High-concept is an Orwellian phrase when it comes to cinema, usually meaning one concept, as in one idea, which can be pitched, tag-lined and sold. And most high-concept films have a job getting that one idea off the ground. So we should celebrate this month’s screening of Funeral Parade of Roses, a film crammed with ideas, from soup to nuts. Released in 1969 and shot in black and white, the film has the temperament and daring of an underground art film, but without any of the drawbacks. The acting is uniformly excellent, from the young transsexual Eddie, played in his debut role by Pîtâ, with more than a passing resemblance to Edie Sedgwick, to a series of well-established Japanese stars (one of the samurai from The Seven Samurai no less) and TV personalities, who both play roles and appear in the film as themselves.
The story takes on the arc of an Oedipal tragedy, which sees the young Eddie quietly but tenaciously rising through the gay scene to become a madam of his own gay bar, only to subsequently suffer a horrifying downfall. There are flashbacks of a childhood trauma, but also a film within a film as a documentary is being made about the gay scene, with lots of interviews about what it means to be a queen. The tone shifts radically from breathless gay erotica to Chaplinesque knockabout comedy, Godardian reflexivity to Hitchcockian suspense. Marnie (1964) seems to have been particularly in mind, but also Psycho (1960). The speeded-up sections and the use of flash imagery and ironic music are testament to the film’s impact on Kubrick, who cited it as a direct influence on A Clockwork Orange (1971). The rush of the film makes it slippery and difficult to pin down. The attitude to homosexuality is likewise playful and evasive. On one hand, it offers a sympathetic platform for the film’s interviewees and an affectionate, if not glamorous, portrait of a scene, while on the other, it follows a tragic trajectory that sees homosexuality born of violence and trauma - the ‘death to the vagina’ murder of the mother is particularly disturbing - and heads towards an inevitably tragic dénouement. But even this cannot be safely summed up. After a particularly gruesome murder, there is a frame-breaking interview with the actor, who says he likes being in the film as ‘Gay life is portrayed beautifully’. Defying expectations at every turn, Matsumoto constantly wrong-foots his audience, starting with the opening sex scene, shot beautifully in a gleaming white image. Melodrama is undercut with irony, the detachment of the documentarian is relieved by the madcap ‘happenings’, with the camera crew apparently flinging themselves into the action with abandon. Even the tragic conclusion is not immune. Ultimately, this is a film to watch and watch again. Genuinely high-concept.