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.

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.