looking-the-movie-poster

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.

“American Horror Story: Freak Show” Review: “Pink Cupcakes”

The Agony and the Ecstasy

After finally getting the chance to watch last week’s episode of American Horror Story, I have to admit that I was a little worried.  The infamous clown was dead, the townspeople seemed to have finally accepted the freaks, and all seemed right with the world.  And then tonight’s episode happened, and all of my worries when out the window.

There was something intensely agonizing and pleasurable about tonight’s episode, and I don’t mean the former in a pejorative sense.  Instead, I mean to suggest that this episode of AHS:  Freak Show fully utilized the conventions of the horror genre to their fullest extent, drawing us as viewers into both the beauty and the brutality of male violence.  A large part of this, of course, has to do with the camera’s fetishizing of Dandy’s body as he goes about his exercise regimen and carefully and excruciatingly carves his physique into the ultimate killing machine (noting all the while that he is the epitome of America, well-sculpted and violent).  Indeed, that is part of what makes his character so terrifying; he is indeed the epitome of what dominant mid-century ideology believed America to be (and that many conservatives still want it to be).  He exposes the rottenness, the deviance, and the violence that we as a culture have sought so hard to suppress, and that is what gives his appearances that delicate yet overwhelming frisson.

Naturally, the fact that Matt Bomer was cast as the hustler with a painter’s spirit (who, incidentally, has apparently been carrying on an affair with the repressed homosexual Dell) that Dandy ultimately murders heightens our sense of mingled pleasure and dread as we know what is coming.  The exposure of Bomer’s well-crafted physique, as well as the mingled grace and frenzy that characterizes his death, interweave to generate the mingled senses of ecstasy and horror we are invited to feel at his death.  There is a certain measure of quasi-sexual release of at last having him meet his awaited doom (since we in the audience know that Dandy has chosen him to be his next victim, having already found the courage to do away with Dora).  In my view, there is a decidedly queer sensibility motivating these scenes, ranging from the costumes–Dandy is quite fussy about his appearance–and the prolonged nature of the victim’s death (he even appears to still be alive as Dandy is dismembering him).  I am also reminded of two films that also fetishize and aestheticize exquisite male beauty engaged in or falling victim to frenzied violence:  Fight Club and American Psycho.  Like those films, it remains unclear just how critical AHS is of this type of violence, though it certainly seems to subtly suggest that the repressive regime that forced gay men to live subcultural lives rendered them vulnerable to exactly the types of violence that Dandy indulges in (which in itself may be a manifestation of his repressed homosexuality).

Of course, Elsa remains one of the series’ most stunningly crafted creations, and Lange perfectly captures the obvious state of delusion that has well and truly laid claim to what bit of a grasp on reality she possessed.  Whatever goodwill she might have earned from us as viewers has been thoroughly squandered by her irrational and cruel jealousy of the twins  That, however, does not make her any less fascinating and compelling as a character, though we are clearly invited to be ambivalent about her (and to take pleasure in our own ambivalence).  As always, Lange keeps us poised at the delicate balance of revulsion and sympathy.

fAll in all, tonight’s episode was one of the most ecstatically horrific that the series as a whole has yet produced.  Having taken care of so many of its storylines, however, I am left wondering exactly how they are going to fill up the remainder of the season.  Are we simply going to continue seeing Dandy make his delusionally happy way along the absolute oblivion?  It remains to be seen, of course, but hopefully this episode is the beginning of something grand (guignol)Lastly, it is worth noting this episode’s cunning critique of the medium of television, most notably Elsa’s line that she would rather be boiled in oil than be on television.  Television, she says, represents the death of culture and the dampening of the dreams made possible by the cinema.  It is a striking scene, in no small part because we seem to be living in a media age in which it is television, more than film, that has managed to express our cultural dreams and nightmares.  In the age of the blockbuster and the franchise, can we really say that film expresses our cultural dreams?  It’s a sly bit of ironic hypocrisy on the series’ part, but perfectly in keeping with its continued emphasis on the power of film (to note but two examples, Elsa’s obsession with Marlene Dietrich and Paul the human seal’s note that it was film that led him to believe in the myth of the American dream).  Who would have thought that a TV series would evoke nostalgia for a bygone age of luminous quality cinema?

All in all, tonight’s episode was one of the most ecstatically horrific that the series as a whole has yet produced.  Having taken care of so many of its storylines, however, I am left wondering exactly how they are going to fill up the remainder of the season.  Are we simply going to continue seeing Dandy make his delusionally happy way along the absolute oblivion?  It remains to be seen, of course, but hopefully this episode is the beginning of something grand (guignol).

Are We There Yet? “How To Get Away With Murder” And “Post-Gay” Television

In case you missed it, Shonda Rhimes, the noteworthy executive producer of one of this season’s most popular new dramas How to Get Away With Murder, put the smack down on someone who suggested that the gay scenes in both Scandal and HTGAWM were extraneous to the plot, tweeting that “there are no GAY scenes.  There are scenes with people in them.”  The implication, of course, is that gay characters are people just like everyone else, a point driven home by Rhimes’ expressed belief that love is universal.

When I read her response, part of me was exhilarated.  “You tell ’em!” that part of me shouted, grateful that another homophobe had been shot down.  Another part, however, was far less sanguine about Rhimes’ comment, wondering, “Are we now just people?  Are we truly living a post-gay world?”

Some time ago, while reading through my comps list on feminist and queer theory, I came upon two books that would substantially shape how I think of the way that sexuality works within the realm of media representation.  One is perhaps the seminal text on queer representation, Vito Russo’s Celluloid Closet.  The other, more recent work is Patricia White’s rigourously argued and researched book Uninvited:  Classical Hollywood Cinema and Lesbian Representability.  Ultimately, Russo urges his queer readers to stop looking to Hollywood for valuable and or positive representations of queer folks, because the very signifying system is itself so thoroughly and irrevocably heterocentrist that anything resembling a nuanced portrayal of queer love or identity is practically out of the question.  White raises an even more complex (and in some ways infinitely more vexing) question, when she suggests that “the oft-heard desire for non-stereotypical, ‘well-rounded’ gay and lesbian characters in film [and I would extend this argument to TV] may go against the very conditions of our visibility” (146).  In other words, the very fact that a character appears as gay renders her, by definition, a gay character, one who is at least to some degree defined by their sexuality.

Now, there has been a growing tide of voices, and Rhimes’ is among them, calling for a universalizing “love,” for moving away from an identity-politics mode in which one’s political and social identity remains defined at least in some degree by the positions that one occupies within one’s society, e.g. race, sexuality, gender, etc.  We saw this with Raven Simone’s declaration with Oprah that she now longer sees the need to be defined by or identify as her African American identity.  And I hear all the time about how millennials disavow all of the political identities that characterized their generational predecessors, including environmentalist, feminist, queer rights activist, the list goes on and on.  Perhaps no other cultural sign indicates the ubiquity of this mindset more tan the plethora of -posts that litter the mediascape:  postfeminist, postmarxist, post-closet, post-gay, post-race, blah blah blah.

But are we really there yet?  Have we really reached a state of queer utopia in which all manner of sexualities and genders are fully recognized, when it no longer matters whether you’re gay or bi or trans, when any of those sexual characteristics become just another aspect of a TV character’s personality?  Have we really reached a point where the norm no longer exists and we can just do what we please in terms of sexuality in gender?  Is TV, in other words, really queer?

To put it bluntly, of course not.  Cam and Mitch of Modern Family are certainly the most visible queer folks on TV right now, and they’re about as normative (and largely asexual) as you can get, still striving toward that middle-class, white, heterosexual norm that is really what most people mean when they say they want to be like everyone else (or “normal”).  Queer sex is okay, this seems to suggest, as long as its done in the safety of the bedroom or on those sexy and deviant pay channels like HBO and Showtime, away from the innocent eyes of the children.  If anything, Connor (the gay character from How to Get Away with Murder) is such a pleasure to watch precisely because his desires are untamed and unapologetic, that they refuse to be channeled into appropriateness (although, alas, it seems the series might be trying to put him into a monogamous relationship).  Gay sex is on screen on a network TV drama; far from being irrelevant, it’s an incredibly important moment in queer representability, and we should be open about accepting that fact and shout from the rooftops that queer sex is not just like every other kind of sex and that that’s perfectly okay.  It’s past time that we stop being ashamed of queer sex (especially promiscuity) and, for crying out loud, stop labeling it as deviant.

I fully recognize that we have come a long way from the bad old days of TV, where a gay character’s narrative (when it appeared) would center around his struggle with AIDS (which almost always ended tragically), his coming out (which would shock everyone including, presumably, the audience), or around a hate crime (another form of tragedy).  Nor am I suggesting that there is an easy answer when it comes to the thorny question of queer visibility and representability (and it’s the latter that poses a particular problem).  However, what I do want to suggest is that we stop pretending as if being just like everyone else is the panacea for all of our social and cultural woes, because it isn’t.  Not really.  Monogamy is just one of many choices one can make as a queer person, and there is certainly nothing wrong with that.  What I’m asking for is to move away from the universalizing discourse, precisely because it pretends as if there is a universal that we can strive for.  What’s wrong with being queer, anyway?  To put it bluntly:  NOTHING.

What are your thoughts?  Are we living in an “post-gay” era of television?  Are there actually queer characters in the television landscape?  Should there be?  Feel free to share in the comments!