Tom Kalin Swoon: The NON-Player
Oh to be young, gay and broke. New York filmmaker Tom Kalin cadges a cup of coffee and explains how Swoon, his movie about '20s child killers Leopold and Loeb, differs from the two homophobic films Hollywood has already made about the same guys.
We would tell him to come at midnight and tell him not to breathe a word. We would meet on the green of the 17th hole of the fox chapel golf club, the one ringed by huge oaks, impenetrable at night from squaw run road. We--Tim and I--would tell young Matthew that we had pinched a copy of the key to the pro shop and a bottle of scotch from Tim's Dad. Tim and I were 15, Matthew was 13, and, as we were all budding boozers and junior duffers, Tim figured that would be bounty enough to draw Matthew into our web. Have I mentioned that this was all really Tim's idea? Tim hated Matthew-something about a disparaging remark Matthew had made one morning after Chapel at our Prep School.
I didn't hate Matthew, but I didn't much care for him either, and could see that a world without his smug mug would perhaps be a better place. I was a nihilist. I had tickets to the Sex Pistols and had recently quit the tennis team. We were going to wail on Matthew's head with a golf club stolen from the pro shop (we did have the key), then take his body out in the rowboat to the middle of the biggest water hazard on the course and weigh it down. Goodbye Matthew. Then we'd drink the scotch. We debated hotly about which club would be the lethalest weapon--a wood or an iron. Tim even did some experiments with cantaloupes-our first mistake, as Tim's mom slipped on cantaloupe brains on the back porch and sprained her ankle.
The big problem was, we really did need a car, so Tim suggested we put the whole thing off until summer came and we turned 16. We never mentioned it again. That spring I met Patsy Foxen and decided I'd kill only for her. And that spring Tim was suspended for bringing what may have been a real gun to school to threaten someone else for some other reason.
I had heard of Leopold and Loeb-barely. I knew only that they were killers-they had murdered someone in Chicago, a long time ago. I had, in truth, occasionally confused them with Lerner and Loewe, and when the musical version of Cinderella with Lesley Ann Warren came on TV, I marveled at their rehabilitation into a successful songwriting team. Somehow, it didn't make sense. But after six years in Hollywood, where I've often toyed with the idea of putting that almost-murder scene in one of my screenplays, I understand a little bit more about life. I realize, for instance, that I am no killer. Why? Because I've been six years in Hollywood and I haven't killed anybody.
Glad I got that off my shoulders. Don't worry-the article you set out to read will be coming along here in seconds. That memory, by the way, did not come up after years of therapy (nothing has yet come up after years of therapy), but while watching Swoon, a brilliant and chilling version of the Leopold and Loeb murder case, written, directed, edited and co-produced by 30-year-old New York independent filmmaker Tom Kalin. As I watched Kalin's movie, I compared it with the Hollywood product I deal with every day-the movies my friends and I work on, the films that come to a megaplex near you. Swoon is different. There seems to have been something on Kalin's mind while he made it. There seems to have been something in his mind, too. I can't tell you how easily we in Hollywood forget about New York films. We forget about New York period. And then once in a while something comes out of that strange island city that reminds us we'd better start paying attention again. I had to meet this Tom Kalin.
One of the more remarkable things about Swoon is that the Leopold and Loeb true-crime story it's based on has inspired two Hollywood films already: Alfred Hitchcock's 1948 Rope and Richard Fleischer's 1959 Compulsion. Here are the facts of the story behind all three films: Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb were 18 and 19 in 1924, both sons of wealthy Jewish Chicago businessmen. Loeb graduated from college at 17 and was fascinated by Nietzsche's "Superman" theories of moral superiority. With the help of his willing partner and lover, Leopold, who had an IQ of 200 and was frequently characterized as a "shy amateur ornithologist," he kidnapped and then killed 14-year-old Bobby Franks for the pure hell of it. Loeb was obsessed with the idea of committing the "perfect crime." Leopold was obsessed with keeping it together with Loeb. In the end, their cockiness overshadowed their smarts, and the two were easily caught. It was called "The Crime of the Century" (but of course, it was early yet). The public and press were obsessed with these two young men, who, as wealthy, Jewish, philosophy-reading homosexual child killers, were about as far-out as anyone could dare to imagine. Clarence Darrow, the famous liberal humanist lawyer, defended Leopold and Loeb and saved them from the death penalty by basing a plea of insanity on their homosexuality. They got life, plus 99 years.
Young men weren't allowed to kiss on-screen when Hitchcock made Rope, but John Dall and Farley Granger play Shaw and Philip, the fictionalized Leopold and Loeb, as markedly effeminate New York roommates in a bachelor pad with more closets than bedrooms. In Compulsion, which is also fictionalized but much more factually driven, Dean Stockwell, as the Leopoldish Jud Steiner, and Bradford Dillman, as the Loeb-like Artie Strauss, have an even more muted relationship, and the show is given over to Orson Welles as the lawyer based on Darrow.
I didn't know what to expect when I settled down to watch Swoon. Something like Richard Brooks's true crime classic In Cold Blood, perhaps? I'd read the review in Hollywood's trade-paper bible Daily Variety, which ends like this: "Director's esoteric methods, much more than his subject matter, limit his intended audience to a very small group, but within it, the film will find a degree of favor." In other words: we're not sure what this film's about but we do know it's not going to make any money.
The name "Intolerance Productions" flashed starkly on-screen, followed by an opening scene that sets the tone: A stylish tableau-young Leopold and Loeb (played by the very unknown Craig Chester and Daniel Schlachet), artfully arranged with some drag-queen flapper pals, recite this line: "You must be the slave and feel the lash." Not unlike, I immediately thought, an over-the-top Obsession for Men TV commercial. Kalin begins to engage in such amusing flourishes as setting the lads' pre-murder crime spree to the tune of "Let's Misbehave." Then various anachronisms subtly begin to appear-a push-button phone (it's the '20s, remember) and a TV. The weird and inspiring touches keep piling up: Leopold the bird fancier is seen at one point removing some feathered friends from inside his trousers; Kalin plops the boys' bed down into the middle of the courtroom when the trial starts hinging on their sex life. What is this filmmaker up to?
Kalin's press biography, which comes in at a scant two paragraphs, explains that Swoon is his first feature. He's previously written and directed a variety of short works on film and video-"art" films in the purest sense (i.e., no profit motive attached). I haven't seen any of them-they show at places like The Whitney Biennial-but the lowercase titles alone, finally destroy us, they are lost to vision altogether, suggest Soho seriousness, art with a lowercase "a." Kalin has also worked for three years as a producer for AIDS-Films, which the press notes describe as "a non-profit education company which produces prevention education for communities of color," and is a founding member of the AIDS activist collective Gran Fury. Apparently to pay the rent, he's written for the Village Voice and Art-forum.
Out here in Hollywood, I boycott Coors, Marlboro and Domino's Pizza, send a few dollars to Greenpeace, add my sig to a petition protesting censorship of various priapic rap groups, and, like, try not to oppress my dates. That's about the extent of my political correctness. But I know: as an upper-middle-class over-educated heterosexual WASP male (blond, yet) whose ancestors came over on the Mayflower, I'm supposed to work at it. Recently, I threw a party and stuck a video on the VCR-a mind-blowing film called The Last of England. It's a mystical, terrifying look at the nightmare end of the Queen's realm that happens to have been made by a gay filmmaker, and it's got a touch of homoeroticism in it. One of my guests came up to me and announced, "There are two guys having sex on your TV." He was looking at me wide-eyed, as though seeing me for the first time, but maintaining his what-are-you-gonna-do-about-it? Smirk. I snuck a peak: it wasn't pornographic or anything. "Don't worry," I said, squeezing his shoulder warmly. "I happen to know they're all the way over there in England."
Tom Kalin is all the way over in New York. Soho, in Manhattan's Greenwich Village, is where you live after college-before you move uptown, work for Random House or MTV and become neurotic "Seinfeld" New Yorkers. It's less terminally hip than the East Village, which is where you score smack. Soho is where you can score a Julian Schnabel canvas, and where, at The Odeon back in the '80s, I once almost decked Boy George for stealing my chair, before I realized how tall he was.
In an old building on Broadway, I find the seventh floor office of Intolerance Productions. A hand-lettered sign indicates that the space is shared with Bronze Eye and Apparatus Productions, though the two grey-walled rooms inside don't seem large enough for one production entity, let alone three. Kalin, tall, thin and boyish, with curly brown hair, looks grim and very tense when I come in. Framed by a poster on the wall for the Todd Haynes's movie Poison, Kalin asks me to wait, and then goes about answering several phone calls and giving final instructions to an intern named Ned who is dressed, as Kalin is, in muted New York downtown artist chic. The battered shelves in the office are filled with paperbacks: The Granta Monthly, Deliverance, The Name of the Rose, Mommie Dearest, Red Dragon and James Agee. Research, or bathroom reading? Ah, but here tucked away in the corner is something revealing: Lefcourt's Screenwriting-the same how-to book every sushi chef and Gap salesperson in L.A. keeps by their bedside.
At last Kalin's ready to talk, and he quickly reveals himself to be perfectly able to smile. Just before we leave the office, I steal a peek at a note scribbled on a desk: "If you have the $$, could Ned get the office a broom?" This is not exactly suite living on the level of the newly refurbished, Japanese-owned studio buildings in Hollywood where the young directors I know kick back and wait for Katzenberg to call. As we turn off Broadway onto a side street, Kalin worries about Ned's ability to find himself some lunch. "During the year it's easy to get student interns for no money, but I still feel like I should be able to get them a sandwich once in a while. Listen, by the way-"Kalin asks, "Could I borrow a couple bucks for coffee? Otherwise, we have to stop at my bank machine."