THE EMPEROR’S NAKED ARMY MARCHES ON: And so does the documentarian’s camera.
Here’s a sunny movie-world tale. Cam Archer, a young filmmaker from Santa Cruz, California, got his short works into the hands of Gus Van Sant, who watched and appreciated them and agreed to executive-produce a feature. With the Sundance Institute helping develop the screenplay, Archer, now 25, managed to do a modestly avant-garde homo-erotic mood piece, Wild Tigers I Have Known, which is showing all week at the Brattle. The protagonist is Logan (Malcolm Stump), an effete junior-high kid who’s picked on by his menacing classmates as he works out his homosexuality. But Wild Tigers probably resonates with anyone estranged in the pre–Ferris Bueller limbo of middle school.
Complemented by a pleasurable soundtrack of wistful, minimalist, alternative music, Archer bounces through poetically laced moments in Logan’s sexually absorbed adolescence. Some moments are “real”; others seem expressionistic projections of Logan’s runaway imagination. Is there a mountain lion running wild around his junior high? Does he really stare it down one day while walking home? The dialogue is post-synch and somewhat clumsy, Logan conversing with his goth-lite single mom (Fairuza Balk) and with a geeky school pal (Max Paradise) who keeps a notebook list of ways to be cool. There’s a dearth of plot, except for a string of short scenes in which Logan becomes unlikely friends with Rodeo (Patrick White) and then, by pretending to be a girl on the phone, tries to seduce the River Phoenix–like 14-year-old.
The prime audience for Wild Tigers is arthouse adults, as some of the material is probably too licentious for approved teen watching. Too bad. If Logan agonized over his same-sex feelings and were fearful of acting on them, the film might be endorsed for school discussions about respecting sexual diversity. A chaste homosexual! Instead, Cam Archer offers us a randy young dandy who, dripping with libido, wears lipstick and a blond wig. He has moist dreams about male-on-male wrestling matches, his hand down the pants of his Garfield the Cat PJs. And when he’s finally ready to hook up, he telephones the object of his desire and coos, “I want you to fuck me.” No, Wild Tigers will not be “Coming Soon to Your Junior High Assembly.”
It’s mostly an academic question about ethics: at what moment should the documentarian put down his/her camera and get involved in what’s being filmed? The issue became an urgent one in the infamous case of The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (1987), where the filmmaker, Kazuo Hara, kept shooting on two occasions in which old men being interviewed were thrown to the ground and slapped around by Kenzo Okuzaki, the documentary’s volatile, even homicidal, protagonist. Okay, the old guys were being evasive about their WW2 experience in New Guinea where, starving at the end of the losing campaign, they were involved in killing several innocent Japanese soldiers and then eating them! Privates first! The righteous Okuzaki has no sympathy for anyone not on his anti-militarist side. In fact, he’s the guy who went to jail for throwing pachinko balls at Emperor Hirohito.
Okuzaki is a typical anarchist-misanthrope hero for Hara, the most transgressive, daemonic, and pestilential of all Japanese directors. (“I hate mainstream society!”) There’s a wonderful series of four Haras April 13 and 14 at the Harvard Archive; The Emperor’s Naked Army, a particular favorite of Cambridge’s Errol Morris, plays April 13 at 9 pm.