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Queer Classics: “Moonlight” (2016)

After waiting impatiently for several weeks for Moonlight to make its way to Syracuse, it finally arrived, and I have to say:  this is one hell of a film. Though it was not what I expected, that does not mean that I didn’t enjoy it. Indeed, it’s probably the best film that I’ve seen this year (as cliché as that sounds).

A meditative and aesthetically sophisticated film such as this one is notoriously difficult to summarize in terms of plot, but in broad strokes it is a coming-of-age story told in three parts. Each segment of the film opens with a simple word:  Little, Chiron, Black, each representing a stage in the main character’s evolution. Throughout, he has to contend with the broken relationships that characterize his life, from his drug-addled mother Paula to his love interest and childhood companion Kevin. Throughout, he seems to struggle with a profound sense of alienation and isolation from the world around him, though he does experience brief moments of genuine human warmth, particularly when he meets Teresa and Juan (Janelle Monáe and the inimitable Mahershala Ali, respectively), who provide him some measure of stability and genuine human caring.

This is a profoundly intimate film, both in terms of its narrative–which remains wedded to Chiron’s perspective throughout–but also in terms of its cinematography. The camera remains sometimes perilously close to its principals, wedding us to their perspective in a sometimes physically unsettling intimacy. It’s not so much that the spectator necessarily feels that they are necessarily there; instead, it’s a feeling of being physically connected to the characters.

Thus, it is precisely this visceral closeness that allows us as viewers to get a sense of how important touch is to Chiron’s sense of himself. It is through his body that Chiron manages to escape his profound sense of loneliness and alienation. The film also pays particular attention to fluid, and there are two scenes in which semen plays a prominent role, and each time the camera pays attention to the contact between the body and the fluid, a surprisingly sensuous (and not prurient) attention to the powerfully erotic pleasures of the flesh.

It is through his body that Chiron–chronically silent and taciturn–manages to express himself. Indeed, it is precisely touch that gives him his one truly meaningful and intense connection with another person, when he and Kevin share an erotic experience on the beach. Unfortunately, the flip side of that dynamic is that Kevin is later manipulated by schoolyard bullies into beating up his erstwhile friend, a bitter experience that deeply scars both young men. However, there is no question that it is Chiron who bears the deepest psychological wounds, scarred both by his friend’s betrayal and by his mother’s obvious homophobia.

As Black, he appears muscle-bound and gruff, and the film makes it clear that this emphasis on increasing his bodily mass and strength are his responses to his troubling youth and to the impotence he felt throughout those formative years. Tormented by those around him for his perceived queerness, he has turned to using his body as a shield against a world that seems determined to crush and beat the “softness” out of him. The camera lingers on his musculature and on his mannerisms, demonstrating again and again that the formerly shy and meek youth who finally broke when betrayed by his friend has transformed into a hardscrabble drug dealer on the streets of Atlanta. Beneath that, though, one can still see glimmers of Little and of Chiron, a yearning for the intimate human connection that he has all-too-infrequently found in his life.

Though the film is, for the most part, deliberately paced, it is punctuated by moments of emotional release and satisfaction, as when Chiron takes a chair and brutally attacks the bully who incited Kevin’s act of violence. It is an intensely satisfying moment (as evidenced by the woman beside me in the theater, who cheered quite loudly at that particular moment). These moments, like their more tender counterparts, enable a feeling of bodily empathy with Chiron, allowing us to experience a similar moment of embodied empowerment, a reclamation of agency that has been consistently denied him.

The performances, of course, are the emotional heart of the film. As any good student of film knows, casting can either make or break even the most well-written of films, and in this case the actors are uniformly excellent. Though it is easy to despise Chiron’s mother Paula for her by turns brutal and manipulative treatment of her only child, Naomie Harris brings a certain tragic pathos to the role, imbuing the character with alternately frantic energy and depthless despair. While she is not the main focus of the narrative, she does nevertheless show her own development as a character, moving from an absent-minded if loving mother to a gradually more abusive and manipulative drug addict. However, even she is not beyond redemption, and the scene in which Black finally has the chance to offer his mother forgiveness is one of the most wrenching in the film.

The three actors who portray Chiron each deserve accolades, for each brings something distinct to the table, allowing us to see the shifts in his perspective as he grows up. Alex Hibbert, who plays Little, is that oh-so-rare gem, a child actor who has genuine depth and complexity. For his part, Ashton Sanders (who plays Chiron’s teenaged self) brings a certain tortured reserve to a youth plagued by his own personal demons, his fledgling desires, and the aimlessly malevolent taunts of many of his classmates.

It is Trevante Rhodes, however, who really steals the show as Black, Chiron’s final iteration. This is, in many ways, the most inscrutable and mysterious of the character’s iterations and for that reason it is the most compelling. All of Chiron’s past traumas seem to roil beneath the surface of clenched exterior. As we learn during his reunion and rapprochement with Kevin (played as an adult by André Holland, who brings a certain frantic, almost desperate, energy to the character), no man (nor anyone else) has touched him since their erotic encounter on the beach. Black is a man who has struggled, and never quite succeeded, in finding a place in an unfeeling world. His eventual physical reunion with Kevin, in which he at last finds physical connection, is a powerful affirmation of his journey to fulfillment.

Moonlight remains a haunting film precisely because it is so piercing in its glimpse into Chiron’s psyche. Growing up a queer of color in America remains a struggle for many, and it is especially acute for men, for whom the burdens of traditional masculinity are sometimes almost too much to bear. Indeed, the screenwriter, Tarell Alvin McCraney has spoken eloquently on those burdens, and his acute sensibilities for the particular struggles faced by black men have found their way into the script and the characters that inhabit this world.

What strikes me the most about the queerness of this film, however, is how unspoken it remains. It writhes beneath the surface of the narrative, a key component of Chiron’s identity, yet one which he rarely explicitly expresses. It emerges in some of the most unlikely moments, as when he has his erotic encounter with Kevin, and when he later dreams about him before their fateful reunion that concludes the film. It is a poignant reminder of how queerness–tender, beautiful, sensuous–can provide meaningful connection and intimacy in even the bleakest and most unfriendly of worlds.

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Queer Classics: “Looking: The Movie” (2016)

A little over a year ago, I wrote a very heartfelt piece about the end of HBO’s Looking (you can check out here, if you want). At the time, my heart was still bruised by HBO’s (in my view) disingenuous and insulting cancelation of one of the very few gay-centered dramas on television, and the piece reflects this. I was also skeptical and worried about how the announced TV movie finale would turn out.

I needn’t have worried. Looking has, I am happy to say, been brought to a fully satisfying conclusion.

Warning:  Full spoilers follow.

The finale takes place a year after the events of the second season finale. Patrick, having moved to Denver to escape from the ruin of his relationship with Kevin, has returned for the wedding of Agustín and Eddie. Dom’s chicken window is now a flourishing business, and while he has repaired his relationship with Doris, he has seemingly sworn off attempting to find a partner with whom he can share his success. Doris, meanwhile, has seemingly found completeness with Malik, and the two of them have even begun thinking about the future (complete with children). While he’s home, he has to contend with the consequences of his botched relationships, including the messiness and inconclusive state of his connection with Richie.

When I wrote my elegy for Looking, I said that a big part of what made Looking so resonant for me was that “it managed to show how fucked up, joyful, orgiastic, melancholy, and just plain messy modern gay life can be.” Now, to be fair, there are a few moments in this finale that wrap up those ends a bit too neatly. Kevin’s exit, while tremendously satisfying (I was never Team Kevin) was too briskly accomplished to really make sense from a purely narrative standpoint. Still, the moment does serve as a sort of reckoning for Patrick, forcing him to acknowledge his own complicity in the relationship meltdown that ended last season and, just as importantly, allowing him to see that he does indeed run from his problems rather than facing them.

This sense of running away from the danger of feelings is, to my eye, the unifying narrative thread of the entire episode. Just as Patrick has forever been running away from the intensity of his feelings, so both Agustín and Eddie have their own issues with commitment, and Dom remains unwilling to commit after his ill-fated romance last season. Even Richie, one of the most grounded and mature characters in the show, seems uncertain about his future and what he wants out of life. As he tells Patrick in their final, fateful walk around San Francisco, he wants to start his life over.

I’ll admit, I felt a flutter (and maybe let out a little scream) when i saw that Richie had FINALLY abandoned that snarky shrew Brady and returned to the man with whom he is clearly destined to live. It was, I’m not ashamed to admit, the fulfillment of my own deeply-rooted desires for erotic and romantic fulfillment. Even more, though, it was a testament to the fact that sometimes, even in this crazy, tumultuous world, two people can find a really special, meaningful connection that transcends difference.

There is just…something profound about the ending, in which both Patrick and Riche ultimately acknowledge that yes, love and commitment are scary, but they are also sources of tremendous joy that can form the foundation for a life spent together. Sometimes, it seems that people are afraid to feel and to take a chance on that feeling, thinking that they need to spend time getting themselves together, “focusing on me.” In reality, there is, nor will there ever be, an ideal time to get into a relationship and make that leap into commitment. Patrick has learned that lesson the hard way, and it’s nice to see him be able to share that bit of knowledge with Richie. In the end, they both recognize that their love for another–and it’s nice to hear Patrick admit that he’s been in love with Richie from the beginning–is, for the moment, all that they need. The final scene that they share together doesn’t end with a cliché kiss but instead a more tender moment of casual cuddling, as they enjoy this night with their friends. Somehow, to me, that makes it all the more touching.

Now, there are a few weaker spots that it’s worth mentioning. Much as I intensely dislike Brady–because, let’s féce it, the show has never really allowed him to be anything other than obnoxious–it’s hard not to feel at least a bit of compassion for him. How would any of us respond if we could see, as clearly he seemingly can, the fact that Richie is still hopelessly in love with Patrick and Patrick with him? Of course, we’re not really encouraged to think too much about that, and to some extent that’s okay. After all, life and emotions are messy and intractable, and sometimes, no matter how much you might like it to, life doesn’t fall into neat moral binaries.

If there’s one truly unfortunate thing about this finale, though, it would have to be the resolution of Dom’s storyline. He meets someone new, but it doesn’t really seem to have a great deal of meaning in and of itself; it feels very much an afterthought, as if the writers realized they needed to grant this major character some measure of resolution. Still, I will say that it was nice to see all of our main characters paired off; the future may be messy, but at least it is somewhat stable.

When the episode was over, I was left laughing and crying, a particular mix that only comes upon me at moments of peak emotional experience. On the one hand, I was crying because this moment was just so damned emotional, so intensely fulfilling of all of my displaced desires for these characters. On the other, I was crying because it was all the things that are missing in my own life (at this moment), and for all the bittersweet memories this show always conjures up for me, of my own past loves and the mistakes both I and my former lovers have made. Looking doesn’t shy away from those, and it leaves a room for ambiguity. There will be struggles ahead and that’s okay, because that’s life.

And that ambiguity–poignant, irresolvable, exquisite–remains Looking‘s most brilliant and  accomplishment.

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Queer Classics: “The Boys in the Band”

Today in “Queer Classics,” we’re reaching back in time a bit, to what is considered to be one of the key films in the history of queer cinema, William Friedkin’s The Boys in the Band. Based on the play of the same name, the film depicts a birthday party thrown by Michael (Kenneth Nelson) for his frienemy Harold (Leonard Fray). The invitees include:  the flamboyant and campy Emory (Cliff Gorman); Michael’s one-time lover Donald (Frederick Combs); tortured Bernard (Reuben Greene); vexed couple Hank and Larry (Laurence Luckinbill and Keith Prentice); toyboy Cowboy Tex (Robert La Tourneaux); and, rather inadvertently, allegedly straight Alan (Peter White). When Michael initiates a phone game in which each player must earn points by calling and confessing feelings of love to someone whom they truly loved, the result is a bubbling up of long-repressed tensions and hatreds.

One can see in this film a glimpse of a gay identity in flux. Released the year after Stonewall, one can see in these young gay men a great deal of the self-hatred that was part and parcel of that identity (and, unfortunately, still is in many places). References to psychologists and therapists abound, and the rampant consumption of drugs (both recreational and prescription), suggests the bleakness with which these characters view their lives. Furthermore, the frictions between Hank and Larry–the former of whom wants monogamy and commitment, the latter of whom wants commitment without the monogamy–highlights the deeply troubled history of same-sex coupledom. While monogamy is taken as the standard by which all queer relationships are evaluated today, this film shows that it is possible, and even desirable, to look outside that model and that it is possible, just possible, that two people can find fulfillment with one another without its strict binds.

The biting humour is as stinging now as it was way back in those bad ole days, precisely because so many of us queer men still feel a bit distant from the mainstream culture of which we are a part. Those of us who still relish the revolutionary potential of an explicitly queer politics still take a bit of an ironic look at the homonormative world around us. While those in this film do the same, their caustic venom is turned inward as much as it is outward.

The most difficult question to ask, and to answer, is whether any of the characters are truly likable. There is something tragically comic about Michael, who has clearly internalized the homophobia of the surrounding culture to such an extent that he begins to lash out at the people that he no doubt loves the most (but isn’t that what we all do, after all?) For his part, Harold is Michael’s double, and he may be even better at the bitterness game than his friend, a fact of which he is well aware. Neither of them may be likable in the traditional sense, but the film does seem to want us to understand them in the context of the culture that produced them.

There is something both profoundly moving and bleakly nihilistic about Michael’s final statement. When he says that, like his father who died in his arms, “I don’t understand any of it. I never did,” one gets the distinct sense that he is speaking not just of the mystery over what Allan was crying about, but also about the entire nature of their queer existence. How do you cope with a world that either denies your existence or ruthlessly pathologizes you? How do you live with yourself or with others? It’s a bleak and terrifying question, and the films ending ultimately fails to answer it with anything other than a certain nihilistic despair.

Beyond the acidic, biting dialogue there are so many other wonderful flourishes that truly call to a gay audience. There is, for example, the book on the films of Joan Crawford that Harold reads while the telephone game proceeds. If ever there were a sign of abjection, it would be Crawford, and her inclusion, however oblique, is one of the film’s defter touches.

Does the film, as so many have stated, trade in stereotypes about gay men? Certainly, but that doesn’t mean that such stereotypes don’t often have at least a slight ring of truth. For that reason, I found the film echoed many of the experiences I still have today, calling to that part of myself that still, strangely, yearns for those things that make gay culture, well, gay (or queer). I’ve often felt that I was born a generation or two too late, and that the things that I take pleasure in are the things treasured by the generations that preceded me. For that reason, I loved this film, and would definitely recommend it to all those seeking to gain an understanding of queer history.

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Queer Classics: “Carol” (2015)

Warning:  Spoilers for the film follow.

Some might consider it a bit premature to declare Todd Haynes’ film Carol a queer classic, but if the reviews are anything to go by, this new film will surely earn a place alongside the director’s finest work as part of the New Queer Cinema of the 1990s.  And as I can personally attest, it fully deserves the lavish praise it has so far received.

Based on acclaimed novelist Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt, the film tells the haunting and evocative story of the unexpected but passionate romance that develops between quiet store clerk Therese (Rooney Mara) and wealthy soon-to-be-divorcee Carol (Cate Blanchett).  While Therese struggles with her newly-awakened feelings of same-sex desire, Carol desperately attempts to maintain custody of her daughter Rindy during her bitter divorce from Harge (Kyle Chandler).  After Carol and Therese escape for a passionate weekend in Chicago, they must both decide whether their romance has the makings of something richer, deeper, and much more perilous.

As a number of other reviewers have noted, Haynes has a well-earned reputation for well-crafted films that tend to keep viewers at an intellectual distance.  Far From Heaven, for example, is an absolutely exquisite film, but its pastiche, like that of the 1950s Sirk melodramas upon which it is based, keeps us at arm’s length.  We are constantly invited to recall the repressive atmosphere of the 1950s, to contrast (and compare) that time to our own.

This film is also concerned with the repressive nature of 1950s American culture, as Carol’s liaisons with women endanger her custody of her daughter.  It is precisely because Carol has so much affective richness and resonance that it connects at a much deeper emotional level than the similarly themed Far From Heaven.  We understand that this is a world where the desire between women is strongly forbidden, and so there is always a faint feeling of anxiety underlying the romance.  This, in turns, makes the romance all the sweeter and more poignant, for we come to see the love as always existing in a state of precariousness, always subject to the possibility of discovery.

I have always been one of Cate Blanchett’s most ardent admirers, and this film has solidified my love.  Like the greatest actresses of classic Hollywood, Blanchett has the extraordinary ability to convey both strength and vulnerability, and these traits come to the fore as she portrays Carol.  Through Blanchett, Carol becomes both the object and the subject of desire, striving against the repressiveness of the society in which she lives to attain fulfillment in her life (the allusion to psychotherapy, while brief, is immensely troubling).  And Rooney Mara is simply delightful as the slightly elfin Therese, a young woman who chafes at the restrictions imposed upon her by both her gender and her class.

While Sarah Paulson for the most part hovers at the edges of the narrative as Carol’s best friend and former lover Abby, she turns in a wonderful performance as a woman who clearly loves Carol deeply.  The scene in which she confronts an angry Harge and denounces him for his failures as a husband is rousing, and her tenderness toward the bewildered Therese in the wake of Carol’s abrupt return to New York is touching.  Paulson, like her fellow actresses in this film, manages to imbue her character with charm, strength, and vulnerability.

At the formal level, the film showcases Haynes at the height of his powers, with a remarkable attention to lush and exquisite detail.  However, in this film the appearance is always at the service of the film’s emotional core, rather than the other way around.  The attention to detail, both in terms of the mise-en-scene and the cinematography, always acts as a slightly mannered surface to the fervent passions that always exist beneath the surface.  And the sex scene, which could have been salacious or trashy, is instead the culmination of the desire that has so long simmered beneath the surface, repressed by both the culture and the film itself.  It is truly one of the finest, and most erotic, depictions of same-sex desire I have seen in a film.

It’s been a long time since I have been touched so deeply by a queer film.  Actually, I would say that Brokeback Mountain was the last such film to do so (which says a great deal about the perils and unfulfilled promise of mainstream acceptance).  Now, I am glad to say that, 10 years later, I can now add another film to that list.  There is so much else I could say about this film, but I won’t spoil the ending for you, but if you don’t emerge with tears in your eyes (or just downright bawling) at the end of this film, then you should begin to doubt your humanity.

Score:  10/10

Gods and Monsters

Queer Classics: “Gods and Monsters”

Warning:  Spoilers follow.

I’d been wanting to watch this film from beginning to end–I’d seen a few bits and pieces now and then throughout the years–for a long time.  Fortunately, it became available On Demand the other day, and so I decided to a look.

And I’m really glad I did.

I’ve always had a bit of a crush on both Ian McKellen and Brendan Fraser, and watching this film reminds me of why.  McKellen plays famed horror director James Whale, slowly fading into obscurity decades after his famous successes in the 1930s, while Fraser plays a gardener who gradually finds himself drawn into Whale’s world of old Hollywood memories and tortured reminiscences of World War I.  At first, the rather dim gardener (whose name is Clayton Boone), seems unsure how to respond, but gradually the two develop a strong bond that is increasingly tested by Whale’s failing mental and physical health and his eventual, final descent into madness and despair.

In many ways, this film feels like a romance that isn’t really a romance.  We’re never allowed to forget that Clayton is rigorously straight, but one can still detect a fair bit of on-screen chemistry between the two men, not least because it’s obvious that there is a great deal of chemistry between the two actors.  And of course there’s no denying that Whale obviously experiences some measure of attraction for his handsome gardener, though I would hesitate to say that it is erotic in the sense that we normally expect.  While that may be an element, he also seems to see in Boone a measure of the youth and vitality that he saw during his time in World War I, a reminder of the exquisite yet frail nature of young beauty.

Whale is also a man tormented by his past, both that in the trenches and his time as one of Hollywood’s most famous directors.  This past continues to intrude on the present.  Whale has begun to suffer from a series of strokes that keep his mind from being able to stay firmly in the present.  Visually, of course, the film allows us to see this through editing, and there are several moments where we are violently jarred into the past.  Through such editing, we come to understand the mental (and, increasingly, physical) agony that Whale feels as his body fails him and he yearns to recapture some measure of the success that and energy that he possessed in his youth.

This toggling between various times also explains one of the film’s most appealing aspects, i.e. the rumination on the nature of Hollywood.  As with the finest of films about the industry of the industry (I’m thinking here of ones like Sunset Boulevard), Gods and Monsters shows us that Hollywood is a fickle mistress, willing to abandon those who are no longer seen as lucrative investments.  As the film points out, at least two of Whale’s films, Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein have rightly become two of the most canonical films in the horror canon.  Fortunately, it also reminds us that Whale produced what is largely considered the best adaptation of the famous musical Showboat, before gradually fading into the obscurity from which he has yet to emerge.

Like the best films, Gods and Monsters leaves you with a faint feeling of sadness and melancholy, of the a world that has vanished and that will never reappear.  One cannot help but feel at least a measure of nostalgia for the world of old Hollywood that the film presents to us, a world of larger-than-life figures that hold on to the last fading vestiges of their former glories.

At the dramatic level, the film features excellent performances, not just from McKellen and Fraser, but also from the late Lynn Redgrave as Whale’s caretaker Hanna.  Judgmental and harsh at times (she refers to Whale as a “bugger,”) she is equally devoted to him and is absolutely devastated by his suicide.  There is clearly a strong relationship between the two of them, one born of mutual affection and love.  But the dramatic heart of the film is the relationship between Whale and Boone, a touching if somewhat tragic bonding between the old world and the new.

Score:  10/10