Wednesday, April 6, 2016

No-Home Movie

It may be a sign of the times: at the moment you can see three films in British cinemas that centre on a threat to a home or community. Alice Winocour’s film Disorder is a more straightforward variation on the storied Home Invasion genre - but The Club, Pablo Larrain’s evisceration of the Catholic church, and Robert Eggers' horror film The Witch, also play on this theme in different ways.The differences between the films - in the way they utilise this format, the way they reflect our fears and insecurities - is telling about contemporary political concerns.

Disorder focuses on Vincent, an ex-soldier with PTSD, played by Matthias Schoenaerts, who takes a security job looking after the wife and son of a shady businessman in their luxury villa. For reasons which aren't entirely clear - and which, to its detriment, the film doesn't investigate - the house will become the scene of a vicious siege, aiming to harm the businessman's wife and child. As the film progresses, Vincent must learn to cope with his past trauma in order to protect his charges, and an attraction begins to grow between him and the lady of the house (Diane Kruger).

Winocour's film treads an odd balance between all-out action and a sort of Audardian arthouse aesthetic, particularly in the film's first half, in which the camera is trained insistently on Vincent, the better to reflect the throbbing anguish of his condition. This strange compromise of tone - where psychological grit rubs up against suspense and entertainment - means that we might tend to overlook the film's political dimension. We are with Vincent from the start, perceiving events through his eyes, so that the attack on the domain, when it occurs, is experienced by the audience as a threat to ourselves, which must be averted.

 Is Winocour being satirical in the set-up that she presents? Two beautiful aryan characters defending a house at all cost against unnamed, faceless (but still racialised) attackers would seem to be almost too keen a metaphor for the current defence strategy adopted in Europe against the threat of terrorist attacks. But it is by no means certain that Winocour's perspective is this critical; on the contrary, it could be that Disorder plays on ingrained fears, and that the motives, lives and history of the people attacking the house are simply not probed by the film. The film’s success, surely, hinges on whether you believe Winocour is criticising Western paranoia or is a victim of it. Certainly, the violence that the film lurches into after its more contemplative first half, can feel a little unjustified, not fully anchored in a socio-political reality.

The Club is altogether more playful with form, presenting a sort of Matryoshka doll variant on the home invasion gig. The film presents a kind of mirror image of Spotlight, as it deals with a remote safe-house for paedophile priests in Chile, whose fear is that they will be found out by the national press. There is obviously a bitter irony in this narrative, which means that the story already starts with a twisted perspective: the threats that the men are seeking to defend themselves from are truth and justice. Larrain builds on this by setting the safe-house in a small seaside community, meaning that we see the priests' interactions with nearby villagers as so many microcosmic analogies for a wider evil.

The Club ramps up the tension early on, as a priest sent to join the other nonces at the safe-house is recognised by a local bum, who besieges the household while hollering accusations at the priests within. The priests find a grim way to put pay to this situation, following which a fixer is sent to live with them by the church in order to get them in line. This is where The Club begins to embrace all of the savage ironies that it has built up, as the ambiguous figure of Father Garcia descends amongst the priests, and the film enters the realm of the parable, while remaining rooted in a deeply political fury. What does Father Garcia represent? Does he want the fathers to atone for their sins, or merely tamp down their evil in order to protect the church? Marcelo Alonso, who plays Father Garcia, is austere and beautiful, playing his character as a type of messianic redeemer - but it is unclear what he is protecting, and how elastic his morality is.

The film goes a little heavy on this angle in its visual presentation, viewing events through the prism of a murky lens which obscures action, makes everything that little more opaque. The landscape's astonishing beauty serves as a harshly ironic backdrop for the film's increasingly grim events. An interesting facet of Larrain’s film is that so much of its political dimension is intangible, existing as a sort of ghostly presence hovering over events: the past, the priests’ victims, the church at large, and the rest of Chile are all felt as the story unfolds.

Robert Eggers' The Witch is the best of these films, not least because it offers up a multitude of responses to the threat encountered by its central family. In Eggers’s film a Puritan family in the 17th century has been exiled from their original community, to an isolated settlement near a forest, where they must contend with a phantasm of some ilk that has made their baby disappear and apparently caused other various misfortunes to occur on their farm. The film keeps every interpretation open: perhaps the curse is due to the father’s dishonesty, or the son’s sexual temptation, or to the daughter’s rejection of the Lord. The family themselves suspect a rabbit, or a goat: even nature itself is seen as embodying evil. As the film gathers momentum, the family often has to hole itself up against external forces.

The Witch is set in past times unlike Disorder and The Club, but its modern resonances are pointed. The disconnection between the family and nature - the way this family feels threatened by the surrounding world, and attempts to impose illogical rules on its surroundings - feels extremely apt in 2016, where technology can be said to have distanced us from nature. The film can also be read as an attack on religious fanaticism, which tries to make sense of the world in tyrannical ways and punish what it does not understand: it’s no coincidence that the prime suspect in the film is the daughter of the family, who is just becoming a woman. Her nascent sexuality is viewed as a threat in itself, which must be brought into line. Family itself seems to be coming in for a bit of a bashing in The Witch, where parents, partners, children, siblings, all seem to exist at odds with each other, to suspect one another, and finally come into brutal conflict. The Witch’s most bitter touch is that the family has no means to protect itself from the forces that are harming it, not least because those forces might very well be coming from within.

What is interesting about these three films is that in each one, the house itself is already a very uncertain sanctuary to begin with. In previous home invasion films (Home Alone, say, or Skyfall) the house has at least represented a form of security, a clear signifier of familial identity. But in these films, the home is in itself shoddy, or unwelcoming: in Disorder, the house acts as a kind of palatial prison, in which Diane Kruger’s character is trapped. The decor is opulent, but she feels and looks like a stranger there. In The Club, the house is not a home for any of its residents, but a grim exile, a sort of prison again, with firm rules to be adhered to at all times. In The Witch, the family are exiles twice over, since they have recently arrived in America and then been rejected by their community, only to set up in this new, barren environment. The mother talks at one point with longing of missing their home in England. The fact that none of these houses, even from the start, represents a form of comfort or has any emotional resonance, would seem to indicate that we now feel deracinated, at odds with our surroundings.

We also see in these films a discussion of culpability: although it can be argued that Disorder shirks its target somewhat, we see in these movies a representation of evil in our midst, and find that it can exist precisely within our communities, within ourselves. A problem with Spotlight was that its crusading perspective allows the audience to indulge in an us v them train of thought, to align with the heroes against the priests. In The Club, we are immediately aligned with the criminal priests, because the film’s format makes us view events from their midst, from inside their actual home. Likewise in The Witch, it takes us a while to comprehend that the evil might reside in the fractious relations between the family members, in their misunderstandings and betrayals. The homes that we are in are under siege, and we are both victim and perpetrator.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Old Queer Cinema

Yesterday the BFI published its list of the 30 Best LGBT Films. You can see the top 30 here and read invidivual top 10s by contributors to the poll here: the latter is inevitably more interesting as consensus polls like this always end up pushing out more eclectic choices.

At first when I saw the poll I was excited, and wanted to discuss the results with friends, and then over the course of the day I found myself growing sort of peeved with it, and then returning to my feeling that it was a great idea, and then getting churlishly pissed off all over again. My criticisms are as follows.

Polls like these amputate critical discourse and, in my view, increasingly fail to be the starting point for discussion and debate that they should be. What does it mean to us that Todd Haynes' CAROL is now deemed by a panel of film professionals to be the greatest LGBT film of all time? Can you compare PRIDE (which just missed out on one of the top 30 spots) and TROPICAL MALADY? What is the definition of an LGBT film (I'll come to this)? Lists like these can encourage an anything-goes spirit that I think doesn't pay sufficient critical attention to films. You can scarcely argue that PRIDE isn't LGBT, but is it queer? Is it even good? No, and no. PRIDE is a populist, cheerfully ugly entertainment that addresses gay issues in its literal text, but I believe I'm right in remembering that PRIDE never explicitly mentions AIDS (the character who contracts it in the film refers to it in hilariously Cowardian terms as "a long journey") and flunks its scene where another character is hospitalised by homophobes, by showing only the before and the after of his presumably very violent gay-bashing. This is a gutless, bowdlerised version of queer history: in my book, it's a sort of queer minstrel show released safely after the advent of equal marriage and greater access to antiretroviral medication, to reassure its weeping, chuckling audience that everything is OK now. Films like these need to be criticised. I could make criticisms of other films on the list - BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN not least - but the point is, merely, that the occlusion of critical discourse in the light of these lists is sometimes harmful to their subject.

Another problem that I have been thinking about, over and over, since the publication of the poll yesterday, is the votes of straight-identifying people that have contributed to this final hierarchy. It feels churlish to argue that heterosexual-identifying critics ought not to be allowed to assess what the greatest LGBT films of all time are - and I'm not certain that that is my view - but I do have a lingering discomfort that establishing a queer pantheon must come with the approbation of the straight establishment. This ties in with the point about what it means for a film to be "LGBT": by merely needing to be LGBT-themed, these films do a disservice to the idea of queer films themselves, to a uniquely 'other' sensibility. Of course straight critics are up to the task of electing the best LGBT films, since the definition is merely thematic. But is 'LGBT' merely a theme like any other, now? The 20 best sword films. The 50 best alien films. The 30 best LGBT films.

One critic has picked MAGIC MIKE XXL in their top ten. MAGIC MIKE XXL is a fun film, and it features near-naked men. I liked it. But it isn't LGBT, and it certainly isn't queer. What MAGIC MIKE XXL is, is a distillation of the ethos behind the BFI's new poll: the protagonists of MAGIC MIKE XXL are all, to a man, straight - but they're OK with gay people, and kind to women. This new masculinity - non-violent, kind, politically aware and responsible - is reflected in the film in an early scene in which the male strippers take part in a voguing contest with drag queens. The scene is charming, and it shows how far mainstream acceptance of alternative sexualities has come, but its unquestioning, bro-y flavour left a sour taste for me. For drag queens - such as the ones you see in Jennie Livingston's PARIS IS BURNING, which also made the list - this is their life; something held dearly, terribly important, and to do with their actual identity. Livingston says about some of the drag queens she filmed:

They want to become women because black men are devalued in this society. It’s very difficult for a poor urban black man to get an education. In a society that values money, the poor urban black man doesn’t really have a saleable commodity in himself; a woman, however, always has her body.

What this underlines is that drag culture is a deep-rooted thing in gay communities, which was born out of oppression. When Channing Tatum et al dip a toe in, they have the choice to drag up for a night and then escape; this act of fraternity costs them nothing.

What does drag mean to a gay man who's been doing it all his adult life, and to a straight man who's comfortable with gay issues? The same different things that queer film means to a gay cinephile and a straight one. While I don't want to deny any of the voters in the BFI poll any validity in voting for these films, I do think it's important to stress that these films have a different tenor according to your own personal politics. Gayness isn't just a theme - if it's part of who you are, what you grew up as, and you hardly ever saw yourself or your desires represented on screen, your critical outlook is bound to be different to that of someone appraising a film on purely technical merit. Look at this list by a critic whom I believe is heterosexual:

Calamity Jane (1953)
Beau Travail (1999)
In a Year of 13 Moons (1978)
Flaming Creatures (1963)
Carol (2015)
Je, tu, il, elle (1974)
Tropical Malady (2004)
Michael (1924)
I Don’t Want to be a Man (1918)
Funeral Parade of Roses (1969)

You can hardly fault this list - it's perfect. It ticks every box, ranging from early experimental film (I DON'T WANT TO BE A MAN) to gorgeous, cult classics such as BEAU TRAVAIL and TROPICAL MALADY. There's camp, pure art, entertainment, and it pays great homage to the history of homosexual experience on screen. But I would venture to say that sheer hunger is missing from this list, and folly too, a little grain of madness that might stem from personal investment.

When I was a not-out seventeen-year-old I went to see Patrice Chereau's CEUX QUI M'AIMENT PRENDRONT LE TRAIN - a beautiful, now somewhat neglected film infused with melancholy and rage. Death hangs over the whole enterprise, as family and friends of a man who has recently died all travel by train to his funeral. The ghost of AIDS looms over the film; the man's friends are bohemian, predominantly gay. In a scene early on in the film, two characters, one in a couple and the other single, are so consumed with desire that they head off to the train's toilets to fuck. The scene came as a shock to me, in part because it was so in-your-face, but also because it was a turn-on, of a kind that I had basically never had the opportunity to experience at the cinema. The film itself is magnificent by any critical criteria - extremely intelligent, unflinching, with astonishingly raw and honest performances; but what I'm trying to say is that "LGBT", as a category, doesn't really start to explain a compulsion, a personal understanding, that perhaps is not itself critical but sometimes necessary. (Side note: when Patrice Chereau died a few years back, very few obituaries mentioned his sexuality at all.)

Indeed, a certain fuck-you quality is missing from the poll. John Waters gets short shrift, whereas Todd Haynes' tasteful CAROL hits the top spot. While I love CAROL (almost) as much as the next person, I've been fairly startled to see the adulation reserved for this most classical and contained of Haynes' films. CAROL is certainly a beautiful film, and possibly represents the peak of Haynes' achievement in the form, but I'm surprised and possibly dismayed that the fury that animated his early work, the formal invention and playfulness that he displayed in previous films, seem to have fallen by the critical wayside. As I suggested with PRIDE, above, we seem to have moved on to an era in which anger has less resonance, is less interesting to us. The anger that characterised the work of the New Queer Cinema, of which Haynes was a proponent along with filmmakers like Tom Kalin and Gregg Araki, seems to have dispelled. Nevertheless we should still pay tribute when acknowledging the work of queer pioneers.

A final reservation is about the premise of the list itself. The very basis of the list, that we can elect an LGBT canon, seems to me to misrepresent history and give us a skewed vision of past achievement on film. To put it another way: if you had to pick a top 200 LGBT films of all time, you wouldn't be able to leave very many films out. You'd find FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL scrabbling around at #197, simply because there aren't many queer films at all. This is because - as everyone knows, but bears repeating - the reason queer people weren't making films isn't because they didn't want to, but because of deeply oppressive cultures. To look at this list, hilariously, you might be forgiven for thinking that, really, queers just weren't trying hard enough throughout the 20th century. We need historical context for all these films.

One excellent aspect of the latest Coen brothers film, HAIL, CAESAR!, is that it shows us in pointed, satirical terms how old Hollywood marginalised minorities: Jews, communists, and gay people. A big reveal towards the end of the film is a deft acknowledgment of the fact that many LGBT people in film were leading a double life, could not work as they wanted. In many cultures this is still the case: we still don't get a great deal of queer cinema from the middle east. The BFI poll, for all of its commendable intention to establish a canon, is sometimes at risk of undermining other contributions to the world of cinema that aren't so overtly LGBT in their text. For instance: what do A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (1951), I CONFESS (1953), REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955) and PSYCHO (1960) have in common? All of them have a totally inhabited central performance by a young queer lead actor: Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, James Dean, Anthony Perkins. Brando's fury as Stanley Kowalski, his sense of imprisonment in his home and his social class, seem to me deeply queer characteristics that are immediately relatable to many LGBT people: likewise the other three actors named here. Their contribution to cinema was going to change the landscape of cinema, as their angst, their method, gave way to the New Hollywood of the 1960s - but I believe it's deeply rooted in their sexuality. There is no way to represent this type of contribution in list form. And it isn't just them, of course, but designers of costumes, choreographers, writers; it's also in all of the straight material that gay people have joyously reframed as their own, by classifying it as camp or shlock.

The BFI's top 30 LGBT films does not claim to represent all of queer film history, and it's wrong to castigate it on this basis. The personal selections of many of the critics are illuminating and exciting. But I believe it also pays to discuss the nature of our sexualities, the nature of filmmaking itself, and that queer art is at its best when questioning, subverting or lampooning accepted critical hierarchies.


Monday, February 15, 2016

"Parmigiano Please, Pen"

A Bigger Splash, Luca Guadagnino's new entertainment set on the island of Pantelleria off the coast of Sicily, would be only a somewhat stale and unconvincing product were it not for its treatment of the European refugee crisis, which makes the film lurch from the merely vulgar into the grotesque.

The movie tells the story of Marianne Lane, a famous rock star, and Paul, her photographer boyfriend, whose summer idyll is interrupted by the arrival of her ex, Harry, a record producer, and his newly discovered teenage daughter, Penelope. It's important to note the immediate falseness of the premise and the smirking tone the film adopts. Harry, we are told in an agonisingly unironic scene early on, produced music for the Rolling Stones. In this scene, the Stones are allowed to stand for 'coolness', the rock lifestyle, and for authenticity (it's important that they're played on a vinyl record). Harry is here to visit Marianne, hoping, apparently, that though she is now in a couple with her toyboy she has stayed emotionally Faithfull to him. Marianne has lost her voice recently, and is resting it under doctor's orders. We are shown a flashback of her in a performance at a stadium concert. This rings hollow: is Marianne supposed to be modelled on anyone? What solo artist sells out a whole stadium anymore? Elton John, maybe. Beyonce. But the artist that Marianne is painted to be simply does not exist: singers like her would perform at Union Chapel these days, or the Hammersmith Apollo at a push. This matters, because it pinpoints how out of touch the film is, and because the movie fetishises money. In the actual world, Marianne would be very well off, certainly - on a par with, say, Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth. In the film, she has to be fabulously famous and wealthy, for reasons that are not apparent at first. 

Marianne isn't the only character who does not and could not exist: Ralph Fiennes's monster of a record producer, who represents a parody of rock star hedonism, is also pushed to the very brink of verisimilitude - in order to heighten the tension in the film but also because the movie deals in such grand gestures, paints everything in such broad strokes. Harry is a fuck-everything bon vivant, a show-off, a charming bully: only in his very last scenes is any shade allowed to creep into this caricature. With him he brings a daughter played by Dakota Johnson, who arrives fresh from 50 Shades of Grey, which was perhaps not coincidentally the last film before this one to fetishise sex and money with such grim abandon. Christian Grey is a billionaire, and Marianne and Harry are only millionaires, but both films commodify sex and the moneyed lifestyle in very similar ways (which I'll come to in a while) - and Johnson plays again the virginal ingenue discovering the fascinating sexual lifestyle of the rich and famous. Rounding out the cast, Marianne's boyfriend Paul is roughly the only character who could possibly exist: an unemployed photographer who hangs out at his rich girlfriend's house, he seems like a reasonably convincing person until the film's absurd narrative tilt in its last act. 

The issue of realism is crucial. The film and its characters worship at the altar of a wholly confected 'authenticity'. The glamour of A Bigger Splash, and its whole tone, is to be found in the coexistence of vast wealth and 'the real'. Marianne and Paul drive a battered little jeep. They buy local (a scene where Fiennes and Swinton observe a Sicilian mamma making real ricotta is one of the film's most hilariously tacky) and eat at small restaurants known only to an exclusive cohort. Paul wears a sexily moth-eaten t-shirt at all times. At a local music festival, Harry and Marianne dive into a small bar to sing karaoke, where they are soon joined by wide-eyed villagers, amazed and delighted that the rich people from the secluded villa in the hills have deigned to grace their humble winery. An early scene in which Marianne and Paul cake themselves in mud at the seaside exemplifies all the ways in which these characters seek out 'real' (meaning poor, or dirty, or old) experiences. The film itself mirrors this quest for the authentic by depicting its characters in all their honeyed beauty against crumbling Sicilian backdrops, tying it in nicely with the recent fad in cinema for ruin porn. Despite all of this, it's worth noting that the characters have next to no interest in local culture or history. An early scene in which Paul upbraids Harry for urinating on an old grave serves only to paint Harry's character: "All of Europe's a grave!" he exclaims. If the film were to explore that contention, perhaps satirising the death of Europe's culture and influence, that would be no bad thing - but the movie is uncritical at best, in deep thrall to its gorgeous subjects at worst.

At the same time that the film exalts the idea of the natural/real/authentic, it is at pains to codify the wealth of its protagonists and general glamour of their lifestyles. A good handful of the movie's shots show us events reflected in one of the main character's designer sunglasses. Tilda Swinton's dresses are extraordinarily chic haute-couture numbers, worn on an excursion to the local shop to pick up a £100 block of Parmesan for Harry to grate over his food on the terrazza of the stupendously expensive villa they're staying in. The house is so huge, it has a converted barn. Everyone spends the day doodling about on Apple computers or toying with expensive cameras. Harry drives a sports car and fills the fridge with champagne. This carefully coded luxury, erring just on the tasteful side of opulence (for all that the characters own and buy things, we never see anything so coarse as money changing hands), adds to the film's general air of kitsch.

The film's highly artificial characters, then, living in their confected, disconnected world of torpid affluence, enact a terribly false scenario of sexual jealousy, ending with the two men fighting over the two women, which results in Harry's death. At this point, the film takes a turn for the deeply sinister, during a scene in which Marianne is interrogated at the local constabulary. Hearing a police officer say that seven refugees had recently been found dead off the coast of Lampedusa, and fearing that her boyfriend will be found guilty of Harry's murder, she seizes on this opportunity to note that a path goes right by her house which would have enabled anyone (meaning: refugees) to be in the area, and kill Harry. What is grim is not that Marianne would be a disgusting opportunist and racist, and it is not inconceivable that a person would seize on such an occasion to get a loved one off the hook: no, what is revolting is the film's callous way of introducing this topic as a juicy twist in its completely superficial, made-up narrative. Marianne doesn't exist; Harry doesn't exist; people really do die on the trip from Syria to Europe to escape war and destitution. In October 2013 - possibly around the time of the film's writing, given that it was shot in spring and summer 2014 - there were two big catastrophes at Lampedusa: one in which 360 people drowned, and a second that killed 34.

What does it mean to use an ongoing humanitarian crisis as a crutch in a storyline such as this? Is there a right way and a wrong way to address the topic? A Bigger Splash does not work hard enough at earning the right to talk about the deaths of refugees. Whatever the Bechdel test for people of non-white races might be, A Bigger Splash does not pass it. In one scene before the constabulary moment, Paul and Penelope are walking through the hills and find four men of colour in their path. A bizarre stand-off occurs, during which the white people and the people of colour stare each other down, before the latter beat a retreat. What the scene is supposed to mean is never quite clear because Guadagnino never emits anything like an authorial judgment on his characters. It seems that Paul and Penelope were frightened. Why? What could have happened? All that the scene does is recall passages from books written 100 and 200 years ago: A Room With A View and Emma. In the former, George Emerson, on holiday with the young and inexperienced Lucy Honeychurch, looks after her when she faints after seeing two men fight to the death in a piazza in Florence; in the latter, Frank Churchill protects Harriet when she is frightened by gypsies while taking a walk along a country lane. Here, as in these texts, the people met along a path are othered, because they are unnamed, silent, and they disappear out of our sight, no longer to reappear. They exist merely as an obstacle, and Guadagnino neither satirises nor condemns his white protagonists following this meeting.

The scene in the constabulary when Marianne seizes the chance to cast aspersions on the local migrant population, then, exists in the context of this previous scene - but the two moments do not add up to a serious discussion of a very difficult and important topic, and Marianne is not characterised in such a way that we can accept this facet of her personality. She might very well be a brutal racist; it's entirely possible. But the film never takes a position on her as a character, never depicts her in a way that would allow us to engage with her racism; the film never quits in its love of her, rendering this moment extremely queasy. And it's completely possible, too, to make a film about white people, about the western world, that allows for a politicised discussion of minorities. Films such as Hidden or, more recently, Eastern Boys, have shown how to integrate these stories by subverting the starting point of the film whereby the white characters are the protagonists, and show the obverse of their existence. A Bigger Splash does not do that: it occludes and others refugees, and then throws them like an afterthought into a film that is in mortifying thrall to the lustre of the one percent. 


Wednesday, January 6, 2016

In Defence of The Danish Girl, A Medium Film

On Twitter and in private conversations I have stated that while The Danish Girl is a completely medium film, I nevertheless recommend seeing it, or rather don't recommend avoiding it, because I think it does some interesting things. People whom I have said this to have then gone on to see the film and found it dull. It is! Let me explain what I think those interesting things are.

The complaint I have heard most often, about the film and about Eddie Redmayne's performance as Lili, is that it is artificial, giving us no sense of Lili's interiority. The critic Simon Price complained that the film suggests "that trans people are born from the outside in, not from the inside out". This could be a valid criticism (although the film does take pains to tie Lili's trans identity in with something within her from childhood) but The Danish Girl isn't about trans people. It's about one person, Lili Elbe, based on her diaries. Elbe would have had no precedents for her experience; no knowledge of trans culture; was, as the film shows, told that she was insane and perverted for pursuing her own identity. A bathetic aspect of the film is that while Einar Wegener was a successful artist, as Lili she rejected art entirely and was content being a shop girl. So much for interiority! 

What the film has to work with, it shows well: how in order to become herself, Lili modelled her gesture and her public performance of herself, on others. How she appreciated being contemplated. How she needed to appear as herself in society, needed to be herself in public. Redmayne has been criticised for a superficial performance, relying on fluttering hand gestures and Princess Diana eyes, but who is to say what models of behaviour or gender performance the real Lili Elbe would have had? It seems perfectly plausible to me that some of Lili's mannerisms would have been nervous, overly rehearsed; have 'rung false'. As a cis male I do not know about trans people's efforts to 'pass', whether trans women nowadays study cis women for gestures, reactions, body language; but I would hazard a guess that in a society totally divided along gender lines, as Lili's was, she would have found herself observing her environment for ways to enact her interior persona. 

As a queer man, I respond to the sense the film gives of the experience of coming out: the way one can have an awakening event (in Lili's case, being asked to wear a dress by her wife, which occasions an overwhelming desire in her) that triggers a process; the way different excitements and stimulations sustain you through the process; the way you grow in confidence and respond with astonishment to the truth of the character that is emerging from within; the way being yourself in public is necessary. All of this requires external unlocking. It cannot come from within, or not only. Lili never attains the final liberty that this process now traditionally ends with, but I think the film shows the rest very well. 

One of the things film does best as a medium is explore mimesis, and the act of looking. While The Danish Girl's visual composition is academic, not to say banal, it does still afford Lili her own gaze. In one of the film's best scenes, Lili visits a sex shop in Paris, at a point when her marriage is going through a difficult period. There, she pays a woman to put on a show for her - but gently and tenderly, the film shows how she is here merely to study this other woman, to learn from her sexuality, to adopt her movements as her own. Elsewhere, we experience the world as Lili may have seen it: the film is flat and placid, but it does pick out fabrics and colours, from dresses backstage at a ballet school to the scarves and frocks that Lili picks out for herself, touchingly similar to her wife's. By doing this the film almost arrives at the tactile experience it should fully be in order to serve Lili's view of the world. 

A final word on the film's best aspect. In a movie that is often so trite, with hackneyed writing and a stiff gaze, something happens that is fully queer. This is down to Eddie Redmayne's complicity in being objectified, in the - watch out, I'm going to say it - brave way he luxuriates in his beauty. At a time when The Revenant is coming out on the tail of a PR campaign that centres on Leonardo DiCaprio's virility, it is thrilling and completely new in cinema that a man has surrendered his masculinity entirely, and accepted to be observed, adored, regarded in a feminine way, absent of aggression. Marlon Brando was complicit in his own objectification in A Streetcar Named Desire, but the film posits him as a macho figure, an aggressor: Redmayne on the contrary is giving over to our gaze, letting us shape him in a sense - and something erotic emanates from this, despite the staid trappings of the movie surrounding him. So while some may find his performance simpering, I think we should also consider that he has worked to overturn our conception of him as a man, works on our expectations of male performance. 

So, yes, The Danish Girl is drab. Its final scenes are ridiculous. But I do not unrecommend it. 

Monday, January 4, 2016

Safe Sex with the Tory Party

You'd already seen him a few times, at various house parties: he's a friend of Sarah, and Ivor, and the two Petes. He's sort of handsome, tall but doesn't seem it, is shy, has a smile that makes him seem immediately less attractive. You spoke to him once at, was it, that weird Thanksgiving party where no-one was American? Maybe. You made a joke about your host's tray of tit-shaped ice cubes, and he laughed.

Today you found yourselves out at a club together - you with colleagues, when post-work drinks became raucous and your boss shanghaied you into joining a hunt for further booze after closing time; he with a bunch of dead-looking people, on a stag do that he blushed to mention when you approached him at the bar.

"The music here is terrible," you said.

"Yes, it's awful, I want to die," he said.

"And have you seen those two white people with dreadlocks on the dance floor? Headbanging?"

"Oh god, don't," he said. "One of them was dancing near me just now and I think one of its hair bits touched my arm."

You talked together in a corner of the club for a bit. He touched you for emphasis once, and then again soon afterwards, this time not for emphasis. You and he had somehow moved closer, and he was leaning over you now. A song by Taylor Swift came on over the sound system.

"Fuck this shit, would you like to go somewhere else instead?" you said.

He smiled. "My place is nearby, if you'd like a nightcap."

You kissed outside the club, to make certain there was no misunderstanding, and because you felt like it. You kissed him again outside his house, as he was fumbling for his keys in his ironic tote bag. You both laughed. You were on a good footing: your shared knowledge of what would soon be happening gave you a skittishness of gesture; your intimacy was laced with laughter, with darting glances at one another.

In his bedroom, a few minutes later, he says:

"Hi, I'm Michael by the way," and extends his right arm for a comically formal handshake. "It's just you haven't said my name all evening, and I thought you might be uncertain."

"Hi, Michael," you say. You don't say your own name back. You both laugh.

In bed later, you're kissing. The kissing is good, so you carry on with that for slightly longer perhaps than you usually do before moving on to other stuff. Then you move on to other stuff; this develops. He's slightly rougher of gesture now - pleasingly so - and his breathing has become heavier. He lifts your face up to him, kisses your neck, a little slurpingly, not entirely enjoyably but not horribly either. He's holding you to him, and is now stroking your backside with one hand. He is thrusting his groin against you, meaningfully. You grind back against his thrust to signify permission, approval.

"You want to...?" he asks.

"Sure!" you say.

You kiss again, hungrily.

"Safe, right?" he says.

"Yeah."

"OK, hang on one second."

He leaves you kneeling there, a little self-consciously. He stretches his whole body across the mattress, reaching into a little table on the other side of the bed. You take in his body as he rattles his hand around inside a drawer in the table.

"OK, here we are", he says finally, turning towards you while putting on a cardboard mask of George Osborne.

You stare at him, sitting there on his haunches - his chest a little hairy and not totally muscular; his erection straining towards you; his face an exact replica of the face of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Weirdly, his hair aligns perfectly with George Osborne's hipster haircut, whose choppy fringe sits on the uppermost edge of the mask.

There is an aperture in the mask at mouth level, through which he has poked his lips, forcing them into a kind of duck's bill shape, a wet and roseate flapping thing which now says to you:

"Suck my dick?"

"I'm sorry?" you say, looking in undisguised horror now at that face which so closely resembles a freshly droned primary school. Everything in the unsmiling visage is gray. George Osborne's face regards you coldly, as if you were a thief caught in flagrante delicto making yourself a sandwich at the fridge while burgling his house.

George Osborne's face says again: "Go on, suck my dick a bit. Get me back in the mood. I got a bit distracted."

Your lover's voice is warm and gentle, unlike the voice of George Osborne, the chief strategist of the Conservative Party. But looking through the eye holes in the mask, you can only see the pupils of your lover's own eyes, not his green and twinkling irises. Here the blacks of his eyes are small, blending seamlessly into George Osborne's eyes, which are like two freeze-dried raisins lying at the bottom of a ravine.

"Sorry," you say, "it's just that you..."

"...look like George Osborne?" His penis is wilting a little now. He scratches under an armpit.

"Yeah. Sorry, it's putting me off."

"Yeah, but you know they're issuing everyone with these masks, right?" He shuffles on his knees towards you, and pensively strokes you between your legs.

"Yeah," you say, as a cold shudder courses all the way from your anus to your nape. "I read about it on BuzzFeed or something, that you could send off for a Gideon sex mask, and the Department for Health would mail you one?"

"Yeah." He pecks hopefully at your ear lobe with his puckered mouth shape. From the corner of your eye you can see George Osborne, with his painted eyebrow raised in apparent fury against you, breathing hotly near your neck.

"It's just... it's just I've never fucked anyone who looks exactly like George Osborne before."

"No-one has," he says, removing the mask at last. He sighs. "I suppose that's the point."

You snuggle up to him now, in relief, laying your head in his lap. He has put the mask down on the bed, whence it lifelessly considers you. You flip it over, so that the elastic-and-plain-cardboard face is now turned to you instead.

"I... sorry, I'm just not feeling it," you say.

"That's fine," he says. "Shall we say numbers to each other until we fall asleep?"

"OK," you say, as you lie down with him, nestling your head on his shoulder. "Nineteen."

"Forty-seven thousand," he says.

"Two billion."

"Minus one point two."

"Sixty-seven percent"

"Ninety-two thousand five hundred and nine"

You yawn. Your eyes are closing. "A trillion," you say.

He yawns too, and kisses your forehead. "Twelve hundred," he says, and turns off his bedside light.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Films of the Year - 2015

Where I would usually just post a list of my ten favourite films of the year on Facebook and hope to attract upwards of eleven likes and three comments calling me pretentious, this year I've felt compelled to say a few words about my top two films of the year - Cemetery of Splendour by Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Mia Madre by Nanni Moretti. At first when I came up with my ranking I thought very little connected the two films, and then, the more I thought about them, the more I found points of similarity between the two that point to a radical shared agenda.

The first aspect on which the films share common ground is their exploration of trances and dreams. They set about this in different ways, so that the similarity can be easy to miss: Moretti's cinematic language is ostensibly forthright and realistic, whereas Weerasethakul's very aesthetic has to do with trances and slumber. Mia Madre, about the professional and personal struggles of a woman trying to make a film while her mother lies on the brink of death in hospital, deals with fairly practical considerations: what meals Margherita should bring her mother, how to get her main actor (John Turturro) to read his lines correctly. But Margherita is also prey to terrible dreams and visions that reflect her panic, her sense of not being up to the task. (All of Moretti's cinema is about incapacity, from his inability to make a documentary in Aprile to the pope's sense that he isn't the right man for the job in Habemus Papam.) Dreams about the death of her mother, half-remembered recollections of past events: these are the things that inhabit Moretti's central character. Moretti's set-up is deceptively simple, but his meshing of dream and reality in Mia Madre, so that the lines are blurred between the real and the unreal, is brilliantly accomplished and points to his antsy vision of a life without respite.

Weerasethakul also finds life and the dreamlike sharing a very hazy boundary. In his story, a nurse cares for a comatose soldier in a school-turned-hospital built on the grounds of an old graveyard for kings. Again we find a set-up of one person caring for another who is somewhere between life and death. Jenjira, the nurse, finds herself half in love with Itt, the soldier who is her charge. With the help of Keng, a clairvoyant who shoulders Itt's spirit to take Jenjira on a journey through the ghost of a now-ruined palace, Jenjira comes to feel she knows the soldier more intimately. Weerasethakul's rhythms, his work on sound, his colours, and the narrative line he sketches where real and imagined worlds are intimately connected, induces a sense of hypnosis in the audience, and opens up wonderful realms of possibilities for his characters who feel like something is missing in their lives. It is also a very sly way for the director to question the politics of his country: suggesting spiritual or imagined dimensions to a world that is controlled by a a military regime is a way of reclaiming a country enslaved by despotic rules. Weerasethakul's film is pointedly political, as the ghosts of the kings buried under the hospital come to nourish the souls of the languishing soldiers in hospital: we see that the film's narrative is deeply connected to the history of his country; the characters are bound to past events.

Moretti joins Weerasethakul in this political dimension, speaking of his country, like the Thai director, at a narrative remove. Not for nothing is the film within the film, that Margherita is struggling to make, about workers going on strike. Moretti's films have always had a political vein running through them (as have Weerasethakul's), touched on directly, as in The Caiman, or at a tangent, as in Caro diario. In Caro diario, his most delicious touch is to skewer the growing impact of television on his country, culminating in a farcical scene in which a character catches up on old episodes of The Bold and the Beautiful at the top of Stromboli. This is nothing less than a sly but murderous dig at Berlusconi, whose hold over Italy came about because of his control of television, which numbed the country with soaps and inane game shows while he set about grabbing the political reins. In Mia Madre, Margherita finds herself incapable of making a film about industrial action: she senses that she has lost the language to talk about it, that her images appear fake, overdone. Moretti shows that his country is losing the ability to talk about politics, to connect with real issues of labour and class struggle. His most thrilling gambit in Mia Madre, a heist that he got away with right under the noses of all the world's critics and filmmakers at Cannes, is to have Margherita's heartfelt, politically engaged film nearly torpedoed by the involvement of a useless American actor, the idiotic Barry Huggins. At Cannes this year were two other Italian films, Youth and Tale of Tales, whose casts were crammed full of American actors, in an effort to crack the international market, which were scuppered in the process. Italy, Moretti says - perhaps a little donnishly - has lost the ability to talk about itself, has forgotten what it represents. Another pointed moment: Margherita's mother, a Latin teacher, is trying to help Margherita's daughter with her homework. Later, Margherita observes (I paraphrase), "I know Latin is useful, but I can't remember why." The country is forgetting about its past: where for Weerasethakul the past is all around, in ghosts and in visions, and in the visible war wounds of his characters, for Moretti the ties with the past are disappearing, becoming dust.

A final point of commonality between the two films, one which is so moving and surprising, is in their blurring of gender and identity. Both directors employ a female alter ego: Weerasethakul's talisman, Jenjira Pongpas, takes the main role in Cemetery of Splendour, and contributed to many of the ideas and stories behind the film, while Moretti teams up with Margherita Buy for a third time in as many films, asking her to play a refracted version of himself. Of the two, Margherita is clearly the more direct stand-in for a director in their film: she plays a relentlessly self-questioning film director given to fits of rage and bouts of depression, who is torn between work and family. These are the hallmarks of Moretti (the man as well as the character) and there are a handful of scenes in which Buy gives an eerily accurate impression of Moretti - his intensity, his questioning body language. It's wonderful to see Margherita raging in Moretti's film, in a way we do not see women rage; to see her working at her job, in a way we are not seeing women accustomed to working on screen. Moretti, through this device, shows that his fears are universal, that he too when confronted with death feels all this tumult and chaos, is a vulnerable creature loaded with doubt. In a further dimension, Moretti himself plays Margherita's brother, Giovanni, a character who appears to be in charge of his life and who sidelines his sister; but Moretti shows him losing his job in a short, devastating scene that reminds you that none of Moretti's characters is ever completely in control. This multiplying of his selves gives a new dimension to Moretti's work, which has always played with fact and fiction: this experimentalism at a late stage of his career is somehow used to terribly touching effect.

Weerasethakul uses Jenjira - the actor's name is the character's, as in Mia Madre - to speak about himself, and about his country. She represents the voice of the film, a spiritual conscience, a conflicted soul, a damaged body. In Cemetery of Splendour she and Weerasethakul seem increasingly fused: she is the originator of stories, one who travels into new dimensions. Her mildness, and something gently sorrowful about her, something questing too, align her with the director. It's touching to see a kindred spirit filmed so lovingly. In Weerasethakul's film, Itt, the soldier, is reborn into the body of the female clairvoyant, Keng - and through her, in one of the film's most beautiful scenes, he licks the wound on Jenjira's battered leg, offering back to her some of the care and attention that she has expended on him in his sleep. Weerasethakul finds identity beyond gender - this fits with his past work on identity, from Tropical Malady onwards, and it is another beautiful act of liberation, of political resistance on his part to say to the tyrants who have stolen his country, that people are not their bodies, and therefore cannot be controlled, cannot be owned.


Final top ten for 2015:

1. Cemetery of Splendour, dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul
2. Mia Madre, dir. Nanni Moretti
3. Carol, dir. Todd Haynes
4. Taxi Tehran, dir. Jafar Panahi
5. Tangerine, dir. Sean Baker
6. The Lobster, dir. Yorgos Lanthimos
7. Marguerite et Julien, dir. Valerie Donzelli
8. Trois souvenirs de ma jeunesse, dir. Arnaud Desplechin
9. Magic Mike XXL, dir. Gregory Jacobs
10. Force Majeure, dir. Ruben Ostlund

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Honeys of the Year 2015

1. Pearl Liaison from RuPaul's Drag Race, for being sickening




2. Oscar Isaac, for having the highest handsomeness to talent ratio in 2015




3. Carlos Acosta, for retiring at his most bae




4. Big Sean, because, bless him, you don't need to be the best rapper when you're the hottest rapper




5.  Jérémie Elkaïm, for being hot when he shouldn't be in Marguerite et Julien




6. Alexander Skarsgard, for being hot when he shouldn't be in Diary of a Teenage Girl




7. Sufjan Stevens, for being the hottest and only person to make the best album this year




8. Deray McKesson, for being the hot face of Black Lives Matter activism




9. Dustin Brown, for services to tennis sexiness 




10. Tamal Ray from the Great British Bake Off, for being lovely and pretty while making cakes