There’s no way any critic can see every film that’s been released in a year. Anyone who pretends they can is a pretentious liar. Most lists like these are pretentious, if they’re given without contingencies and context. So based on what I’ve seen, here’s what moved me. I’m a contrarian so I’m bound to include films that others are prone to under-estimate or ignore, and that includes a lot of interesting films that could be categorized loosely as “gay-themed.”
The practice of most film criticism is heterosexist but it’s also bound up so tightly with marketing, either from the studios, from the festivals or from that circle of self-regard called film reviewers, that it’s difficult to find unique critical voices that give you even a hint of where they’re coming from. Just look at the year-end lists of most critics and you’ll see a consensus, despite their declared independence or affinities for art films or what-have-you. They’re all mainstream, more or less.
And in general, I’m not impressed by Hollywood, by big budgets, big stars, high concepts, big ideas, advanced technologies, green screens, super-heroes, heroes in general nor scene-chewing performances.
Finally, the French TV series, Les Revenants, was at least as good as any of my favorite movies and far more cinematic than most of what I saw last year. I hadn’t been that enraptured by a television show since Battlestar Galactica. The Stateside remake called The Returned, however, is awful.
In the above still, a sexy gay serial killer steps into the water, into the sunlight and morphs into a savior of men.
It’s ridiculously easy for me to dismiss the much-lauded gay-sex murder-movie, Stranger By the Lake. So easy. In every post full of plaudits and in every interview with gay director Alain Guiraudie, the director and the critic avoid talking about, even mentioning, one important thing every fucking time — that this is a movie about a gay serial killer and how the gay men who visit a beachside cruising area either collude to protect him (’cause he’s so hot, I guess) or else rush into his arms to extinguish themselves. No one seems scrupulous enough to ask why.
In this interview in Film Comment, for instance, the writer is unable to focus on the fact that murder is at the center of the film. Instead, we get this little evasion: the film “look[s] at love and desire in the shadow of murder.” Whatever that means. It’s more accurate to describe it the other way around. But it’s still remarkable that not once in a long post is the word murder mentioned again. The words murderer, kill or killer aren’t mentioned either. Now why the fuck is that? Imagine discussing Cruising without discussing Al Pacino’s character’s investigating the serial murders of gay men in New York City. Instead, we’re informed that Stranger By the Lake is “gorgeously shot,” which allows you to get away with ______ apparently; that director Guiraudie wanted to write about something that he knew a lot about — homosexuality, not sex in public places and not murder — that the setting is a “metaphor” — no mention of murder being a metaphor because that would take us too close to what the film is about — and a lot of talk about style, including the “imagery of the body.” Not a body at risk, or a body sacrificed to a killer of gay men. Just, the imagery of the body. So the critic is either being lazy or disingenuous.
When asked what brought him to the story — not a story about murder and a murderer — Guiraudie says he wanted to write about desire, and aspires to be more like Marcel Proust. The closest he gets to describing his film accurately is by depicting it as a mixture of fantasy and the real. But he never specifies which aspect is real and which aspect is fantasy. Is the sex real and the murder a fantasy? Or is it the other way around? And whose fantasy is it anyway? The level of avoidance from both interviewer and interviewee is stunning.
Every other article or review I’ve read has been evasive. Murder is a color, like violence in a Tarantino movie, so ubiquitous and so obvious in its meaning and so necessary that its presence goes without comment. No one would be taking seriously this movie about male-male public-sex rituals without it. I mean, who cares about plain ol’ desire when it’s a bunch of faggots in the forest who have sex with strangers? Nothing to be “gorgeously shot” in that is there?
Slant’s interviewer comes right out and asks Guiraudie if the film is an allegory for HIV/AIDS. Well, no, he says it’s tempting to think of it that way, which is a revealing formulation. Guiraudie dismisses the idea but then backtracks, perhaps because he realizes how vapid he appears if he doesn’t address it.
The fear of AIDS didn’t really play a role for me in the film, but on the other hand, it’s very important, because AIDS has to be present. It has to be something that hovers over the whole film. Because it was something that, at the time, had profoundly affected our love relationships, and our sexual relationships. So while there wasn’t the fear of it, it was something that was always present for me in the film. And it’s not just homosexual relationships, it’s also heterosexual relationships—both were really changed as a result of AIDS.
[emphasis mine] I call bullshit on this whole passage. He denies then confirms. Which is it? I think it’s more than clear that it’s not a topic that interests him, not in this film.
For me, the film’s conflation of casual public sex with death and murder is far more basic and retro than the AIDS crisis. As Guiraudie has pointed out in all his interviews, he has a fascination with the 70s — pre-HIV — and it’s hard not to read the casting — the murderer looks like he stepped out of LA Tool & Die — as well as the avoidance of showing other historical clues as a way to evoke the period and its wanton, condomless sexuality while still plausibly making it feel like it takes place in the present. This ambiguity helps the film avoid meeting the moral responsibility and demands of either period. Sometimes ambiguity indicates art; sometimes it means something else.
In an interview I can’t find right now, Guiraudie states that the dichotomy between the fantasy elements and the realist elements in the film are what creates tension. If that’s true, then all the pretty cinematography, all the stylistic and formal tactics in play, work to obliterate those boundaries. Surely that is the film’s primary project. And not one of Guiraudie’s critics or interviewers has the sense to ask why. But I don’t agree there’s a dichotomy. There is no dividing line. There is a seamless fusion between the two modes and we are never called upon to question that, not by the film anyway. We would have to bring to bear our own morality, which is why I haven’t been this disgusted with a film or with the slavish responses to it in quite a long time.
The film cannot be excused because of its well-observed moments. For me it makes the punishment dished out upon this group of men who gather in the sunlight to have sex and the motives ascribed to them all the more insidious and ungenerous, despite what director João Pedro Rodrigues has said. It makes me wonder if Guiraudie had some bad experiences or rejections himself in a real place like that and Stranger By the Lake is his revenge. My own experiences of those places in the United States and elsewhere were yes, the liberating nature of anonymity which is never wholly anonymous but also the concomitant sense of camaraderie. So when Guiraudie allows the investigating French police detective to become the moral center of the film — he’s the only one rational enough to ask the obvious question of how they can all go back to having sex the day after one of their own was murdered; he doesn’t know that it’s much worse than that — we get that much closer to figuring out what Guiraudie is getting at. These gay men not only don’t care much about their own safety, they don’t care much for anyone else’s either. Also, in my experience, the cops were never all that friendly with gay men in the bushes and if a murder had in fact taken place in one of them, it’s highly unlikely that anyone would be roaming around the next day doing what they were used to doing. Besides the presence of the yellow crime-scene tape, the news would have spread fast, as it did when someone was known to be a thief or a basher. So although I accept that this is fantasy, I still would like to know of Guiraudie whose fantasy it is and what goal does it further? Maybe it’s easier to ask: If no one were having sex out there by the lake, would there have been any reason for murders at all?
At least in this article in Art Forum , critic Steffie Christiaens calls murder, murder. But she never explains why the rather banal and sophomoric idea that “danger acts as an aphrodisiac — death as the ultimate culmination [sic.] of love” — should be automatically important or even particularly interesting. She posits that maybe the film is “an allegory of concatenating death wishes or a castigatory tale about the mortal heedlessness of desire.” By the those ugly phrases I think she means desire is reckless, sometimes death-defying and that the film is chastising its characters, and maybe us, for riding the wall of death one more time. The only reason that sex in this film risks death is because the director has put a serial killer in the middle of it and then made all its gay characters attracted to him. It takes an ideological leap to make this connection between gay sex and death seem automatic and obvious. I thought we were beyond that.
So if I’m reading this film as Christiaens does, and more or less I agree with her, then either gay sex is bad and must be punished or anonymous gay sex in the woods is bad and must be punished. In that case, Stranger by the Lake seems like an old-fashioned, reactionary sex-negative morality tale to me, Further, if we are to take seriously all the critics lauding and talking about the film solely and unambiguously as an art film, then we must also take seriously the fact that they all consider its obvious sex-negativity as not important enough to mention. But for me the film is as if William Friedkin walked up behind James Broughton while he was happily fucking his lover in the woods and then slit his throat. Then all the art-fags stood around and applauded.
This is no Land Without Bread, but it’s still a pretty effective skewering of bourgeois morality.
I did some cursory research on the incident that “inspired” this film, incredulous that such a thing could possibly happen — a man claiming to be a police officer convinces a fast food manager to strip-search an employee looking for evidence of theft; this eventually leads to a sexual assault. Apparently, it did happen, as did several other incidents with a similar MO. (A man was tried and acquitted for some of these crimes. That sounds like the real story.)
For the most part, the film follows the broad outline of what was reported to have happened and hits all the major events of one particular incident at a McDonald’s, including the rape. How Compliance depicts this strip-search scam has pissed a few people off, including during the Q&A after the film premiered at Sundance, and including someone here on Letterboxd in a fairly apoplectic review, calling some aspects of the film “inappropriate,” “wrong-headed,” “perverse” and “bullshit.” Whew.
I found the overall tone of the film to be rather cool and restrained, and shot resourcefully. Nearly every shot uses selective focus, making the interior of the ChickWich feel bigger than it is, but I never really got a clear map of anything behind the counter and cashier. The still lifes, in particular, and the single-shot macro work combined with rack-focusing beautifully established a sense of place and mood. The previously mentioned Danny Baldwin seems to think that using one’s filmmaking chops to tell a story is reason enough to hate this movie or suspect its motives. (Kathryn Bigelow gets a pass for Zero Dark Thirty, presumably because she won an Oscar.)
Compliance doesn’t so much have an undercurrent of class condescension, as it would have if this were a Coen brothers movie, but it does try very hard to manipulate the audience’s expectations. The characters in this film say and do absurd things, but still I think the degree to which you laugh at this movie or find the characters’ behavior funny rather than unsettling, reflects more on your own class allegiances than on the filmmakers’, or on your own feeling of superiority that it couldn’t happen to you. If you laugh, you’ve been caught out. If you get angry, you’re in denial. Compliance tweaks the liberal biases of certain audience members by provoking the denialists pretty effectively.
The weakest and most easily criticized choice that this film makes is the decision to cross-cut between what’s happening at the fast-food restaurant and what’s happening on the other end of the line as the prank caller thinks up new ways to play with his victims, all while snacking and feeling very pleased with himself. But again, if you identify with the caller in ridiculing the employees of the Chickwich, you’re revealing your own political and class biases. It’s a trap, sure, but one I can sympathize with.
Several reviews have pointed out the similarities between a psychological experiment conducted at Yale University in the 60s that tested subjects willingness to administer electric shocks to other people when they gave wrong answers to questions. Overwhelmingly, the test confirmed the power of authority. These results have been reconfirmed at different time periods and in different societies. Social and economic class seemed to have no bearing on the outcome. But you don’t have to conduct an experiment to confirm the power of authority in human societies. You just have to remember history. How often has sticking flowers in guns actually worked?
But ultimately, the film critiques and reveals a system of control, and the weak-minded people who are entrapped by it. And sorry, I’m going to dismiss out of hand any objections to showing the victim topless as being misogynist or exploitive. The shooting style employed goes out of its way to avoid prurience. During the first shot of Rebecca interrogated without her top, the camera ducks behind a shelving unit almost as if embarrassed, and I just don’t know how much more careful the forced oral sex scene could have been shot and edited without being indecipherable.
The manager Sandra, who is almost immediately convinced of the authority of the crank caller, is played by a very resourceful, composed and committed Ann Dowd. There are a couple attempts to make this character into a pathetic figure, or at least as one isolated from the realities of her employees’ lives, and in this the film is less assured and convincing. However, based on my own experience with low-paid managers, the self-aggrandizement and the brand loyalty seem like pretty shrewd observations to me, if not unique ones. The film ends with a news interview with Sandra as she tries to explain her actions. The interviewer asks her if she’s a victim, too, and she eagerly agrees. The ways that she is and the ways that she’s not are the very interesting moral questions that this film raises.
Michael (Germany, 2012)
Directed by Markus Schleinzer
Well, now I’ve seen everything. But I had to watch it twice to confirm that I saw what I thought I saw: A black comedy about a pedophile kidnapper complete with pratfalls, slapstick timing and even a sunny theme song by Boney M. The humor is primarily used to ridicule and emasculate the pedophile. His victim plays it more or less straight. This is either an unholy masterpiece or just unholy, depending on one’s mood, moral laxity and intellectual sharpness at the time of viewing.
It’s not easy sometimes to laugh at painful scenarios that would be horrible to witness in real life. The idea of laughing at rape jokes or Holocaust jokes, for example, or two black men, one a freed man and one a house slave, calling each other niggers, still unnerves and even offends some people. Many need permission to laugh, or they just can’t do it. Or they end up laughing during a private moment but stifle it in public. Comedy challenges morality and sometimes laughing openly requires a larger cultural change to take place before people can become comfortable enough to feel that comedy is an acceptable way to address difficult subjects. Artists are usually there first.
My friend and comedian Kate Sedgwick used to tell a joke in her set about having the most amazing orgasm of her life.
It was during an abortion.
There might have been a pause after I heard the punch line, but I still guffawed, and I was the only one. (Sorry, my timing is not as good as Kate’s.)
The first time I watched Michael, directed by Markus Schleinzer, I wasn’t quite comfortable enough to laugh right away, although there were some clear invitations to do so, if not immediately. The shots that introduce the young boy who’s being held prisoner are menacing enough to discourage levity: There’s a shot of a closed door with a bar across it. It’s framed so we see half the wall to the side of it and half the door. A figure enters the frame and slides the bar to the right. He opens the door so that half the frame shows the dark interior of a room. We can’t see anything until a boy of about 10 timidly stumbles out of the darkness.
The opening shots that precede the introduction of the young boy depict scenes from the domestic life of a nondescript man presumably coming home from work. He drives up to his house (first shot), the car pulls into the garage, cut to interior garage. He unloads the car and brings in two large packages of in-bulk toilet paper; the TV plays the news; he fries up the German version of Spam; he sets the table, for two. Done preparing dinner, he unlocks a door leading to the basement. When he opens that door we see it’s lined on the inside with noise-muffling foam. Up until that detail there’s nothing particularly interesting or unique about the man, his house or how he lives his life. He’s not poor but he’s not well-off, either. There’s also nothing particularly interesting stylistically about the series of shots, other than an economical editing and shooting style that establishes character, tone and place very quickly. Nothing funny here so far.
The film shows the couple eating dinner and cleaning up afterward and in these shots we can note the boy’s deference and acquiescence but also his wariness. Here he’s just not sure about eating that meal:
After the meal is over, the boy asks if he can watch TV. (We don’t learn his name until the end credits although critics have made the erroneous assumption that we do. In the credits, he’s called Wolfgang.) After several seconds of seeming to ignore the boy’s request, the man pauses between bites and says yes. Cut to the two of them watching TV. The boy wants to watch more but the man puts him back in the room without turning the lights on and then goes back upstairs to watch TV alone, reclining on the couch.
I’m recounting the narrative in this detail to emphasize two things. One, that in its broad outlines it could be the normal interaction, the normal evening of a strict father and son. Two, that the strained normality, the straightforward, dry presentation of what goes on in this house is a set-up for a joke that will be made later. Critic Peter Bradshaw writing for the Guardian states that this sick mirror image of family life is a satirical comment on the “Stockholm syndrome inherent in all parent-child relationships.” That’s going to surprise some parents, I think. I disagree. Aside from a couple childlike lapses, the boy is consistently defiant, angry and becomes increasingly so. The father/son relationship in this film is a self-conscious, perverted parody of family life on the part of the pedophile, not of the film. In contrast, the film satirizes the pedophile.
After the man has had his fill of TV, he goes back downstairs and enters the boy’s room. Without depicting what goes on after that door is closed, there’s a quick cut to the man standing with his pants down in front a bathroom sink, pouring water from his cupped palm onto his genitals. It’s a medium shot from the back and to the side. If comedy is juxtaposition + timing — in other words, surprise — then this shot is funny. For me, it’s also the most horrific one in the whole film, the one where the true nature of the relationship between the man and the boy is revealed. If you need an example of the power of elliptical editing then this is a good one.
The man looks a little silly here. But that shot is not as funny as the close-up that precedes the film’s title card, just a few seconds later. Here we can see the man’s day planner which he’s using more like a diary. He’s allowed himself time for TV and for something else I can’t read in German. Farther down the page, he marks sex with the boy with an X.
That was the first time I felt like laughing but the humor is derisive. It’s an invitation to judge the ridiculousness of this fucked up and very pathetic man. That’s a comic approach the film will use again.
The film uses physical comedy and slapstick timing, as well, to ridicule the man, whose name we now know is Michael. Here, he’s going to the pharmacy to pick up medication for the boy who’s taken ill and has a bit of a mishap:
Here’s Michael on a ski trip attempting a slope with powder snow, assuring his more skilled friends that he can do it. He can’t:
The timing of the cuts is purely comic.
Here’s an emasculating comic moment as he tries and fails to fuck a woman from behind:
Finally, here’s the film’s most succinct comic bit in which Michael is shown as quite the dork and the boy is the more self-aware and smart “straight man” in a traditional comic duo:
Michael has recently watched a comedy on television with the lines: This is my knife and this is my cock. Which should I stick in you? When he tries to pull this on the stoic and unamused boy at the dinner table, the boy responds after the briefest of beats: The knife.
I had to laugh.
Before I watched Michael, I read and skimmed a number of reviews on Letterboxd. They did not prepare me for the film at all. Most used the word, disturbing, and that’s appropriate enough but none mentioned the elements of parody and slapstick. A subject like this makes people squirm and since there are few criminals considered more irredeemable than the child molester, many critics feel the need to go out of their way to emphasize how upsetting the scenario itself is, as if defending their own personal morality was more important than trying to figure out what the film was doing and what it was after. If they laugh, then they were implicated somehow in the victimization of this young boy. For me, failing to laugh doesn’t give the character his due, since the laughter is primarily directed at the perpetrator and not the boy or his situation. His agency is consistently shown as unbowed, even when the limits of his experience and physical power show how little he can do against his captor.
Interestingly, it’s in the moments when the character, the man Michael laughs or smiles — during the “This is my knife” scene, during a scene when the boys fights back ineffectually with his fists, and during a ride alone in his car when he’s singing along to the homophonic and deeply ironic disco song Sunny by Boney M — that’s when the audience is invited to hate him the most.
I’d already watched The Lifeguard twice when I stumbled on a similar movie, A Teacher. Both feature prominently the sexual relationship between an older woman and a 16-year-old high school student.
In the former, starring Kristen Bell (Veronica Mars) as Leigh, a woman is experiencing a late 20-something crisis and running from a bad relationship with her editor. She’s a reporter in New York City. She returns to her hometown in Connecticut to recoup in her parents’ home and catch up with her high-school friends, none of whom have ever left. She takes up her old job as lifeguard for the pool in a large apartment complex. The relationship with young Jason (a very good David Lambert, who also co-stars in ABC’s lesbian family drama, The Fosters) is depicted as both companionable and highly erotic. The drama plays out in rather conventional and comic ways, with life lessons being learned, lives changing, indie rock playing on the soundtrack. Formally or stylistically, it won’t raise any eyebrows, although some, including me, might appreciate its wry self-awareness and fourth-wall breakage.
Yet I found The Lifeguard far more satisfying emotionally, and politically, than the art film, A Teacher, directed by Hannah Fidell. It’s her first feature and stylistically it’s certainly impressive, if not particularly original. The teacher, Diana Watts, is frequently followed by a handheld camera so that mostly what we see is the back of her head — as she moves through the hallways or as she goes for a run on the streets and sidewalks of this fairly sunless and colorless Texas town.
This style of tracking shot has become so common in indie and art films that even the casual moviegoer is probably familiar with it. Apparently, it’s a selling point, as well. The above production still is the most common I’ve seen in reviews of the film and the one that’s used for the film’s poster. I’m not quite sure who popularized the style, although Bela Tarr (Satantango up through his most recent, The Turin Horse) and The Dardennes get credited quite a bit. I’ve seen it most recently and inappropriately in Paul Schrader’s awful The Canyons, but you might remember seeing it in The Wrestler, because borrowing from better directors is what Darren Aronofsky does best; in Gus Van Sant’s sublime Elephant, because he was deliberately imitating Bela Tarr and using it as a way to explore a fundamentally unrecoverable trauma and the space it played out in; and even in Nicolas Winding Refn’s brazen and youthful Pusher, before he’d fallen in love with Ryan Gosling.
What it means and why it’s used is open to interpretation, but what it’s meant to me, at least in the instances when it’s used well, is to suggest the ultimate unknowability of whatever character or characters the camera is following while at the same time signaling intense interest, and even desire, from and through the camera’s “eye”. In The Dardennes’ shattering The Son, for instance, the camera can barely keep up with the father who spots the murderer of his young son and follows the suspect around in a frenzy, attempting to identify him. In those sequences, the interest and desire is doubled, but it’s implicit that the camera, and therefore the audience, can never match the intensity of the bereaved and angry character.
The camera in A Teacher is more the voyeur, or the dispassionate gaze. Whatever the viewer feels when looking at a character through this style, it’s still fundamentally objectifying in a way that most camera movements are not. The Teacher in this film is as much an object as the blue Caprice in the film of the same name, and shot in a very similar way.
Although she’s initially presented as lacking affect, except when she’s around the hunky 16-year-old she’s fucking, Diana Watts falls apart as we watch, and so perceptions of her change from stoic professional to giggling cougar to stalker and then crazy bitch. All the while the camera maintains its relative indifference. The trademark tracking shot is employed when Diana is moving through the hallways of the school and when she’s running. It has no agency but it does have a focus: we don’t learn much more about any of the characters other than what we’re presented with by the camera. Neither Diana nor Eric, the young lover, talks about each other when the other is not present, and they don’t talk about anyone else in detail. All that’s shown is Diana and her few minutes of running, her being at school, her obsessing over Eric and her fucking Eric.
The following screenshot is one of the few times the camera is static. It’s a conventional medium close-up, shot from overhead, of the couple naked in bed:
The only reference to a life outside of these vignettes, to any sort of backstory, is when Diana agrees to meet with her brother in a restaurant. The reunion is cut short when Diana grows agitated and abruptly gets up and leaves. We know that the brother is worried about her but we don’t know exactly why. We see that he had good reason in everything that follows as Diana oscillates between fear of being caught with Eric and obsession with her lust-object — fear of having it, fear of losing it, all at once. This unresolved tension drives her a little nuts until a sad and embarrassing encounter outside of Eric’s house as his father gets involved. The film ends with a phone call from the school. The principal needs to talk to her, and we know how that will play out, so, cut to black.
The choice of camera styles in A Teacher, unlike all of the examples mentioned above, functions to trap the character, whom we know very little about anyway, in a familiar transgression-punishment scenario, with very little wiggle room given to sympathize, empathize or evaluate her actions in context. It’s a bit like letter-of-the-law instructions given to a jury. Yes, it’s an art film, but it’s a rather reactionary one. The implication seems to be that who she is and why she’s doing what she’s doing is completely irrelevant, so when the hammer starts to fall, who really cares? How this stance relates to sexual transgression, I’m still thinking about. Director Fidell deliberately invokes anonymity, in the film’s title, in the character’s lack of a backstory, and in the shooting style, so there’s something at play here, but it was a fruitless study for me.
In the Lifeguard, when the sexual nature of Leigh’s relationship with Little Jason is revealed to authority figures, there are consequences — practical, emotional, relational — for her, for her friends, for Little Jason and his father, for his friends, for the school, for everyone. Leigh’s return to her home town looks like a multiple-car pileup. Although the film clearly has its own sympathies and ducks what might have transpired between Leigh and her parents once the secret is out, and Leigh gets off pretty easy, we as an audience can still make choices. The film isn’t at all interested in punishment.
One of my favorite scenes in the film is when Leigh’s friend, Mel, who is also the vice-principal of the school that Jason attends, confronts Leigh at the pool about the couple’s relationship. Mel is furious with Leigh and points out the untenable position Leigh has forced her into: She must tell and she must resign. All Leigh can do is beg her not to do that. Please, Mel, please Mel. She’s like a kid begging a friend or sibling not to tell on her to the parents. Jason steps in to defend Leigh, and tries to blackmail Mel: He’ll tell the principal that she, Mel, has also been hanging out with students, drinking and smoking pot, which she has. Oh god, Oh god, both women say, then Mel apologizes to Jason: I’m sorry we got you into this. Jason, shirtless, skinny and saggin’, replies like the 16-year-old he is: I’m fine. It’s not like she raped me or anything.
There’s a beat, and then a close-up of Leigh as she realizes the absurdity of the whole situation and also of the relationship that, nevertheless, has changed her life. “Oh…god. Oh, god.”
“Fuck you, both!” Mel says and storms off.
No one’s off the hook here, particularly not the audience, who has already either been repulsed or drawn to (or both) the intense erotic scenes between Leigh and Little Jason, but also their rapport and mutual affection. (One of the rather radical things the film suggests is the often artificial line between adolescent and all-grown-up.) Their first sex scene takes place in a toilet off the pool. Jason follows Leigh in and pushes up close to her. They’re both wet.
“What’s going to happen?” he asks, voice low.
“You’re asking me?” says Leigh, almost laughing.
And then something does, something really happens.
Whether or not you enjoy the film probably has a lot to do with how you respond to the final shot, as Leigh, driving away from town and back to adulthood, turns and looks directly into the camera:
I was moved, but then I’m more likely than most to relate to the defense of the lost and fucked-up.
I’m calling House of Cards a TV show, even though it isn’t, although that is the form it takes, if not the distribution method. Suggestions?
Every once in a while I make a comment on a blog somewhere asking why bisexual men don’t write their own stories. But of course, I don’t just mean bisexual men, whoever they are. I mean men who have or have had sex with men from time to time. Gay men write those stories from their youth, about their sexual encounters with guys who grew up to get married to a woman and have kids. Why don’t the straight men in these encounters write those stories? Is it because more gay men grow up to be writers? I’ve had a handful of those encounters myself and, as far as I know, those boys and young men grew up to be straight men who were not writers. It does convince me that there’s something about being gay that compels us to tell stories.
Maybe it’s because straight men are pussies and wimps as writers about their own sexual histories and that they’re always on the down-low?
I really don’t know. But it seems like the writing we have so far, as long as I’ve been reading and watching — and for the purposes of this post I’m including writing for television in this — that it’s been gay men writing those stories. But, it takes two, you know.
Home Boy by Jimmy Chesire is the only book I can think of written by someone most would call a straight man that delivers in no small erotic detail what happens between adolescents in a Catholic home for orphaned boys. (I have no idea how Chesire labels himself but he is married to a woman and has kids, and the only other book he’s written since is about softball.) It’s fiction but it’s based on Chesire’s own experiences in a similar home in Omaha, Nebraska. It’s a lyrical, brave and unabashedly sexy look at adolescent love and romance. It’s brave precisely because it’s unabashedly sexy and romantic. There still are taboos in our supposedly free and sophisticated culture, including adolescent sexuality, intergenerational sexual activity and yeah, cross-orientation sex and romance.
(Side note: I did find it touching that Dave Eggers stated he was not a Kinsey 0 in the preface to his meta-masterwork, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. But, if you were reading honestly, just as Eggers writes, you would have already known that. Also, I’m 3/4 of the way through Martin’s A Game of Thrones and wondering if the all-male, hetereosexually celibate Night’s Watch will reveal any homosex action. If not, and if Martin’s world were real, it would be the first time in history that such situations would remain “pure.” Only in the mind of religious fundamentalists. And lazy writers. But if the heterosexist television series is any indication, “gay” characters not withstanding, I doubt that gay people or gay sex exist in the 7 Kingdoms except as a shadow of corruption.)
It’s for all these reasons that I hope that the writers of Netflix’s House of Cards are straight, or at least some of them are, because the scene I’ll talk about below represents a significant step forward for the cultural representation of what it feels and sounds like to be a man in love with a man and having sex with him but not necessarily considering oneself gay. And also, importantly, not being afraid to talk about it or be defensive when you do, which is, I’d say, all aboutbeing a man.
Yesterday I trimmed the relevant episode of House of Cards and uploaded the excerpt to YouTube and also GayForIt. As expected, YouTube, or rather, Sony, blocked it. Unexpectedly, so did GayForIt. Such bullshit. If how I’m using it isn’t fair use, then there is no fair use. And there might not be. Sony certainly sees it that way. But anyway, if you haven’t seen s01e08, you can download just the scene here and here. It’s only 17 Mb.
I’m not going to provide much background information about the character of Francis or the show itself. If you don’t know it, here’s the Wikipedia article.
Unlike most episodes in the series, this one takes place outside of DC, on the military school campus of The Sentinel which Francis attended. The school is opening a new library and naming it after him. What starts out as a pedestrian affair reeking of fake sentiment and cronyism turns into a nostalgic, college-boy romp for Francis and the friends from his past who show up to attend the ribbon-cutting.
The scene begins with Francis and friends marauding through the old library and pushing each other around on carts, crashing into things. Then, there’s some friendly physical competition. Francis and his best-friend-from-school, a butch dude named Tim who conducts white-water-rafting tours now, lay side by side and do push-ups. The buddy wins and Frank complains that his heart is beating so fast he might have a heart attack. Tim says his is, too, and reaches over, grabs Franks hand and puts it on his own heart.
This jibes with pretty much every encounter with a straight boy I’ve ever had, and lots of encounters I’ve heard of and read about. It begins with some masculine activity, often sport that requires touching the other guy, and then someone makes a move — a wholly unnecessary move, like a hand on a heart, but one that makes sense in context and could be construed as either innocent or suggestive, with plausible deniability should the move be rejected.
The move in this scene between Frank & Tim is neither rejected nor accepted. The narrative pauses for a few seconds, in a medium shot from overhead as the two of them feel and consider, and then Frank gets up and says he needs another drink.
In the scene that follows with Frank and Tim, they reminisce about their own relationship. But first, Frank asks the question, Did any of this mean anything? He’s referring, directly, to the old library they’re in, and to the institution that enclosed it and that enclosed them, back in their youth.
“Do you think this place made us? Is this just a place where we spent four years of our lives, or was there more?”
Frank declares the library named after him is a sham:
“The library doesn’t matter. But I’d like to think this place did.”
Tim replies, “I think it meant a lot to us…then.”
Frank’s been talking about the school, but, he’s also referring to them, the couple they were, and Tim has realized that as well.
But Frank makes it clear:
“And what about us?”
Tim says he hasn’t thought about it much.
The following exchanges show a series of advances on the part of Frank and a set of gentle ripostes on the part of Tim, who’s willing to acknowledge the sexual aspect of their friendship then, and that they were brothers — Frank says, “more than brothers” — but that what they did in the past has no real bearing on who they are now. To Frank, however, it’s clear there is an enduring connection, or that he wants there to be.
(We realize, simply by watching, that there is an enduring connection, by being aware of the fact that throughout this potentially uncomfortable exchange, they have never taken their eyes off each other, or stopped smiling.)
Tim realizes this, then, and so in order to gently move focus off of what Frank seems to be suggesting, wonders, “Do you have anyone, Frank?”
Frank says he has Claire, his wife, confidante and co-conspirator in politics.
Tim almost — almost — rolls his eyes. “Besides Claire.”
“I have from time to time. When I want someone, I want them. It’s attraction,” Frank says, looking even more pointedly at his friend.
Tim then gives the longest pause of a conversation marked particularly by its quick replies, still smiling, he says:
“Made me happy to make you happy, Frank. Didn’t see any harm in it.”
There is a difference in orientation here, perhaps, and in levels of attraction, but the emotional truth of the scene, and of the past the characters share, is the same. That’s one of the things that makes it fine, brave writing, and also unique. I guess it also points out the superiority of television writing at the moment as compared to writing for the movies.
Can you think of a similarly honest scene in American film in even the last 10 years? I can’t. The depiction of male characters in the movies continues to be as restricted, stilted, and constrained by genre and classical notions of masculinity as it ever was.
(Kelly Reichart’s Old Joy is an interesting kind of counter example. In it, two men who used to be close friends but who have been separated by time and geography, take a trip together and well, nothing much happens other than a strange bathtub scene in the woods in which one guys washes the other — someone with an extremely opaque and placid personality. The film conveys an aching sense of nostalgia more than anything else, and to the extent it works, it works by refusing to address directly about what the two men may or not be feeling about each other. As an art film, it’s fascinating but also frustrating. For the sake of style, Reichart turns away almost completely from everything this tiny scene in House of Cards faces squarely.)
The scene is particularly poignant in House of Cards because up until this point, we’ve known Francis as an unsentimental manipulator, uninfluenced by whatever innocence he might have possessed in his past. Now, we see him as a man capable of affection, and with a more complex and varied sexuality than we’d imagined.
The writers were able to imagine him as more, and this imagination enriches our experience of the character. But it also dramatizes a scene that has no doubt played out with infinite variations between men in the real world who share intimate memories. There are honorable and honest ways of writing these scenes if a writer simply has the balls, and this scene proves it.
Ausente (2012, Argentina)
Directed by Marco Berger
La león (2008, Argentina)
Directed by Santiago Otheguy
Although both these films show intergenerational sex or attraction between men, I won’t be discussing them in any detail in the older4youngerm4m section of Notes towards a gay film canon.
Note: As always, don’t read my posts if you’re worried about spoilers. I don’t know how to write about films without saying at least a little about what happens in them. Having said that, I don’t typically reiterate the entire plot, rather I use specific points in the narrative to illustrate what I find unique, valuable or beautiful.
Ausente (Absent) is notable, however, in that one of the two main characters, Martin, a 16-year-old high-school boy, actively pursues his older, apparently heterosexual gym teacher. Most of the films I’ll talk about in the gay canon project depict the older man as the instigator, or as the purchaser of services in some cases, and the younger man as pursued, bought or victimized. Martin knows exactly what he wants, as shown in this sequence in which he checks out a friend in the locker room after swimming lessons:
It’s a refreshing scene. The sexual desires of gay adolescents are rarely shown so directly, even in films by gay filmmakers who tend to prettify pubescent longings. The scene provides a straightforward and honest answer to the question of “How do I know I’m gay?” that most of the columns and posts I’ve read on the topic seem too coy to get around to: You know you’re gay when you’re checking out the bulging crotches of your schoolmates. Also: Erections of your own. Duh.
When Martin gets no response from the boy on the other bench, he wanders the changing area and aggressively cruises two older men who are showering nearby. He makes no moves, however, and gets nothing back other than bemusement. Later, he instigates a dryly comic charade that takes up half of the film’s main section as he tries, and fails, to create a situation in which he and his teacher can get it on. One of the ways he does so is putting on poses like this:
If that’s not an invitation…
His teacher is aware of the awkwardness of the situation, and so are a couple of his neighbors, but he’s clueless as to the exact nature of what’s going on. That cluelessness extends to the culture at large, I think, and not just in Argentina — adolescents are assumed not to have sexual agency. But, of course, they do. Adults just don’t know how to handle it, or panic and overreact.
There are two wonderful sequences that bookend the main narrative. The opening credits run over a visual inventory in close-up of Martin’s body as he’s being examined by the school physician. The doctor says things, like, lift your leg; spread your toes; open your mouth. What the camera shows are static shots of Martin’s hairy belly, pits, feet and legs. Here’s an example:
Rather than simply presenting him as a sexual object, it establishes him, through showing secondary sex characteristics, as a developed male. Testosterone grew that hair, and no doubt helps motivates Martin for the rest of the film. This is a surprising concept for some people. In any case, he’s decidedly not an object for the rest of the narrative, not even when he fails to grasp the crush a girl peer has on him.
The final sequence I’ve watched three times, it’s so good and so poignant. It’s a fantasy sequence in the teacher’s head, pursuing Martin through the locker room, eventually catching him and planting an apologetic kiss beside his mouth. It’s a sad scene and the Martin in it behaves like a coy nymph, running from desire and completely opposite to the way he’s behaved in the rest of the film. You’ll find out why that is if you watch it.
Those two sequences are the only ones I can wholeheartedly get behind. In them, the presence and evidence of desire is palpable whereas the rest of the film feels too distanced from that. I was also annoyed by some stylistic choices, particularly the non-stop close-ups with an over-reliance on selective focus and the foreshortening of longshots and medium shots caused by the use of a telephoto lens. The film, as a result, felt cramped, for no particular reason other than the practicality of getting coverage in small spaces. I found both choices exhausting to watch. More importantly, the plot turn that occasions the film’s final moments struck me as a gimmick. Rather than figure out what happens between a student and a teacher when the teacher realizes the student has the hots for him, the film shuts those possibilities down. It’s a cop out, and despite the lovely expressive sequence I just described, I would have rather had more real character interaction.
Still, I don’t want to warn anyone off Ausente. It’s certainly worth a look — particularly for the fine, naturalistic work of young actor, Javier De Pietro – but I wouldn’t include it in my list of great gay films. (I’ll be watching Berger’s Plan B within the next few days.)
Santiago Othebuy’s almost perfect La león, however, I definitely would.
La león is one of those films with a gay character that transcends the category of “gay film.” Like Weekend, the filmmakers are at least as concerned with style and form as they are with content.
The film’s look reminded me of faded tintypes, collotypes or ambrotypes, techniques of photography from its early history. The process involved in producing images gave these photographs a unique look and a unique way of aging. Since one of the things La león explores is the persistence of memory but also its unreliability, the past inside the present, this visual style suits. There are even a couple evocative shots that refer directly to the photographic process and its place in both preserving and mystifying the past. Here, main character Alvaro is reflected in a photograph of his father. Next to that photograph is another, showing Alvaro’s father with his best friend. The best friend has lived and has become an important part of Alvaro’s life, while Alvaro’s father has died.
It was only during the second time watching the film that I realized the further significance of this shot. It was preceded by a scene in which Alvaro was compared unfavorably to his father by Alvaro’s antagonist, Turu. Then, his father’s friend, the old Iribarren, gives Alvaro a concerned look which also seems to suggest more. So, Alvaro, in studying his father’s photo, is wondering what sort of man he is, but also what sort of man his father was, and what Iribarren meant to him.
The following shot is another self-conscious visual suggesting something similar, but with an even more explicit reference to an antique photographic process. In it, Alvaro looks like a ghost, insubstantial:
Through the cinematography, La león establishes an indelible sense of place — in this case, the Paraná River Delta – from the very first gorgeously composed shots.
As the narrative moves forward, it becomes clear how circumscribed each character is within this geographic location – lush environmentally, but impoverished economically. This isolation is made even more explicit by the presence of the boat, El león, captained by the previously mentioned Turu. The only way to get from place to place fast is to take Turu’s boat, as one would a bus, except one is sometimes at the mercy of the cruel and crude, El Turu.
This previous shot of Turo piloting the fast-moving boat is a tracking shot — in which the camera moves, tracking the action — and is one of only three in the whole film. Most of the time the camera is mounted and static. (There’s also only one zoom, and that’s into a close-up of an old photograph of Alvaro’s father, seen in the screenshot above.) This shot, with the camera on another boat, matching its speed, rhymes with a dolly shot later in the film when a drunk Turu pursues Alvaro through the woods at night. In both, the destination is undetermined.
I could spend an entire, long post writing about each individual shot in La león, all of them edited together in a delicate and languid balance, (director Otheguy is also responsible for that), each as beautiful as the next. There isn’t a bad shot in the whole movie. I can’t think of another recent film to say that about. Cinematographer Paula Grandio is certainly one to watch.
Here, in one of the opening shots during the credit sequence, she introduces two important elements of the film: The boat, El león, and the reed bed, out of which many of the delta’s inhabitants make their living. Reeds reappear in different forms throughout the film — as currency, as craftwork, as a place to hide secrets. But instead of cutting away immediately, she stays on the reeds for a few seconds. They bend and sway and clatter in a sudden gust of wind off the river and the waves pushed by the boat’s passage.
Within this well-defined geographical space — literally an island in the delta – social and work-related milieux emerge, and Alvaro’s place within them. The film takes a great deal of care assembling this picture of life in the delta and it’s one of its main strengths. Although alone much of the time in a crumbling old cement house, he seems well-integrated into the community, visiting a friend after the friend’s son commits suicide, working on a reed-cutting site with a group of men from Paraguay (one of whom he’s attracted to), coaching youth fútbol, attending community meals, and, in a wonderful detail, repairing the bindings of old library books for a little bit of cash.
But, Alvaro has his own secret life: He has sex with men. The film shows this only once. Cruising by an expensive boat in his own old leaking wooden one with an outboard motor, he locks eyes with a younger man, dressed well and alone on the deck. The next scene cuts to a dimly lit sexual encounter in the woods. This scene points out the necessity of Alvaro having sex with men outside of his community, outside of his social and economic class, as a way to preserve his privacy and discretion.
But someone in the community suspects what he’s been doing on the sly, and that’s Turu, the captain of the El león. In a tense scene in a bar where Alvaro is trying to trade reed, a drunk Turu accosts him from a table, calling him puto several times and trying to call him out. Alvaro stiffens, and doesn’t respond or turn around. Here’s a wide shot that takes in everything visible on that side of the bar:
But, Alvaro does react:
Quickly, he breaks down in tears as Turu continues to mock him for not ever having been seen with a woman. Craggily handsome Jorge Román plays this well, revealing the fear underneath his response, along with his pain. Not fear of violence, but fear of being ostracized within the only community he knows. The two other men, in typical Argentine fashion, try to defuse the situation, saying it doesn’t matter, and for Turu to lay off.
Later we discover the hypocrisy beneath Turu’s taunts, as the narrative turns violent, but as the film maintains its steady pace and calm surface.
La león should belong on any shortlist of great films from Latin America. The sexuality of the main character is not merely incidental, however, nor does it provide a “universal” point of audience identification. Instead, his need to remain secret, and his own sense of belonging in his community, allows a unique entry point to exploring this out-of-time riverine community.
If you’re interested, before you even see the movie, down below I’ve provided a large gallery of screenshots that tell part of the story, including the pointed ending revealed as the tide’s gone out.
If there were any justice or consistency in the film world, La león would receive the kind of reverence accorded lesser indie fare such as Little Miss Sunshine, Juno or even the films of Kelly Reichardt, such as Wendy and Lucy, which I didn’t particularly like but which got licked quite a bit by critics, or Meek’s Cutoff, which I did like and which shares with La león an astute depiction of culture and violence through a strong sense of place and geography.
La león isn’t mentioned on any of the lists of gay movies I’ve read, either. It’s certainly old enough to have made it in, but instead there’s a lot of crap and middling fare like Doing Time on Maple Drive, Eating Out, All Over the Guy, ad nauseum. If these are gay crowd-pleasers, I’d really rather not go to the movies with that crowd. Really, there’s a lot of horrible, self-indulgent crap on these lists. One of the things I’d like to correct with my gay canon project is the tendency of gay men to give bad movies a pass as long as they have gay characters — cheerful, hot and preferably young gay characters. The tendency seems to be to settle, to condescend to our own good tastes in order to see movies that speak to our lives and affinities. I do that, too, but come on.
On the other hand, for mainstream critics, I’ve always suspected the lack of attention given to gay indies has more than a little to do with most critics’ being straight. I think one of the most interesting gay experimental filmmakers working today is Julian Hernandez, working in a direct line from Kenneth Anger and an indirect line from Douglas Sirk but I had to subscribe to a Yahoo! group to discover his movies and then pirate avis in order to see them. Sure, straight critics pay attention to Brokeback Mountain and other mainstream films with gay characters, and even an accomplished gay art film like Weekend got a deservedly glowing review in the NYT.
But, by and large it falls to independent bloggers to cover gay independent cinema with any regularity. Asking for some knowledge of film production and film history, however, seems to be asking for too much. Both cultural critic Mark Simpson and the Promiscuous Reader cover film sporadically. Simpson is a clever writer, even if his self-regard taints everything he writes, but he tends to approach every film as it were especially created to support his metrosexual “theory” of masculinity. They weren’t and they don’t. PR is a genuine intellectual and erudite to a fault, but his film reviews bore me, and I often disagree strongly with his premises, unlike his discussions of books, which seem rooted in real love for them, and in lived experience.
If anyone knows of any blogger covering gay cinema regularly, please let me know in the comments.
So that’s why I’m doing this: To take gay films seriously by writing about them seriously. If you’d like to help, buy from Amazon, or even send me a gift card so I can stock up on film books.