By Judith Dry | Criticwire October 17, 2013 at 3:19PM
"You are wrong to believe you are free," proclaims Bahman Mohasses, the 79-year-old artist who is the subject of Fifi Howls From Happiness, a lively documentary which screened as part of the New York Film Festival's Motion Portraits series. Director Mitra Farahani discovered the reclusive Iranian painter and sculptor holed-up in a hotel room in Rome and let the camera roll.
The two develop an intimate relationship, sharing coffee and many many cigarettes as Mohasses attempts to direct what he calls "his film." He suggests an image of the sea here, a wide angle there. But Farahani is present, shaping the story, and even appearing in frame to light his cigarette or pin his lapel mic. Her girlish warble belies her great intellect as she narrates Balzac's "The Unknown Masterpiece," a fitting allegory for her film. She is whimsical too--Of her vision for the film, she tells Mohasses, "I will explain it to you now:" as we are shown only his animated reactions over a bouncy classical piece.
A professed homosexual, he could do without gay liberation: "I have nothing to do with these faggots. The most devastating thing they've done is to eradicate the forbidden character of homosexuality. All its beauty was in the prohibition." Perhaps the same goes for his art? Prolific though he was, his work is impossible to collect, as what survived destruction -- either by the state or his own knife -- changed hands during the revolution of 1979. His frighteningly wheezy laugh punctuates his stories of censorship. He was forced to cut the penis off one sculpture, laughing that "He wasn't on good terms with me after that." And the Shah, disliking the angle of his body, actually dismantled his own likeness in a funny foreshadowing of the revolution. One sequence of Mohasses' destroyed work plays out like a death march of Picasso-like figures, muscular abstracts with bulbous shoulders, minotaurs ("In its beauty, it inhabits the darkness of its being,") storks, and fish. Lots of fish. "All dead!" he cries, with a sweep of the arm.
The Balzac allegory comes full circle when two artist brothers from Dubai commission a final work. Their child-like joy as they flip through never-before-seen collages is charming, and in their reverent gaze we see our subject as he sees himself. A visionary and a truth teller, his greatness almost lost to the world were it not for this film. Sadly, I fear Fifi... will not reach an audience beyond artists and Iranians. Too bad: Being neither of those things, I quite enjoyed the ramblings of this exiled old artist, and the promising young artist who captured his final days.
Another "admitted homosexual," John Wojtowitz, the bank robber immortalized by Al Pacino in Sydney Lumet's Dog Day Afternoon, has inspired another excellent film. The Dog, directed by Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren, allows John, aka "The Dog," to tell his story in his own colorful words.
"John was an accidental touchstone to all these moments in American culture," said Berg, speaking at a talkback at the festival. Most fascinating to me was John's involvement in the early gay liberation movement -- he was out of town for the Stonewall riots but had he been there his life of crime may have started much sooner. John describes in detail driving through the village with his lover Ernie and both of them feeling something was up. John is funny, crass, and incredibly narcissistic, often saying things like: "I'm the guy. I'm Babe Ruth," or "There's only one star and that's me." Speaking in his charming Brooklyn drawl, he remarks that George Segal's Gay Liberation statues in Christopher Park upset many people because they are painted white. "Why not a black gay or a gay with a suntan?"
But is he gay? He has a female wife, a transgendered "wife," and later, a prison wife. Passionate though he is, (he robbed the bank so Ernie could have his sex-change operation), he seems obsessed with marriage simply in order to own his lovers. His therapist, in a very candid interview, thinks his mother was his true love. Overbearing mothers, take heed.
The film cannot maintain its breakneck speed leading up the bank robbery, and naturally loses focus afterwards. It stumbles including a developmentally disabled brother who was taken from his family by the state at a young age. Berg explained that they included it to show why John was so distrustful of institutions, but that interesting piece was not clear in the film. It's a minor detour in an otherwise wild ride through one twisted version of the American dream. The Dog is indeed "the guy."
This essay is one in a series produced by participants of this year's New York Film Festival Critics Academy. Click here for more on the writers.