BBC 5Live asked me to review Bruno on their breakfast…
Niven Govinden’s most recent book, This Brutal House proved a welcome reflection on New York’s ‘80s ball scene. Voguing, and the subculture that birthed this phenomenon has been repackaged, Madonnafied, filtered, re-claimed and commercialised.
In some quarters, ball culture has been adopted and polished to the point where it’s as close to its original source as margarine is to butter. There are recognisable elements, but processed imitation lacks depth, and a place at an haute cuisine table.
This Brutal House not only nodded to the culture, but went for a more challenging option. Niven took the ball scene and not only added layers of complexity and context, he took it to church.
The book’s a powerful, spiritual lament for lost lives, wisdom of elders and the challenges faced by a threatened community.
Like a prayer
To make grief, God and AIDS the Biblical spine of his New York narrative was both faithful to history and a respectful genuflection to the culture. It’s an enriching, haunting work that should be required text for anyone claiming an interest in that scene.
It’s easy to binge and regurgitate RuPaul’s Drag Race, and obviously, it’s fun. This Brutal House is both homage and a liturgy of love. It’s not just a literary death drop, it’s a piece of wurque.
Cannes of worms
Niven’s latest publication, Diary of a Film is a more compact project, but like its predecessor, explores a genre that’s familiar. It’s easy to be weary of leery intellectuals and the forgiven flaws found at the heart of genius.
Niven has done a demi–plié to the genre, but spun a queer prism which offers another window to that world. It’s modern, unique and beautifully provocative. The woozy trope of the auteur and their muse is either a hoary cliché or worse, a wanking, winking celebration of an abuse of power.
Gauguin, Polanski, Von Trier, Hitchcock, Kubrick and Picasso all produced great work. Few were nice to work with. Especially if you were a woman. A hallowed status can blind beholders to the darkness and grim evidence before their dazzled eyes. Innocent teenage girls are not encouraged to hang out with pervy old men in 2021, but that’s been a staple in art, film and literature for centuries.
Of course, a muse doesn’t have to be a naïve girl, or an angelic youth, a la Lolita, or Call Me by Your Name. Creative and romantic inspiration can stem from the divine, beauty in nature or simply the quality of light, in the case of Hockney and Los Angeles.
Diary of Film explores this often fraught relationship between art and its source and the tricky topic of appropriation, interpretation and ownership. The auteur in Diary of a Film is only known to us as Maestro, a garlanded film director with a fresh project to promote at a swishy Euro film festival.
Our protagonist is a gay man. The film he’s completed portrays a homoerotic relationship. The actors in his project have a nuanced relationship to sexuality due to fame, privacy and ambition. It’s a narrative without judgement, but there’s no escape from the subtle negotiations of truth and public relations.
Master and servant
The Maestro is in an intense relationship with his actors due to the intimate nature of the business, but also, the inescapable strings of power and control. His handsome protégés are an inspiration to his project, and are the vehicle to his vision, but they are not the fading objects of his affection. The Maestro’s paternal observations and chats with his cast run in parallel to the more grounding love he feels for his husband and child.
The Maestro isn’t a sly sex pest, or an emotionally abusive boss, but Diary of a Film explores the areas where prestige and privilege can lead to insensitive artistic choices. He’s a cultured, successful bohemian with self-awareness and wisdom, but Niven doesn’t entirely let him off the hook. There’s no escaping the fact that maestros make mistakes too.
Sex and subtext
Diary of a Film includes a Pandora’s Box of a sub plot that combines street art, grief and the thorny nuances of creative provenance and ownership. How does one respect source material while enjoying the right to interpretation and liberty?
What’s the cost of turning underground expression into commercial success? Should art be judged on the numbers who’ve seen it? Is value measured by academic nods or frenzied popularity? Niven weaves these themes into whispers in hotel lobbies, popping flashbulbs, hidden graffiti, forgotten books and stolen glances.
There’s a lot to unpack here, but the brilliance of this concentrated novella is that you can come for the drama and enjoy the ride, but also marvel at the kaleidoscope of layers. It’s like a slice of Vienetta; easy to enjoy as nice ice cream, but if you have the notion, take a LOOK at the craft and intricacy.
Diary of a Film delves into the mind of The Maestro, while in the hands of master craftsman. There’s insight, romance, pop culture and philosophy packed into every paragraph. Expect to see it top lists of best books in 2021. Niven’s best wurque yet.
Diary of a Film is published by Dialogue Books