"Postcards From America" is an inert, experimental indie feature that sends out stylized impressions of a disturbed life. Based on the rage-filled autobiographical writings of artist David Wojnarowicz, who died of AIDS two years ago, first feature by musicvideo helmer Steve McLean is decked out in many avant-garde trappings that make its impact on the viewer remote and secondhand despite the primal nature of the material.

“Postcards From America” is an inert, experimental indie feature that sends out stylized impressions of a difficult, disturbed life. Based on the rage-filled autobiographical writings of artist David Wojnarowicz, who died of AIDS two years ago, first feature by Brit musicvideo helmer Steve McLean is decked out in many avant-garde trappings that make its impact on the viewer remote and secondhand despite the primal nature of the material. A downer without much compensatory insight or dramatic power, this won’t travel far beyond the fest circuit and core gay audiences.

Wojnarowicz railed about the horrors of AIDS and recounted aspects of his rough life as an abused child and Times Square hustler in print, on video and as a performance artist, as well as on film for Rosa von Praunheim. Present pic is based on two books, “Close to the Knives” and “Memories That Smell Like Gasoline ,” but is strangely stripped of any identification of the leading character, named David, as a potential or actual artist.

This is just one of several strategies that drains the fragmented story of the strength it might have had, as McLean shuffles and deals the cards from his deck in a highly selective manner and leaves far too many of them face down. Here as elsewhere displaying the influence of Todd Haynes’”Poison,” also produced by Christine Vachon, three aspects of David’s life are presented in different visual styles: a depressing suburban childhood that included regular beatings from his violent alcoholic father, his stint as a New York street hustler and petty criminal, and an abstract section that finds David wandering, and sometimes at risk, in the desert.

Most of the action, such as it is, is deliberately distanced via David’s ongoing voiceover narration and monologues by various characters, notably the father, who is more enraged than David. This sort of approach can work if the language and accompanying visuals are poetic enough to cut to the heart by a different route than can be accomplished by conventional dramatics, but neither the writing nor the images are bracing or haunting. The circumstances of the kid’s upbringing may have been deplorable, but the film bestows upon them no special dimension to compel the audience’s indulgent attention.

From a sexual p.o.v., pic assumes a gay perspective even from childhood, as the youthful David is provoked by an older masochist in one vividly peculiar scene, and goes on to recount numerous pickups, quickies, make-out sessions and anonymous encounters without getting very graphic.

Indeed, film is so dry that it sacrifices any power to disturb, jolt or make the viewer see anything in a new way. If “Postcards” was meant to express Wojnarowicz’s howl of anguish, it has failed by muffling it with too many self-consciously artistic distancing devices.

Acting and technical aspects of this low-budgeter are so-so.

Postcards from America

Production

An Islet presentation in association with Channel Four Films of a Normal production. (International sales: the Sales Co., London.) Produced by Christine Vachon, Craig Paull. Executive producer, Mark Nash. Directed, written by Steve McLean, adapted from the writings of David Wojnarowicz.

Crew

Camera (color), Ellen Kuras; editor, Elizabeth Gazzara; music, Stephen Endelman; production design, Therese Deprez; art direction, Scott Pask; costume design, Sara Clotnick; sound, Neil Danziger, Jan McLaughlin; co-producer, McLean; associate producers, Philip Yenswine, Olivier Renaud-Clement, Joel Hinman, Pamela Koffler; assistant directors, Elizabeth Gill, Chris Hoover; casting, Daniel Haughey. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival, Sept. 11, 1994. (Also in New York Film Festival.) Running time: 89 MIN.

With

Adult David - James Lyons
Teenage David - Michael Tighe
Young David - Olmo Tighe
The Hustler - Michael Imperioli
Father - Michael Ringer
Mother - Maggie Low
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