Dissertation Days (17): Headaches

Much as it pains me to admit it, this has not been a very productive day on any front. I managed to eke out some progress on Chapter 3, though I did nothing at all on Chapter 4. I had a bit of a pet emergency (Beast, my kitty, had an asthma flare, so a large part of the day has been spent fretting over here; she’s doing much better, thankfully). I also developed a splitting headache, so that ruled out a lot of work progress this evening.

Still, I did manage to do some copy and paste from earlier drafts of the chapter, so the section on queerness, Nero, and Quo Vadis is starting to slowly take shape in a coherent form. I’m still struggling to bring together the strands of queerness, colour, and the terrifying nature of history, but I think I have the avenue I need.

I’m trying to avoid a huge theory info-dump right in the middle of the discussion. I think I’m going to have to just winnow out any theoretical references that aren’t directly relevant to what I’m doing, and relegate the others to a footnote. I also have to find a way to bring together my discussions of queer theory in general and the queer film theorists that I’m also working with.

I think that I need to focus on just the queer theorist Kathryn Bond Stockton and her notion of the queer child and Lee Edelman’s notion of jouissance and the death drive. Now, if I can only make sure that they mesh with both my arguments about chromatic history, I think I’ll have something significant to say about how this film imagines history (I also have to make sure that it fits in with the preceding discussion of S&D and D&B). Lots of balls in the air. I do like a challenge.

Sigh.

Unfortunately, more work is probably not in the offing tomorrow, as I have more family obligations. Sometime, probably early next week, I should be able to get back into something of my normal groove.

Until then, I fear that the installments of Dissertation Days will be as sporadic as the actual progress I’ll be making on my chapters. Still, I’m going to carve out each piece as I can, and that will have to be good enough for now.

In my book, any progress is good progress.

Dissertation Days (13): Breakthroughs

Somehow, it seems that revision and incremental writing seems to take so much more energy and time than producing new material. It’s one of the bitter ironies of writing a new chapter draft. As a result, it took me several hours to work my way through a mere few pages, but luckily I had some substantial breakthroughs.

This came about as I was finishing the section on queerness and communist subversiveness. It actually provided me with the final piece of the puzzle that I needed, so that I can finally make a compelling and (I hope) original point about the way in which Nero’s queerness in Quo Vadis works as an expression of the pleasure of terrifying history. There’s nothing like a bit of collective queer fantasy to encounter the ineffable nature of history, am I right?

Still, despite the fact that today was a bit of a slog, I made good progress today. The queer section is pretty much done in its broad contours, and the same is also true of the section on colour. A little more fine-tuning might be needed to make sure that that section is ready for submission, but overall I think it does the work that it needs to do.

Since this is a pretty large and complex chapter, I’ve found that I’ve had to use a bit more signposting than I usually do, just to make sure that the reader is able to follow my logic and understand why I’m including the evidence that I do. It does pad out the chapter, but I personally think it’s helpful to have those rhetorical bits when you’re dealing with a 40-50 page piece of academic writing.

I’m quite happy with the way that this day turned out, really. The queer section was a hot mess this morning, and now it feels like it actually works in the chapter as a whole. Not too bad, if I do say so myself. Now I don’t actually feel bad about not doing any work tomorrow.

Yes, you read that right. I am indeed taking off tomorrow. Then it’s back to work on Monday to finish up the close reading sections of both Samson and Delilah and David and Bathsheba. Once those two sections are done, the home stretch will finally be in sight. What a glorious feeling.

It’s going to be a great day. I can feel it.

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.

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.

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

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

Mourning, Melancholy, and “Paris is Burning”

I recently taught Jennie Livingston’s famous documentary Paris is Burning to a group of undergraduates.  As I was watching the film, a number of realizations struck me at once:  most of my students were not born when the film was released, let alone shot (1990 and the 1980s, respectively); the particular iteration of the subculture brought to life in the documentary has faded into history; many of the participants are also no longer with us.  These realizations, commonsensical as they may seem, struck me with a particularly intense force, evoking a profound sense of melancholy that has haunted me frequently of late as I have begun to think about the ways in which contemporary gay politics, and gay culture more generally, seems determined to forget the eras that preceded the present.

In some ways, such deliberate amnesia is completely understandable.  It’s no secret that the 20th Century was, in many ways, incredibly homophobic, and LGBT people lived precarious lives, with the threat of death and violence never far away.  Indeed, part of what makes Paris is Burning such a powerful and evocative film is that it manages to capture that, showing us a world in which parody and irony are a means of coping with a world that cares little for the lives of the poor, people of colour, or LGBT folks (or, gasp, someone who occupies all three positions simultaneously).  The death of Venus Xtravaganza, briefly yet viscerally alluded to in the film, serves as a potent reminder of just how fragile queer life was (and remains).  The film continually asks:  how do you cope with life, knowing that it can be snuffed out at any moment?  That question is just as pertinent, and just as difficult to answer, now as it was then.

Though I am, by most standards, a fairly young ga-y man, I’ve always felt a peculiar affinity to the generations that preceded me.  Unlike so many young LGBT people, I do not see my elders as hold-overs from the bad old days before we had gay marriage and gay people all over television, from the relatively asexual Cam and Mitch of Modern Family to the hyper-sexual Connor of How to Get Away with Murder (which, I’m sad to say, is the implicit if not always stated position adopted by all too many in the younger generation).  Perhaps this is a result of my own social position as a queer person originally from Appalachia, which has lagged behind the coasts in terms of queer acceptance.  Perhaps it also has to do with the fact that my undergraduate queer experience was shaped by several older homos who still had a foot in that older world.

It also has to do, however, with my own sort of melancholic temperament, which helps explain why films such as Paris is Burning and even a more recent film such as The Normal Heart strike such a chord with me.  There is something profoundly affective about these types of films, that provide us a glimpse into a world forever gone, yet which they allow us to touch, even if just for a brief time.  Films set or filmed in the 1980s in particular always carry this sense of mourning and melancholy for me; I can’t help but remember the generation that came of age during the height of the AIDS pandemic, when I was just a child and had no true consciousness of the scale of the conflict.  Films like Paris is Burning allow me, as a younger gay man, to gain at least a temporary access to the world that preceded mine, even as it reminds me that that world has forever vanished.

Watching this film, I am powerfully reminded of the dangers of forgetfulness that perpetually haunt us.  When I hear comments like those recently made by Russell Tovey about his gratitude about not being effeminate, I can’t help but think that part of what makes his comments possible is a terrible bout of amnesia that keeps him, and others like him, from remembering the key roles played (and still played) by “effeminate” gay men.  Let’s not forget that the riots at Stonewall were started by drag queens who had had enough of the bullshit, and that it has long been the more “effeminate” gay mean leading the charge in terms of challenging patriarchy and homophobia (which almost always work in tandem).  Watching Paris is Burning is, for me at least (and I hope for others), a way of both remembering and mourning the queer past.  Rather than strenuously disavowing the melancholia that such mourning inevitably brings with it, I think that perhaps it would do us all a collective good to embrace this side of ourselves, to experience the uncomfortable, and sometimes painful, aspects of our past so that we can truly grasp the nature of our present, and the possibilities of our future.

Review: “The Way He Looks”

Warning:  Spoilers follow.

The other night, I had the distinct pleasure of watching Daniel Ribeiro’s touching film The Way He Looks (original title Hoje Eu Quero Voltar Sozinho), a Brazilian film about a young blind man who finds himself falling in love with his best friend.  Based on Ribeiro’s short film entitled Eu Não Quero Voltar Sozinho, the film is Brazil’s official entry for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.  Who would have thought we would see this day?  We can but hope that it will win the statuette.

The film explores the experiences of young Leonardo as he attempts to forge an independent life for himself away from his overprotective parents while also contending with the jealousy of his best friend Giovana as he grows ever closer to newcomer Gabriel.  Gradually, as he grows closer to Gabriel, they must both contend with the deepening of their feelings for one another, until at last they admit to their feelings for one another and the film ends with them defying the school bullies by holding hands as they walk home.

Through both its cinematography and its score, The Way He Looks evokes all of the angst and anxiety that young love, especially young queer love, evokes in those who experience it.  However, it does so in a way that never comes across as trite or overdone.  Much like Weekend, another film that relied on solid storytelling and subtle aesthetics to explore the intricacies of gay love, The Way He Looks takes its time with its story, fully fleshing out its characters and their motivations, and it’s clear the the director and writers actually like these characters and want us to as well.  This is not to suggest that they are perfect–even the hero, Leonardo, comes across as somewhat ungrateful to his parents and their obvious concern for him–but they are characters with whom we can not only identify, but whom we can actually recognize as humans.  If (and this is a contentious question) we as LGBTQI consumers of media want well-rounded characters to represent us to the populace at large, then I think this is just the film for that purpose.

Aside from its generous and gentle politics, however, the film also contains a great deal of aesthetic sophistication that grants it multiple layers of pleasure for the savvy queer filmgoer.  Two scenes in particular struck me as poetic in their construction.  In one, Leo pleasures himself while embracing the hooded sweatshirt Gabriel has left behind, and in the other Gabriel stares at Leo’s nude back as he showers even as we, the spectators, are invited to identify with his gaze and with the burgeoning desire that he cannot deny and cannot yet accept .  The composition of the former shot looks as if it could have been lifted straight out of a painting, while also suggesting that desire does not always work on the level of sight, thus allowing the latter scene to explore desire at the visual level.  The visual sophistication of these scenes, and the underlying nuance of the film’s portrayal of visual impairment, allows it to move out of the realm of the purely romantic into the realm of the sublime.

What emerges from this portrayal, I would suggest, is a vision of what the representation of queer love might come to look like now that the acceptance of LGBTQI people has reached a significant high point in many places (remember that Brazil has legalized gay marriage).  It is refreshing to see a high-profile film that does not rely on the queer tragedy trope that haunted representations of us for so long.  Though I love Brokeback Mountain, it too relied on a tragic narrative that highlighted the violence and death that have for so long clung to representations of same-sex love.  This is not to suggest that these representations don’t have a place–we should always remember our history–but instead to argue that we need to diversify what we want to see in terms of representation.

Above all, however, The Way He Looks is a poignant and beautiful testament to the power of young queer love.  As I sat there in the audience with my boyfriend and well over a hundred other queer spectators, I felt my heart swell with joy at the feeling of community and camaraderie that permeated the gathering.  Even now that it’s 2014 and we as a community have won many hard-won battles, I still feel a little tremble of fulfillment when I see gay love depicted on screen and know that there are others in the audience with whom I can share that experience.

“Broke Straight Boys”: The Intersection of Class, Gender, and Sexuality in Amateur Gay Porn

It’s no surprise that many gay men (and much gay male pornography) is obsessed with straight men.  There are many reasons, both historic and cultural, for this long-standing erotic attraction for, as David Halperin has eloquently argued in his book How to Be Gay, part of what constitutes contemporary gay male identity and sexual desire is precisely an erotic attraction for the masculine, and in our culture nothing represents masculinity better than the machismo-enshrouded figure of the straight man.  Love or hate him, he remains a haunting presence in the American cultural and social imaginary, infusing even the gay community with a sometimes-noxious and toxic infatuation with masculinity and a concomitant rejection of the feminine.

This emerges quite clearly in the world of so-called amateur gay pornography, of the sort produced by such much-vaunted and celebrated studios as Corbin Fisher and Sean Cody, as well as some of the lesser luminaries such as Broke Straight Boys.  What makes the latter studio so compelling is the way in which it manages to encapsulate and draw upon so many different strands of gay erotic desire (including the rough trade figure that has long been a staple of gay pornography and erotica of various kinds) as part of its brand identity.  What emerges from this gay pornography studio is a compelling, and slightly disturbing voyeurism of the vexed figure of the straight male willing (and able) to do anything for the right amount of money.

Of course, the website’s agenda is spelled out in its very title, which draws explicit attention to the indigent status of its stars.  This attention to the financial vulnerability of its performers–many of whom are both explicitly and implicitly coded as traditionally masculine–seems to undermine the very stability of the masculine attributes that it otherwise fetishizes.  Appearances can be deceiving, however, and I would argue that it is precisely the confluence of gender, class, and sexual desire that comprises the visual and fantasy pleasure to be gained from this particular website.  Though its models are not as uniformly muscular or gay-clone-esque as those of some of the higher end studios (such as the aforementioned Sean Cody and Corbin Fisher), that actually works to make BSB’s models both more “realistic” and, perhaps surprisingly, more desirable.  To paraphrase a clutch of comments on various message boards, most of the models look like actual boys that you might pick up at your local gay bar.

Due perhaps in no small part to its own branding efforts–and in spite of its own claims to being the web’s #1 gay porn site–Broke Straight Boys has gained something of a reputation for producing and featuring pornography that, to paraphrase commentators at the WayBig Blog, looks like it came out of a trailer park.  The comment threads attached to the website’s updates frequently contain derogatory remarks about the studio and the quality of its products, and yet, it has clearly managed to gain a substantial enough following to warrant the forthcoming TV series that purports to offer a reality-TV perspective on the internal workings of the studio and its stable of stars.  I would argue that this can at least partially be explained by the particular niche that BSB seeks to fill, one that is studiously underserved by both Sean Cody, Corbin Fisher, and other more self-consciously high-level studios.

This niche is one in which Broke Straight Boys provides the pleasure of the attainable and the everyday, while also drawing upon those things that gay pornography has always attempted to provide for its ever-diversifying consumers.  In an era in which what constitutes gay culture and gay identity is, like many other categories of social identity, increasingly fractured and in flux, BSB also highlights how unstable even gay desire can be.  What’s more, it also illuminates the ways in which studio branding in the gay porn industry can have a significant and potent effect on the types of erotic pleasures being mobilized by these purveyors of visual erotica.  Not all gay pornography, it would seem, is made equal.

At the same time, however, there is a darker side of this branding identity that needs to be acknowledged.  While there is something seemingly perpetually appealing about the straight-to-gay transformation (commonly referred to as gay for pay within the industry), it also caters to a slumming mentality among gay male audiences that is worthy of sustained attention and critique.  What the comments sections on discussion boards call attention to (among many other things) is the unfortunate appeal to a masculinity made vulnerable to the vicissitudes of economic privation.  While this may be appealing as fantasy (and we can fervently hope that it is, though the unfortunate statistics regarding porn stars, economic instability, and suicide paint a different picture), we should also be aware of the disturbing contours and drives that undergird those fantasies.  Is it really so appealing to see financially strapped straight men paid to perform sex acts?  How is this any different than the economic exploitation that occurs when women are engaged in pornographic exploitation?

What emerges from this website, therefore, is an uncomfortable reminder of the contradictions and strains that continue to operate at the heart of gay male pornography and gay male sexual desire more generally.  In order to gain a more complete understanding of the complexities involved in the pleasures offered up by different pornography studios, we need to also understand the intertwining of class, gender, and sex that constitute those pleasures.  While many such entertainments attempt to make us forget what goes into their production, BSB is often forthright, actually making a point of mentioning the amount of money being offered.  In addition to seeing this as part of the fantasy scenario being constructed by the studio, as audiences and spectators we should also use this as a valuable opportunity to think about our own complacency in the exploitation of male sexual labour, as well as the consequences such exploitation has for an understanding of gay male culture’s contradictory relationship with hegemonic masculinity.

Reiew: “X-Men: Days of Future Past” and Radical Queerness

It probably comes as no surprise that the new film X-Men:  Days of Future Past is positively bubbling over with queer subtexts.  Directed by noted gay auteur Brian Singer,the film follows the X-Men (especially Wolverine, Professor X, and Magneto), as they struggle to change the past in order to prevent a future in which powerful robots called Sentinels annihilate mutants and any non-mutants who might carry the gene.  While Magneto and (for a time) Mystique believe in killing the inventor (played by the inimitable Peter Dinklage), Xavier and a time-traveling Wolverine believe in co-existence and cooperation, rather than killing.

In many ways, this film replays and amplifies the tension that has existed in all the films in the franchise:  between peaceful rapprochement with humanity and extreme separatism (represented by Xavier and Magneto, respectively).  Given the pretty blatant queer overtones that also exist in the films–the process of coming out, the shunning of mutants in wider society, the attempt to relegate them to the status of second-class citizens–the film also seems to take the position that assimilation of mutants within the larger society, as well as, by extension, LGBT people, is the only way to attain peace and understanding between the two groups.

At the same time, however, the film also seems to undercut this message by continuing to offer us the charismatic Magneto as a potential point of identification.  Certainly, Days of Future Past, like most of the entries before, seems to come down pretty solidly and unequivocally on Xavier’s side (in this case, by ensuring that Mystique finally breaks Magneto’s hold over her and opts for peace instead of war with humanity).  However, one can’t deny that Magneto (especially as portrayed by Ian McKellen and Michael Fassbender), is almost more compelling the the heroes whose viewpoints he adamantly opposes.  It seems as if X-Men may not be as assimilationist, after all.

X-Men:  Days of Future Past continues to engage with the ways in which we conceptualize the role of queerness in 21st Century American culture.  The debate about whether it is more politically efficacious to join with and accept the modes of behavior (monogamy, home ownership, reproduction) that characterize heteronormative America or to instead resist through “aberrant” sexual practices (barebacking, promiscuity, etc.), still simmers beneath the surface of contemporary LGBT and queer activism.  Nor, I should add, is it anywhere close to a resolution.

What this film does, however, is offer two points of view that ultimately have a great deal of credibility, even as they remain opposed to one another.  At least, I’m hoping that I wasn’t the only one who held out a little bit of hope that Magneto would be successful in his attempt to defeat his human enemies.  There is something perennially frustrating about both mainstreaming as a political process and mainstream society’s reluctance to bring LGBTQI people into the fold (or, for that matter, to even consider the possibility of a queer society).  X-Men’s compelling villain hero serves as a valuable reminder of the promise, and also the inevitable limitations, of a radical queer politics.