Film » Screens

Portrait of the Artist as a Sexual Man

John Maybury brings home the Francis Bacon in Love Is the Devil.


"I just find it all so bizarre," notes John Maybury, popping a cigarette in his mouth and lighting it in what appears to be one quick flip of the wrist. "All those issues of 'being out' and 'are you in?' We should have gone beyond that by now. I know it's still an issue, but look--I've been 'out' so long people want to push me back 'in!'"
A forty-year-old Englishman, Maybury has indeed been "out," in every conceivable sense of the term, for years--first as a collaborator of the late gay avant-garde director Derek Jarman (1977's Jubilee, 1987's The Last of England), and more recently as a filmmaker and videomaker in his own right (1991's Tunnel of Love, 1992's Man to Man, and Premonition of Absurd Perversion in Sexual Personae, Part 1, also 1992). But then so was the subject of Maybury's most recent film, Love Is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon. One of the most important visual artists of the twentieth century, the Irish-born Bacon--who died in Spain in April 1992 at the age of 83--lived a life so wildly bohemian as to render "in" and "out" labels beside the point. More important, there was no mistaking the sexuality inherent in his work--enormous, richly colored canvases of twisted, abject figures that, in the words of writer Michel Leiris, give the viewer "direct access to an order of flesh-and-blood reality not unlike the paroxysmal experience provided in everyday life by the physical act of love."

"Francis Bacon, along with David Hockney, has always been enormously important to me," explains Maybury. "They were the only English artists who had a) operated and existed on an intellectual level of real seriousness, and b) you automatically recognized in their images their sexuality. That's what's so absurd about the problems I had in making this film. People really did say to me, 'You're going to damage his reputation.' I'm sorry, either you have a really distorted perspective of who I am and what I'm doing, or you have a really distorted picture of Francis Bacon. At one point the [Bacon] estate even wheeled out Michael Peppiatt, who'd written [the Bacon biography] Anatomy of an Enigma. I don't even think he'd seen my script, but he was saying, 'This film is prurient and shouldn't be made. Blah, blah, blah.' And his book goes way, way further out than my film!"

Maybury found himself in the position of having to create a film about an artist without showing any of that artist's works. But being a painter himself, Maybury devised a way to surmount the seemingly insurmountable. In telling Bacon's story, the writer-director creates a mise-en-scene that evokes key Bacon works such as Two Figures (1953), Portrait of George Dyer Crouching (1966), and Triptych May-June (1973) in ways that anyone with only a passing knowledge of the artist can instantly recognize.

There are precedents of a sort for this; films as diverse as Performance (1970) and Last Tango in Paris (1973) have evoked Bacon's canvasses. Yet none have cut as deeply into Bacon's life and work as Love Is the Devil. Starring Derek Jacobi as Bacon and Daniel Craig as George Dyer, the petty thief who became Bacon's lover and most important model, this crisply made drama gets to the heart of the painter's life and work in a way that only a handful of films about artists (1972's Savage Messiah, Jarman's 1986 Caravaggio, 1974's A Bigger Splash, 1991's La Belle Noiseuse) have attempted. And Maybury manages to shed needed light on the Bacon-Dyer love affair, which ended with the latter's death from a drug overdose in Paris in 1971, on the eve of an exhibition of Bacon paintings at the Grand Palais, in which Dyer was the principal subject.

"Love Is the Devil is a tragedy," Maybury says over breakfast at a West Hollywood restaurant. "It's not just George's tragedy, it's Francis's tragedy. Still, my covert agenda all the way down the line was that this is the George Dyer story, rather than the Francis Bacon story. If you look at the biographies, even Daniel Farson's The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon, on which my film is based, there's virtually nothing about George. There are anecdotes, but as it shows in the film, he's effectively been erased by Bacon's friends. They say he was a kind of 'troubled, very simple East End guy, with a stutter and rather strangulated voice.' I tried to show something more."

Maybury shows a lot more. His depiction of the Bacon-Dyer relationship echoes the lives and loves of otherwise dissimilar self-destructive gay bohemians, such as playwright Joe Orton and filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Dyer met Bacon while the former was burglarizing the latter's London house (the gay S&M "meet cute" of all time). While Dyer played the dominant role sexually, he was subservient to Bacon in every other way, as was the case with Orton's and Fassbinder's lovers. He never fit in with the artist's viper-tongued circle of friends (played in the film by Jarman regulars Tilda Swinton and Karl Johnson), and he wasn't able to establish any sort of life for himself outside of Bacon's orbit. Maybury feels that, unique as the Bacon-Dyer menage may appear at first, it's not all that uncommon in romantic relationships of all sorts.

"The more intense the love, the more incongruous Francis and George become because of the difference between them," he observes. "The more you love someone, in a way, the more you can hurt them--and the more they can hurt you. Dyer's death might have been an accident. Bacon took it as a suicide. When someone chooses to take [his] own life, I actually respect that. Particularly in recent years with AIDS. Friends of mine have taken their own lives because they didn't want to go on any more. I respect that. I don't see that as chickening out. It's certainly not the 'easy way out.'

"You know," Maybury continues, "ten years before George Dyer, there was Bacon's love affair with Peter Lacy. Lacy didn't actually commit suicide, but he drank himself to death in a piano bar in Tangier. Bacon was told Lacy had died on the eve of his Tate retrospective. It was almost ten years to the day when George tops himself! And then, when Bacon dies, he leaves $12 million to another East End white boy, John Edwards. That was the official amount, but it was probably considerably more than that."

Maybury feels that Bacon's frankness--about sexuality and everything else--might well have played into the hands of the painter's detractors. But for him it's key to his interest in the artist.

"There's always been an argument against Bacon because of the theatricality and formulaic aspect of the work," Maybury explains. "That John Berger essay in Ways of Seeing comparing him to Walt Disney is a part of that. It's the English disease of resenting success. Bacon was a success on such an intellectual scale. At the same time he single-handedly erased Graham Sutherland and that whole neoromantic school of English artist. Just wiped them off the face of the scene! That to me was the most exciting thing about Bacon. Despite the deluge of Abstract Expressionism and American heroic painting--which we've all since found out was sponsored by Bill Paley and the CIA anyway--Bacon was still painting the figure. That was a very radical thing to be doing. So there was a lot of resentment against him, especially on the part of people who had hitched their wagon to the Abstract Expressionists."

There was also resentment against Bacon the man, whose dandified eloquence was captured several times on film, a fact that helped Maybury and actor Jacobi enormously.

"I got my hands on every documentary there is on Francis Bacon, and we looked at them," the filmmaker recalls. "We decided early on that it shouldn't be an impersonation. Derek [Jacobi] doesn't try and impersonate his voice. But what he does do is the body language, the gestures. There was one tape that Dan Farson gave me that was never broadcast. It was him interviewing Bacon. Dan Farson was acting as the straight man, feeding him lines. He knew he could get him to make 'Baconesque' remarks. But when Bacon disagrees with something Dan Farson says, he spins his chair around.

"You know in interviews, Bacon has this incredibly urbane, almost kind of chi-chi way of talking. He'll slip every so often into the very 'Serious Intellectual Francis Bacon,' but then this coquette kind of appears that's completely contradictory to that. Like Warhol, he hid it behind that fantastic character he'd created. Bacon in London, it was much like Warhol in New York. And in a funny kind of way, when he died, it was much like when Warhol died. I certainly didn't know Warhol, but he was a hero of mine from school days. When he died, you really felt a chunk of New York had died, too. The same was true with Bacon. I met him at parties--people introduced me--but in a sense I didn't want to know him. I was terrified of him on one hand, and on the other, it's 'Never meet your heroes, they'll always disappoint you.'"

Over the years Maybury has been a player in gay bohemian scenes almost as wild as Bacon's. His video-film Remembrance of Things Fast (it won the 1994 Inde-pendent/Experimental award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association) reflects this. Its mixture of documentary, narrative, and purely abstract imagery finds gay porn star Aidan Shaw drifting through a landscape also inhabited by the likes of Swinton and Rupert Everett.

"We, his friends, couldn't have been more surprised by Rupert's success with My Best Friend's Wedding," says Maybury, laughing. "He's 'Mr. Gay America' now, isn't he? Lord knows he didn't plan it! It was his usual indiscriminate way of choosing roles. Just think of his career trajectory. First Another Country, then Dance With a Stranger, then he did that dreadful movie with Bob Dylan--Hearts of Fire. It's unwatchable. He had a wonderful time with Bob Dylan, though, and got a naked ego trip out of it--standing in a stadium in front of 20,000 people, pretending to be a rock star. Then those French films, and then Remembrance with me. Rupert is the most hopeless strategist known to mankind. But she always lands on her high heels!

"You know what he said after the Julia Roberts thing [My Best Friend's Wedding]? 'I'm only going to work with those A-list famous women. They love it, 'cause they're sick of working with those straight boys. They'll have a great time with me and tell all their girlfriends.' He just did A Midsummer Night's Dream with Michelle Pfeiffer. The film stinks, but he had a great time."

Having a great time has always been important to Maybury, especially because he came of age in an era when the all-powerful Margaret Thatcher was Britain's Prime Minister. While the rich were never richer under her stewardship, the lower middle class was never poorer. And when you're worried about getting food on the table, what the neighbors might think about your sexual orientation is of precious little concern.

"I remember 'Thatcher, Thatcher--milk snatcher' back when she was education minister," he says. "What I don't understand was how she was allowed to happen. The situation before she came to power was very bad. I was enjoying myself--totally--'cause I was a kid. At the same time, I remember, you could only go to work three days during the week. I remember when the power would be off three or four hours a day, and my mom would have to cook things on a fire. It was 1976, and suddenly it was like 1876!"

But back then Maybury's thoughts were elsewhere: He was besotted with the then-reigning glam-rock scene, and later with the punk movement that followed in its wake, both of which turned out to be decisive influences on his life and work.

"In '76 I went to these clubs to see bands like the Sex Pistols play," he recalls. "Between the sets they played the whole of Kenneth Anger's 'Magick Lantern Cycle.' While they set up for the next band, you'd see Kustom Kar Kommandos or Fireworks. All in one night--and at the end the Pistols came on. The whole audience was dressed up like The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I was like fifteen when that film came out. It was ironic that all that glam-rock decadence came out of England; [the film] was made by an Australian, and was a pastiche of the best kind of American late-'50s early-'60s pop-music culture. It prefigured the English punk movement totally. That was one of the few things that everybody in the original punk movement had in common--Rocky Horror. I knew all about that, the way you do when you're young--like pigs sniffing out truffles. I knew that David Bowie used to go to Rodney Bingenheimer's club in Los Angeles, and all of that.

"The funny thing is the casting director for Velvet Goldmine, Todd Haynes's film about that whole era, is Susie Figgis. Susie's known me for years. She called me, and I put them in touch with this tranny-boy called Winston, who's got a small part in the film. Then she called back and said, 'Who do you think would be good to play a young you?' So I asked Sinead O'Connor, 'cause she'd done some bit part in the film, and she came up with Jonny Lee Miller [Sick Boy in 1996's Trainspotting]. Sinead said, 'He looks like you used to look when you were fifteen.' So I called Susie and Jonny Lee Miller got the part.

"It seems like a thousand years ago."
It also seems eons since films like Jarman's Sebastiane (1976) explored homoeroticism with some degree of frankness. In Remembrance of Things Fast, Maybury goes much further than his mentor--thanks to his porn star friend Aidan Shaw.

"I wanted to put a gay sex scene on [British TV's] Channel 4," says Maybury with an enormous grin. "I knew that, one way or another, they would screen it. Also I wanted to make a porn scene that was the way I wanted to see it. Not 'the cum-shot scene.' Still, when I came to doing it, I was sort of terrified. It was 'What do I do now?' The other boy wasn't an actor at all, so Aidan was pretty terrified as well. The other boy was pretty game, but they didn't actually fancy each other at all--which often happens in porn. It was just trying to make something sexy that was beautiful at the same time. I didn't want it to be all Day-Glo and pimples.

"I've just made another video-film with Aidan--a short based on the Genet poem 'The Man Sentenced to Death.' It's a kind of multiscreen video with a French actor, Pascal Greggory. He's reciting the poem in French. You've seen him in Eric Rohmer's Pauline at the Beach and Patrice Chereau's Queen Margot. In fact he was Patrice Chereau's boyfriend for a while. Pascal's very cool in the film. I don't speak French, but I deliberately had him do it in French. I showed it in Paris this year as part of a video art festival they had. It went down really, really well. The intention was, it would annoy English people because it was in French, and it would annoy French people because it's a really good film about Genet made by an Englishman. So it's Pascal and Aidan and a whole bunch of boys masturbating! It's very arty and pretentious and really sexy. I'm even in it, having a wank. I thought if I can get all my friends to do this, I should do it too!

"Oh," adds Maybury, breaking into peals of laughter, "how one suffers for one's art!"

Love Is the Devil. 9:25 p.m., Friday, January 29; 7 p.m., Saturday, January 30; and 1:30 p.m., Sunday, January 31; Cleveland Cinematheque, 11141 East Blvd., 216-421-7540.

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