Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Tips for vegans this Christmas

It can be hard to be a vegan, and never more so than at Christmas, when returning to your family and partaking in centuries-long customs that have been passed down through generations. I have so many friends who tell me that they're perfectly happy and at ease with their vegan lifestyle in London, but when they get home they feel immense pressure from parents to relent and eat a bit of cheese, or potatoes that have been roasted in animal fats. Understandably this can lead to tense times, which everybody would rather avoid, and can spoil the present-giving and cheer. With this in mind, here are ten helpful tips for vegans this Christmas, to make your life easier. You can do it!

  1. Make as many vegan dishes as you can beforehand and take them with you. This will make your life so much easier when you have chained your parents to the downstairs toilet radiator with the intention of force-feeding them cauliflower wellington. They will cry and beseech you for mercy - a sign that you are winning them round to the cause. Have no pity! Remember, these are the monsters who gorge on the blood and organs of slaughtered creatures, and who birthed you unblinkingly into a life of murder, which you have managed to escape. Fist the dairy-free morsels of floret and duxelle into their gaping mouths and clamp their jaws shut, then read them a carefully selected article about the environment and release them. Remember: this Christmas is all about war, and you are in the right. 
  2. At breakfast time, if your sister should perchance splodge a dollop of creamy oats into your porringer 'pon sitting down at the family table, cut off her hands and roast them in the oven for 45 minutes until crisp around the knuckles, while screaming imprecations against the Stockholm syndrome ordure who remain, zombie-like, in a cult of violence and bloodthirst. (Aga times may vary) 
  3. Canapes! Smoked salmon, oysters, foie gras, even blinis, are all off the cards for you this Christmas and forever since you have chosen to live an enlightened life free of all cruelty. To this end, prevent anybody else from eating canapes by destroying your family fridge-freezer in the middle of the night with a chainsaw or a pick-axe. Wake up any sleeping children to watch you slice through the ice-tray with your vrooming blade or dent its top with a few crazed hacks from your glinting garden tool. This delighted my nephews last Christmas and can create memories to last a lifetime. Don't forget to capture these moments for social media and append the relevant hashtags! Always be thinking about the reach of your political actions. 
  4. You now have no access to fresh produce for the rest of the holiday, which is just as well. You and yours can subsist on vegetables and nuts perfectly easily, and you will save on electricity. Make everybody a turmeric soy latte to dispel any residual tension. Your object is war, as stated earlier, but it's important to manufacture little stages where you can pause and take a break, and these treats will lull your enemies into a false sense of hope that their ordeal is at an end. 
  5. Don't base all of your battle tactics around food: think big and unsettle your family by changing the time on their alarm clocks, making insane remarks about a beloved national treasure (such as Victoria Wood), shouting 'vegan latex!' for no reason, or doing headstands at any time of the day. The aim is to wear them down and remove any enjoyment from these few days of rest. Unplug the television and make them watch a three hour finger-puppet show about methane that you have helpfully written beforehand. 
  6. The rapacious devourers of beast who ushered you onto this disgusting planet will start to grow dejected, but they may also become determined and rebellious once the hunger kicks in, and you might have to fend off a revolt with some makeshift weapons. Throw scraps of raw turkey that you have torn off the carcass at them while crouching behind a fireguard. Molotov cocktails can come in handy here too. You may find that you are able to coax some children over to your side to help you in your attack, by bribing them with sultanas or making lurid threats against them. 
  7. Dinner time. This is the big one. By now the homestead should resemble Verdun, and the heaps of animal flesh that your twisted progenitors bought for the holiday season, such as congealed hog blood bags or the arse of a sheep child, will be rotting all around you, attracting flies and developing a layer of mould. Get the family to help you make a fully vegan meal, at gunpoint - it's so much more fun to eat vegan if there's more than one of you! Potatoes, carrots, peas, all the vegetables are vegan. Still with your vintage Luger cocked at your siblings' heads, make them bash out a delicious pastry by adding some ground nuts to flour and using margarine instead of solidified cow-tit juice, and fill your baked casing with whatever harmless vegetables you like, along with a garlicky tomato reduction. As you cook, recite facts about the amount of water needed to make a hamburger versus the amount of water needed to grow a watermelon. Don't forget to have fun!
  8. Presents! Why not buy your parents the wonderful film Phantom Thread by Paul Thomas Anderson, on DVD - it's a classic for the ages, with the bonus that you can watch it together while shrieking any time you see Reynolds Woodcock eat a hen foetus or a slice of pig or stir animal lactose into his porridge. Make sure to have a little chat at the end of the film about the movie's treatise on cruelty, toxic masculinity and the prison of coupledom: draw parallels between these and the flesh and dairy on display in the film, explaining your plans to implement a queer meat-free utopia based around the sharing of gender-free sexual relations, starting on Boxing Day. 
  9. Sleeping arrangements can be tricky, as you may arrive to find that your mother has infuriatingly laid out a warm goose-down duvet in a freshly laundered cover from your childhood on your old brass bed, with a soft mohair throw folded gently on the edge of it, on which nestles a sweet-scented bar of soap derived from saponified tallow.  Lose your utter shit, obviously, but bring with you several sheets of cheery red tarpaulin that you can staple-gun your family members under at night after you have set fire to all their bedding. 
  10. At the end of your visit, invite your family to come stay with you in the city, so that they can see how to improve their lives. By this stage, you should have won the war - and they will be glad to see you go, which is only natural and should not be held against them. In your absence they will certainly reflect on their evil barbarism, and will perhaps even consider that it might do them good to escape the no man's land that you have turned their dwelling into, for the chance of a delicious cup of vegan miso soup with you, their dearest progeny. 

Monday, November 12, 2018

The First Openly Gay Player in the Premier League

When we get the first openly gay player in the Premier League, he will be crap at throw-ins, and straight people will joke that queers can't throw.

When we get the first openly gay player in the Premier League, he will be ugly, and the average homosexual man will be privately upset about the lack of magazine spreads available to someone so unattractive. We will hold out hope for a prettier one to come out at a later date, having drawn great courage from the bold actions of the ugly football player whose pioneering bravery we recognise but on whose face we simply cannot contemplate sitting.

When we get the first openly gay player in the Premier League, Wayne Rooney will send him a tweet that says "I knew it lol! Good on you mate" and we will all sigh with contentment at the evident progress that has been made since times when people would instead have thrown rocks at this man or burnt his dick with matches.

When we get the first openly gay player in the Premier League, people will say, "It doesn't matter, stop going on about it, the main thing is that he needs to be left to do his job", and, "He just needs to be with his family at this time, let's not take this moment away from him with all this attention, leave him alone" and also, "But doesn't anal sex hurt? I dunno"

When we get the first openly gay player in the Premier League, I'll rashly pitch a thinkpiece about it to a couple of outlets, even though I don't know all that much about football, and against my wishes it will be headlined, "It's great that [ugly man who can't throw] came out, but here is what the LGBTQ community, of whom I am the undisputed and only mouthpiece, requires furthermore", and people will call me a fairy on the internet.

When we get the first openly gay player in the Premier League, our media will watch his first match very keenly to see if anyone in the stadium calls him a bumming bummer who takes it up the bum, and when no one does, our media will proclaim that everything is fine now, and not look into the matter much further.

When we get the first openly gay player in the Premier League, he'll be in a couple already, and his boyfriend will be called Matthew and run a bar.

When we get the first openly gay player in the Premier League, it will somehow emerge that he has had sex with more than five people in his life, and this will become cause for consternation. He may also have taken recreational drugs at some point in his sex life, and people will be concerned that, while there is of course nothing wrong with being gay per se, it's the drugs thing and the promiscuity that are a bit difficult, especially since [ugly man who can't throw] is a role model for children.

When we get the first openly gay player in the Premier League, he'll say that his homosexuality doesn't define him, and he actually identifies as a masculine, normal man, and he isn't into the gay scene all that much, and will subsequently be made to apologise for his ignorance.

When we get the first openly gay player in the Premier League, he'll be a defender, which is a shame, we were hoping for a striker, it's hard to remember the names of the ones who do the boring stuff at the back, what is it they do again, we'd have preferred one who does goals to be honest, especially since he isn't even good-looking. Even a goalkeeper would have been acceptable, but the ones who stay behind, I want to say quarterbacks?, it's really tricky to work out whether they've played well or not because they don't get a number of points.

When we get the first openly gay player in the Premier League, he'll have to learn who Billie Jean King is pretty sharpish, it's a steep leaning curve.

When we get the first openly gay player in the Premier League, lots of gay kids will be forced to play football by parents who no longer see feyness as an impediment to a full enjoyment of rough contact sports with aggressive men in which your face can get severely pranged.

When we get the first openly gay player in the Premier League, Piers Morgan will have something interesting to say about it, a really fresh new angle that you couldn't have predicted.

When we get the first openly gay player in the Premier League, people will look around and rightly demand that tennis gets its act together. It's ridiculous that we don't have an out gay male tennis player, why didn't tennis come first in fact? So easy to imagine a dinky little drop-shotting fag getting to the quarter-finals of Wimbledon, can't you just picture it? No jokes about Queens though, thank you, this guy hasn't even been out for three minutes and here you are already making tasteless jokes. Unbelievable.

When we get the first openly gay player in the Premier League, he'll get an advertising deal with a sports brand, which is nice, and probably advances the cause in some sort of way that's hard to put a finger on, you know, brand recognition, something like that, a raised profile, maybe Nike will give some of the money to an LGBT charity, who knows.

When we get the first openly gay player in the Premier League it will be 2020, and it'll either be a young one who got a bit careless with photos on a fuck app, or an old one who hasn't got that much to lose anymore.

When we get the first openly gay player in the Premier League, the Prime Minister will be asked about it, and so will Prince William, whose mother, the late Princess Diana, was so good with all of that of course.

When we get the first openly gay player in the Premier League, Michelle Visage will welcome him to the family, wearing a West Ham t-shirt.

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

On APOSTASY

(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
Bi-Curious
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
Agender
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
Polysexual
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
Asexual
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
Trans
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 
Lesbian
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.

Aadyk
Pansexual
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
Fat
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.
Audience: MY WIG IS SNATCHED
Thank you for listening.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Swagger

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. 

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

A Fantastic Woman

"A Fantastic Woman" is a terrible title. In Spanish, where the phrase is much more idiomatic, the title apparently plays - certainly more clearly than it does in English - on the idea of the fantastical woman, and of the fantasised woman. Both notions are interesting, and key to understanding the film, which, in its brash and expressionist mode, riffs on those concepts in an endearingly head-on, mulish way. In so doing, the movie offers up a bracing, heroic portrayal of a transwoman in combat, but it also ends up fetishising her gender identity, making for an ambivalent depiction.

The film centres - quite literally so, in the sense that it places Daniela Vega wham-bam in the middle of its frame - on Marina Vidal, a transwoman whose older cis-male partner, Orlando, dies suddenly one night, leaving her homeless, without any legal claims to mourn him, and at odds with his transphobic family. Throughout the film, as Marina fights to get her dog back, attend her lover's funeral, and be recognised in her gender identity by his kin, Sebastian Lelio presents her as a kind of gunslinger in a Western, in a series of face-offs against various foes, standing up for what she knows is right. In between these bouts, Marina is shown jabbing a punch-bag, or walking alone, presented in long backwards hand-held shots that frame her determination and make her a hero. While she is banished to the margins of the world she exists in, in this film she commands the centre-ground, ceding on-screen territory to no-one. 

There is, though, a queasiness in the discrepancy between the way other characters view Marina and the way the film presents her. The film rightly lambasts its secondary characters for deadnaming her, misgendering her, or reducing her to her physicality. In their brutality, Orlando's family treat Marina like a monster, at one point kidnapping her and strapping her face together with tape, in an act that functions as a degradation but also, clearly, as a belittling comment on the way she is seen to have created herself a new physique. The tape, roughly stretched across her face, turns her nose up and squashes her features, making a monster of her. 

At the same time, the film performs a not wholly dissimilar exercise in the way it presents Marina as a magnificent beast. In an extraordinary scene (which, in a scarcely believable coup de theatre, nods to Jurassic Park (!)), Marina climbs onto the roof of the car belonging to Orlando's family, crashing and stomping above the people trapped inside it, like a vengeful monster. It's a positive depiction for sure, glorying in Marina's indefatigability, her resourcefulness, her self-belief - but it's still the other side of the same coin. It objectifies and sensationalises Marina's physicality, making her a species of creature. Marina is never dehumanised, in part because of Daniela Vega's controlled, enigmatic performance, but Lelio's film is so expressionistic, so full-on, that its candid acts of valiance make an object out of Marina's resilience. 

We see this too in the way the film presents Marina's nudity, which ties in to the film's work on the fantasised being and the fantastical being. In one measured, disquieting scene, a female doctor asks Marina to strip in order to take photographs of her body as part of the investigation into Orlando's death. A male doctor is also present, which introduces a level of discomfort into the interaction. The doctors are unyielding, and Lelio's camera doesn't blink: the full tension of the moment is sounded, so that we feel how othered and objectified Marina is; how she isn't allowed to present herself on her own terms. There's sensitivity there, but a touch of prurience too: this accords with how brash the film is in general, how overt and generally full-blooded it is, in its script and its visual cues. But in a later scene, where Marina's (partial) nudity isn't imposed on her by one person, Lelio seems to be playing games, which sensationalise Marina's gender for the viewer. 

In this scene, Marina has to find out what Orlando had left in his locker at a male sauna he patronises. To this effect, she must go to the sauna herself; therefore, in a scene that is uncomfortable because of the way it presents a reversal of 'passing', she has to present as male in order to enter the building. Tricked out in just a towel across her waist, with her incipient breasts registering only as a 'male' chest and with her hair tied backwards, Marina manages to enter the building unperturbed. But this scene, which Lelio after all devised, has a somewhat leering tone, a rather jesting flavour, revelling in Marina's liminal aspect, and using her physicality as a plot point or ploy. 

Marina's descent into the depths of Orlando's sauna, to recuperate a secret that he had left behind, plays I think on the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice, a fantastical woman of legend and her departed lover. There is much in the film that pertains to the register of hell and devils: Marina's dog is called Diablo, and scene after scene shows her descending from a point of height - to help her lover after he has fallen downstairs; driving into an underground car-park to do battle with Orlando's ex-wife; visiting the sauna below ground. There's a preponderance of red, too, in many of these scenes, playing on a register of the infernal. In the end, Marina sees a glimpse of her dead lover, Orlando-Orpheus, before he disappears from view. In the sauna, the near-naked Marina-Eurydice is clearly passing through a land that is not hers, that is ruled by other people; there are codes and instructions for her mission into this Hades. This adoption of the legend serves to champion Marina, but I think it also robs her of agency and plays too strongly on her physical presentation. 

Ultimately, A Fantastical Woman is an unendingly bold, combative, interesting, often visually marvellous film, pulsating with ideas - and its odd, unsubtle, often cheering, sometimes clunky discourse on its protagonist, is one of many aspects to crunch over in one's mind long after the lights have gone up.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Lady Bird

Two scenes show you the mettle of Lady Bird, display exactly what the film is made of. In the first of these, Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) wakes on her birthday, to find her father bringing her a cupcake with a candle in it. Greta Gerwig's camera - grainy and companionable - pulls in, right up close to the central character, drawing morning heat from Lady Bird's just interrupted slumber, delighting in the texture of her undone hair, and dwelling with a measure of sweetness on her blotchy adolescent skin. Such a scene would pass without comment were it not for how unusual it is in a cinema industry where young women routinely wake up with a face full of slap, arching their sexy backs, etc etc. But Gerwig knows her character so well, is so kind and honest in the view she trains on her, and brings such sensitivity to bear on this hopelessly questing girl, that it feels of a piece with the film.

A second, fleeting moment that drew my attention: in New York, having finally evaded the cloistering Sacramento of her youth, Lady Bird crosses a sunlit street in Manhattan, filmed at a distance, slightly from above; nearby, another young woman, an extra who graces the movie for all of one second, runs past her with a folder of papers in her hands. It may sound preposterous to have alighted on this moment, but I don't believe I've seen an extra running before, when in my normal life I run to get to places all the time and see people hurrying all around me. In instructing this young actor to run, Gerwig not only shows what care she gives to the world she is drawing, and with what pains she evinces a tangible authenticity from her performers, but gives her film a welcome freshness, something jumpy and winsome; there is real pleasure to be drawn from looking at her movie.

 Gerwig's subject is ostensibly hoary and boring: the American high-school movie; the coming-of-ager; the misfit who goes to prom. We've seen everything in it a hundred times, from its laughable sports teacher to the roll-ups-smoking cool kid, from the forbidding mom with a heart of gold to the moment the protagonist learns she's got into her university of choice. How, then, does Gerwig's film feel so different, so new and easy? In part it's that she's so confident in her voice, and that her plain, serviceable directing style marries with her script so well. 

There's something still of the Baumbach influence in her screenplay, not least in the characters' quirks and the somewhat startling way they have of stating their intentions or their personality upfront. This trait is reminiscent of Yorgos Lanthimos' writing, in a way: it's disarming and fairly modern, and makes the characterisation teeter on the brink of caricature. Gerwig certainly deals in types, but she also finds a way, through her direction of actors, to steer her types into different, surprising territory - or to give them a singularity in their voice or mannerisms. And her personal experience, her eye as a still young woman, enable her work to feel free of the mockery and facility that has infected Baumbach's recent films (not least Mistress America, which Gerwig co-wrote). On the contrary, because Gerwig attempts so little with her filmmaking, the script is allowed to sing, and there is even something in the film that exalts her characters. Part of the trickery is that, afterwards, you can't really remember what was so enrapturing: was anything here stark or memorable, did it hit me in any way? No - but while it was happening I was acquainted with these people, I heard them and knew them. 

Two things confirm this purity of purpose, this courtship of what is real & alive. The costumes in Gerwig's film are so perfectly devised, so beautifully true for each character. In a coming out scene where one character cries on the shoulders of another by the bins outside a cafe, almost the most touching thing was the disastrous length of his bootcut jeans, flopping over his shoes as he leans in for a hug. Lady Bird's long, flattening shift dresses perform the same job, as do her bell bottoms at the end of the film when she is becoming a woman in New York, which are on the very verge of coolness but, in the end, not at all there. These are the touches of someone who knows her character inside out, who remembers feelings and smells, who is able to share with us every aspect of a person's existence in a way that just fits, that is somehow heady in its veracity. 

The other aspect of Gerwig's film, returned to again and again, in a way which marks it out, is money - the way Lady Bird and her family have none, and how it sets them apart. In another movie less at pains to convey that want, we might get a few lines from the central character about wanting to afford more things - but in Lady Bird, this need, the financial precarity, is a whole system, informing the very story of the film, giving impetus to the action, and manifesting in various, distinct narrative threads, from Lady Bird's parents' jobs to her choice of college via her relationships with other kids at school. 

Money is in the language of the film, in the shabby setting of Lady Bird's house and the vulgar pretensions of the people whose company she aspires to, in her prom dress and her school grades, in asides from her mother about her own upbringing. Everywhere this asperity is felt, this fear of slipping through the cracks or not making it; everywhere this is seen, which peculiarly marks Lady Bird out, not just as an honest film, but as something richly conceived, which perceives the full socio-cultural compact of its microcosm, and which views its setting with a dry, critical eye rather than with hackneyed nostalgia. 

All of this is played with fervour and delicacy by the cast - Gerwig's work as an actor must have helped her secure these sensitive portrayals - to an extent that overrides the film's handful of flaws, such as its tendency to overstate, especially in its final scene which takes an emotional misstep. It will be interesting to see Gerwig invent more stories, to see her carry her original voice over to other projects, and grow as a filmmaker so that - hopefully, and quite naturally - her lexicon expands beyond the beautiful, breathy intimacy on display in this tiny, inexpensive, well-meant, endearingly badly wrapped Christmas present of a film.