unsettled by that urge to roam—a sense of possibility that is practically a gay male gene linked to the independence and self-sufficiency of masculine instinct. This aspect of gay male life is out of step with the current monogamous trend—Emiliano gives a TV interview defending his opposition to gay marriage, his distrust of commitment—and that challenge is not just political but a spiritual quandary. It inspires Emiliano’s—and Hernández’s—confrontation with melancholy.
Yes, that means the title I Am Happiness on Earth is ironic but not as ironic as the fact that Hernández, one of this century’s finest filmmakers, is unknown to many gay moviegoers. He is overlooked by most film reviewers and film culture gatekeepers—even the gay ones—who remain ignorant of his work while celebrating less significant but trendier gay films.
Gay filmmakers are usually propelled into the mainstream by the media’s patronizing fascination with political correctness and stereotype pathology. But Hernández doesn’t fit those Gus Van Sant and Gregg Araki patterns. Nor does he fit the media’s enthusiasm for the more European-style, non-ethnic “Three Amigos” Mexican directors Iñárritu, del Toro, and Cuáron. The Third World Latinate characters of I Am Happiness on Earth evoke a specific Mexican cultural identity—rooted in the emotional depth of Mexican pop music and the shared culture which also acts as an erotic force felt by men as well as women. Mid-film, Emiliano’s dilemma is transferred to a symbolic bisexual threesome—an interlude which has become a favored digression for Hernández, adding to the perplexity of a film style that already pushes the boundaries of rhythm and form.
Hernández is the most musical, dancelike filmmaker since Max Ophuls. As Emiliano pines for Octavio, Hernández simulates dance to depict physical expression. Sexual cruising is like ballet and his actors show the ambisexual expressiveness of dancers. No other filmmaker get closer to actors than Hernández; their eyelashes, brows and bangs become facescapes. (Catalano broods more dashingly than he acts, Ramirez has a geisha’s secret smile and the Archuleta type he picks up adds an extra frisson.) Hernández circles their movements like objects in orbit, creating an astronomy of bodies that makes the amazingly choreographed first encounter of Emiliano and Octavio into a movie-musical 2001. Exhilarating stuff. This film’s title suggests a song Morrissey never got to, but its story examines the breadth of romantic despair and then importantly investigates the idea of Pet Shop Boy’s single “Happiness Is an Option.”
The special tension between bodies imparts Hernández’s vision of spiritual yearning. His actors’ unguarded facial expressions convey a need for knowing each other—desire more than lust but certainly lust. Add that to Hernández’s appreciation of Emiliano and Octavio’s ongoing, lovelorn search—articulated in a shared recitation of José José’s Mexican hit “Dos”—and you have the most ravishing and powerful expression in the history of out gay cinema.
I Am Happiness on Earth Opens in Select Theaters Aug. 15. Watch the trailer below: