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

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O Canada Blogathon: Léolo (Part 6 – With His Family in the Common Room)

With his Family in the Common Room

WARNING: While I will do my best to avoid major spoilers this series of posts is an in depth examination of the film so it will be discussed at length. Reading about the film in distinct sections is not the same as seeing it clearly but forewarned is forearmed.

Leading to this point there have been intimations about Léolo’s state of mind and his yearning to individuate from his family. It’s a natural inclination but it is perhaps sparked earlier, and more furiously, in his life than in most. A large reason this is being that nearly all his immediate family receives at least outpatient treatment at a local mental health facility, some are committed. Part of the reason this has been danced about until this section is to be to more closely emulate the structuring of this film.

Léolo weaves this story usually tackling his interaction with each family member and later expanding the circle to see how they interacted with the family as a whole, or with him in a group. The film in some instances uses hospital visits are a trigger to introduce both the character and what placed them in the predicament.

Léolo (1992, Fine Line Features)

The majority of Léo’s time in the film is spent with Fernand (Yves Monmarquette). One of their money-making tasks is to collect news papers, which is how they tend to run across the Word Tamer. They get papers to sell to the local fishmonger to wrap sales in. However, when they are young (here Fernand is portrayed by Alex Nadeau and Léo is played by Francis St-Onge) they run across Fernand’s Enemy (Lorne Brass; his being bilingual adds that aspect to this portrait of Montreal, which some stories do not include) for the first time. It’s an important scene in the film because it is Fernand’s inciting incident, his motivation to bulk up. The Enemy is a local two-bit gangster who intimidates and shakes Fernand down when he sees fit. At the end of this confrontation Young Fernand is left with a bloodied nose and convinced to change something.

This aspect comes full circle the first time they run into one another since he has grown huge. It doesn’t end any differently. The scene, the insight Léolo gains and the performance by Monmarquette makes it one of the signature moments of the film and tremendously moving.

In most cases, as it is with Léolo’s eldest sister, Nanette (Marie-Hélène Montpetit), upon first seeing her we have no idea what landed her there. She pleads to her little brother “They stole my baby, Léo” and have no idea what landed her there. Whether the plea is a literal complaint or one that is more symbolic and symptomatic of her mental illness is not something that’s known right away. As is the case with all the characters we will eventually feel sympathy, and maybe even empathy for her as well. The characters, even in short strokes, round into a more real form. We see their less desirable traits but also get to step in their shoes for a brief moment. Our longest walk is in Léolo’s but nonetheless we get a sense of all their travails.

Léolo (1992, Fine Line Features)

Rita (Geneviève Samson) is the character whose backstory is circled around the most. Léo feels a special bit of kinship to her it would seem because of the little world they shared together. However, we are slow to hear why he calls her Queen Rita and catch glimpses of her not brushing her hair and sing-songing the count. It may well be an act of kindness that Léolo tries for Rita, and his mother’s reaction, that mounts pressure on him. It may not be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, but it’s on the pile for sure.

Léolo (1992, Fine Line Features)

In close competition for dancing around a backstory is Léo’s Grandfather (Julien Guoimar). This is a character that scarcely is seen before his influence on proceedings is discussed. As the problems facing individual family members and the family as a whole have been enumerated. Léo tells us of their history together and how he feels his grandfather is solely responsible for all the problems facing the family. There is a Greek tragic treatment of their tale that for varied reasons involves two scenes of attempted murder, one attempt by each party. That simple rendering of their conflicts may paint a salacious picture but there is a cause-and-effect to each.

Léolo (1992, Fine Line Features)

It is in these hospital scenes that we see that Mama is generally agreed upon as being the strongest in the family in terms of resolve. When Léolo has occasion to talk to the psychiatrist (Julien Guoimar) she agrees with his assessment. There are are group counseling sessions hinted at. However, with this being ‘70s set the state of the mental health profession was still less-than-ideal so it’s unlikely any good was being accomplished in any of these treatments which is what leads Léolo to refer to it as the “cemetery for the living dead.

When I first had this film on VHS I remember that the closing image of the film wherein Léo co-opted the title of this favorite (only) book was subtitled with with the words “Valley of the Vanquished.” In the current region one DVD release that is the name of the chapter but the subtitle it reads: “Valley of the Swallowed.” That title truly is one of the trickier translations and it’s a shame it comes up on so crucial a line. The book when it has been translated has been referred to as “The Swallower Swallowed.” That is a fair treatment in literal terms, but I think that the bit of poetry that the titlers engage in here is justified. It is the sense that the line is driving for and thus well played in English.


This post is part six in a series. Parts one, two, three and four and five can be found here. Stay tuned for more.

O Canada Blogathon: Léolo (Part 5 – ”Parce que moi je rêve, moi je ne le suis pas.”)

“Parce que moi je rêve, moi je ne le suis pas.”

WARNING: While I will do my best to avoid major spoilers this series of posts is an in depth examination of the film so it will be discussed at length. Reading about the film in distinct sections is not the same as seeing it clearly but forewarned is forearmed.

One of the basic rules of thumb in filmmaking is the rule of three. Essentially, this is used for progressions and repetitions of key information that is needed to follow/interpret the film. However, as with any rule in art there are exceptions to this rule. Some work because they break said rule and some fail because they break said rule.

Léolo works in large part because of its insistence on breaking the rule of three when it comes to the repetition of the core philosophy of his being. In reading the only book accessible to him in the house Léo picks out a quote and believes it with every fiber of his being:

“Parce que moi je rêve, moi je ne le suis pas.”

It translates loosely to “Because I dream, I am not.” What exactly Léolo is not is open to interpretation and can change based on what he’s talking about before, but usually I take it mean “Because I dream, I am not like them.” “Them” usually means his family, but on occasion can be his classmates.

This phrase sometimes pops up being repeated three times in a row, but often when it crops back up into the narrative it is repeated with a mantra-like consistency. Sometimes in a number of voices alternating from the Narrator (Gilbert Sicotte) and the Word Tamer. It’s almost as if this chant is meant to ward off the demons that haunt and inhabit the rest of the family.

That mantra will be manipulated and toyed with as the story sees fit, and when it does it is quite a poignant comment on the turn-of-events it is underscoring.

This line struck me as being so powerful, and such a brilliant encapsulation not only of this film, but of an adolescent’s (or any rebellious soul really) thought process and state of mind that it has always stayed with me. As I have revisited the film it has become inextricably linked to the film. However, I’ve also gone back enough such that I was able to remember the name of the book (L’Avalée des avalés by Réjean Ducharme), and then research it.

L'Avalée des avalés (Folio)

Its availability is grossly limited in both French and English. However, I recently saw it crop up and I decided that it was time to test myself and try to give it a read. I started taking French in sixth grade and had it through the end of my junior year of high school. I became as proficient as one could be in school without an immersive experience. I returned to it to satisfy my minimal language requirement in college. However, the French you’re learning there is the unadorned, French from France. Not the version of the language spoken in Quebec. There are differences. Despite the fact that the only sizable text I read in French was The Little Prince, and I had to hit my dictionary frequently; I made it through 26 pages with fewer issues than I expected and was enjoying it. What stopped me was really lost momentum, and it was lost in the shuffle of my book juggling. I didn’t get to the famous line even. However, I may return to it again. It may not help balance my table, or be the only book that lives in my house, but because it lives with this movie it lives with me.

“Parce que moi je rêve, moi je ne le suis pas.”

This post is part five in a series. Parts one, two, three and four can be found here. Stay tuned for more.

O Canada Blogathon: Léolo (Part 4 – Bound by Odor and Light)

WARNING: While I will do my best to avoid major spoilers this series of posts is an in depth examination of the film so it will be discussed at length. Reading about the film in distinct sections is not the same as seeing it clearly but forewarned is forearmed.

In structuring this series on Léolo I could’ve combined this section with another which would encompass this film’s dealing with all biological functions that would perhaps capitalize on the zeitgeist of commentary and thinkpieces on the subject in light of Wetlands’ limited release. However, when dealing with Léolo they should be separated for one very curious reason: Typically when films do go into the uncommonly explored arena they are in the guise of private obsession or other unshared state of privation. However, when it comes to concerns of a scatalogical nature it is very much a family concern in this film, and again, it is an aspect of his family’s life that is touched upon fairly early in the story.

Basically, Léo informs us that the battle his mother picked to fight is that they only way to be healthy was to have regular bowel movements. This is illustrated in an early flashback where she is on the toilet and a toddler Léo is on the potty-training pot wailing. Outside rain falls, thunder crashes and the lighting and poetic voice-over paints a perfect portrait of of a childhood trauma.

It establishes a template for the nature of Léolo’s home life, particularly his relationship with his mother. But even this foible of the family has its plot points. When they are younger they are forced, as is said in the voice-over they are subjected to a “Shitting laxative shock treatment.” And it’s not only mom’s obsession. Dad swells with pride when Léo shows him a “big one.” As he ages he gets craftier, and has more freedom so he can fake it if he needs to.

While in some stories there are things better left unseen, if it serves a story and rendered with artistry nearly anything goes. While focusing an entire story on such aspects can be treacherous, if it fits in there’s no reason to avoid the bathroom.

Two Stephen King-related anecdotes encapsulate my thinking on the subject: first, in his memoir cum how-to-book On Writing King discussed that he has been asked by aspiring writers “When do the characters go to the bathroom?” His advice was: you can skip it, or if it matters you can say “so and so had to push” (his favorite euphemism from his younger days). Oddly, enough I first encountered odd reactions to setting any scene in a bathroom when I was filming a short film based on King’s Suffer the Little Children. A passerby at the college we used as a location thought filming in a bathroom was the funniest thing in the world. It does happen. People use the bathroom and sometimes it matters in a film. That encounter may have been the seed that lead to my wanting to craft a whole one act play set in a bathroom.

As for Léolo, in a building, and a family such as his, quarters are fairly close so to a certain extent things are shared. It seems unlikely that he is the only one who urinates off the balcony. He’s probably just the only one who insists on being called by his Italian name when being yelled at by neighbors for it.

The bathroom escapades also play into a narrative frame wherein a sense of the family is building. Again set-ups and payoffs. In one way or another, odd or conventional, this film closes the narrative circles it opens up.

This post is part four in a series. Parts one, two and three can be found here. Stay tuned for more.

O Canada Blogathon: Léolo (Part 3 – The Word Tamer)

The Word Tamer

WARNING: While I will do my best to avoid major spoilers this series of posts is an in depth examination of the film so it will be discussed at length. Reading about the film in distinct sections is not the same as seeing it clearly but forewarned is forearmed.

Like many things in this film, we don’t necessarily understand the Word Tamer’s role in the proceedings the second we see him. There’s nothing wrong with that. Any required exposition within the film is handled fairly head-on, though floridly, in narration. However, there’s not a need to do so immediately. There is a great sense of pacing and where things belong in this film. Though this is a tale more of a journey than a plot, one that might seem a bit loose, it does set-up and payoff very well, and it knows when to deliver that bit of necessary news.

With the Word Tamer (Pierre Bourgault) our learning that he digs through trash for words and images believing that “Images and words must mix with the ashes of poetry to be born in Man’s imagination” comes early on, if not immediately. The significance of his existence to the story as a whole, and the function he serves for our lead is information that becomes clearer later on. Sure, he could be seen merely as a conduit for the audience. The angry scribblings Léolo jots down and then feels the need to not keep, lest his family should see it and his life become even more untenable perhaps, could just disappear. We could suspend disbelief and say to ourselves “we have this window to his world, what need have we for the Word Tamer?”

However, what the Tamer is partially wish-fulfillment any adolescent who has ever scribbled his angst down about his life, and the ways of the world. Any such pubescent soul would’ve loved a receptive audience that appreciates our talents and also seemed to understand us and our views as we understand them.

This guardian angel-type isn’t a secret kept from Léolo, one that we the audience and the film share. Therefore, he may very well write and dispose of his writing so that the Tamer can read it. The Tamer also does step in on Leo’s behalf once and tries to better things for him. However, I will touch upon that later.

Is this character the element that lends the film its greatest sense of artistry and fantasy, and its largest burst of magical realism in one fell swoop? It may well be. His being the reader who engages in something akin to a game of telepathic telephone is what in a sense justifies the multiple utterances of certain phrases such that they come at near matra-like intervals. He also is shown storing Léolo’s pages at the end intimating that the tale might be read again and by others at some point.

For those who have seen it previously it may seem like I’m dressing the film up to be a bizarre sort of spin on The Neverending Story, but surely this character would not be the last image of the film were his having read the story been of no significance. Endings and beginnings are perhaps the most key in a film because you’re deciding what to tell the audience first and what to leave them with as they walk out the door.

Now there may be salvation or redemption of Léolo’s tale save for the fact that we know all the pages that he spilled ink upon them saying in the omnipresent human need “I am here and this is my story.” Or in the words of Gigolo Joe as he was captured in A.I. “I am, I was.”

Unlike a great many stories wherein adolescents go through tough trials there’s a sort of difference here. It has both to do with the tonality and the structure of Léolo. At first, you’re not sure where things will go, and second, you’re not sitting there hoping against hope for an escape or endgame already in mind such as in Pelle the Conqueror.

Léolo (1992, Fine Line Pictures)

As such there is no movement towards our lead being more better understood. The Word Tamer tries to get Léolo’s teacher to talk to him about what he should read since he shows promise as a writer. One of the many quirks Léolo’s family is that there is only one book in the house (Rejean Ducharme’s L’avelee des Avales), which is used to balance out an uneven table. The teacher does not help the Word Tamer or Léo. Yet, due to this kindly altruist interested only in purity of emotion and the beauty of words he carries the tale to us. Léo lets us, the audience, into his heart, soul and mind. He examines these facets of his being, and his family as honestly as his biases allow. Due to that fact, and how he expresses himself he finds a willing reader, The Word Tamer, who passes him on to us.

This post is the third part of a series. Read part one here, part two here, and stay tuned for part four.

O Canada Blogathon: Léolo (Part 2 – Notions of Nationality)

Notions of Nationality

WARNING: While I will do my best to avoid major spoilers this series of posts is an in depth examination of the film so it will be discussed at length. Reading about the film in distinct sections is not the same as seeing it clearly but forewarned is forearmed.

The first thing Léolo (Maxime Collin) tells you about is the story of how he believes he came to be conceived. In a way it’s his creation myth, the only explanation, however illogical, that he can come up with for why he feels so different than the rest of his family.

Naturally, with one feeling so estranged from one’s family can lead to a sense that they come from some other country. With Léolo having grown up in the midst of his family, and never having moved, the only viable option that remains in his mind is that he himself is from some other nation; somehow, some way.

This notion struck me not only because this film is French-Canadian, and the national identity of its populous has always been nebulous as a whole – as evidenced by two tight independence referenda in the ’90s and political jockeying for another. The notion was also likely to strike me personally for an obvious reason. I am neither French nor Canadian I will not get too cute about what Léolo’s desire to be Italian says about the Quebecois.

However, it’s not coincidental that that Léo’s tale of a randy Italian tomato-picker, an accident wherein his mother stumbles upon the most unlikely tomato imaginable makes him Italian in his mind, and thus, a countryman of Bianca, his great unrequited love.

Due to the fact that his belief is that an anonymous Italian is unintentionally his father and not the man he shares a house with, he also insists on being called Léolo Lozone rather than Léo Lauzon. He is rarely taken seriously in this request.

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“Italy is too beautiful to belong only to the Italians” he says when talking about Italy and Bianca, whom to him is the country personified. This is portion wherein I feel some more identification. I am a dual citizen of the United States and Brazil. I think being a first generation American has made me very curious about the world and made me want to experience other cultures, at least vicariously, not only as an escape (though in my younger years it definitely was) but also for my own edification.

Léo’s world is a one of very small and dark corners; it’s his apartment, his tenement building, diving in the river, collecting papers. His neighborhood, in short, to a lesser extent Montréal as a whole. He is incessantly surrounded by things he wants to be freed of it’s not a wonder that a country he has never been to, landscapes he is imagining but may have never seen represented call out to him as a safe haven. In many ways, with a much different backdrop to grow up against I had that same longing for escapism in my adolescence. Sure, most adolescents do, but it’s the manifestation of such in this particular way that makes it a parallel.

One of the great and subtle touches of this film is how it uses his preferred name to put a bittersweet closing note on the relationship arc of Léolo and his mother (Ginette Reno). There are small moments when he shows his affection towards his mother. He writes of his true feelings with greater fervor than he shows her in real life. Though at times she was unable to understand all that went through her kids’ heads, and may have passively fought him on his desired name, at the end she calls him “Léolo” seeking to bring him back to consciousness. Whatever he calls himself she just wants him to stay. Léolo may have drifted off to a purgatory – how literally one should interpret closing events in the tale is debatable – what’s inarguable its that: because he gave up on his notion of heaven and gave up the will to fight, even with the supplications of his mother beckoning him back, he was lost.

However, the way this story unravels one would hear all he thought, hoped for, and feared.

This post is the second part of a series. Read part one here, stay tuned for part three.

O Canada Blogathon: Léolo (Part 1 – Introduction)

Introduction

Since I have started participating in blogathons I have created an heretofore unwritten rule: I try to limit myself to participating in one a month. There are two main reasons for this: first, they tend to run out-of-sync with what the main theme of my regularly-scheduled programming, and second I tend to go a bit overboard with a post much larger than I normally write with several headings and topics discussed.

As someone who in commemoration of Canada Day one year created a province-by-province cinematic map of Canada of films I had seen or would like to see, I am clearly one with an appreciation for Canadian cinema. In that very post I try and get to the heart of why:

I can’t exactly pinpoint where my fascination with all things Canadian began. Yes, I’ve always been obsessed with hockey, but this burgeoning affection during my childhood also coincided with many of my entertainment staples being either vaguely or blatantly made in Canada such as You Can’t Do That on Television, The Kids in the Hall, Are You Afraid of the Dark? and to an extent SCTV. Regardless, the affinity has always been there and since thanks both to the internet and internationally distributed calendars I’ve come to learn of Canada Day, and decided to compile at least the beginnings of a list.

Strictly speaking in film terms the interest in films made north of the border this was likely the genesis. I vividly remember the inception of The Independent Film Channel as for probably a bit more than a month I saw movies that marked me and that I would never forget. Sometimes they were 8 PM showcases, other times they were just in heavy rotation. Léolo is one of those movies.

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All I really wrote about it in that post, for being a very significant film to me I had to mention it, was:

A completely French-Canadian film (were my revisionist BAM Awards still legitimate would’ve won many awards) called Léolo. It’s a poetic, bizarre and unique tale of a young boy’s adolescence in 1970s Montreal. Sadly, this was the last vision Jean-Claude Lauzon brought to fruition as he tragically died in a plane crash in 1997.

So I always knew that it was a huge movie to me. Which is what would make writing about it quite the difficult task. As I sat down to revisit it for this blogathon that jumped out at me as the way to structure this post: enumerating and compartmentalizing the facets of this film that not only make it work but soar above so many others for me personally.

As I began to work on this piece I started to see it was going to be huge so I have decided to split this post into multiple parts over the course of the whole blogathon.

Without any further adieu, madames et monsieurs, I present to you Léolo Lauzon, or should I say signore e signori I present to you Léolo Lozone…

Children in Films Blogathon: A Revisionist Look at the Juvenile Award

When I learned of the Child Actor Blogathon at Comet Over Hollywood, I had two ideas for it almost right away: the Jackie Searl spotlight and this one. Not too long ago I argued for why the Juvenile Award should be re-instated. In this post I will follow up on that notion to augment my case. It’s one thing to quickly cite who won while it was around and state it never should have left, it’s quite another to show you who would have had they never gotten rid of it. Now I have decided to illustrate that in three ways, including some omissions found when it was instated (it’ll make more sense when we get there, trust me). First, I will list the young actors who since the end of the award (after 1961) were nominated for an Academy Award.

These actors obviously, had there still been a Juvenile Award, would have won that. While on occasion they were awarded the prize, more often than not they didn’t have a realistic chance. Regardless, their nomination was deemed prize enough it would seem, but I disagree and as you will see there have been plenty of instances where the Juvenile award could have been handed out either in addition to or in place of the nomination.

Based on Academy Award nominations from 1961-Present:

Little Miss Sunshine (2006, Fox Searchlight)

2012 Quvenzhané Wallis Beasts of the Southern Wild
2010 Hailee Steinfeld True Grit
2007 Saoirse Ronan Atonement
2006 Abigail Breslin Little Miss Sunshine
2002 Keisha Castle-Hughes Whale Rider
1999 Haley Joel Osment The Sixth Sense
1993 Anna Paquin The Piano
1979 Justin Henry Kramer vs. Kramer
1977 Quinn Cummings The Goodbye Girl
1976 Jodie Foster Taxi Driver
1973 Tatum O’ Neal Paper Moon
1968 Jack Wild Oliver!
1962 Patty Duke The Miracle Worker
Mary Badham To Kill a Mockingbird

Personal Selections

Super 8 (2011, Paramount)

In 1996, when I was 15 and the young actors of the day where my contemporaries, I started making my own award lists. Being young myself at the time I wanted to recognize young actors where most awards excluded them more often than not. These selections reflect those that were my among my BAM award selections that were eligible and the Academy bypassed. Prior to 1996, I thought of significant performances that were worthy of noting and would’ve had a strong case for the Juvenile Award had it been around.

2012 Rick Lens Kauwboy

This one is highly unlikely as Kauwboy wasn’t shortlisted for the Best Foreign Language Film prize. However, the fact that it was the official selection for The Netherlands did make it eligible.

My young actress choice last year, Sophie Nélisse, was a year off from the Oscar calendar but also a strong possibility for Monsieur Lazhar.

2011 Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning, Ryan Lee, Riley Giffiths Zach Mills, Gabe Basso Super 8

It figures that both the best young ensemble, and perhaps individual performance, of the past 25 years got overlooked. So they are all honored here.

2009 Bill Milner Is Anybody There?

2008 Bill Milner and Will Poulter Son of Rambow

A slight wrinkle here from my original selection. Since the Academy set precedent of awarding tandems, why not do so here as well?

2005 Dakota Fanning War of the Worlds

2004 Freddie Highmore Finding Neverland

My 2004 winner was one where I was awarding a film from 2003, due to my stand on release dates, which is different than the Academy’s. Having said that I then had to factor in both my nominees and who the Academy would be more likely to pick and decided if they chose anyone it would have been Highmore.

2003 Jeremy Sumpter Peter Pan

2001 Haley Joel Osment Artificial Intelligence: A.I.

2000 Haley Joel Osment Pay It Forward

1998 Vinicius de Oliveira Central Station

1997 Joseph Ashton The Education of Little Tree

Here’s another interesting case: my winner was in a TV film which the Academy would never honor. Then two more nominees were either shifted due to my interpretation of release date rules and one erroneously in my revisionist phase. That leaves two eligible: Dominic Zamprogna in The Boy’s Club and Joseph Ashton in The Education of Little Tree. Some people besides me actually saw the latter so I’d put that one up as a winner.

1996 Michelle Trachtenberg Harriet the Spy
Lucas Black Sling Blade

Michelle was my actual winner in 1996. Sling Blade in my awards was shifted to 1997 due to its release date. It being an Oscar nominated film make it a more likely retrospective candidate.

My Girl (1991, Columbia Pictures)

This section marks personal selections prior to my picking extemporaneous year-end awards.

1994 Elijah Wood The War

I recall watching E! and hearing there was some buzz being stirred by the cast/studio for Elijah. I knew it would never happen, but it was deserved buzz.

1992 Maxime Collin Leolo

I have since expunged them but for a time I did backtrack BAM Award to back before they started. Some of these picks reflect those findings.

1991 Anna Chlumsky My Girl

1990 Macaulay Culkin Home Alone

Say what you will, but you know if the award was around that this would have happened.

1988 Pelle Hvengaard Pelle the Conqueror

1987 Christian Bale Empire of the Sun

1986 River Phoenix Stand by Me

1983 Bertil Guve Fanny and Alexander

1982 Drew Barrymore and Henry Thomas E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial

1979 Ricky Schroeder The Champ
David Bennent The Tin Drum

1972 Nell Potts The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds

Who Should Have Gotten One But Didn’t

No Greater Glory (1934, Columbia Pictures)

I honestly almost scrapped this section. However, looking back through young nominees I noticed the discrepancy that some young nominees did not get a Juvenile Award while there was one. So I figured while I was at it I’d list a few notable performances that didn’t get recognized. Those that “didn’t need one” since they were nominated as in their respective categories against adult competition have denoted those with an asterisk.

1956 Patty McCormack The Bad Seed*
1953 Brandon deWilde Shane*
1952 Georges Poujouly Forbidden Games
1941 Roddy McDowall How Green Was My Valley
1936 Freddie Bartholomew Little Lord Fauntleroy
1934 George Breakston No Greater Glory
1931 Jackie Cooper Skippy*