Things I Learned From the Movies Blogathon: On the Topic of Human Sexuality

Pre-Amble

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Now, I know that sounds like a dissertation title. However, the approach I’m planning on is a bit freeform, personal, and as all encompassing as I can be with such a huge topic.

I will limit myself somewhat as the nuance and intricacy of human sexuality this could be a much, much longer piece than it already is.

Introduction

The other day was National Coming Out Day. I didn’t post anything specifically about the day because as fate would have it I was actually doing quite a bit of other writing on that day. What I wanted to say on that day was probably more appropriate on a day like today then on the actual day.

A day such as that is not an appointment to be kept, to be either taken advantage of or passed over. It is a day of recognition, of noting those who have taken the step and come out; a day of sharing stories and support. When I was in the closet to the world I kept thinking some specific date or deadline would force my hand. It never did. I wasn’t ready until I was ready. So that was my message for the day: it’s not a compulsory day but rather a day that can be used to show those in struggle that it’s safer than they imagine to take that step.

Usually the blogathons I’ve signed up for have either been review-oriented or could be more academically approached. This one is different because it’s inherently personal, and the topic I selected made it impossible to stray from being candid. It’s about what you have taken away from seeing a movie. Frequently that thing may not even have been the intention the film has but no two people ever see the same film.

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Some of these films are LGBT films, some aren’t, but all make a singular point I didn’t take away from other films. Hopefully in underscoring many of these films I have a diverse cross-section. The pride flag is a rainbow for a reason: it’s all-inclusive and highlights differences. Too often underrepresented groups want the whole of their identity enveloped in a character or two, which is an impossible ask. We’re past the point of being merely stereotyped. Characters have to be themselves and not representative of all subsets and subcultures.

The Films

Where I Learned: A Little More About Myself Than I Wanted To

This Boy’s Life (1993)

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This Boy’s Life was a film I first saw on cable while in Brazil. I watched it with my uncle. It’s a captivating story of Toby (Leonardo DiCaprio) living with an intolerable stepfather (Robert De Niro), finding his voice as a writer, and trying to make it out of a toxic home life.

I was a teenager when I saw it and not entirely self-aware. At some point in the film the character of Arthur (Jonah Blechman) is introduced. Being set in the 1950s with the kind of character DeNiro is the homophobia directed toward him is quite overt and something he just has to deal with. This was probably the first film wherein I was consciously smitten with a male star and I identified with Arthur’s plight all the more for it, but I was self-conscious about it. So when the famous scene where Arthur steals a kiss on Toby’s cheek while they’re singing comes about I felt defensive. I felt as if my facial expression was readable or else some of my thoughts were. I felt the need to say something to cover.

“I’d punch him!” I blurted out.

My uncle without hesitation said “You don’t have to do that. You just say ‘I’m not like that.’”

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I was still a while away from admitting I was like that even to myself much less out loud, but the film and scene are important for a number of reasons. In that scene you can actually look at it a few ways: there is of course the obvious viewing it as a romantic overture. However, they are close and having a good time. Arthur is wordlessly expressing his gratitude of having someone to sing with. By midcentury homophobic fears had sufficiently strangled men showing affection for one another in verbal ways much less physically was verboten. And in that second reading it’s almost more important, but the lack of judgment that Tobias shows at that moment is important in and of itself and it’s a hallmark of many of these films either in isolated scenes or as a whole.

Where I Learned About: Coming Out of the Closet

Ellen (TV 1997)

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Yes, it’s a TV show but there are plenty of movies on the list, calm down. This was the first coming out I was ever conscious of. It was probably where I became familiar with the phrase and its meaning. I already liked this show, so I was curious to see how it would go, especially since it was announced beforehand. I think it went brilliantly.

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The sad reality of TV especially on a sitcom, where constancy is prized, it was too big a change for the show and maybe for the country as a whole at the time. I’m glad to see where we, ABC, and the Walt Disney Company has come since then.

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Where I Learned: Bisexuality is Real, Lust Can Make You Crazy, And How To Love The Femme Fatale

Basic Instinct (1992)

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Firstly, I must apologize that it needed to be phrased as such. Sadly, there is a stigma that exists that there is no such thing as bisexuality. Everyone’s path to self-discovery is slightly different. Mine included a time when I identified myself as bisexual. Growing up tremendously quiet and withdrawn in certain social situations most of my deductions about my true identity was all based on the internal battle with no real experience to draw any definitive conclusions from. In that time I experienced that stigma first hand. No sooner had I identified myself as bisexual I got the “lecture” in an online conversation about needing to decide, and you “can’t have the best of both worlds.” It was a rude awakening. When it came time when I had to face if I could make real emotional and physical commitments one way or the other is when I learned the truth for sure, no one’s ultimatum was going to do it for me.

Having been someone who always accepted that a duality is not only possible but real suspension of disbelief was easy in this film. The hurdle I really had to get over, involved what I learned most about how lust, and the adrenaline rush that Nick Curran (Michael Douglas) feels is what makes his character so vulnerable.

Before I ever watched a long-running horror franchise in full I saw this, it may be the first villain I ever embraced, thanks in large part to Sharon Stone’s performance. She fully embraces the femme fatale role.

Where I Learned: About the True Toll of AIDS

And the Band Played On (1993)

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For the most part I never fell victim to any falsehoods about HIV or AIDS. Magic Johnson’s announcement coming in my formative years was quite helpful. However, the mysterious, terrifying, and most tragically inactive (from a Federal Government standpoint) I was too young to realize what was happening. This film enlightened me.

Where I Learned About: Persecution in a Bygone Era

Paragraph 175 (2000)

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In outlining a dogma of hatred there has to be a public enemy number one designated. In the Nazi regime that target was the Jewish people. The Nazis were by no means singleminded in whom they considered enemies of true Aryanism. Estimates of Romani, or Gypsies as the more commonly referred to, deaths range from 220,000 to 500,000. Marzahn was the first concentration camp used for Gypsies. Many then went to Auschwitz-Birkenau, Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald, Dachau, Mauthausen, and Rävensbruck.

The documentary Paragraph 175 takes its title from the German Criminal Code at the time that discussed prohibitions on homosexuality. Since the persecuted could be of either gender and of any race or creed there aren’t precise statistics. However, documentation of state-sanctioned ostracism, arrest, and murder of homosexuals in the Third Reich following the edicts of Paragraph 175 are documented.

Such as:

  • Banning of Gay organizations like the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft run by Magnus Hirschfeld
  • Banning scholarly writing on Homosexuality and sexuality in general.
  • There were 100,000 people arrested as homosexuals; 50,000 were sentenced.
  • Homosexuality in any form was outlawed, but as per usual in these historic incidents the brunt of the force of said policies fell upon gay men.
  • The Gestapo compiled a list of homosexuals and forced many to conform to the “German Norm”

Where I Learned About: More People See False Morality

Léolo (1992)

Léolo (1992, Fine Line Features)

False morality is not an exclusively North American phenomenon, but we do have our own special brand. This was underscored in specificity as something other have noticed in this film where students never learned the English words for “those things” in class.

The topic comes up as Léo introduces us to their school’s guide to English; the omnipresent John and Mary. The schooling they were receiving was still very recitative and in this litany of body parts that the francophonic children learned there was a glaring absence: reproductive organs. Yet, Léo, and some of his other classmates had begun to discover these parts of their anatomy had other functions that were heretofore unknown to them.

So immediately Léo is complaining about the injustice of forced ignorance. In the guise of sheltering the children and preserving their fleeting innocence they are left to discover sex between “ignorance and horror,” as Léo says. And with no demystification from anyone elder in their life how else can this discovery occur. Surely, for some the repercussions of this will be minimal, but for others who knows how much of a negative impact this had on their development.

Where I Learned About: Transitioning

Transamerica (2005)

Transamerica (2006, IFC Films)

Aside from learning not to expect true greatness to be recognized by the Academy, even when nominated; this film opened my eyes on the emotional toll a person will pay when undergoing gender reassignment. Before and after the fact there will be grieving over lost time, opportunity, reclaiming identity, striving for a new future while incorporating a difficult past.

Aside from Felicity Huffman’s brilliance there is so much to experience and feel in this film.

Where I Learned About: Differentiating Sexual Identity and Orientation

Prodigal Sons (2008)

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For those who like axioms this one stuck out to me as I was seeking to learn more about what the transgendered experience is like, when being asked about why it is some people who have gender reassignment have heterosexual relationship and some have homosexual relationships, one woman answers perfectly and made me understand the magnitude of that journey; to paraphrase what she said: look in a mirror and ask yourself does what you see match how you feel inside? Most people will say yes. Look around and who are you attracted to.

That’s it. That is the difference between sexual identity and orientation. I have not in my life ever felt that specific emotion when looking at myself in a mirror. I never felt torn against myself for the very skin I was living in. I felt isolated, conflicted emotionally, and at war with where my mind and eyes would wander, and with whom I sought to be closer with amorously and amicably, but not something that fundamental.

Wherein: I Re-Examined a Film with the Topic of Sexuality in Mind (and Found a Road Less Traveled)

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

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After being reminded of the fact that the character of Buffalo Bill was a controversial one in the LGBT community took offense to – on a doc about it and I believe The Celluloid Closet (below) does touch on it. There were angry protests and signs about how the film seemed to vilify a transgendered person. When watching it with this in mind, I came away unconvinced, and not just because of my axiom of needing to understand that one character does not a whole demographic represent.

Bill’s situation is exacerbated by two factors: he was not given the go-ahead for surgery in psych evaluations and he specifically has sociopathic and psychopathic tendencies. Bill reacts violently and irrationally to the circumstances facing him. A vast majority won’t.

Looking at the film focusing merely on the aspect of sexuality there is no evidence, as it is played in this one film, that Clarice Starling is a heterosexual woman, aside from the assumption we’re societally conditioned to have that everyone is “straight unless proven gay.”

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To my mind this dubious, and nebulous nature of her sexual orientation is underscored by her subtle disregard for being objectified by men while jogging around the FBI’s training compound.
So if we’re viewing the film through a prism of presumed sexuality, and as I see it  there are heterosexuals, one lesbian, and one man longing for a sex-change. There are characters across the spectrum.

Where I Learned: Sometimes Film Theory Has To Go Away

Thelma and Louise (1991)

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Learning film theory can be dense and difficult to most. However, there is a value to it and learning to analyze in terms of interpretations that may not even even have been made by design. It can be the only to enjoy some filmmaking styles like certain New Wave films or works of magical realism. However, never is this subject harder to learn than when you just disagree with a theory.

I fully understand the visual cues and character roles and attitudes that lead those to argue that Thelma and Louise becomes a lesbian tale by proxy. The reason I don’t buy it is because I cringe at the notion that any movie that includes an “I don’t need no man” sentiment is promoting lesbianism (Frozen) or the very sexist attitude that treats lesbianism as a choice whereas being a gay man is a sentence.

Thelma and Louise is many things: flawlessly structured, brilliantly acted, a masterpiece, a tremendous feminist statement, up there with The Accused but it’s not a lesbian story. Not to me.

I fully get and support the notion that due to a lack of representation individuals in the LGBT community can cling to characters that were not designed to represent us, and that is a healthy and normal thing, one instance from my childhood that comes to mind is Flower in Bambi.flower

Ma Vie en Rose (1999)

Where I Learned: Being Comfortable Can Change How You See the World

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Cinematically speaking, in the opinions of most, children are seen as lower beings on the totem pole. Too often children are societal afterthoughts when decisions our leaders are making now are molding the very world they seek to inherit. So there can be a great amount of coddling and shielding in film and society. However, those with a sensitivity, understanding, and appreciation can make changes, insights and be of help.

Ma Vie en Rose tells a tale of a common childhood activity, cross-dressing, through the eyes of a character who takes it to an uncommon degree and finds more comfort and joy in it than most. Even with social norms varying from country-to-country, this film being set in France doesn’t change many of the reactions to this.

The beauty seen in the world through the eyes of its protagonist is a breath of fresh air and can be an eye-opener to many about acceptance as opposed to tolerance.

Where I Learned: About More Nuances of Sexuality and the False Equivalency Tranvestites Face

Dress to Kill (1999)

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For those who need simple axioms by which to live, and learn better whilst being entertained Eddie Izzard can be a great means of enlightenment. His discussion on “weirdo transvestites” and “executive transvestites” and him describing himself as a “male lesbian” are as insightful as they are funny.

Where I Learned: Stories of First Love Don’t Have to End in Tragedy or Heartbreak

North Sea Texas (2011)

Why I start with a book will soon make sense…

 

One of the defining books of my teenage years was The Bitterweed Path. It was among a select few books I read when I was visiting family in Brazil. My grandmother has accepted a trove of books in English that she had no use for as she reads solely in Portuguese and French.

It’s a wonderful tale of an unrequited, unfulfilled love at the turn of the 20th Century. It meant so much to me, in the edition I read, that I asked for it to be be specially bound like my Grandmother and aunt sometimes do. It was quite a chore for the bookbinder but still holds an honored place on my shelf. But not all stories need be like that to work.

North Sea Texas (2011, Strand Releasing)

Here’s a perfect example. After I learned that much to my surprise North Sea Texas was nominated for a GLAAD Media Award I wrote the following:

However, what North Sea Texas strikes upon, and what makes it work so well and so important is that it’s an idealistic tale. It reminds me of a debate I and a professor had about the Indian film Fire in college. His criticism of the film was that the revelation of, and the familial objection to, a sexual abuse situation was unrealistic. My assertion was “Why should it be?” If you’re trying to make a point be it societal, political or otherwise, there are times when the best way to make it is to seek out an ideal and illustrate it, rather than just illustrating that the problem exists.

 

Where I Learned: It Has Gotten Better, Or Stereotypes Used to be Much Worse

The Celluloid Closet (1996)

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Yes, the picture is an outlier, a maverick.

While you can note issues that still exist you cannot understand how the present is better without looking to the past. Documentaries like this and Reel Injun do well to highlight the way in which marginalized populations have been treated onscreen through the ages. Outliers are as noteworthy as patterns and improvements can be noted across the board with improvements and continued, diversified representations appearing frequently.

Where I Learned: You Don’t Even Need to Say the Word “Gay”

In the Family (2011, In the Family)

On the film In the Family I wrote the following:

the film could be handled differently and still work but then it would run the risk of pigeonholing itself as a gay film, or a racial film or a courtroom film, depending on how the plot unfolds. It could quickly become maudlin and melodramatic. However, in restraining its emotion, allowing it to build in its characters and its audience it creates a tremendously universal and human story that I’m sure many can relate to, whether it reflects anything in their life or not. One example of the restraint, and a litmus test of sorts for films with gay themes, is that the words “gay” or “homosexual,” or any pejorative variation thereof are not spoken. This is a clear choice it seems that underlines both the humanity of the story and the underlying hostilities and prejudices that exist.

Where I Learned: Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow

Billy Elliot (2000)

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The musical adaptation of Billy Elliot amplifies virtually all the emotion in the tale. Aside from the obvious that dancing or liking it does not determine one’s sexual orientation, this one selection closes the circle from the beginning of the post.

Billy Elliot (Jamie Bell) is not a poofter as the vernacular would state it. Despite the fact that Michael (Stuart Wells)  is not fully self-aware for a majority of the film, he is gay. Michael’s pain at losing his best friend when he goes off to the Royal Ballet School will be massive. There is no expunging it, it can scarcely be mitigated.

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Billy’s kiss on Michael’s cheek is not a pandering gesture by a character or in filmmaking terms. It’s a simple, beautiful act of friendship. One that on its own is tear-jerking but sets up the end of the film beautifully: Billy makes his professional debut. Of course, Michael is there. So glad are we that he is both happy and supporting his friend that the coincidence of his sitting next to Billy’s dad can be forgiven.

Bonus Features

A few titles, scenes, and moments that came to mind where words are a bit unnecessary; the images say it all. Enjoy!

Where I Learned: Cartoons Can Make You Feel Uncomfortable

Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)

 

Where I Learned: It’s Real Awkward When You Get What’s Going On in Some Performances at Madonna’s Blond Ambition Tour and You’re There With Your Dad

Where I Learned: Some People Are Gay, and That’s OK

Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)

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Where I Learned: Dancing Can Be Sexy 

Look Who’s Talking Too (1990)

Where I Learned: You Will Have To Come Out More Than Once Whether You Like It or Not. Thanks for Bearing With Me!

Coming Out (Part 2) by Troye Sivan

Short Film Saturday: Yeah Kowalski! (2012)

Introduction

For June, at least in the short film department, I will be featuring gay-themed films for Pride month.

Yeah Kowalski! (2012)

I wanted at least one of these short films to be a bit more of a conventional tale. The fact of the matter is a great number of gay-themed films aren’t just themed but predominantly about sexual identity and awareness. Here you have a fairly common concern to adolescents: seeming to develop slower than contemporaries, but told from a slightly different perspective. Until representations are varied and widespread enough, such that LGBT cinema is no longer a subgenre of its own, representative stories are necessary. However, when the tone is lighter and the conflicts are more universal there is an added ability to reach a vaster audience aside from the built-in one who will inherently “get it.”

Enjoy!

Thankful for World Cinema: North Sea Texas

This past weekend the Belgian Film North Sea Texas opened in New York and Los Angeles. I was fortunate enough to watch this film in July when it screened at Q Fest in Philadelphia. Based on the plot synopsis I had hopes that it would be a good film, what I didn’t expect was for the film to be somewhat groundbreaking in the annals of gay cinema, and, yes, I feel that the way in which the film handles its subject can render it universal. However, the fact remains that it will be pigeonholed as such due to what it’s about. The way in which it’s groundbreaking is startlingly simple: it’s a positive, affirmative film that essentially says love conquers all. Now, on the surface you might think you’ve seen that done a thousand times, and you have for a film about heterosexual romance. It happens less often in gay-themed films, and is even more infrequent in gay-themed films about first love.

Now, cinema, for the most part, has evolved past the point that is excruciatingly illustrated in the documentary The Celluloid Closet, which deals with the depiction of LGBT characters in Hollywood films up to that point. However, film in general, even when titles mean well, are beautifully, sensitively crafted and acted; still gravitate towards the quasi- and flat-out tragic tales when it comes to gay or lesbian protagonists.

This is not being judgmental, these are facts, and it’s a case wherein films are attempting to reflect realities. The examples are plentiful such as: This Special Friendship (Les Amitiés particulières) even being French, and dealing with the specifically named and ridiculed boarding-school romance, this is tragedy. Then you have films that deal with repression like Brokeback Mountain, Far From Heaven or even The Hours.

Then there is the kind of film that I expected this one to end up being like: Wild Reeds (Les Roseaux Sauvages), which is a tale of first romance that is all too typical: best friends one fall for another, there is experimentation but only one feels an emotional attachment because only one of the two is actually gay. It’s a first love deception that is commonplace and fair game for dramas.

However, what North Sea Texas strikes upon, and what makes it work so well and so important is that it’s an idealistic tale. It reminds me of a debate I and a professor had about the Indian film Fire in college. His criticism of the film was that the revelation of, and the familial objection to, a sexual abuse situation was unrealistic. My assertion was “Why should it be?” If you’re trying to make a point be it societal, political or otherwise, there are times when the best way to make it is to seek out an ideal and illustrate it, rather than just illustrating that the problem exists.

Not to say there isn’t drama, conflicts or struggles in North Sea Texas but the resolution to the the dramatic question the film poses is an overwhelmingly positive and beautiful one, made even more powerful because of how rarely it is seen.

It is also an extraordinarily timely one. With equality issues coming to the fore in many countries around the world, principally the United States, it is extremely useful and reassuring to see an illustration of it “getting better” and not merely being told that. Furthermore, this is not merely an assertion I’m making based on my read of the film, but it is also included in the credits where the film is dedicated to the kids whose parents refused to allow them to participate in the making of the film.

North Sea Texas is a wonderfully rendered artistic film that should win over any and all open-minded fans of film, but any film has its target audience and for the audience targeted here there are few films that ever so firmly, staunchly and beautifully espoused its over- and underlying messages. Few films can really said to be of social significance beyond just being a film. This, I believe, is definitely one of them. It may take time, but this film is one that I believe will stand the test of time and become quite a milestone. You may even try to dismiss it as a fairy tale if you want, but that could well be the point. For who doesn’t deserve their happily ever after?

Hero Whipped: The Double Life of Archie Andrews

It’s about time to do one these again, as other ideas in the vain are coming to the fore, and I want this one focused and not as scatter-brained.

As you may or may not know, Archie Comics have been shaking things up over the past few years. The introduction of Kevin Keller, the first openly gay character in this comics universe, was a big step and perhaps the most significant of all such recent stories. I think many comics fans cut their teeth on the Archie tales, I know I did. What makes them a good stating place is that they’re usually humorous tales about the commonplace. That’s why Keller is significant, he’s been folded into a world that just accepts him.

Kevin Keller, however, was the second bold initiative from Archie recently. The first was the Life with Archie series that plays out two different realities: Archie marries Betty and Archie Marries Veronica. Each issues is double-sized in page count and magazine-sized in proportion at a standard comics rate, less if you subscribe like I do.

The stories, now several arcs deep, have always mirrored each other and it got me to thinking about the doppleganger phenomenon in certain realms of fiction. I haven’t had extensive experience with such phenomena with it but what it ultimately lead me to conclude is that this series could be great preparation for more involved and less direct, nonlinear storytelling modes kids may encounter as they grow older.

The first example that came to mind was the film The Double Life of Veronique. This film aside from having a signature and extremely memorable theme plays with the notion that we all have a double in rather dramatic and no frills kind of way. Here you also have slightly different interpretations of established characters, which is not only a staple of comics but occurs in other media too. One for instance would be Stephen King who, via his pseudonym Richard Bachman, treated his characters from Desperation almost like they were actors and recast and re-purposed them in The Regulators.

The story also has a soap opera like feel in the best sense of the word. I think of these as my stories; the tension is palpable and is delivered in drips and drabs. Each storyline and subplot is touched on just enough to keep you coming back for more. Each character’s plot runs about 2-3 pages per issues, thus they have about an issue (two counting both tales) per arc of their plot. Just enough to incrementally move things along.

Another thing the series does which is crucial to breeding comics readership and is applicable to certain films as well, is that it plays with the parallel dimension/multiverse concept in a stripped-down dramatic sense. The lack of grandiosity and superhero tropes introduces a fundamental of the medium in a much more conventional, comprehensible tale for the neophyte and rewards long-time readers with glimpses of old favorites and puts new spins on old tales.

It’s a series that can still relate to teens but what it’s doing is making strides to stay somewhat in step with the times, which I think many will admit it hadn’t until recently. The aesthetic benefits of laying a foundation of more complicated story structures and approaches can be easily understood is what is really exciting; and the pedagogical abilities of comics, even in fiction ought never be overlooked. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, comics essentially taught me Portuguese and organizations like Reading With Pictures know of this power too.

Not to say that Archie’s social forwardness combined with its pushing its own aesthetic boundaries while staying true to its characters and style isn’t exciting too; but it’s this added element and depth that this series has that separates it, and makes it a great gateway to comics, more involved narratives and is the best fodder for cinematic adaptation they’ve likely ever had.

It’s brilliant on so many levels.

The Perfect Subplot in The Sitter

Attention Dear Reader,

Prior to reading any further I feel it only fair to warn you that a narrative thread in the film The Sitter will be discussed in detail herein and not a portion of it will be left unspoiled. If you have yet to see this film please do so. If you have seen it let us begin…

Landry Bender, Jonah Hill, Max Records and Kevin Hernandez in The Sitter (20th Century Fox)

In the critical lambasting this film has received, that I noticed both via its Rotten Tomatoes score and the encapsulated consensus that the site offers, what is missing is an insight. Granted a majority of the issues that critics have with the film are questions of taste. This is true of many comedies. Perhaps nothing is more subjective. However, I will not seek in this space to convince you that the film is funny, though I did find it to be very funny. Some also call out the film for not being very original. I cannot claim that this film re-invents the wheel.

What this film does brilliantly, which I will argue with any and all comers, is fold in a completely unexpected subplot based on the fact that it’s a comedy and the type of comedy it is. The term fold in is picked specifically to borrow the cooking term. In that vernacular it has a much more homogenizing context, somehow, in film it seems like it applies to putting something other where it does not belong.

In The Sitter Noah Griffith (Jonah Hill) is your typical slacker and atypical babysitter making it kind of a typical setup. A ne’er-do-well who in many ways has arrested development will see the truth of these children’s lives and connect with them in ways their parents cannot. Furthermore, these insights he has into their personalities and lives will better him.

The surprise comes in Slater’s subplot, it’s by far the most well-executed and most subtle of them all from start to finish. Slater, played with stunning adroitness by Max Records (whom you may know from his pitch-perfect performance as Max in Where the Wild Things Are) and countered beautifully by Jonah Hill’s usual potty-mouth with a heart of gold, not to sound snide but that’s how many of his characters can be pigeon-holed.

How does this all unfold?

We meet Slater as Noah does. He is arriving at the kids’ house and sees him in the living room lounging watching TV. The programming is a shirtless male gymnast set against a woodlands background. The thought that Slater is gay occurred vaguely to me but I dismissed it simply because the image on screen was so odd and because “that sort of thing just doesn’t happen in films of this kind.”

The second step in the progression of this subplot is the introduction, at the time as a literary ghost, of Slater’s best friend Clayton. He is merely identified as his best friend and someone who Slater is texting incessantly. Again no bells really sound at this revelation because two assumptions are made by me and likely the average audience member: One, kids text a lot and two, he’s getting responses.

The third step is where suspicions start being aroused. Slater isn’t getting responses and he’s distressed by that. However, the filmmakers deflect this for many by having it play into Slater’s myriad partially self-diagnosed manias. So we move on…

The fourth step is where it likely clicks for most audience members. In their wild night about New York Slater runs into Clayton (Alex Wolff) at a Bat Mitzvah. Slater catches him in a lie and with another friend. This creates the need for Clayton, prodded by his friend, to blow Slater off to his face and tell him he’s acting “weird.” Slater, of course, is devastated. Here is where I jumped the gun and finished the equation.

However, many times in a film you’ll know a certain event is going to happen and it’s how it unfolds that really matters. That is evidenced by this film.

What occurs in the 5th and penultimate step (The Sixth being Slater being at peace in the denouement) is just flat out brilliant. In a confrontation with his adopted brother, Rodrigo (Kevin Hernandez), Slater’s meds are thrown out the car window. He freaks out and makes Noah stop the car. He looks for them and shouts that he needs them because he has problems. As is the case with all the “Remedy Scenes” Noah doesn’t act out of character at all but wisely. It’s truly a tribute to Jonah Hill and his abilities that he can play a scene wherein his dialogue is flat-out blunt, button-pushing and confrontational but yet delivered sensitively and is precisely what is needed to get a desired reaction from his scene partner/opposite character.

Slater is told to his face he’s gay and in a film of this nature the magnitude of those two events alone is incredible. Firstly, the fact that another character recognizes it and points it out to him allows for the allusions to the It’s-not-a-choice aspect to be made naturally. Also, it allows the character in question to deny it before confirming it. The singular most moving moment in a film where anyone in their right mind would expect their to be none is when Slater, protesting too much, shrieks “I don’t wanna be a faggot!”

It’s also precisely this kind of scene that proves the point that I’d rather have society police language rather than the movies. The F-word in real life has become intolerable in the 21st century. That does not, however, mean that it’s been eradicated, which is precisely what makes it such a powerful choice here.

Not only that but you have in one short coming out scene, in a movie you’d never expect to see one in, the vocalization of so many truths about homosexuality and being closeted that it’s staggering.

Namely: No one wants to be gay, no one chooses to be gay, when one is closeted you almost want to be called out to relieve yourself of the burden, you and others around you think there’s something wrong with you, it’ll make your life more difficult, you’ll go through very hard times but it gets better and people get over it, coming out to your parents is the hardest thing you’ll ever have to do and so on.

I belabor the point about the kind of film it is because these kind of talking points are typically that they’re reserved for so-called Gay Cinema. The only problem with Gay Cinema is specifically that, it’s too much of a niche. There’s a lot of preaching to the choir. Even a mainstream hit like Brokeback Mountain can’t carry this message as well because first it’s about homosexuality and moreover it’s about repression thereof and the gay characters don’t receive the liberation that Slater does in this film. So many of his fears are allayed that you do hope somewhere a conversation like this is really happening between a parent or guardian and a child.

The sensitivity with which David Gordon Green, Jonah Hill and Max Records convey this scene is to be applauded long and loud. Typically, films branded as important are so because of their overall theme or their impact on cinema as a whole. While I enjoy it, this film may end up on neither end of the spectrum in time but what ought not be overlooked in an age when many with a social conscious are flat out saying that “It’s OK to be gay” and “It gets better” and other well-meaning statements that can be construed as platitudes by some, it is vitally important that the youth of this country are shown clearly and irrevocably that these things are true.

Fiction does not diminish a truth but rather can echo and amplify it more so than anything else. The true importance of The Sitter then cannot be measured in either category listed above but the reason it has importance is that it perfectly, in a social and aesthetic sense, includes a message in a film made for mainstream consumption and for they all need to be congratulated.

Thankful for World Cinema- Son Frère

When looking for a theme in which to select films from the start of November until Thanksgiving being literal is not the best option. Films centered around Thanksgiving tend to be overly obsessed with dysfunctional families. So in thinking about the nature of the day which was initially a celebration of survival in the New World, I thought why not focus on foreign films.

Son Frère

Bruno Todeschini and Eric Caravaca in Son Frère

This is quite an interesting French drama about the difficult relationship that two brothers have. One of whom is gay and receives his brother one night as learns he is fighting a mysterious and seemingly incurable disease.

One thing that is interesting about this film is that while it does deal a lot with treatment of this illness it goes out of its way to say that the disease even has a name but never says what it is. It insists on being about the patient and the care-taking brother and not the disease itself.

Aside from being a relationship film that doesn’t take the traditional route of dealing incessantly with whatever relationship it addresses. It also deals with death obviously, but moreover with being a patient. In examining those with chronic illnesses it casts an eye on the hopelessness of it all and the fear of surgery.

In that vain there is an amazing one-scene performance by Robinson Stévenin in which the brother witnesses the fear very sharply by seeing someone else in pain.

The film works very sure-handedly and keeps its pace steady but don’t let it fool you in that regard because there is a climax coming and it might even fool you in that regard. You may miss it or its impact immediately but it is one that leaves you thinking.

It is a very intimate and taut drama that is worth looking up.

8/10

Review- Toast

Victoria Hamilton and Oliver Kennedy in Toast (W2 Media)

In seeing Toast a very fundamental question occurred to me because this film gave me the answer more purely than most do. The question being: “Why do we go to the movies?” The answer: “For the unexpected.” I never expected from Toast one of the most surpassingly beautiful scenes I’ve seen in a while.

This is just one of the many surprises this film has in store. Granted I knew next to nothing about this film going in but even taking that into account there are some wonderful surprises in store. This film is about the upbringing of famed British chef/personality Nigel Slater. What you get, however, is something more intimate and vibrant than appearances would have you believe.

Aside from a scene of surpassing beauty which is one of the great instant tear-jerkers ever, which features a wonderful selection of source music there is also within this film a great montage and a creative display of the passage of time. Throughout there are some wonderfully lit shots and creative camera angles which are used to great effect.

To not give too much away I will not describe the above scene in too much detail to keep the surprise fresh. It is the kind of scene, however, that many can make effective but few can make that effective. Moreover, it is followed up by a scene rendered emotional that few can make work. This film manages to make the simple act of eating toast an emotional experience.

Of course, a lot of this should not be considered a surprise when you note it’s Lee Hall, writer of Billy Elliot (stage and screen), who brought Nigel Slater’s story from memoir to script. Not only do you have in Hall a man who can depict children truthfully (or their perspective on things) but also one who has rendered dramas in this socio-economic milieu before and can weave a character discovering one’s sexuality into a plot without making it the film’s sole focus.

While being tremendously moving at times this film also balances itself with a good dose of comedy. Comedy is also inherent to a narrative wherein a protagonist develops a love for food and cooking despite frequently having an abnormal relationship with it, whether eating bad canned food or using it to seek attention or affection. Yet even the comedy is always met with high stakes. As funny as it can be at times you realize things are serious because of who his competition is.

This film is made even stronger by having a small but incredibly able cast. First and foremost is Oliver Kennedy who plays Young Nigel and carries the film for two acts before being aged. He was found through a long and slightly unorthodox search, which tested personality and instinct more than honed acting chops and it truly paid off. A natural, diamond in the rough was found. Typically when you have a character portrayed at two different ages you see him younger for less screen time. That is not the case here, however, Freddie Highmore’s section, where Nigel is 16 and has been in his current living situation for some time is no less compelling. Furthermore, it’s where he gets to follow through on his lifelong interest. Highmore was, of course, one of the biggest child actors of his time and is yet another one making a wonderful transition to more adult roles.

If you’ve not yet gotten an indication of how good this film is take this as a hint: I am only now mentioning Helena Bonham Carter’s involvement as Mrs. Potter, the cleaning woman who sidles into the home. She is both funny and dastardly and at times a sympathetic figure but always a bit immature and misguided, even while being so complex she manages to be an effective antagonist. Then you have the curmudgeonly father Ken Stott who is equal parts hilarious and infuriating.

This film was presented at my local theatre through the From Britain With Love series which is showcasing six British independent films in art houses across the US. This particular screening was accompanied by a post-screening Q & A where director S.J. Clarkson took questions not only from audience-members at Lincoln Center in New York but had some relayed to her from the web. My question, whether by relay or repetition, did make it through to her. It was this: Did Freddie Highmore and Oliver Kennedy compare notes on playing the same character at different ages? The answer was a similar one to Tom Hanks’ approach to playing Forrest Gump in as much as Highmore merely imitated Kennedy’s accent.

Amongst many other things this film made me rethink my aversion, in certain instances, to lens-spiking. Towards the end of each section the actor playing Nigel knowingly spikes the lens. However, on further thought considering it’s narrated by a disembodied older version of Nigel, it’s his perception and he knows he’s talking to us, it doesn’t bother me as much. We as an audience through the voice-over acknowledge that the story is being told to us in hindsight and that there’s some filtering and artifice involved.

Toast is a moving film in every sense of the word and one that I’d gladly see again. I’ve said it a lot recently but it’s not less true here, that it’s one the best films I’ve seen this year thus far and I can see it standing tall at the end of the year.

10/10

Review- That’s What I Am

Ed Harris, Chase Ellison and Andrew Walters in That's What I Am (WWE)

In a somewhat similar vein to Alabama Moon, That’s What I Am is a film whose distribution path deserves a little bit of attention. The only place I heard of this playing was New York’s Quad Cinema and it was for one weekend only. Considering that I was going to be in New York that weekend I tried to shoehorn it into my plans but alas could not.

I later found out that it would shortly be available for purchase exclusively through Walmart. As if that’s not enough quirks it’s also a release from WWE, yes, as in World Wrestling Entertainment. For those of you groaning: aside from having a wrestler play a small part (Randy Orton whom I was glad to learn is also a producer for the film) there’s no wrestling involvement in the story.

That’s What I Am is a film in several ways that is sold and seems to be nothing more than a standard coming-of-age tale. However, there’s a bit more to it than meets the eye from the trailer. The film’s journey, as seen through its protagonist Andy (Chase Ellison), is the narrative of a formative time rather than one singular incident. The fact that the incidents that pervade this film are balanced relatively well gives this film a quasi-European aesthetic, why it doesn’t quite reach it will be shown later.

The trailer would lead you to believe that there are two main thrusts to the tale: not judging a book by its cover and discovering what one is, in short tolerance. Yet there’s far much more more to it.

Perhaps the most unexpected is the narrative strand that dominates a lot of the film is the allegation that the ever-popular uber-teacher Mr. Simon (Ed Simon) is gay. Considering that it’s set in the 1960s this is a perfectly legitimate grounds for termination (according to society) and it sets up a lot of the conflict and brings up the theme of tolerance in a different regard. Ed Harris is wonderful as usual and his initial denial to even respond is fantastic. I’ll not give away how this strand ends but he does eventually answer the question definitively in private and I wish he hadn’t. I think a stronger statement is made by his steadfastly saying “It doesn’t matter, I’m a good teacher.”

That serves to highlight the inconsistency in writing. Some of the dialogue isn’t as sharp as it needs to be and on occasion stumbles into the bad range but overall it is serviceable. There is plentiful voice-over by Andy as adult reflecting back which brings to mind Stand by Me because he is a writer but it nowhere near as strong.

There is also a romantic subplot in this film but what is refreshing about it is that it doesn’t dominate the narrative and it’s not a puppy love or I’m-gonna-die-if-she’s-not-mine crush it’s an attraction and the girl has a reputation, which lends some humor to it. In the Big G (Andrew Walters) subplot, the one that kicks the film off, wherein Andy is paired with him for an assignment, his being mocked for his appearance and nerdiness is only part of the equation. The other facet is that he never hesitates to be who he is and not be afraid of ridicule, meanwhile, his best friend Norman (Daniel Yelsky) is obsessed with blending in and they fight over this issue a few times.

Despite a few weak spots in the adult nucleus this film is buoyed by the strong performances of its young cast. Namely Chase Ellison, an actor whose had many strong turns either in small roles or smaller films, is a very effective “Everykid,” in this film and unlike many other films of its ilk doesn’t necessarily strike you as awkward trying to play awkward and seems to relate greatly to the part. Andrew Walters does a very effective job being the stoic, picked on Big G and I was glad to learn that in his big scene at the talent show he did his own stunt, so to speak. Daniel Yelsky is also convincing as the neurotic and fearful foil to Big G and Mia Rose Frampton plays a toned down, sweeter version of the character she is in the funniest scene in Bridesmaids.

There are a few instances in which I wish this film handled things more deftly or differently but ultimately I was quite pleased with indeed. This is a film that’s worth seeking out and is suitable viewing for the family, keeping rating in mind of course.

That’s What I Am is also available to stream on Netflix.

8/10

The Gay Dilemma

Vince Vaughan in The Dilemma

There has been much controversy swirling about the Ron Howard directed, Vince Vaughn starring, Universal film called The Dilemma, a rather apt title when you think about the conundrum the film presents. The kerfuffle is about a joke that Vaughn’s character utters “Electric cars are gay…”

Firstly, it must be said that this line is controversial because the word gay is being used out of context. It is not used in any of its eight assigned definitions. What this usage insinuates could be anything from stupid to effeminate (which is not synonymous with male homosexuality for the record).

This issue about the usage falls into no man’s land which is what makes it a lightning rod. On the one hand I do not and shall not be an endorser of censorship in any form. However, what has occurred with this line in the film falls just short. Universal didn’t have to agree to GLAAD’s demands of the line’s removal from the trailer but it was in their best interest after the publicity started getting negative. On the other hand, I firmly disagree with the misappropriation of the word.

GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network) is doing great work, which started well before the rash of suicides to combat slurs, like using gay as a synonym for stupid. I applaud their efforts and as you will see this kind of forum is where a real difference in attitudes and perceptions can be made.

Art imitates life, I believe, and not the other way around. Racism was much more pervasive and out in the open through much of American history than it is now. These attitudes were reflected in how minorities were portrayed by Hollywood. While racism still exists, of course, it is less socially acceptable now and its appearance in films, save for pedagogical purposes, is frowned upon. Hence, if homophobia becomes less present in society it’ll be a less functional device to implement in cinema.

There have been much, much more offensive gay jokes in the past such that what offends me most about this joke is actually the writing. Whether this version or the earlier version it’s bad writing and not terribly funny. Not to cast aspersions on the film as a whole. It may end up being funny and that joke just falls terribly flat because its unoriginal, unintelligent and unnecessary. Slurs should be viewed like profanity: what a writer must always ask him or herself is “Is the profanity/slur the most viable option?” If not substitute it.

Vaughn’s statement regarding the line where he defends the it rings hollow due to this fact. If the line was comedic genius I’d understand the need to defend it but whether or not this line ends up in the final cut will not change what the film is and what it’s about (knowing Vaughn there are likely ad-lib takes with different assessments of electric cars). This is not removing instances of “The N-Word” from Huckleberry Finn we’re talking about here.

My adolescence coincided with a world where “Politically Correct” was a buzzword and there is something to be learned from the concept. Mostly it’s this: political correctness can lead to over-zealousness and over-sensitivity but it can also create real change when applied to the right situations. Eradicating the use of the word gay as a pejorative would certainly be one of those cases.

The main factor that keeps me from lighting a torch, getting a pitchfork and charging the Universal Lot is the fact that I don’t think art will change perception of a given people in one fell swoop. Everything is cumulative.

Look at the very climate we live in now, in the 1980s and 90s there were to an extent varying degrees of apathy. Protests both for and against gay rights are much more prevalent now and the Gay Rights Movement has become a forefront issue not only in the US but worldwide. Many more people seem to be open about their sexuality now, which is great but there is a backlash, sadly. This openness has lead those who find fault with homosexuality, for whatever their prejudicial and ignorant reasons, to feel more inclined to persecute those who are, and those they deem to be, gay.

So the ebb and flow in societal assimilation is very violent at the moment, both literally and figuratively. Homosexuals are trying to refuse the counterculture label they’ve had to live with for better or worse and are standing up and seeking to be counted. Obviously, there are some who don’t want that. Things always come to a boiling point before a new sense of normalcy is reached. Hopefully, a nation repeatedly struck by the tragic losses of those whose only “sin” was knowing who they were will wake up and realize they are berating their sons and daughters into an early grave.

This drift in topic, away from the film itself, does have a purpose. For the word ‘gay’ to stop being used as a putdown the change has to come from society. It’s happened before, the mentally challenged and physically challenged weren’t always referred to as such. It wasn’t arts that lead the way to correcting the derogatory nicknames they acquired, it was people.

Timing is everything. That is why this silly little line has become such a talking point. If the political climate were calmer then GLAAD still would’ve objected but it may not have gotten this kind of attention. Oddly, the one thing we can be thankful for is that this film with its thoughtless insensitivity has created more debate. And discourse is good. Talking about this and saying its wrong repeatedly is the only way it’ll ever sink in. Eventually people will learn but movies won’t teach society but instead will follow. So let’s take the first step to making both better.