Polanski's paranoid thriller is big fun, so is Turinski's doc about a group of drag shock entertainers
film from a queer perspective
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Ghost Writer-Sissyboy
Expanded Edition of 2-24-10 WCT Knight at the Movies column
By Richard Knight, Jr.
With a resume that includes Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown, The Tenant, Bitter Moon, Frantic, and
Death and the Maiden, a case could be made – and a good one – that nobody does paranoid thrillers
like director Roman Polanski.  So it’s no surprise that
The Ghost Writer, the director’s first feature
since 2005’s
Oliver Twist would be another prime example of the genre with its blend of Hitchcockian
intrigue and political mystery.  But though the movie clearly shows a master at work – finding ways for
the camera to telegraph suspense and dread to the audience – it’s also filled with plot holes and long
stretches that strain its credibility.  For maximum enjoyment – and there’s much to be had here – it’s
best to ignore the plot and character lapses in
The Ghost Writer and just let Polanski take you for a

The movie is based on the novel by Robert Harris, which he has adapted in collaboration with
Polanski.  It concerns Ewan McGregor, a successful ghost writer for a series of celebrities, who is hired
for a large sum to fix up the troublesome first draft of the memoirs of a former British prime
minister, Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan).  McGregor, whose character is not given a name is wary – the
first ghost writer, Lang’s longtime assistant, recently committed suicide under mysterious
circumstances but his agent persists, boasting to Lang’s attorney (Timothy Hutton), “You name it, he
ghosts.”  The Ghost passes muster and is put on a plane and ferried to gloomy, rainy Martha’s
Vineyard and the ultra modern/icy fortress getaway of Lang.  Lang (a stand in for Tony Blair) is
ensconced in the sleek home along with his comely, efficient secretary Amelia (Kim Cattrall in a nice
variation on her
Sex and the City character), sullen, snappish wife Ruth (Olivia Williams) and a
phalanx of scowling security guards.

Lang and the Ghost barely get started on the revisions before the house is in an uproar as Lang is
embroiled in an erupting political scandal in which he’s accused of okaying torture and other political
crimes while under the thumb of the United States (think Blair/Bush/torture policies, etc.).  The Ghost
is caught up in the swirl of events and a temporary siege on the property by the media and
protesters.  Soon, he begins to suspect that his predecessor stumbled upon political and personal
secrets in Lang’s past and that perhaps the precious first draft of the memoirs contains unwitting

As McGregor falls deeper down the rabbit hole and the stakes are raised, the movie takes on the feel
of one of those David Baldacci political potboilers in which the reader is given an entertaining but
phony baloney peek behind the scenes of corrupt political power and dirty money intersecting and a
lot of creepy, murderous characters who will do anything to hang on to it.  Tom Wilkinson, Eli Wallach,
Jim Belushi, Richard Pugh and other crack character actors are dropped into the mix as McGregor
races to figure out what is going on.  

Though he’s supposed to be a speedy, insightful ghost writer (we don’t actually see him do much
work on the manuscript) McGregor’s character isn’t apparently the brightest in a lot of other areas and
the audience is consistently ahead of him.  Still, like the movie itself, McGregor is never less than
entertaining and Polanski working with cinematographer Pawel Edelman gives this thriller a lot of
visual oomph to carry one along (an SUV left on a ferry, a body washed up on a beach, a seemingly
deserted inn, a note of incrimination passed hand to hand to hand until it reaches it’s suspect, the
sound of a car crash and a stack of papers blowing in the wind).  Those items and a Bernard
Herrmannesque score (Hitchcock’s frequent collaborator) by Alexandre Desplat help one overlook the
gaps in what is essentially a silly, high falutin’ thriller – albeit a diverting one.  
The Ghost Writer lives
up to its namesake – it’s the kind of enjoyable, junky melodramatic mystery/roman-a-clef that any
script doctor would be proud – after a round of drinks or two, perhaps – to admit having written.


If the Cockettes, the psychedelic drag queen troupe from the late 1960s had had grandchildren they
might look, talk and act as outlandishly as the 12 troupe members of
Sissyboy do in their
eponymous documentary.  This gender bending shock drag troupe, hailing from Portland worked
together for about 3 ½ years, practicing their blend of political glam guerilla theatre.  At one point
they met nascent filmmaker Katie Turinski who saw a hot subject in the group and started
documenting their performances and off camera observations.  The group eventually did a west coast
tour of three cities, traveling aboard the RV of the parent’s of one of the members, returning to their
home base for a final show.  All this Turinski captured in her lively documentary of the group.

The film, which contains elements of several queer themed movies –
Priscilla Queen of the Desert,
Shortbus, and especially the documentaries The Cockettes and Trannyshack (where the group performed
and cite as an inspiration) is never less than illuminating and entertaining.  The performers – gay
men all – like the 6’4” bald Splendora (a latter day Dean Johnson), Zebra, Kaj-Anne, et al, seemingly
grabbed from every aspect of culture in creating their looks and their shows.  Everything from Bette
Davis to the war in Iraq is referenced and offered up for simultaneous adulation and derision.  Like
many groups of feisty gay men, the insights are often fast and funny.  The film is lighter on the
performances – and from look of things, Turinski’s decision to limit that footage is to the good as the
group’s antics are often more entertaining offstage than on.

“Our culture needs to be reminded that we’re not all here to fit the cookie cutter mold” one of the
performers comments as the final performance of the troupe nears and
Sissyboy provides delightful
evidence of that admonishment.  The film is having its Chicago premiere on Saturday, March 6 at St.
Paul’s Cultural Center (2215 W. North Avenue) as part of the Chicago Movies & Music Festival (CIMM)
and members of Sissyboy are reuniting for a performance at Berlin (954 W. Belmont) on Friday,
March 5.  The fascinating transgender documentary
Riot Acts (“Flaunting Gender Defiance in Music
Performance”) and
Universalove are two more LGBT themed films screening during the March 4-7
CIMM fest.  
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