Charles Atlas’ video feature “Hail the New Puritan” offers knowing glimpses of the London youth scene, propulsive performance segments and quasi-documentary depictions of the fictionalized private activities and relationships of media celebrities.
Here, a dancer is the beneficiary of Atlas’ ambitious 90-minute venture in pop mythology. Because that dancer is the sweetly androgynous, obsessively provocative Michael Clark, “Hail the New Puritan” is an appropriate entry in the Gay & Lesbian Film/Video Festival (7:30 tonight in the Mark Goodson screening room of the American Film Institute, 2021 N. Western Ave.). This is not “The Children of Theatre Street.”
Royal Ballet-trained and deeply involved with London’s fashion and pop music scenes, Clark has built an international dance career from teasing, outrageous sexual grotesquerie.
“Hail the New Puritan” provides a generous sampling of this whimsical dance repertory and--no less important to Clark’s reputation--his highly distinctive wardrobe. Early on he exudes ballerina glamour in a swan tutu. Later he looks delicately winsome in fringed jacket, kilts and a T-shirt emblazoned with an invitation to sex abuse. Ultimately, he strips to his underpants for a longing, I’m-so-sensitive solo set to Elvis Presley’s recording of “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”
Unfortunately, this kind of cheap hustle, this soft-core, cult-of-personality salesmanship passing as choreography seems awfully puerile, despite Clark’s obvious talent as a dancer and Atlas’ proven skills in film and video dance.
On stage there may be more of an edge (Clark makes his local debut this fall in the Los Angeles Festival), but on the small screen the performance sequences look flat, derivative and far too pleased with themselves except for some promising passages derived from British folk traditions and a bit of bold, muscular semaphoring in a nightclub production number.
Moreover, time has forced new, unwanted implications on the non-dance (life style) portions of “Hail the New Puritan.” Since it was completed last year, one of the most relentlessly flamboyant characters has died of a drug overdose, lending his scenes of bizarre comedy the bitter aftertaste that pervades “Sid and Nancy.” So, too, in the wake of the AIDS health crisis, the obligatory sex scene for Clark and an anonymous beau is less affirming than Atlas may have intended.
Increasingly, then, “Hail the New Puritan” leaves the subculture it wants to celebrate looking recklessly, suicidally self-indulgent. And, for all the energy expended on confirming Clark’s dance stardom, he emerges as just another pretty face.