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.

Book Review: “The Sorcerer’s Daughter” (Terry Brooks)

Though I finished Terry Brooks’s most recent book some time ago, I’ve just now got around to writing my review of it. This book, The Sorcerer’s Daughter, focuses on two parallel plots:  one traces the adventure of Leofur, the daughter of the malevolent sorcerer Arcannen, as she attempts to rescue her friend Chrysallin. The other, unsurprisingly, follows Paxon Leah as he attempts to save a Druid delegation pursued by Federation soldiers.

There is much to love about this rather slim, briskly paced novel. Most of the characters are ones that we have met in the previous two novels, but it was quite refreshing to see both Chrysallin and Leofur get their own narrative arcs. Brooks has always excelled at blending together firm characterization with well-laid plots, and The Sorcerer’s Daughter is no exception.

I have been reading Brooks’s work for over twenty years, and even now I’m still astounded at his marvelous ability to conjure spaces and places that are truly, viscerally terrifying. The Murk Sink, the lair of a particularly nasty witch, is one such place. Full of monstrous creatures whose size dwarfs anything that we’ve seen in quite some time (Mr. Teeth is a particularly terrifying creation, precisely because he is such an unpredictable and deadly leviathan). Though this world may be our future, it is a terrifying future, one filled with creatures the likes of which we cannot, at this moment, imagine.

All of this reinforces the sense that the world of the Four Lands continues to exist in an unstable relationship between chaos and order. On the one hand, the possibility of a rapprochement between the Druids and their allies on the one hand and the Federation on the other implies that this world might at last find a measure of peace. On the other, forces such as the sorcerer Arcannen continue to pose a threat to this order, the dark lure of chaos always lurking just around the corner.

What interested me most about the novel, however, was its remarkable queerness. I mean this not only in reference to the same-sex couple that appears (albeit briefly) in the novel, but also to Imric Cort’s experience as a shapeshifter. To me, at least, the inner turmoil that Cort repeatedly faces was the emotional heart of this novel, as he struggles with the sense that he is not who he should be, that he always has to keep a part of himself hidden from the rest of the world. Any queer person (by which I mean LGBTQIA+) knows this experience well. We live in a heteronormative world, and we are always conscious that the way we are exists as the flip side of everything that culture tells is “normal.” In this novel, Brooks manages to capture this sense and while Cort is, strictly speaking, “straight,” his experience is certainly not. Just as importantly, his relationship with Leofur does not “cure” him of his shapeshifting tendency; instead, she is an anchor that allows him to be who he is without guilt or self-hatred. It really is a stunningly beautiful relationship that Brooks has crafted here, perhaps one of the most emotionally resonant and complex that he has ever created.

If I have one complaint about Brooks’s latest outing, it’s that I wish there were more of it. In this concluding novel of this informal trilogy he has given us a satisfactory conclusion to a number of the ongoing trials of Paxon, but the ending is bittersweet. I actually find it rather refreshing that Brooks avoided the easier path of a happy romantic ending for his hero, opting instead to show us that, sometimes, life does not quite end up as we would like it to. Instead, we must sometimes rely on our friends to see us through those dark points in our life.

All in all, I would say that The Sorcerer’s Daughter nicely sets the stage for the epic showdown that seems to be looming in the near future. Now that we know, per Brooks’s own words, that the chronological end of Shannara is near, we can get a clearer sense of the final trajectory. Perhaps, finally, the people of the Four Lands may find some level of harmony and peaceful coexistence.

But then again, perhaps not.

Only time will tell.

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.

Weekly Rant: Being Queer as a Political Act

I’ve spent the last week struggling with the events of Orlando. Not since I was a teenager and fully realized the import of Matthew Shepard’s death have I felt this way:  angry, terrified, and deeply, ineffably sad. How is it possible, I find myself wondering, that in 2016 I should still feel like my life as a queer person is somehow worth less than my straight friends? How is possible, I ask myself, that a group of young queer folks could be gunned down in cold blood in a gay bar? How?

However, in the days since, I’ve become increasingly convinced that if the massacre has done anything, it has ruthlessly torn away the myth that we are living in the golden age of assimilation, when we have all been thoroughly incorporated into the fabric of American society. We queer folks have made some tremendous advances in the last year, and we shouldn’t forget that. However, if we had believed that the legalization of same-sex marriage was the apex of our political struggles, the events of a week have ago have put the lie to that myth. We may have gained some legal power, but we are still systematically marginalized.

One can see this in the way that the mainstream media has already co-opted what is most certainly a queer tragedy and spun it neatly into already-existing discourses surrounding terrorism and gun control. The issue for is not that these aren’t important and pressing issues; it’s that the importance of this event for LGBT+ folk gets subsumed into a set of issues that mainstream American political culture is infinitely more invested in and feels comfortable discussing. Furthermore, it just highlights, again, that we as a culture seem utterly incapable of thinking about the ways in which different issues intersect. Oh, the pundits and thinkers pays lip service to this sort of intersectional thinking, but then they immediately retreat into their comfort zones. If you want to hear substantive and meaningful discussion about what this event has meant for queer people, and especially queer people of color, then you should check out a program like Code Switch (a great podcast in its own right, I might add), which recently released an episode focusing on the intersection of race and queerness in the aftermath of Orlando.

This event has also reinforced for me the necessity of collective spaces of queer mourning. As an academic and someone who spends a great deal of their time thinking through the complexities of these sorts of issues, I understand the impulse to seek out explanations, to find some way of making sense of what has transpired. At the same time, I think we queer and feminist scholars do ourselves a grave disservice if we retreat too quickly into the academic and the cerebral. Instead, I strongl believe would do better to truly engage with our feelings and affects. These are our queer brothers and sisters that were slain in that night, and acting as if the incident is a mind puzzle to be unlocked does little either for us as mourners or for those who lost their lives.

Just as importantly, this has also reinforced my long-standing philosophy that being queer (a designation I utilize to include all variants encompassed by the LGBT+ communities) is, in itself, a political act. The legalization of same-sex marriage a year ago suggested that, after years of agitating, the assimilationist wing of the movement had at last emerged triumphant. HRC and others like them might have been excused for believing that they had succeeded in their (laudable if somewhat limited) mission of integrating queer folk into the fabric of mainstream society and politics. Now, however, we know that these efforts were in their origin always limited. If we want to make this world a safer place for queer folk, we must consistently, every single day, work against the systems of normality and exclusion that have made this event possible.

If you think that being gay is just being part of your identity like eye or hair color, I can only say, without equivocation, that you are wrong. Look around you, and you will see that your life, your love, and your family matters less than our straight fellows. One need only look at the recent wave of “religious freedom” and “bathroom” bills spreading like a poison through state legislatures to understand that the LGBT+ community is under direct and vitriolic attack from the American Right. If we do not stand up for ourselves, if we do not denounce the infuriating hypocrisy of those who send their “thoughts and prayers” with one hand while propagating hate-filled legislation with the other, then we will be swept into the dustbin of oblivion.

The battle lines are drawn, my friends, and the time has come to decide which side we are going to take. On one side are those who will stop at nothing to ensure that their vision of “morality” and “ethics” is forced onto the rest of us. Religious zealotry has taken many forms in 20th and 21st Century America, and we must do everything in our collective power to ensure that it is does not have any more of a chance to spread its noxious poison into our political and cultural institutions. The American Left has been negligent in the last 30 years as these groups have exerted an influence far exceeding their actual relevance, and that must come to an end.

On the other, however, are those who remain invested in making this a safer and more just world. This isn’t just a matter of who you love–it is far more complicated and urgent than that. There is a war against our very identities currently underway. To ignore this fact would be to perpetrate a grave injustice against those 49 innocents who lost their lives in an Orlando gay club (and don’t get me started on the way in which some members of the media insist on referring to as a generic nightclub). If we want to survive, we have to fight.

And we have to–WE WILL–win.

QSA #2: How Not to Be a Tool on Grindr (Part 1?)

Hello, darlings. As is my wont, I am here to share some thoughts on Grindr, that app that is at once so repugnant and yet so utterly compelling. In the spirit of my last musing on this subject, I want to offer a few words of advice on how to behave appropriately on Grindr. Here, then, are a few rules to keep in mind as you venture into the world of one of the most popular hookup apps.

Rule #1–Don’t be Needy. I get it; you’re probably on Grindr because you’re lonely and want to reach out to another human body. That’s totally okay. However, if someone doesn’t respond right away, or if they don’t agree to a date right away, DON’T CONTINUE TO HARASS THEM ABOUT IT. I understand the temptation, believe me I do, but it’s because I understand it that I can say without equivocation that it is the surest thing to drive other guys away. (By the way, this whole thing about being needy also applies if you happen to get into a relationship. Learn the boundaries that are acceptable. Your life will be a lot happier. Trust me).

Rule #2–Don’t be Desperate. This may seem like the same thing as Rule #1, but it’s slightly different. Again, if the presumed aim of being on Grindr is to get laid, or at least to attract someone, you definitely don’t want to appear desperate. You may be in the digital world, but that doesn’t mean that people can’t sense that desperation in the ways in which you comport yourself. Now, this doesn’t mean that you have to be an ice queen; it does, however, mean that you have to learn the balance between showing interest and not leaping at every guy that messages you. It’s a hard skill to master (and even I am still working on it), but it’s well worth mastering. I guarantee it will help you to be more desirable, and it will give you more confidence in yourself and your self-worth as well.

Rule #3–Don’t be a Nuisance. Again, this is somewhat similar to the preceding two rules, but there is a certain point at which your persistence becomes irritating. If someone doesn’t respond to you, even if you’ve been messaging for a while, be patient. And if they still don’t respond, then maybe you should take a hint. There’s something to be said for the long-lost arts of patience and subtlety, and I really do think that men respond much better to those than they do pestering and badgering. Remember that not everyone is glued to their phone 24/7 (I know that’s hard to believe), so be patient. Sometimes a good thing really is worth waiting for and even if that one guy you really like doesn’t respond, just remember that there are many other fish in the sea.

So, there you have it. More words of advice for Grindr. It’s a hard world out there (<<see what I did?), but if you really think about what you’re doing on Grindr (and other hookup apps), the experience can be genuinely pleasurable for all the parties.

Happy grinding!

QSA (Queer Service Announcement) #1: 5 Rules for a Better Grindr Photo

Being on Grindr is, quite possibly, the most horrid experience most gay men can have. There are so many shallow, frankly awful people on there that it often makes me wonder why I (or anyone) bothers with it. And yet I keep returning to it, despite all the things I hate.

Chief among those hates are bad photos. Most of us aren’t professional photographers, but there are still a few things we can do (or don’t) that will help make our collective Grindr experience a little easier to bear.

Rule #1:  Show more than your abs. Yes, we get it. You work out a lot. You have a great body. You clearly want us to fetishize your body and fall over ourselves praising you for going to the gym so often. But some of us often want to see a face, as well, so please, do us a favour and show it. (Oh, and while I’m at it, knock of the pictures of legs. That’s just plain ridiculous).

Rule #2:  DON’T SHOOT A PHOTO FROM BELOW. Just don’t do it. NO ONE looks good shot from below. Even the finest, most chiseled jaw will look flabby and unappealing when shot with your head drawn in like a turtle (which is what almost inevitably happens). Always shoot from above, or have someone take it for you.

Rule #3:  Don’t show scenery. Yes, scenery is great to look at, BUT NOT WHEN WE’RE LOOKING TO ACTUALLY MEET SOMEONE. If, as is usually the case, people are on Grindr to get laid, do you really think they want to see some bullshit picture of a waterfall?  Of course not. What then happens is that we have to have this awkward exchange where I ask for your photo, so just cut out the middle part and post your damn face already.

Rule #4:  Don’t make a goofy face. I don’t know about most people, but I like to have a clear and accurate view of the person I’m trying to hook up with/chat with/go on a date with. Besides, making a goofy face just makes you look like an ass.

Rule #5:  TAKE A GOOD PHOTO. You’d think this would go without saying, but I see literally dozens of shitty photos anytime I pull up the app. People who are bowling, people who are standing so far away from the camera that you can’t see their face, people standing in dim lighting. It’s a selfie, people, not brain surgery. Get it together (or find someone to take the picture for you).

Love them or hate them (I don’t much care which), here are 5 fairly easy rules for making your Grindr photo a little better, both for yourself and those of us who have to look at it.

Happy grinding!

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.

Why Do Gay Men Love Abs?

If you’ve ever spent a minute on the popular gay hookup app Grindr, you know it’s no secret that gay men love abs.  Scores of shirtless pics jockey for position any time you open the app, each one trying to outdo the others in terms of the amount of abdominal definition on offer. And a casual perusal of any gay porn studio will show a similar fixation, with both studios and stars jockeying to outdo one another with their conspicuous display of their abdominal fortitude.

Gay men, clearly, love abs, and they love men who have them. They are, in fact, one of the hottest commodities in the dating and hookup scenes.  The question is, though, why?

I’ve given this matter a lot of thought, and while I’m always a little cautious about generalizations about gay men, I also think that there are some deeply-rooted reasons why we seem to have a particular penchant (I might even so far as to say an obsession) with both procuring abs and sleeping with/dating a guy who also has them.  At least part of the desire, I suggest, has to do with the area of the body in question.  The stomach, as we all know, is the focal point for questions about health and wellness, not only in terms of fat (it’s the part of the body that often shows it the most, certainly in men), but also in terms of actual food consumption.

Just as importantly, however, to have a stomach that is soft rather than hard speaks to one’s inability to control one’s appetite, and the ability to control one’s bodily appetites has long been associated with the masculine, as opposed to the feminine, which is characterized, as much as by anything else, by an inability to bring those desires under control, to regulate them and channel them appropriately.  To be anything other than ripped and defined, then, is to become unmasculine, to become perhaps the most dreaded thing in contemporary gay male culture:  the feminine. To be soft and feminine is to take a headlong tumble into the world of the gay abject, subject to the ridicule and cruel dismissal of hook-up culture (which is not, as a rule, known for its compassion).

There’s no question that gay men have long had a vexed and often contradictory relationship with masculinity.  It is at once the thing that we desire and the thing that we want to be. There is no object more desired in the world of gay dating than the hot, muscled, masculine top. One need only look at the many hook-up profiles proclaiming something along the lines of “no fats, no femmes” to get a sense of how vitriolic and jaded gay hook-ups (and, if we’re being honest, gay dating) can be in the world of Grindr and other similar apps.

This isn’t to say that any of this always operates on a conscious level (though it does certainly do so at times).  While many gay men make no secret of the their abhorrence for the feminine, many more, I think, have probably so internalized the demands of our culture at large that it becomes almost second nature to disavow any traces of the feminine or the soft.  To be either is to abrogate any claim to be an object of desire (David Halperin has an excellent discussion of this issue in his book How to Be Gay) and, perhaps just as importantly, to slip into those pernicious stereotypes of flaming queens and limp-wristed fruits that were used by mainstream culture to pathologize gay men for much of the 20th Century.

Having a hard, chiseled body, then, becomes a way of proving oneself to the wider world, a means of proving that you have escaped from the chains of those old stereotypes and reached into a new day, when gay men can have all of the attributes (and privileges) of their straight brethren. And to top it all of, by having that body you also become the commodity that everyone is after, and that brings with it its own particular form of power.

The most frightening thing about this whole situation is that even I, with my critical apparatus honed by years in an English graduate program and immersion in queer and feminist theory, still fall prey to the perniciousness of this body ideology.  I constantly scrutinize my own belly, desperately seeking that first set of signs that my abs have finally begun to develop.  It’s not enough, I’ve found, simply to be thin (though a thin and lithe body has its own attractions). You have to be able to show that you’ve put in the time and the effort (and the discipline) to make your body truly splendid and powerful.

In order to truly become the object and the subject of desire that I want to be, my body should (so my indoctrinated self tells me), fall into the molds prescribed by the culture of which I am a part. It really is a daily struggle to start loving my body for what it is, even while wanting to make it better. And it is also a struggle to make better mean healthier, rather than simply look better. Yes, it is nice to have that outward show of having accomplished a fitness goal, but not at the price of losing one’s sense of intrinsic self-worth.

Of course, this isn’t to say that working out and watching what you eat isn’t good. They absolutely are, and we should do both more. It’s just that we should also be aware of the cultural baggage that always accrues around the body, and we shouldn’t let ourselves become so enamoured of a particular body type that we begin to exclude and pathologize those who don’t fall into those very restrictive modes and models. If we can begin to think outside of that scope, I firmly believe that we will all be the happier for it. Now that’s a goal I can get behind.

Can a Queer Feminist Enjoy Tolkien?

The short answer to the question leading this post is…yes. The long, and more complete, answer, requires quite a bit of explanation. In order to do so, I’ve decided to address each half of the descriptor (queer feminist) separately, while offering some concluding remarks that bring them together.

As a queer man, I am always profoundly moved by the intense personal and physical relationships that emerge between the various male characters. Of course, the most notable such interaction is between Frodo and Sam. Truly, the relationship between them is one of the richest and most textured to be found in all of 20th Century literature (and much more so than most straightforwardly “queer” male literature, with some notable exceptions such as Maurice and Brokeback Mountain). Theirs is a relationship forged in the harshest of conditions, and it engenders a particular form of tenderness, both physical and emotional, that especially resonates with we  men who feel desire (again, both physical and emotional) for other men.

Now, I’m almost 100% certain that Tolkien, devout Catholic that he was, did not intend these relationships to be understood as in any way sexual, and I’m not really sure that I, irreverent queer reader that I am, see them that way either (though I know there are many who do). However, I respond to them in a way that is more raw and intensely emotional than mere friendship typically allows. In other words, I pick up on those elements in the text that resonate most strongly with my own experiences and encounters with the world. The queerness, then, is a latent possibility within the text, even if the author did not necessarily intend for it to exist. As the great cultural theorist and scholar Alex Doty pointed out, texts don’t have to be intentionally queer for audiences to pick up on and read them as such.

As a feminist, things are a bit murkier. There are, it is true, remarkably few women of any stature within The Lord of the Rings, though there are many more in The Silmarillion. Of all the women that appear, however, the two that most conspicuously embody what we might call “strength” are Galadriel and Eowyn.

Are these female figures somewhat marginal to the narrative? Perhaps, but I think that reading mostly misses the point. Galadriel, we know, is easily one of the most powerful Elves remaining in Middle-earth (the fact that he is entrusted with one of the three Elven Rings of Power is but one of the many pieces of evidence suggesting this). It is significant, I think, that she bears Nenya, the Ring of Adamant, and that it is through her power that Lothlorien remains unsullied and that, at the last, it is Galadriel who brings about the final dissolution of Dol Guldur and its dungeons and pits.

Yet, for my money, it is Eowyn who most clearly stands out to me as Tolkien’s most masterful female creation. Unlike Galadriel, she does not have native, supernatural power. Instead, she is a woman born into a culture that typically prizes male valour and martial ability. While she obviously possesses these things,she remains bound in a culture that can best be described as benevolently patriarchal. For all that she possesses formidable intellectual ability and skill with arms, the world in which she lives does not explicitly value these when they are found in the body of a woman.

Eowyn’s greatest tragedy, however, is the fact that she finds herself bound to the aging and frail Theoden. Tolkien has an uncannily adept eye for identifying, and portraying, the intensely contradictory feelings such a woman must experience. She clearly loves her uncle and is willing to take care of him, yet she also finds her deepest desires–to be a warrior–frustrated by her familial duties. In a turn of fortune, Tolkien ensures that it is Eowyn, rather than any of the more traditional male heroes, who brings about the death of the Witch-king of Angmar, easily one of the most powerful and menacing of the villains in the Third Age.  At last, Eowyn is vindicated, her name enshrined among the great heroes of Tolkien’s mythology.

So what about a person, like myself, who specifically identifies as a queer feminist, both in terms of politics and in terms of scholarship? For all of its flaws, Tolkien’s legendarium (including but not limited to The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion) display a remarkable complexity in the ways in which it articulates issues of gender and sexuality. Somehow, Tolkien manages to bring to bear the high spirit of European antiquity with the concerns of modernity to craft a tale that can be appealing to even the most contrarian and radical of readers.

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