Friday, September 7, 2018

On Jamel Myles and child sexuality

I only realised I was intelligent when I was seventeen. Oh, to be sure, until then I’d picked up a few hints of it along the way - a good mark in a dictation here, an uncle embarrassed to be corrected on having said John Major instead of Neil Kinnock there - but I only received full confirmation of it when I got an undeniably good mark in my French baccalaureate, the sort of mark that could not be written off as a fluke.

I’d always felt I might be ‘clever’ - in the sense of being ‘a bit of a ‘clever-dick’, ‘good with words’, and other deprecatory British phrases meant to avoid buffing a child’s ego. I had shown promise in primary school: top of the class until the age of 7, then somewhere near it until the age of 11 or so. At this point a hilarious crash-and-burn began to take place, as I found that I just could not keep up, particularly in the sciences. In French and English and languages, I fared tolerably, but I began to get bogged down, and struggled with the work rate. This continued dishearteningly for several years.

It only became clear to me recently, perhaps two or three years ago, that what had happened was not that I was bright, then became stupid, and then got bright again - but that I was just young and immature, and finally grew up. In my class I was among the youngest pupils, and crucially when I got to high school and everybody else hit puberty and began to grow, I kept the body of a ten-year-old, roughly until the age of sixteen. My puberty came, astonishingly late, at which point I also repeated a year in school. A clarion-call of trumpets and a rolling of drums, please, for suddenly I was brainy! I felt this keenly, in a variety of ways: perhaps my intelligence had been a little thin beforehand, whereas now I had the sense of my own possibilities; a desire to get to grips with things a little more; more confidence; and an ability to apply my intelligence in a sustained way, should I ever need to attempt that. Experience had made everybody leapfrog me: perhaps an understanding of their bodies, of sexual ambiguity, of the world of adults, had helped them, whereas my brain was still so simple, and given to seeing things in terms of easy rights and wrongs. I couldn’t compute. But now, at seventeen, I stared open-mouthed down the phone as my parents read out my marks to me, which they had had to double check because it felt to everyone involved as if there had - surely - been a terrible mistake.

I mention this revelation not to show off - or at least, not only to show off - but because the pattern presents such embarrassingly flagrant similarities with my sexuality, and the way it had been hanging around in the air for so long, present in so many whispers and questions, only to shazam itself onto me with the force of so much obviousness at a late stage. I have been thinking about this a lot in the wake of the horrible, horrific death by suicide, last week, of the beautiful little boy, Jamel Myles, at the age of 9, following homophobic bullying from his classmates after he decided to come out to them as gay. It has been preying on my mind partly because of reactions I have seen - badly disguised judgement and horror - from people who seem almost more appalled that there could be such a thing as a gay child than by the fact of his tragic, senseless death. But it has been weighing on me, too, because of an internalised sense of my own shame, an idea that I cannot scrub away from myself, a mindset that has been grafted onto me - the idea that there’s something grubby and wrong about gay feelings, about homosexual longing and identity. When people say that a child couldn’t know his sexuality at that age, what is meant is that gayness is merely sex, not identity. There is an inability to perceive the gay child as innocent, because society only understands fucking as the cleaving difference, does not conceive the legion of differences in experience between straight and non-straight, and cannot imagine something so simple and honest as a gay child knowing themselves, and being given licence and the words they need, to articulate that self-knowledge.


When I was nine I had a girlfriend. I think that part of the set-up had to do with some sort of dimly perceived notion of being ‘in love’, parrotted from grown-ups, but in reality we were just a boy and a girl who were friends, which meant - very happily for me, as a naturally faggy child and a small boy afraid of most contact sports - that we simply hung out a lot and chatted. Alice was nice, funny, had a twin sister like I did, and her family allowed her to drink Coke with meals - in other words, a fine, good-time gal. Perhaps there was a part of ‘having a girlfriend’ that was close to the old Hollywood beard system - cover, that is, for my otherwise slightly shameful desire to be friends with girls.

When I was nine, children in my school used to play kiss-chase at playtime. A boy would chase a girl, give her a kiss on the lips, and then it was her turn to chase a boy and administer “un smack” - French for a kiss on the lips without tongues.

When I was nine, my sister invited a friend to our house for a sleepover, and the little girl took a shine to me and wanted to play doctors and patients, and I believe the game may have involved an element of taking off one’s clothes. At any rate, I said that I was fed-up and wanted to stop playing, and the little girl cried, and my parents told her off for spoiling my evening.

When I was five, I used to perform tap dance shows for my parents and grandparents. The invitation “Go on then Caspar, give us a tapdance”, likely issued around three o’clock after a heavy lunch, was all the prompting I needed to jump and wiggle around while click-clacking my heels in a perfectly arbitrary way that I made up as I went along, in my standard non-tap shoes that still produced a satisfactory stomp. Everyone would smile and clap and try not to laugh as I strutted, and I would overhear my grandmother whispering to my mum, “Ooh, isn’t he lovely?”

When I was five or six a lovely older boy of nine or ten in my primary school who used to play with the younger children, an all-around star beloved of everyone, let some of us win a playfight with him. And, as we dragged him to the ground, and I sat astride him in the usual manner of the victor, as I had seen other kids do, I felt… funny, flushed, hot. Whether, at that point in my life, sitting on Simon, whose surname I even remember to this day, I actually popped a child-boner, is unclear. But there was a genuinely new sensation there, something pleasurable and weird that I remember standing out and producing a confusion in me.

When I was eleven and found out that Denholm Elliott had died of AIDS, I commented that if he was gay then he had surely deserved it. The shame of having said that is still so great, the memory of the moment so vivid and painful, that I could barely bring myself to write the words just now. I had learnt enough by then to make such an ignorant and grotesque comment, picked up enough hints from god only knows whom that there was something disordered and revolting in homosexuality, and almost certainly the flagrant overreaction would have had something to do with something I recognised deep down in myself. I remember my mother’s appalled horror when I said it, as she was the person I said it to, in the kitchen - “What a horrible thing to say, that’s horrible” - but it hadn’t come from nowhere.

When I was eleven, maybe only just turned twelve - although, as established above, my age at the time is moot since I was still so vastly prepubescent - a male friend and I vaguely got up to some stuff, all very innocent, when he stayed over at my house. We woke quite early in a double bed, and in a weird sort of slumber-stupor, cuddled each other close and put our hands over each other’s mouths while affecting to kiss, and he even ran his face down my body, not touching it, in an odd mimic of foreplay - it was a strange, undefined thing, part joke, part weird reverie that seemed to come from nowhere, that was never spoken of ever again.

When I was ten, nearly eleven, boys and girls in my class would properly make out, vast French kisses with tongues in the playground - perhaps when playing truth or dare - and then again as boyfriend and girlfriend during slow-dances at parties.


Straight people - homos know this from the questions we receive towards the end of tedious parties - are obsessed with asking gay people when they knew they were gay. “When did you first realise?” is the question we come back to again and again; it’s even, I believe, asked of queer asylum seekers in courts of law, to establish their true gayness. The question is brittle and ignorant because it ignores a whole psychological make-up, hoping instead for a eureka moment of inversion - something that will reassure the questioner of the chasmal differences between us, because they have never had to have a lightbulb moment of realisation. It’s part of a pattern where the world still refuses to understand queers - and this applies especially to our siblings in the trans community now - as innocent of ulterior motives. Even now, I must check my own kneejerk reaction to the story of a gay 9-year-old (because as gay people we sometimes have to struggle to make ourselves think the correct thing, as our minds are still inextricably yoked to hate and suspicion), which involves a combination of condescending pity, a wish that things weren’t as they are. But Jamel Myles, the lovely boy, shows us the human face of what is still so misunderstood and hated. For queer people everywhere the thought of him will dredge up difficult memories, questions about ourselves - and his death shows that we still have a fight on our hands, to make the world see us as pure, and good.

Friday, August 24, 2018

On Aretha

How does the voice of a singer speak to you? What is it in their phrasing, their control of volume, the timbre of their voice, their register, that occasions something in you? I listen to Aretha and I hear a voice that seems to be striving for something, a voice that feels as if it is somehow reaching upwards - and in her phrasing, in her repetitions, the way she runs up to a particular stretch of melody, or tackles it in a different way from one chorus to the next, I get the sense of someone giving all her fervour to her music. These notes, when Aretha hits her stride and unleashes peals of melisma, and joyous near-shrieks that flirt with the top of her register, cause a kind of high inside me, an uplift, an astonishing sense of soaring that I don't feel to the same degree with any other vocalist.

Think about the beautiful run up the notes on "for me - there - is - no - one" in the bridge of I Say A Little Prayer, which she has a stab at twice and which only becomes more emotionally charged on the second stretch. It's not just that she's gliding up that rise, but she's putting emphasis on each one-syllable word, culminating in a lovely, breathy extended note on 'one' that makes you tingle. How do you explain that, the uniqueness in ability that enables her to dredge emotion, something real and powerful, from a little sequence of notes? In the Dionne Warwick version, there's nothing like that keening in the voice, and the song remains a pleasant piece of fluff. Aretha, coming from her tradition of gospel, sings the line with a fuck-it-all verve, a faith in her love that makes it come across with do-or-die candour. Yet she's having fun on the song, too - witness her two gorgeous verse-closing hums, or the rich and joyous hey-ey-ey! that takes us back into the chorus. It's those moments when something real and heartfelt peaks out, when Aretha lays it all out, that make my heart lift. 

I love the way Aretha sits on a song towards the upper reaches of her register, knowing that she is going to reach towards those top notes, swing into them fully. In the early song Skylark, she suddenly unleashes a peal of high notes, jumping up an octave - "Sky-y-y-y-y-la-ar-ark" - her voice a little pitchy, a touch pinched, something of a shout underlying it, but also rich and of such power and control that you actually shake to hear it. But most of the time, in her classic era, you sense her running up towards the top, gearing up for those leaps, and so much of the pleasure is in the build-up, and knowing with what enjoyment she will indulge her gift for melisma, in guessing what direction she will send the song swooping outwards. Again that sense of the gospel artist, using up her deep notes to get you onside, building up the song with incantatory, exhortatory lifts and falls - this is the way Aretha often half-speaks the ends of her phrases, giving them a lambent feeling that is so stirring somehow. In Dr Feelgood for instance you hear it in the phrase, "Filling me up with all of those pills": 'pills' is almost spoken, sort of slurred, which has a kind of rhetorical feel to it, making you lean in a bit; it's a way of gaining our confidence. By the end, when she runs through the phrase "got me a man named Dr Feelgood", giving it her trademark sincerity on top of a wicked bluesy pastiche, and opening up a snatch of melody that breathes a gust of air into the line, we're fully on side, and again sense some of that rapture. 

Throughout all of this, I'm seized as well by her piano playing, which seems to dialogue with her phrasing and sing in the same language, being punctuated by little bursts that change in volume and often seize up short with the same sense of finality. The piano gives warmth to her singing, and adds an element of call and response to her music that is somehow so touching, which feels thoughtful, like a gift. In her cover of Bridge Over Troubled Water, she starts off at the keyboard, and briefly rehearses - in a few simple touches that bring blackness, a bit of syncopation, some soul to this highly white song - its chief melody. The chords run on from each other, and she seems to pause and dwell here and there, or spring out a little jazzy run-through on occasion, making the song's tune somehow so much more warm and inviting, where before it was ethereal and serene. The keyboards lead her in, give us an entrance point, and articulate the mode that she will be singing in. Aretha's cover of the song is so beautiful because of her sheer humanity, imbuing the song's commonplaces with something authentic, which comes out in the astonishing runs of melisma she gives it, but also the way she stays late on the line, dawdling over "all your dreams are on their way", all the better to belt out "SEE HOW THEY SHINE" with the full wallop of her backing vocalists behind her. And when she reaches - when she gets to the highest point - giving all of her fire to "Oh.... and if you ever need a friend", hitting a high note on 'ever' that sounds like the clasp of a hand on your arm, you hear her performing that miracle again, of bringing truth out of nowhere, of seizing something so vital and felt, and imparting it, making sure it sticks. From there she eases into, "Look around, I'm sailing by your side", adding more words to the Paul Simon lyrics in her fervour, and beefing up the word 'sailing', giving it a few extra beats. This song, which was always beautiful, is transformed, and the listener is transformed, because an appeal has been made to us; we're an active listener, no longer a passive person over whom the music washes, but someone who has been called to, invited, recognised. 

These are the things that Aretha does to me, the ways she continues to pull me in and exert a power over me. On her album of unreleased songs and demos from her time at Atlantic, you get a few opportunities to hear her practising this art, which feels so unrehearsed, so god-given almost. On one of these, a demo for You're All I Need To Get By, you hear her finding her way around the song, working out how to give it some swing and meaning: it's so wonderful to hear her parsing the pattern of a song, the key to it; a way to open it up and exploit it for the handful of moments it can yield of authenticity, when she can pierce its shell. And, mostly you get her take on Sweet Bitter Love, badly recorded, just Aretha at the piano, giving a take of hypnotic reverence, of fire-power withheld at first and slowly building. The song's tune is so simple, but she finds new inroads, playing up the longing that its melody holds, the sense of betrayal in the lyrics, its questioning rhythms, and by the end of the song has done her customary thing of tearing through it somehow, especially on a chilling sing-shout of "Sweeeeet!" towards the end which slightly warps the recording. 

It's those moments that I treasure, these bits of honesty, rawness, anger, sexual passion that gleam through, which grab me, draw me in and pick me up. No-one else can do that. 

Tuesday, August 7, 2018


(This piece contains a whopping spoiler)

Daniel Kokotajlo's Apostasy is surprising, subverting our expectations and pulling a rug from under our feet on so many occasions: it's this brilliance in his storytelling, abetted by a total formal mastery, that makes his tale of women struggling with their faith so compelling and powerful. I'd like to talk about some of the shocks and surprises along the way, and how Kokotajlo creates them through a highly effective shot selection and by playing on received ideas and genre tropes.

A key theme of Apostasy is displacement: it's there in the way the film is at pains to guide our looks in one direction (namely, towards the initial protagonist, Alex), so that we are startled and overwhelmed when the focus moves on, half-way through the film, when Alex dies. Kokotajlo takes pleasing liberties with perspective, showing Alex in the centre of the frame, and her sister, Luisa, often displaced to the fringes, sometimes in blurred outline. Moreover Alex's thoughts and fears are presented to us in a confessional mode - at one point quite boldly during a service at the Jehovah's Witness church the three women attend. It's an audacious proposition to present us with an 'inner' character who then abruptly leaves the movie: in part, because we have been led to believe that the question of whether or not to have a transfusion, in contravention of Jehovah's Witness dictates, would form the core argument of the film. As it is, Kokotajlo side-swipes that issue by having the whole question play out off camera, in a totally elided scene: we've been watching the wrong film all along. We thought we were going to be seeing a struggle between reason and dogma; in reality, we will be presented with a tussle between dogma and human kindness - and the protagonists will be Luisa, and her mother. Kokotajlo's immediate shot after Alex's death in hospital is quite brilliant: Ivanna (Siobhan Finneran) bursts from the hospital in the middle distance, her figure blurry, lurch-striding towards the camera's focus, until she is up close and we can sound her pain, her panic, the flurry of hurt and questions going through her mind, as her eyes dart around, and she walks off again. Kokotajlo cuts from this short, silent scene to a long funeral, with cool precision. 

The shot selection continues to tell the story, and to mine its characters' feelings, with great efficiency throughout. Witness a magnificent shot/reverse-shot later on, when Ivanna visits Luisa: the focus of the scene is on their inability to talk to each other; Ivanna is forbidden from speaking to her estranged apostate daughter, while the two of them are still grieving, one of them advanced in pregnancy, both weighted down by rancour, sadness, and longing for comfort. This is well conveyed, as the camera stays on Ivanna - and then, quickly, we see the other side of the exchange, as Ivanna is leaving: the emptiness and misery, the sad squalor of her daughter's flat. This is what Ivanna was beholding. Kokotajlo often withholds like this, before showing something with a grim flourish, gaining immense power in the revelation.

This process happens again, in a scene where Ivanna is boiling with sadness and rage during a church service where she is being personally cautioned by the priest. Kokotajlo plays on stereotypical tropes of heroism, as we implore Ivanna to take a stand - literally, to stand up and leave the room where she is a prisoner, where she is being tortured by her faith, to the detriment of everything she has in the world. We will her on, because Finneran (in a truly heroic performance) plays so well that simmering rage, the indecision, the doubts that plague Ivanna, and the way they are bubbling so close to the surface - and when, finally, she does leave the service, we applaud her silently. At last, the stand that we have been waiting for. But Kokotajlo plays an ace card here, mercilessly - a shot of bitter irony, as he films Ivanna bursting from the room and seeking refuge from the cant in the bathroom, where, horrifically, the words of the preacher's sermon are relayed via a loudspeaker. Our expectations are destroyed: there is no escape; there is no resistance. 

In fact, Kokotajlo flips the whole dynamic of the film we believe we're watching. We think we're watching a film where someone will stand up for what they think is right, in the face of adversity: and, here's the kicker, we are watching that film. But what that character thinks is right is not what we think is right. We are watching, in fact, heartrendingly misplaced heroism, where someone's willpower and faith in her rightness impel her constantly to disappoint us. It's testament to Kokotajlo's pert perspective that he pulls off this reversal. That his film is headed this way comes after another immaculate one-two punch: an irruption into the slow-paced, measured, colourless film of a gaudy religious advertorial. Suddenly, the movie gives over to sun-drenched shots of Jesus, set to cheap music, and pictures of his adoring faithful. Kokotajlo gains huge ironic clout from the stylistic gap between his film and this cloying message of faith, which makes the religious message seem vapid, and plays ironically against the terseness of the film so far. But then we're hit with another rug-pull, as the movie cuts to Ivanna, watching the film and crying. We see that she derives immense solace from this ragbag of inanities: Kokotajlo's idea isn't to mock this film at all, but to show how it can in fact help people who need it. Once again, we find we aren't watching the film we thought we were watching; again, we are seeing the reverse of the shot, which surprises us. Again we see that our expectations were thin. 

In a brilliant final shot, Kokotajlo films Ivanna in the public sphere, as other people see her in her hometown: just a woman standing with some leaflets in a town centre. Filmed in silence, in the middle distance, she is a nobody, just another person, in sharp contrast to the woman of roiling emotions whose life we have watched fall apart. It's a shot that could be cruel, but which also shows compassion. It is the only shot the film could have ended on, giving it a little touch of smart-aleckry, because we know to what extent the film has taken an interest in filming the other side. Once again, the film asks us to investigate the silences it has probed throughout: all the quiet and disquiet of its characters, filmed in unblinking still shots; all their inability to communicate, seized in their eyes - this shot calls back to all of this, in a few short seconds, before giving way to darkness. 

Thursday, June 28, 2018

A quick sketch

Sometimes I find myself hungering to write about nothing - no, that isn't right. Hungering, rather, to write about not something, about a not-topic or an anti-story: to write as an exercise, a stretching of my limbs, or as you might crack out a pretty and insignificant tune on a piano, on a hot summer's afternoon, while waiting for everyone else to get changed into their swimming things so you can set off to the sea in a succession of sun-baked cars. Wanting to write as you gargle water, swilling words around, getting pleasure from their swoosh and flavour, making them bubble, roiling them into a song.

When I was little I used to drink in a funny way, shunting the liquid around my mouth at every gulp before I swallowed, rather than simply sending it straight down like other people do. My grandfather took my brother and sister and me to his Saturday art class once - a parochial affair in a little village hall by a field with a swing and a slide and a roundabout - where a woman with airs trilled, upon seeing us drink water, "Stop! Their magnified faces at the bottom of the glass. I must, MUST paint these children!"

My grandfather took up art - art is too big a word; took up painting - in his retirement, after a lifetime working in a glove factory. He was an intelligent man who had been made to give up school early - at thirteen or fourteen I think - in order to earn some money to help his family along. He was gentle and funny when I knew him, but I gather that he had been violent in his earlier years, and given to rages. Almost certainly he felt a sense of what he could have been, of a potential gone to waste. In his old age, having been a churchgoer all his life, he re-read the Bible cover to cover, and became a devout atheist. His artistic efforts were hilariously poor - dull landscapes; thick daubs of yellow to suggest a lemon in a decidedly still life. He was a small, portly man with quite dainty legs. He had a comb-over of nine hairs, and a Mr McGregor beard.

My mother never won a race against him as a child, even though she would have been faster than him from a very early age, because the sight of him running made her laugh so much that she had to stop running to catch her breath. My father's impression of his father-in-law's way of swimming is still going strong 26 years after my grandfather died: it takes the form of a very slow front crawl, purposeful, face determinedly down in the water, with a heavy arm movement, and a slightly desperate face turning upwards like a great beast to take vast gulps of air at regular intervals. In the mornings, when visiting, we children would get into bed with our grandparents for tea; they had a kettle in the room, and an enormous tupperware box of biscuits, and the whole room was wallpapered over, including the ceiling, in a dizzyingly drab geometric pattern of tiny flowers. My grandfather would entertain us by doing his 'exercises', which he may well have been advised to do by some well-meaning doctor, but which, at some point, had taken a turn for the comical: they consisted of about one press-up, a crouch, and (funniest of all) a puffing-cheeked attempt to jump up and touch the ceiling.

When painting, my grandfather would sometimes get flustered, and, if painting a landscape, would shout, "Bloody greens!"

My grandmother, on my father's side, can paint. At thirteen or fourteen she would already have been painting, and in her adult life she could indulge in it as much as she liked, as a well-to-do headmaster's wife; she occasionally taught a class or two. Once or twice, I think, my maternal grandfather and paternal grandmother painted together; and on a couple of occasions that I can remember my grandfather showed her some of his paintings, which she, having studied at the Beaux-Arts, must have looked over in something like horror. My grandmother still draws every day, taking a notepad with her everywhere - a real artist, a true painter, whose hands are moved to sketch, who is happy to spend any minute adding fuller reds and purples to a quickly rendered mountainside. Here, a few pen-strokes to represent a dog nearby; there, a little gouache for the corner of a lake.

I want to write like that sometimes, to carry something with me for jotting down, for seizing a sight on the quick, or a missed connection - a way of pinning down a moment and looking at it anew. This morning on the tube I saw a serious-looking man wearing a t-shirt that said, in white Comic Sans on a tomato red background, "Guatever. Guatemala." That man can't be a character in a book; he isn't the start of an article, but I don't want to lose him. Perhaps he can be someone in a skit, a lightly shaded silhouette; maybe he can just live here for a bit.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

A Complete List of Forthcoming Queer Characters in Tentpole Studio Movies

Purple Man
An arch-villain from the MCU, seen in the popular Jessica Jones series, Purple Man will be getting his own spin-off in 2019, and there are plans afoot to have him look at a man in episode 4.

Aryal Landers
Aryal is set to be an important secondary or tertiary character in the developing Alien franchise, with five crucial lines spoken to Michael Fassbender's David in the final act. A representative for 20th Century Fox stated: "It's important to us to represent all of the different possibilities for people out in space, and Aryal is a fantastic character who we see in many scenes in the film."

Swamp Thing
A popular character from DC Comics, Swamp Thing will integrate the next effort by the studio. Voiced by Michael C. Hall, the humanoid/plant creature's many humorous one-liners about things it wants to fuck, whose inclusion in the completed movie are subject to positive test screenings, are sure to delight all audiences keen for a multiplicity of sexual experiences to be reflected in the cultural output they favour.

Brian Kuyt
This character in the upcoming sequel to Terminator Genisys has no desire for sexual intercourse. Actor Charlie Tahan, playing Brian, says: "I'm so blessed to be playing Brian, and I'm particularly proud that nobody ever mentions Brian's sexuality in the film at all. It's done super respectfully of his identity and I can't wait for people to see what we've done."

Night Raven
This supporting character in the planned Black Widow film from the MCU is apparently set to be trans, with the full support of leading actress Scarlett Johansson, who said in a statement: "I'm so honoured to share a scene with Night Raven, and we're casting around for someone who will be able to play them with exactly the right sensibility. Night Raven is not just trans, they're kick-ass, and I think that's so exciting." No-one has been cast to play Night Raven yet, although Kate Mara is said to be an early favourite for the role.

Jane Woziek 
An I.T. expert in the forthcoming Jurassic Park movie, played by Jane Adams, Jane Woziek is heard speaking to her wife on the phone. Known for her acidic put-downs, Woziek also has a crucial moment in the film where she sacrifices herself to save someone who has children.

It's heavily implied that Aadyk, an A.I. life-form in the next Star Trek film, currently in pre-production, has a more than platonic relationship with the Danny Pudi character Fi'ja, with several lines hinting that the affection between the two amounts to something a little more romantically involved than simply a functional connection between a human and a machine.

Patrick Chang
A key character in the new Mummy series, Patrick Chang is set to be played by a plus-size actor. A rep for the studio said, "We're unclear whether fat is actually a sexuality but we're keen to do the right thing here."

Friday, April 13, 2018

Thoughts on Queer Eye

This is the text of a talk I gave as part of the BFI's Hot Take event on masculinity onscreen. Please note: the audience were instructed beforehand to read out in a monotonous, robotic voice the signs that I held up at various intervals in the talk. 

The most invidious episode of the new series of Queer Eye – in which five cis-men who aren’t queer remake straight men so that they can earn more money and get their dicks wet – isn’t the Bobby Van Camp episode. To jog your memory, Bobby Van Camp is the smug and sanctimonious father of nine who gets remade by the so-called Fab Five to look exactly like Karl from Neighbours. That episode misses the boat by offering nothing but the merest, most feeble rejoinder to Bobby’s ostensibly gay-hating religion, as our five hosts gratefully and tearfully accept Bobby’s smug and self-regarding speechifying on the topic of “gays: you’re just humans like me.”
Audience: SLAY
The worst episode of Queer Eye isn’t even the one which invokes racist police brutality in a completely confected scene where an officer pulls over one of the hosts, Karamo, only to reveal that he’s actually a good guy playing a trick on them. As with the oppression of the church, police violence is given nothing but the most cursory clapback, as the genies need to get on with the business of showering their heterosexual Aladdins with money – because nothing could be more queer than making a Faustian pact with Mammon.
Audience: YAS QUEEN
The worst episode, and the most boring, is when the mincetrels visit Remy, a boring schlub with no style or interests, do up his house with expensive self-styled ‘Cuban’ murals without even a jot of irony, and dress Remy to emulate his style icon Don Draper, a misogynist pig from the 1960s. They remake his home to look less ‘feminine’ – it used to belong to his grandmother – and give him a manly style.
Audience: WERK IT MAMA
Here are enacted all the worst facets of Queer Eye – its repulsive grovelling towards our historical oppressors; its mortifying boner for capitalism, the machine purpose-built for crushing minorities; its snivelling adoption of supposedly queer tropes for the benefit of ‘acceptance’ rather than revolution; its actual or implied misogyny; its inability to propose a valid queer universe with a new or interesting language; and its refusal to address patriarchy and masculinity as ills to be fixed or nuked.
In the world of Queer Eye, it's possible to sell off the secrets of our minority existences, all the tricks we have squirrelled away through millennia of murder and oppression, all the timeworn codes we have developed in order to embody an alternative to a grotesque mainstream culture of self-advancement and violence. It’s possible and even advisable, they believe, to maintain masculinity as it is and make adorable cosmetic changes to it, which will hopefully make the big man stop hitting us.
Thank you for listening.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018


Swagger is a title you earn - and if Olivier Babinet's documentary, about children in an underprivileged cité just outside Paris, amply deserves its name, it's less for the attitude on display amongst the kids themselves, and more for the reckless, thrilling, way over-board filmmaking that Babinet chucks at his otherwise minor project. This is a film that cocks about town, strutting, preening, feeling itself. It's a film to make you chuckle with its chutzpah, its brazenness. There's a great deal of sensitivity and delicacy here too, but it's vastly outdanced by the fun-size wallop of Babinet's aesthetic - and there is something beguiling, unerringly touching, at the idea of bringing such big means to a small documentary about the dreams, hopes, loves and sadness of disadvantaged children. 

Babinet worked with the children on a filmmaking workshop for a year, as part of a project to teach them about cinema. He also interviewed them - and the film is composed of one-on-one interviews with the youngsters, interspersed with weird, dreamlike, fantasy sequences. After a strange opening at nighttime, where the camera flits among the tops of the high-rises, filming the zone like a sci-fi land at rest, we meet the gang as they introduce themselves to camera: Mariyama, Elvis, Paul, Naila, Regis, and a whole load more. The tone is set: odd, buzzing, fantastical visuals; a pulsating imagination - and then tender, naturalistic, artlessly seized candour. For the rest of the film, Babinet will use his subjects' startling, strange, enchanting confessions, to create luridly conceived set-pieces that metastasize the ideas of the powerless and unlistened-to into bold, entrancing visions. 

Even when Babinet's camera is at rest, he manages to throw some pop at the screen - Naila is filmed in a backdrop of candy Technicolour in a stairwell, as she empties her funny mind out to camera, disserting on Mickey Mouse and how frightening he is; on white people; and on her dream of becoming an architect so as to stop babies from falling to their death in inner-city high-rises. Paul, dapper and shy in a sharp black suit, is filmed against a lush dark blue; Régis sits in a deserted locker-room. Everywhere you see Babinet's music video-maker's touch, in the slightly too glossy, but still inviting plasticity of these interviews. 

Babinet then devises riotous sequences in between these talking head segments, ranging from a disquieting surge of drones hovering over the projects like a dystopian nightmare, to a sort of jailbreak scene when two kids ring a fire alarm bell in a corridor and escape through a hole in a wire fence into a Pasolini-like field of long brushy grass where a camel is tethered to the ground. The viewer rushes with the boys in a flurry, the hand-held camera keeping the beat as they leap and skedaddle out of the building, before the camera rises in a swoonsome movement once they've made it through the fence, to encompass the whole surrounding environment, signalling a burst of delicious freedom. Or Babinet gifts Paul a Jacques Demy-like dance sequence where he skitters through a disused marketplace and out along the abandoned concrete walkways of his hometown, freed from some of the cares he has shared to camera, the fear of rejection, the shame of his father's mental illness. As Céline Sciamma did in Girlhood, Babinet grants his subjects the chance to be seen as they wish to be. 

These are children who have never met a white person; these children of immigrants talk of 'French-born' people as of another species, so fully ghettoised are they in their suburb. They talk calmly of dealing being a job that you can do. They tell of a schoolmate who was shot. Many of them have never been to Paris. All of them long for great wealth; some dream of being President. The great power of Swagger is that it extracts these wholly astounding nuggets without ever dwelling on their potency or underlining the tragedy of these lives. On the contrary, Babinet loves and celebrates these people, gives them time and care, frames them well, and lifts them. 

Speaking of which: no article on Swagger can do justice to the film which does not spend some time on the film's clear star turn (and someone who, in my view, is one of the great LGBTQ onscreen characters of all time): the great, delightful, scenery-chewing, perfectly named Régis Marvin Merveille N'Kissi Moggzi. Obviously afforded extra screentime in light of his charisma, Régis burns up the screen as he talks about his love for his mum, with whom he talks about make-up and fashion; or about his love of the soap opera The Young and the Restless; or about the dreadful fashions sported by his classmates; or the time someone stepped to him and he fought them and won. Régis, a fat, black, funny, stylish, screamingly camp, seemingly perfectly happy, balanced and accepted teenager from an underprivileged background in a social housing development in France in 2016, is nothing less than the most positive and galvanising depiction of an LGBTQ person I can think of in recent times. From the moment we first see him, sewing at his table at night, to the scene when he struts through school wearing a fur coat in one of Babinet's punchy imaginary sequences, via a scene where he adjusts his bow-tie in a mirror before the camera pans out of his window to film the building from a great height, ten floors above ground, Régis is a star - but more than a star, he anchors the film, gives it further pizzazz. He is the only teen mentioned by any of the other kids, and when he's named it's by a straight boy, who cites him as an inspiration. 

Régis has swagger in spades; Paul has some of it too; Naila has also. Swagger, don't forget, is attitude to wear like a new shiny coat over torn or dirtied rags; swagger represents the act of papering over inadequacies, of shining a light to detract from fears or misgivings. The swagger of the children in Swagger - and the swagger of Swagger - is there in the act of taking some of our time to ask us to believe in the dream.