Film Review

I Don’t Know (1970) – Ungentle (2023)

todayJune 6, 2024 18

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By – Gareth Jones

For fans of short films, LGBTQ+ stories, Penelope Spheeris, and Ben Whishaw

This is Pride month, so I thought it fitting to review a couple of wonderful short films that focus on LGBTQIA+ themes. These two films represent different eras but are still very connected to today’s world and representation.

The first is I Don’t Know, directed by Penelope Spheeris, who is best known for the series of documentaries The Decline of Western Civilization and for Wayne’s World. Before all of these films, she was a film student at UCLA, who made this 20 minute examination of sexual identity in the early seventies in the suburbs of Los Angeles.  It shows the audience the lives of Penelope’s sister, Linda (an out lesbian) and her partner/best friend Jimmy (a transgender woman before the term was used.)  They are both interviewed in various ways; relaxing on a couch together, walking around the neighborhood, taking a bath, or riding a motorcycle.  It is all shot with a handheld camera and black and white film.  It has a level of intimacy because of the familial relationships, but also because Penelope is often heard asking the questions and sometimes filming the other members of the crew.  It is raw and emotional.  Some of it feels staged or performative, but still retaining a true level of intimacy.  They also visit her brother Andy, a straight homophobe who does not know what to make of Jimmy.  Linda narrates parts of the film as well, giving us her interior thoughts and emotions as she tries to come to terms with Jimmy, who is really the star of the film.  Jimmy is just as vital today as in the 1970’s.  The story of nonbinary identity is still a struggle and this film is an important reminder of how little some aspects have changed in society.

Ungentle is also a documentary of sorts.  It has a stunning fictional narration by Ben Whishaw that was based on years of research about how gay men were considered traitors and spies before, during, and after World War II.  Connections to actual figures like Noel Coward and Alan Turing can be made.  Along with this narration, we are shown contemporary sequences of the areas discussed in the narration.  Cambridge is a major site and it is beautifully shot, but also showing the underbelly and disrepair of reality. One of my favorite shots that represents this is a folding chair that is floating in an algae-filled section of the Cam.  The Cam can be gorgeous but here it is cold, muted, and unremarkable.

The film is based on a script by Huw Lemmey and is co-directed by Onyeka Igwe. Lemmey is a novelist, as well as an essayist who writes critiques and observations from a queer perspective.  Ungentle is his first film.  Onyeka Igwe has directed several short films often asking the question of “how do we live together?”  Her work has been exhibited at MoMA, as well screened at many international film festivals.  Her work combines historical research with everyday images looking at how we interact.

The highlight for me is Whishaw’s narration.  I could listen to him read a grocery list and be enraptured. As an out actor who plays queer characters and cisgender characters, his versatility is legendary.  He has provided the voice for Paddington and performed graphic sex with Franz Rogowski in Passages.  My all-time favorite performance is as John Keats in Bright Star. The film is hypnotic as it recounts the lives of gay spies and how queer people are always under suspicion. The co-direction is a lovely melding of two styles and aesthetics.

Short films must enthrall the audience, telling the story in a moment, and when it is well done as it is in these films, that moment can linger in the audience’s mind.

Available to stream on MUBI

Written by: Gareth Jones

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