Postcards from America: Steve McLean’s Tale of Troubled Gay Man, Inspired by David Wojnarowicz

The real mystery about Postcards from America, inspired by the writings of David Wojnarowicz, who died of AIDS in 1992, is how a potentially dramatic and touching material has become such an elusive, frustrating movie, one devoid of much emotional power.

Featuring the directorial debut of Britisher Steve McLean, the film offers a complex meditation on a troubled gay man in three different stages of his life.

An angry man, Wojnarowicz recorded and recounted the horrors of AIDS and aspects of his turbulent life as an abused child and hustler in print, on video, and performance art. Based on two of his books, “Close to the Knives” and “Memories That Smell Like Gasoline,” Postcards from America is an ambitiously experimental film that interweaves three stories centering on a character named David (played by three different actors).

Set in suburban New Jersey in the 1960s, the first and most horrific episode describes David as a child victimized by an abusive, brutish and alcoholic father. The story then jumps to David’s youth as a hustler and petty criminal on the mean streets of New York. It culminates with the mature David traveling through the Southwest desert, equally fascinated with the open road as with impersonal sex.

To his credit, McLean defies the formulaic conventions of Hollywood biopics. But his alternative strategies–fragmented structure, voice-over narration, lengthy monologues by David’s father and other characters–function as distancing devices that create a bridge between the audience and the poignant life told onscreen.

“Postcards from America” doesn’t provide many insights about what exactly made David the kind of gay artist and political activist that he did. It’s never clear how the conflict between David and his family later transformed into conflict between him and the larger society. Director McLean doesn’t show a good grip on his fascinating character, which remains an enigma even by the end of the movie.

Even so, there are some rewards in the film’s audacious descriptions of some sacred taboos in American culture, like domestic violence and wild anonymous sex. And in moments, the picture captures some of the most contradictory values in the American Dream: freedom and repression, familial nurturing and abuse, isolation as an outsider and the need to belong.

We do get a sense of David’s rage-filled, disturbed life, but the impressions are abstract, not concrete enough. Indeed, the film works best as a series of snapshots that never amount to more than a colorful album. Numerous pickups, quickies, and anonymous encounters are described, but there is no point of view or perspective to illuminate what is seen beyond its voyeuristic pleasure.

Unmistakably influenced by Todd Haynes’ far superior and more innovative, “Poison” (which was produced by Christine Vachon, who served as co-producer of this picture), the three chapters in David’s life are presented in different visual styles. Ellen Kuras, who has photographed a number of gay-themed films (Swoon, the upcoming documentary Unzipped), created bold, often haunting imagery. But the film may be drenched in too much style, making the experience even more fractured and remote.

Newcomer McLean, who began his career in music videos, doesn’t command yet the skills of compelling narrative cinema. The end result is curiously a dispassionate, uninvolving film.