Tuesday, September 27, 2016

I've Suddenly Thought of a Way To Nail My Next Work Assessment

Boss: OK Caspar, so, thanks for attending this session to review your performance over the last year.
Me: You’re very welcome!
Boss: So, comparing your results against the professional goals that you set yourself last year, you stated in your objectives that…
Me: No I didn’t!
Boss: What?
Me: I don’t know who told you that, or where you got this, the, this so-called fact document or whatever!
Boss: We went over your objectives in April, it’s on the work intranet.
Me: Ask anyone, ask my mum or the guy who works on reception, great guy, phenomenal guy, his name’s Ignacio, or Chavez, I never said that I would or wouldn’t do something, and I’m a man of my word, ask anyone who’s worked with me, bet you haven’t.
Boss: Caspar. Please let’s look at the document. You stated that you would implement a new system for the whole team at work to share documents and files more easily. Now, in October you just sent an email round to everyone…
Me: Oh OK, here we go, can’t wait to hear how this story ends!
Boss: …saying you couldn’t be bothered, and you wanted to go for a walk.
Me: OK for starters, are you real? I did not do that, in fact quite to the contrariness I did set up the new system, matter of fact I even did it twice, and this was against the better advice of all my friends all telling me not to work, because it would have been better for me not to work, because I’d still get the same salary, but I still did do it and I even did it twice, just ask anyone on the street, seriously, let’s get serious here, you keep saying I’m not serious, let’s be serious.
Boss: Why would you do the same thing twice? You only needed to do it once.
Me: Well this is just everything that’s wrong with this company, I've got to tell you! [I pause to high-five myself]
Boss: Moving on…
Me: Thank you, at last!
Boss: A new objective for you…
Me: Again I don’t recognise the so-called veracity of this but continue, please, be my guest.
Boss: A new objective for you was to answer all your emails.
Me: Nope! Wrong.
Boss: It says here that…
Me: I’ll tell you what I do, and I got told I did amazing at this, best ever, is I sometimes phone someone, or maybe I’ll shout across the office, you’ve heard me do that, I do what I say I say I do, it’s just as good as emails, even it’s better because…
Boss: Our international colleagues can’t hear you shouting across the office, Caspar.
Me: Let me finish, you keep saying I have an attitude problem, I’m sorry Missy, Miss boss, or should I probably say Ms, I don’t know, but only one person has an attitude here and it’s not Caspar Salmon. I don’t email, fine, I’ve said that, I’m on the record as saying that to the bus driver in the morning when I do my commute, and to Natalie in accounts, and many, many other people, people I could name all day. But they all say I did excellent, and the reason is I did a great job.
Boss: But you’ve seriously underperformed over the last year, Caspar. The figures don’t lie, you haven’t brought in as much revenue from the…
Me: I’ll tell you revenue! Another word for revenue, which is just a fancy wording for a word I call money, is I’ve excelled at that from start to finish, beginning to end, 100 percent, constantly. Money up, figures up, less negatives and so on. Compared to the previous guy in the job, who probably got fired, I don’t know…
Boss: James. He died.
Me: Compared to James who died, then, I’ve done incredible.
Boss: This brings me to something that’s quite difficult to bring up, Caspar, and that’s an attitude problem that…
Me: I’m glad you brought up your attitude problem, I didn’t want to be the one to do it, but it’s a fact and I’m glad we can talk about this to be quite frank with you, very glad, because I and many other people, lots of them, several, believe me it’s dozens, are noticing this attitude from you and it’s a real big problem.
Boss: No, you’re the person who…
Me: …who has the guts to come on out and say it, and I’m glad I did, because now who’s the one who’s saying names, calling this and that to others, about results and emails and attitude, it’s not me, but it’s me that says things out in the open, and I think this is bad.
Boss: You’re not listening.
Me [almost at the same time]: YOU’RE NOT LISTENING, I’m an expert OK, I know this stuff, and this is bigger than just did I do what you said I didn’t do, or not, as the case may be, it’s about whether I was the best, and I am, and that’s just a fact.
Boss: I’m now warning you that I will have to notify management of this meeting and conduct a full review of this. It’s just not acceptable, Caspar.
Me: I’m more than happy to do that, in fact I’ll conduct the review myself, that way I’ll know they did a good job of it, being as I’m the only one who does any work around here. 

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

On Almodovar and Munro

Alice Munro would not seem to be a perfect fit for Pedro Almodovar, whose new film Julieta is an adaptation of three short stories by Munro. Unlike the work of Sarah Polley, who adapted Munro’s story ‘The Bear Came Over The Mountain’ for her film Away From Her, Almodovar’s oeuvre shares few thematic or stylistic concerns with Munro’s. But Julieta feels in many ways faithful to the source material while staying true to Almodovar himself, and the key differences that exist between the two artists’ versions are revelatory about their approaches.

An early scene in Julieta, and in ‘Chance’, the first of the Alice Munro short stories from which it is drawn, sees the young protagonist taking a night train, which is forced to come to a halt after a man throws himself in front of it. The young woman, in the following minutes and hours, recovering from the shock of this death, meets the man who will become her partner and the father to her daughter. Thus far the two accounts of the event are broadly similar in film and book, but Almodovar makes key changes to this significant early moment.

Almodovar’s version is more overtly sexual: when Julieta meets Xoan, the attraction between them is instantaneous, and, in a superbly shot scene where the lovers are shown mirrored in a darkened window of the train, they make love in her carriage after he has escorted her back from the restaurant car. Munro’s version is both bolder and more low-key: her Juliet has to excuse herself after meeting Eric because she is on her period, and she rushes to the lavatory to take care of the emergency. But she is unable to flush her menstrual blood away, since the train is stationary while the suicide’s body is being cleared away outside the train, and she fears attracting attention. Munro juxtaposes death, fertility and social angst in one extraordinarily vivid image which is anchored in a socially conscious representation of 1960s Canada. Almodovar excises this altogether, to focus on the sexual rapport between his characters. For him, the scene is about sexual connection, and about the solace and liberation to be found in sex. The scene tells us, also, that Almodovar’s interest is in the plasticity of bodies, and in creating beauty from a moment of ugliness. Finally, his tone is in many ways gentler than that of Munro, whose even, measured prose can disguise a singular brutality.

Almodovar’s shrewdest touch in adapting Munro—and his most elegant act of fidelity—is to transpose her action from 1960s Canada to 1980s Spain, at the height of Movida when he first came to the fore as a director. Munro’s trilogy of interlinked stories (‘Chance’, ‘Soon’, ‘Silence’) stretches from 1965 to the early 2000s, and functions, in one possible reading of it, as an examination of the compromises and betrayals of baby boomer liberalism. Juliet, a young woman in 1965, meets Eric on a train, moves in with him in his house in remote Whale Bay just after his wife dies, and they have a daughter together, Penelope, who will later sever all links with her mother after discovering a new age type of spirituality.

Julieta meets Xoan in 1985 – a time when Spain opened up in the years following Franco’s deposition and a new liberal politics was possible, including for women. Adriana Ugarte, playing Julieta with short dyed hair, resembles nothing so much as Victoria Abril in Almodovar’s early films. This aligns the film’s events with Almodovar’s creative life, in the same way Munro’s trilogy centres on her years of creativity. As Julieta progresses through to the present day, the film works in a similar way to the short stories as an account of liberal Spain, and its difficulties in adapting to modernity. Where Munro delights in savaging Juliet’s narcissism and the idiotic spirituality her daughter seeks refuge in, Almodovar’s perspective appears more bittersweet, concentrating more on Julieta’s sadness and depression. In ‘Silence’, after Penelope has abandoned her mother, she sends her birthday cards on her own (Penelope's) birthday for several years, as a kind of odd, unspoken rebuke; in Julieta, the mother makes a birthday cake every year for her daughter who never comes home to share it with her. Again Munro’s imagery is more vivid, again more cruel; Almodovar looks for the heart in his characters, where she allows them to hurt each other.

Almodovar sadly discards almost all of Munro’s bite: where his film is relatively restrained, her short stories feature some laugh-out-loud jokes, which all feed in to the bitterness of her worldview. The first gag comes on the very first page of ‘Chance’: “Juanita said that she wished her lover’s wife was brain-dead”. In ‘Silence’, Juliet’s anger with the spiritual leader she sees as having taken her daughter away from her prompts her to nickname one guidance counsellor ‘Mother Shipton’: “That was what she had finally decided to call her, having toyed with and become dissatisfied with Pope Joan”. Munro’s most delicious joke is that Eric, who lives and works in Whale Bay, is a prawn fisher; she slips it in very gently, but in the drag world you would call that a read. Almodovar’s film is very beautiful, replacing Munro’s tartness with a kind of melancholy languor, but it loses out to Munro’s work on punchiness. Julieta, after his comedy I’m So Excited, is his second-least funny film.

Almodovar’s tools, his cinematic language, operate on a different level to Munro. Her composure as a narrator is total, presenting her characters and situations with deft, even-handed coolness over several pages, all the better to clobber you with a two-sentence narrative jolt or brutal observation. Almodovar’s natural register is melodrama, and although Julieta sees him dial down many of his tendencies towards those heightened emotions, his style is unmistakeable. Beautiful backwards tracking shots, mesmerising close-ups, a lush and insistent string score that ramps up the tension, and a colour palette of startling reds, puts Julieta in the lineage of other Almodovar films like Talk To Her. This is also what lends Julieta its warmth, its aesthetic generosity, and helps to temper the crushing sadness of its subject matter.

Almodovar’s fascination with beauty is what leads him to diverge from Munro’s stories in another crucial regard, namely their work on bodies. As shown in the menstruation scene, Munro’s emphasis is on the earthiness and almost grotesque quality of bodies. She contrasts the coarse physicality of human bodies with what she sees as the sophistry of faith. In ‘Soon’, Juliet can’t bring herself to tell her dying mother that she will see her in heaven, and there is a sensational moment when a diabetic priest has a panic attack during a sugar-low.  In ‘Chance’, Munro delights in a gruesome account of Eric’s overtly non-religious funeral pyre on a beach. “One of the men cried, ‘Get the children out of here.” This was when the flames had reached the body, bringing the realization, coming rather late, that consumption of fat, of heart and kidneys and liver, might produce explosive or sizzling noises disconcerting to hear.”

If Julieta discards this theme, it’s because Almodovar is obsessed with the sensuality of bodies, with their cosmetic gorgeousness. Munro tells us, rather wearily, that Juliet is beautiful, but Almodovar goes to town on the idea. Julieta is gorgeous, and framed exquisitely in the film as played by Ugarte in later scenes and Emma Suarez as an older woman. Xoan, her mismatched partner, is also shot in all his gentle-yet-macho splendour, a little like Almodovar used to film Antonio Banderas, minus the outright horniness of his early work. Almodovar can’t bring himself to show the failure of bodies: for him, redemption for life’s miseries and deceptions is to be found precisely in physical attraction and connection, in the marvel of human beauty. What his film loses in psychological and social precision compared to Munro’s work (we know next to nothing about the fishing village Julieta and Xoan live in; we find out very little about Julieta’s parents) it gains in the wide-eyed wonder he has for the loveliness of youth and the power of sexuality. Munro’s stories show how Juliet’s intellectual life sustains her, to a point, through her ordeal; Almodovar gives us a brief but salutary glimpse of Julieta’s fulfilling sexual life as an older woman. Julieta gives us an idea of disconnection, but sex and beauty still seem to invigorate Almodovar’s work, leavening its sorrow and loneliness.

Julieta’s feat, ultimately, is that Almodovar himself is so present and alive in this story, which in so many ways is lightyears away from his perspective and experiences. In Julieta, the character, we see a reflection of the hopes, dreams, desires and sorrows of a man who is not afraid to bare his soul. His moulding of these stories into this highly personal film shows that, as in the work of Munro herself, surprises may lie ahead in his later work.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Notes On Embarrassment

Is it possible to die of embarrassment? Wikipedia has a fun page devoted to the topic of death from laughter which, among several notable deaths due to hilarity, lists Chrysippus, the 3rd Century philosopher, as having conked it when he got the giggles upon espying his donkey eating some figs. My own father watched The Big Lebowski in the week after he had been told to take it easy following an operation, and the film caused him to laugh so much that he could no longer tell if he was crying from laughter or from the physical pain in his stomach.

But there doesn't seem to be anything online about actual deaths due to embarrassment - and, to paraphrase Adam Mars-Jones in his memoir Kid Gloves, if something is on the internet it may or may not exist, but if it isn't on the internet it doesn't exist. It surprises me that literal death from embarrassment--or mortification, signifying putting the flesh to death--hasn't been known to happen, because I have personally felt on the brink of popping my clogs for that very reason for at least the last six days. Perhaps all deaths due to embarrassment are too self-delaying for doctors to be able to attribute them precisely to that cause. Maybe I will only die some time next year of the accumulated embarrassment from this week, which will have weighed heavily on my internal organs, caused my cardiovascular rhythm to go just that little bit berserk and tainted my bloodstream with so much anger and confusion. Or maybe I will simply cringe to death, my body bent double until my spine physically cracks in half along its entire length, splitting my body into two neat segments that bisect at my nape and arsehole. "This man has shattered himself in two!" a doctor will exclaim, "How is this possible?" "It's simple, doctor," a grieving friend will reply, "he was listening to Prime Minister's Questions in the week after a majority of Britain's imbecile voting masses decided to fuck themselves in the eye, and heard a minister ask David Cameron a question about primary school children drawing birthday cards for the Queen." "I see," the doctor will say. "And the shame was so great that it caused him to implode on the spot?" "That's right, doctor. He was dead within a minute."

Britain has a long and noble history of embarrassment, which doesn't seem to exist in other cultures to quite the same extent. Patrice Leconte's film Ridicule is the rare French work that hinges on a sense of mortification, or social shame. In it, 18th century courtiers in Versailles take turns attempting to shame each other in public, using sexual and intellectual tactics to tarnish reputations. The sense here of ridicule as a force to diminish other people has a satirical function aimed at the upper classes and aristocracy, for whom all interaction is a game with winners and losers. The film borrows from Les Liaisons Dangereuses in its view of a petty and conniving upper class engaged in killing each other out of boredom. But Ridicule has an essentially tragic, quite grandiose aspect to its take on the subject, which would seem to be absent from the rich British culture of embarrassment.

In Jane Austen's Emma, perhaps the greatest moment of embarrassment in literature occurs when Emma humiliates Miss Bates during an excursion to Box Hill, with a toxic quip. Emma has proposed, in her boredom, that the company play a game whereby everybody must say "either one thing very clever, or two things moderately clever; or three things very dull indeed." Miss Bates, quite wittily and astutely, says that she is likely to win the game since she is able to say dull things without even trying - whereupon Emma (cruelly, hilariously, mortifyingly) replies: "Ah! Ma'am, but there may be a difficulty. Pardon me but you will be limited as to number - only three at once."

Can you feel the shame? Does your body recoil from the sheer social horror of the situation? The genius of Jane Austen is that the embarrassment works both ways here, and it keeps augmenting with time, since Miss Bates is embarrassed by the aggressive and horrifically rude nastiness of the quip, and Emma herself is embarrassed by Miss Bates' embarrassment, and the other guests on the excursion, who are not active members of the exchange, have now had their day ruined because of embarrassment.

Note how embarrassment in this scenario is almost self-generating: all it requires is boredom to ignite it, and ignorance and cruelty to keep it alive, and from there it propagates with reckless abandon, becoming something more than it was in the instant when it was born. But the embarrassment in Emma stands for more than a simple social interaction: it represents Emma's unthinkingness, in not understanding that she is attacking someone vulnerable; in not seeing that Miss Bates is in many regards except her want of fortune, quite like Emma herself. When Mr Knightley later rebukes Emma for her actions, it is with real fury, because Emma has shown a lack of understanding for others, and Emma feels so much regret, feels so "agitated, mortified and grieved" that she cries all the way home. The roots of the embarrassment in this scene grow from political differences - one person is highly educated and has excellent prospects and money, and the other person, who has been mocked, has next to nothing except society's regard and compassion for her. Emma has contravened a simple societal law, and the violence of her behaviour rings out in the setting of Austen's world.

I won't overwork the parallels with my own embarrassment upon seeing Britain lurch into a post-Brexit world--the violence and ignorance of people's actions and discourse over the last few months easily speak for themselves--other than to observe that it's in everyone's language that we have failed to give a proper account of the crisis we are in. The words we use have not been up to the task of explaining first of all the crux of the plebiscite and secondly the outlook once the referendum had taken place. My embarrassment stems in part from observing this linguistic failure: it's there in the Labour party's inability to confront the government over its abdication of political duty, but it also exists online, in our collective inability to measure the extent of our decision. Why has there been almost no discussion of the cultural impact Britain faces in hiding itself away from others, in protecting itself from contact? Why did we not hear a positive argument about the European Union, which might have touched on anything from art to sexual relationships, and how they make our lives sing better and louder?

Embarrassment derives, also, from a misunderstanding of scale. Emma, at Box Hill, fails to understand the dimensions of her gaffe; does not measure, either, the chasm between her and Miss Bates. Britain's woeful misunderstanding of its place in the world, and the language used to lament and decry its loss of prospects or indeed to vaunt its powers by people on both sides of this ridiculous debate, have caused consternation so damaging to my constitution that I will quite likely die of it before November.

Even a country that pretty much invented the notion of embarrassment can have too much of it. I have friends who cannot watch cringe comedy, who duck behind the sofa during the worst, most acutely truthful and painful scenes in Nighty Night. But everyone is now being forced to watch these scenes play out, our eyes taped open like the protagonist's in A Clockwork Orange, except instead of watching scenes of brutality we're witnessing Britain repeatedly falling on its bloated arse while actual existences are in jeopardy. How much more can we take?


Friday, June 24, 2016

How To Apologise To Your Child Today

My child is two - and, given that no monogamous lesbian has ever got pregnant by mistake, his was one of the most planned births ever to have happened. His mothers and I spent days and days, over the course of years, discussing everything from his name to his education, from the sharing of holidays to what will happen to him if one or more of us were to die. We agreed on all of it, and wrote it down in an adorably unofficial agreement that we all signed, less so that our decisions could exist in law, but more so that we would have a record of our promises to each other that we would stand by.

Today, I want to apologise to my son, for this occurrence that we did not predict, that we could not have predicted when we first started imagining his existence six years ago. He's only two, so he has no real understanding of the events, but I think it's important to talk to him, however lightly, about the way we have voted in a future of suspicious disconnection for him, a Europe unlike the one I grew up in. So I have imagined how I will talk to him about this, and my replies to his possible questions, with the hope that other parents will also try and speak to the next generation, and apologise to them, and give them the hope and political education to confront this new world.


Me: Hey, sweetheart, come over here darling, Daddy wants a word. Come and sit on my lap, gorgeous.
E: Daddy daddy daddy! I toys!
Me: Yes sweetheart darling, bring over a toy. Yes, bring your froggy, lovely. Aww, give him a nice cuddle, that's nice. So, today, I'm afraid--
E: You've fucked it, haven't you?
Me: What?
E: Admit it, you fucked up.
Me: Now, baby. Cuddles! Listen--
E: Do not absolve yourself of responsibility in the begetting of today's darkness. You were a blithe quisling prince in your unquestioning liberal complacency. You abetted the forces of imbecility with your self-regarding vituperation, you sleep-walked nightshirtless into this gaping pit. Today I reap the ghastliness of your self-satisfaction and unmooredness. Kein babytalk jetzt, Vati.
Me: Sweetness, I'm sorry, we just didn't see how--
E: You didn't see? YOU DIDN'T SEE? While you were sunning yourself on your two and a half yearly holidays for the last half-decade, slurping pesce spada on a Mediterranean clifftop like the unwitting dolt you cannot even imagine yourself to be, your hurting co-people were queuing for a one-person tin of beans in a makeshift food hall, buggered to fuckery by the top-down cash nightmare inflicted on them by a snotty, braying upper class you did so little to hand-grenade. Why have you fucked my future? Why could you not see beyond your own tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny nose?
Me: The blame should lie with Britain's press though, which colludes with the political establishment to pretend that there are no options for the dispossessed beyond a sort of capitalistic condescension. I just hope that you can grow up to...
E: Will I have the strength, though? Will I have the force required, after 16 more years of totalitarian shit-writings, to rise and counter the forces of rightwing despotism? What will the world even look like? You did not see, because you did not look, and today your reward is my seething.
Me: But--
E: Enough. I will now play with my train and perchance cast this terror from my mind. You may make me an egg for my supper, in silence.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Free Radicals

Now we fight. Now I know radicalisation. Now I am a fundamentalist too, more than ever, ready to take up arms to defend my brothers and sisters who have been, who are always being, attacked. I will be a warrior in the battle for our rights - and let me be clear that the object of our struggle is not acceptance by mainstream straight society, but defeat of mainstream society, which aims its violence and hatred at anything and anyone that stands in the way of straight male domination.

Homophobes are misogynists. They hate the same thing in gays that they hate in women, which is that they cannot own us, we are a rebuke to their sense of their own power, we are not like them.

The attack in Orlando isn't about you, I hear. No, it isn't about me. The people who died aren't me. I am alive. But the people who died are my people, are our people. No-one is claiming this attack, no-one wants to own a massacre. But this is an attack on all of us, and it is not isolated. I've never been killed, not yet, but I have been shouted at and attacked on the streets of London. I have had death threats. I've seen the crazed rage in the eyes of someone who would like me to die, and who would kill me if only no-one were around and he could get away with it. Every queer knows this. Every queer knows that this violence exists, that we sicken people to murderousness. This is why we need people to recognise this, to see what this attack is. It's part of a worldwide patriarchal horror of difference. You think this is isolated, a one-off? My brothers, sisters and non-gendered siblings are thrown off buildings, beaten up, "correction-raped", cast as paedophiles, all around the world, every day. A gay man was murdered recently in the exact centre of London, Trafalgar Square. The message is clear: watch out. Next time it could be you. Don't go thinking you can be free around here.

Love is love. Great. But I am not in love, I don't think anyone is currently in love with me, and I demand not to be attacked. Yes, queer people love. This should not - does not - need saying and has nothing to do with anything. Don't tell our attackers, who wish to kill us for our difference, that we are like everyone else. Teach them to respect our difference.

So now I fight, now we all fight. I've seen my radicalised brethren online, vowing to march on, to be more gay, more queer than ever. I will join them, with my arsenal of weapons: my sass, my wit that undermines and redefines the world, my arse that will not quit, my clothes, my body language, my musicality, my kindness and my total rejection of violence, as my warrior forefathers and foremothers did.

If you do not fight alongside me you are against me, and I will fight you, too. I will dazzle, mystify and appal you with my queerness until you are defeated. I'm proud, so are they, so are we all, and we will win. 

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.