Letter from an Editor

Bright Wall/Dark Room was founded on the principle that speaking about film in human terms—how it makes us feel, how it helps us relate to the world around us, how it can crystalize and galvanize our human experience—was as vital to the critical process as anything else. Since our beginnings as a website in 2009, we’ve been striving to find and share the films that bind us together; to seek out commonality, regardless of our superficial differences.

When we first floated the idea of publishing an entire issue dedicated to LGBTQ films, we were concerned that, as editors largely identifying as straight, we might not be able to approach the essays and films in the most ideal way. Although we see ourselves as allies to people of all sexualities and gender identities, we were afraid we'd make a mistake in our representation of Queer Cinema. But, seeing a fair and honest representation of Queer Cinema as vital to our mission of exploring the universal human truths that this particular art form affords, we had to try.

I spoke to a queer friend on the subject of this issue and how best to make use of this platform we have. I struggled and over-explained and ultimately landed on the question, “What sort of angle would you hope we’d approach this issue from?” She smiled and I was struck by how easily all of my worries fell away. “We just want to have our stories told,” she said. “Same as you.”

I mean, of course.

Seeking that moment of perfect recognition in a piece of art is what drives us to the cinema time and time again, and that search is a profoundly human experience. “The movies,” Roger Ebert reminds us, “are like a machine that generates empathy.” We lose nothing from a fuller representation of what it means to be human. We gain everything from a more empathetic understanding of our friends. In Little Miss Sunshine, Frank (Steve Carrell) explains to Olive (Abigail Breslin) why he’s depressed and suicidal over his failed love affair with one of his students. She fixates on her uncle being in love with another boy. “That’s silly,” she says, very much a child. “You’re right, it’s silly. It’s very silly,” he says, very much an adult. You don’t have to be gay to know the pain of a broken heart, but Frank’s sadness comes with a depth that must be acknowledged. Christopher Plummer’s Hal from Beginners is finally able to live his truth after 45 years as a closeted gay man, and we can’t help but feel his joy at discovering the “wonderfully loud” house music at a gay club. And again, you don’t have to be gay to know the thrill of self-discovery, but the perspective of a person who’s spent half a century denying themselves is valuable. It helps us be kinder, better people. The human experience – in all its shapes and forms – should be denied to no one.

Thankfully, we are finally seeing some points of light that reflect an accurate representation of the Queer experience at the movies. Don’t get us wrong, there is more to be done and there are more stories to tell, and it’s important to those of us who consider ourselves allies to listen carefully to these stories. We have some wonderful writers in this issue and we are excited to listen, learn and share in the specific moments of beauty, of pain, of bitter laughter and joyful tears; of everything that makes us so sublimely human and how we found that at the movies.

-Andrew Root, Senior Editor


Life in Drag

 
illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

 

The first scenes of But I’m a Cheerleader depict great floods of fabric and skin. Cheerleaders somersault weightlessly through space and arrange themselves into pyramids of flesh; these close-ups are synchronized to the inverted brass of April March’s “Chick Habit.” The viewer is ostensibly installed in the gaze of the main character, Megan (Natasha Lyonne), an All-American cheerleader who happens to be attracted to girls. “Happens” is the operative word; at first, her attraction is only semiconscious. How can she be gay? She has a “smart and popular” boyfriend who kisses her from a position of petrified heterosexuality. Every time he opens his mouth it looks like he’s unhinging his jaw, a tongue leaping violently out of inanimate flesh. “Don’t you hate when they do that?” she asks a classmate. “Maybe he just doesn’t do it right.”

But I’m a Cheerleader is a dark comedy. It takes a remarkably bleak and real concept—conversion therapy—and exaggerates it until it glows with a gentle absurdity. One of the formal conventions of dark comedy is situating people and things in the center of the frame; this causes the characters to look as alienated as possible from their environment. When Megan’s family and friends confront her about her sexuality, she occupies the middle of the dull, plaid couch in her living room. They send her to a reparative therapy camp called True Directions, the main house of which swells centrally against the horizon in menacing pinks and blues.

The camera also tends to center Mary Brown (Cathy Moriarty), the founder of True Directions, in its severe and oversaturated compositions. She’s presented as a calcified paragon of straightness and cleanliness, impeccably made-up and folded into polyester that gives off an alien gloss. Throughout the film she attempts to convert her transparently homosexual son Rock into an “ex-gay.” Mary screams at Rock, rage and disappointment distorting the substance of her voice. She’s frustrated; she lost her husband to another man and the bright queer infinity of San Francisco. She’s losing her son too, to some unfolding asymmetry inside of him. It’s why she started True Directions, why she works to restore unrepentant gay teens to heterosexual stasis.

Rock can’t hear her. He’s wearing headphones, from which RuPaul’s “Party Train” issues in trebly shimmers. He’s dancing to the song while carrying a hedge trimmer, ostensibly performing the “straight” activity of violent gardening, while smacking his own butt and twisting himself into some kind of gay asterisk.

*

I was around seven years old when I first saw Janet Jackson dance. I caught the music video for “If” on MTV, and I found myself mesmerized by the way she contorted herself into elaborate hieroglyphs. The song’s percussion whirled around me like a vortex. In the moment, which, if I focus in on it now, seems like its own dense pocket of time—how I imagine time is experienced by the Grand Canyon, slow and deliberate and yet packed with tremendous structural change—I knew immediately that, when I grew up, I wanted to be her. In her movements she projected a system of desire that was both permissive and uncompromised. I wanted to move like her, to glide effortlessly through space. To move as if every inch of my body were collapsible.

*

Mary brings out a projector in order to display historical examples of heterosexuality to the girl campers. Enormous heads with carefully sculpted hairstyles are anchored onto shrunken bodies and situated in a variety of straight utopias. “Here is our happy couple at home,” Mary says. “Now, it’s important to make your man feel at ease when he comes home from a long day at work.” Their faces are contorted into masks of hideous bliss. They look like artifacts of modernity, drafts for pop artist Richard Hamilton’s collage Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?, which modified a 1950s furniture ad until the masculine and feminine statues in the foreground seemed like varieties of furniture themselves.

These are images of ghosts, optimized shapes no one can actually inhabit. But at True Directions, everything is microwaved into an optimized shape—the tables, the clothing, the plastic flowers that pulse crisply in the front yard. Every gendered object the campers engage with is painted in nursery hues. Blues dominate the axes and fake semi-automatic weapons the boys carry; the girls are variously sewed into pinks and purples, and the vacuums and brushes with which they execute their maternal chores are drowned in an olive green that looks harvested from a 1950s stove. Each object lacks texture, and tends to resemble a wax replica of the real thing.

Pink and blue, as the representative hues of gender binary, have a fluctuating history. In her book Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America, historian Jo B. Paoletti studies gender and infancy and their historical associations with colors. “For most of the nineteenth century,” Paoletti writes, “the dominant color for baby clothing was white.” Babies were typically seen as asexual, and pink and blue were only used as accents, in ribbons and shoes. A Ladies’ Home Journal article in 1890 suggested that “blue is for girls and pink is for boys, when a color is wished.” Both colors were woven variously into infant clothing; they didn’t settle into rigid identities in the West until the 1950s. Now they dominate nurseries and baby clothes, signifying a kind of initial texture of gender. “Vain trifles as they may seem, clothes have, they say, more important offices than to merely keep us warm,” Virginia Woolf wrote in Orlando. “They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us.”

In But I’m a Cheerleader the colors are amplified to outrageous and unstable vibrancies, until blue looks just as vivid and alien as pink. When performed in this fluorescent drag, the chores required of the boys and girls at the camp—cleaning, child rearing, wood chopping, militarization—stop feeling like straight banalities and start to seem like their own exalted queer rituals, isolated from context and sexually reanimated. “You go in and out, into every little crevice,” Mary says as she demonstrates her method of vacuuming. The camera pans across the girls’ faces, each of which seems to apprehend a secret, grotesque joke.

*

I was around seven or eight years old when I first asked my mom for a Polly Pocket. We had stopped at a toy store on the way to a friend’s house, or on the way home from somewhere else—the distance between destinations in Las Vegas occasionally feels so vast and disconnected that memories can resemble remote islands of feeling. At the time I was obsessed with miniatures, the way they implied imaginary worlds nested within worlds, and I already owned nearly every variation of the Polly Pocket for boys, which was called Mighty Max. I had the volcano, which split in half to reveal a honeycombed internal structure; I also had an island that was shaped like the skull of a dragon, and which opened up into dramatic cells situated against the grooved slopes of its teeth. I loved it; playing with miniatures gave me the feeling of viewing the earth from space, but with the additional ability to manipulate its texture. As we drove out of the store parking lot, I opened the heart-shaped Polly Pocket compact in my mom’s car and felt a similar astral thrill, but I felt it for a space that was less imaginative than domestic. Everything inside the case was painted in pastel or in the same mutant pinks and greens that flood through the walls and clothes in But I’m a Cheerleader. All of the miniature landscapes inside were organized toward an individual purpose; I could position Polly in a living room, or in a bedroom, and settle into the idea of those places. Mighty Max would always be in the midst of some adventure, scaling walls, dispatching enemies, moving through chambers which connected to each other in a pattern only I could sense. Polly could just relax into the queer silences of personal space.

*

But I’m a Cheerleader is one of the few modern films in which I’ve seen gay people characterized as inverts. Counselor Mary Brown screams it through the phone (“Listen to me, you little inverts!”) at Larry and Lloyd Morgan-Gordan, two former True Directions counselors (and self-described “ex-ex-gays”). They’ve formed a counter-therapy camp, where the film’s characters are invited to explore the limits of who they are rather than the limits of who they’ve failed to be.

Inversion was a popular method of characterizing queerness in the 19th and early 20th centuries; I initially encountered the term in the fourth volume of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost TimeSodom and Gomorrah, the first part of which is dedicated to a mythical construction of homosexuality. Proust, himself a kind of unwilling homosexual, regards “inverts” through a lens of alien pity. “I understood now why…I had been able to think that M. de Charles had the look of a woman,” Proust writes. “He was one! He belonged to that race of beings, less contradictory than they appear to be, whose ideal is virile precisely because their temperament is feminine, and who are in life like other men in appearance only.” According to Proust’s narrator, these male inverts are like flowers, solitary, beholden to “sexual needs” which are dependent on “the coincidence of too many conditions, too difficult to encounter”; his narrator actually glimpses the homosexual interactions of two characters while he is studying a bee’s lazy, drunken orbit of a flower. The physical properties of the flower flow into their movements; the men bend with a floral elasticity toward each other, “striking poses with the coquettishness that the orchid might have had for the providential advent of the bumblebee.” He likens them to jellyfish as well, which he originally found repulsive when he saw them pulsing on the beach in Balbec; his lens adulterated by natural history and aesthetics, he reconsiders “the transparent velvet of their petals, like the mauve orchids of the sea.”

“Inversion,” of course, pivots on a binary, a division between male and female where only one can be inhabited at a time. But I’m a Cheerleader occasionally feels locked into this binary, though a broad dark comedy from 1999 probably shouldn’t be criticized for its inability to convey a spectrum. Regardless, the male campers appear as slight variations of single gay male cliché, their arms fluttering almost bonelessly when they try to catch a football. The girls are more nuanced; Megan, as a lesbian cheerleader, successfully contains two ideas that would otherwise seem culturally opposed. The movie works best when it lingers in this instability, where the various performed surfaces of identity rupture and open onto flexible oceans of ambiguity. One of the girls, Jan, isn’t even gay. “Everybody thinks I’m this big dyke because I wear baggy pants, I play softball, and I’m not as pretty as other girls, but that doesn’t make me gay,” she cries. “I mean, I like guys. I can’t help it. I just want a big fat wiener up my…”

The movie has its own metatextual inversions; RuPaul appears out of drag throughout the film, as an ex-gay named Mike. He becomes an ex-gay by performing straightness so inflexibly that it generates a queer aura. It’s a kind of drag in itself, a performance that prioritizes and enhances its own failure. (“Do people treat you differently when you’re dressed as a woman?” an interviewer asked RuPaul in 1999 in an article centered around the movie. “The way I see it, you’re born naked and the rest is drag,” he said.) Each camper “tries on” straightness to varying degrees of success; Graham (Clea DuVall), who spends the majority of the film variously hostile to the True Directions program, nearly graduates into heterosexuality in order to extract a withered acceptance from her father. “When we get back from Switzerland, you better have this gay thing out of your system,” he tells her on the first day of family therapy. “You fuck up, no college, no car, no trust fund.” In an attempt to convey her successful conversion to straightness, Graham "confesses" she has a crush on her fellow camper Joel. Her performance is fluid and convinces Mary, but there's an audible glitch in her voice, a microtonal irregularity, as if she’s being crushed by the strict dimensions of heterosexuality.

*

When I was in high school I fell in love with the music of Tori Amos. After a fight with my first girlfriend, I turned on my radio and heard “Silent All These Years,” and something inside me seemed to open up in recognition; the nervous asymmetry with which she struck the piano keys occasioned an equally nervous response, and it felt like the branches of my nerves were sprouting flowers. Tori’s voice and lyrics specifically seemed to clarify an inner emotional structure which until then had been an inaccessible blur to me, full of unreadable softnesses and hardnesses. A year later, after another argument with my girlfriend, I listened to Boys for Pele front-to-back on the couch in the basement of her parents’ house. The couch was old, full of oddly distributed softnesses and hardnesses, a compromised landscape through which hints of its internal metal structure occasionally surfaced. I adjusted myself until I felt adequately held by its turbulent surface and pressed play. A single piano note lifted from a digital silence; it repeated itself at the beginning of each measure, each repetition contributing to its volume and depth. It hurt, in a way. It felt like the inner pulse of a wound.

A few months later I saw the video for “Raspberry Swirl.” The song sounded weird to me, animated by an insistent throb which Tori had absorbed from dance music. Rock music tends to obey desire but also longs to control and subdue others with it. “Raspberry Swirl” and, as I would learn later, house and techno music, shrinks itself so thoroughly into the anatomy of desire that it sounds like a map of its molecular structure, a shivering constellation of ache and longing. It made me feel delirious. “Raspberry Swirl” is about loving women as a heterosexual woman (“everybody knows I’m her friend / everybody knows I’m her man”) but its internal logic of desire did not seem radically dissimilar from mine. When I looked at my girlfriend it did not feel like I interpreted her through a lens of masculinity, a curious and romantic collision of confidence and possession. The translation was inaccurate; every reflection the lens produced was blurred and unintelligible. When I looked at her the world folded gently away and what replaced it was something more fluid and shapeless. I could feel myself falling through it, into endless vacant space.

*

Megan and Graham start to fall for each other; you can tell without the aid of exposition, as Lyonne and DuVall’s expressions begin to develop their own language. Their looks, the small, meaningful shifts in their eyes and bodies seem to answer each other in code. One night, unable to sleep, they slip off into another bed, intended for simulated heterosexual sex. Megan and Graham instead simulate queer sex, which is mostly conveyed by the camera as trembling crescents of light. “I never felt this way before,” Megan says. “Except for when I was cheerleading.”

One of the major successes of But I’m a Cheerleader is that Megan does not reject cheerleading but instead learns how to translate her queerness through it. Another is this not-quite sex scene; it’s deliberately less anatomical and mechanical than the simulated heterosexual sex exercise, where the girls and boys are encased in grey bodysuits, and perform anonymous and indifferent push-ups against each other. In sections of the frame, Megan and Graham’s bodies seem to deconstruct into a wavering fluorescence.

*

What do you think of when you think of your body? I think of an orb that sprouts limbs. The atmosphere of darkness that trembles around a fluorescent light. A cloud of smoke generated by a burst of synthesizers.

Anything but the actual incidents of my flesh.

*

My queerness doesn’t really fall into a sequence. I feel like most stories of gay self discovery are assembled retrospectively, as if from the vista of your own heterosexual ruins. Memory tends to shape unrelated events into stories. In these stories, time tends to congeal, the way anything does when you assign meaning to it; it passes only in important units. Metaphors tend to have a very linear relationship to reality. Your mom bought you a Polly Pocket when you were a kid, you listened to a lot of Tori Amos in high school, then you attended college, and one day you knew you were gay. Megan’s friends and family locate her sexuality in her diet (vegetarian) and in the music she listens to (Melissa Etheridge). Members of the camp are required to manipulate their histories until they can find a reasonable “root” for their homosexuality—Graham’s mother attended her own wedding in pants, Sinead was born in France, and Joel, who is Jewish, experienced a traumatic bris. These are all hilarious fictions, stories that collapse cause and effect into a smooth, uncomplicated line. Queerness itself isn’t fiction, nor is it exactly nonfiction; the space it occupies is more unstable, both invented and irrevocable. Megan’s conception of her own queerness develops almost outside of narrative. Her journey is that she becomes herself. She thinks her desires are normal, even as she’s told they aren’t. “I have pictures of women around,” she says when she’s first admitted into True Directions. “You think that’s normal?” one of the other campers asks. “Sure,” she says. “...I’ve never really thought about it.”

I had never really thought about it. It was less something that happened than something that pulsed invisibly inside me all along. And yet, when I started considering it and turning it over, it started to grow and unfold, a toy capsule submerged in water from which a foam dinosaur blooms. It builds its own internal logic, which swells around it like fortifications, crowding geometries of identity and sexuality in which I could get lost and potentially never find myself again. Every time I try to trace its beginnings, I glimpse an even more distant source, an unresolving horizon that resembles the readout of a heart monitor—a pulse of activity between two total darknesses.

It’s difficult to analyze something that is always changing, always mutating away from you in insane helixes. William James tried to characterize the inexorable flow of identity in 1890, in his book The Principles of Psychology. “The rush of the thought is so headlong that it almost always brings us up to the conclusion before we can arrest it,” he wrote, “or if our purpose is nimble enough and we do arrest it, it ceases forthwith to be itself. As a snowflake crystal caught in the warm hand is no longer a crystal but a drop...The attempt at introspective analysis...is in fact like seizing a spinning top to catch its motion, or trying to turn up the gas quickly enough to see how the darkness looks.” Or, to paraphrase Heraclitus, you can’t step in the same river twice, nor can you seize and dissect it; the river and you are engaged in a kind of endless improvisation.

*

A few years ago, a friend of mine from high school disappeared from Facebook. When he returned, he had begun transitioning, had cropped his name into a shape that felt more like it belonged to him. We had talked about it often before his transition, the feeling of being caught in between opposite poles, the inner remoteness and alienation this produced—you feel like a crater on the moon, cradling an infinite emptiness. He filmed videos of himself, describing his transition, the ways it had visibly and invisibly improved and complicated his life, but behind his descriptions I thought I glimpsed something, a shift in his features which produced a nameless and indefinite expression. He looked so happy, and as if, before achieving this happiness, he had nearly been destroyed. I remember thinking, how brave and terrifying it is, to get so close to yourself.


Brad Nelson is a Contributing Editor at Bright Wall/Dark Room. He is  a writer living in Queens. His work has appeared in Spin, The Atlantic and the Village Voice.


An Attempt at Something

 
illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

 

Mrs. Dalloway, his Mrs. Dalloway, buys the flowers herself.

But the writer Richard Brown (Ed Harris), beset by "black fire," is certain that his life's labor has been all for naught, the sum of it still a mere shade of Virginia Woolf's singular opening sentence. "I wanted to write about it all, everything that happens in a moment," he explains to longtime friend and former lover Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep) in director Stephen Daldry's The Hours. "Everything in the world. Everything all mixed up, like it's all mixed up now. And I failed. I failed. No matter what you start with, it ends up being so much less."

I understand the sentiment: I recently spent the whole of a gorgeous spring Saturday, one as bright and as crisp as a starched shirt, attempting to shape this essay into a form resembling Woolf's — only to find that the pileup of thoughts I'd mimicked in high school and college has begun to elude me, my "voice," such as it is, having long since hardened into something else, something slighter, tinnier. If I am honest with myself, I have lost more niceties of inflection, more unimpeachable sentences, to the space between conception and execution than to any skeptical editor, and The Hours — though set in Richmond, England in 1923; in Los Angeles in 1951; and in New York in 2001 — inhabits this space, interstitial, tending toward imperfection. The cake craters, the train departs, the poet tosses himself from the window. "I seem to be unraveling," the otherwise impeccable Clarissa confesses, although it must be said that life, like writing, often seems to be one long unraveling, a process of coming to terms with the fact that an idea, once brought into the world, is always already beyond saving. Woolf herself described this entropic transformation in Mrs. Dalloway, referring to Big Ben's chimes: "First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable."

That the film should nonetheless endeavor to find a cinematic analogue to Woolf's flickering, impressionistic language — her controlled skid through memory, history, philosophy, and literature, pitched in the affective terms of family, friendship, marriage, death — is, for me, its most eloquent gesture, and its most moving. At the outset, as Philip Glass' tumbling, tinkling score gathers momentum, Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman), Clarissa Vaughn, and Richard's mother, Laura Brown (Julianne Moore), all lie in bed, each stirred by the toll, the buzz, the beep of the clock's morning greeting. First the warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable. Virginia's face disappears from a mirror only to emerge, in the future's far country, as Clarissa's. Montage turns red flowers yellow and then the deepest violet. By the time the first line of Mrs. Dalloway lashes the trio together, reducing vast chasms of time and place to the width of a sheet of paper, The Hours appears, above all else, to be a tribute to Woolf's serial semicolons and capacious commas, her ruminations and glancing connections. In Richmond, a servant breaks eggs for an unwanted lamb pie; in New York, decades later, Clarissa separates yolks for a dish that will never be eaten. Laura kisses her neighbor, Kitty (Toni Collette), in a Los Angeles kitchen, much as Virginia kisses her sister, Vanessa (Miranda Richardson), or Clarissa kisses her partner, Sally (Alison Janney), suddenly impassioned, setting forth the bloom, the blush, of a stricken communion. Streams of consciousness run together, through hotel rooms and the English countryside, through a Manhattan flop and the leaves of a London summer. This is the project of The Hours: to spin the same fragile fabric from which Woolf weaves her grand design, here patterned, there random, slipping from image to image, thought to thought. It falls short, of course: no matter what you start with, it ends up being so much less.

How could it not? Here is an adaptation (by David Hare) of a reinterpretation (by Michael Cunningham) of one of the trickiest, densest, most lyrical works of fiction ever published in English (by Virginia Woolf): the essence is bound to be lost in translation. And yet what I wish to suggest is that The Hours, striving and failing to recreate Woolf's immaculate cadences, stumbles upon the conviction at the heart of her finest novels, which is that the work of life, of art, is no more and no less than to essay, to try. The next cake succeeds, the capital beckons, the long day comes to a close. That the hours in between winnow what we start with down to so much less is not an argument against the attempt at something, but the foremost reason for it. To pass our time otherwise would be to confront a far greater abyss than failure.

"It would be wonderful to say you regretted it. It would be easy," Laura, older now, explains to Clarissa as The Hours reaches its end. "But what does it mean? What does it mean to regret, when you have no choice? It's what you can bear. There it is. No one's going to forgive me. It was death. I chose life."

In the decade since I first discovered Woolf, avid for words but incapable of molding them into a fair approximation of my thoughts — thoughts that sparked, burned, dimmed, and dissolved before I could pin them down — I have often wondered at her tenacious influence. You will have understood by now, of course, that I remain under the spell of those bounding, boundless sentences, even as my own attempts at something like them seem to contain so much less, but I cannot say I count this strange allegiance to the impossible as one of my many regrets. I stowed myself away in Woolf's fugitive phrases at a moment — of coming out, of moving on, of deciding who it was I wanted to be — in which I felt an inexplicable mixture of joy and grief, freedom and constraint, excitement and fear, and those feelings have only intensified: I still catch myself drifting into the ungovernable reveries I once recognized in Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Smith, and my only way to catch them is to commit them to paper, no matter what's lost in the process.

"She had a perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi cabs," Woolf writes in Mrs. Dalloway, "of being out, out, far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day."

You see, I can't even write this properly. It is, I worry, a faint echo of the art at its center, slighter, tinnier, slipping from image to image, thought to thought, although it is also, undeniably, an attempt at something. As I've long since come to understand, to endure the dangers of living — if never exactly to tame them — is to row back to shore, to grab hold, with all one's strength, of even the slimmest thread of connection, for it's the act of letting go that is, in The Hours, irrevocable.


Matt Brennan is the TV critic for Indiewire's Thompson on Hollywood! His writing has also appeared in LA Weekly, Deadspin, Slant Magazine, Flavorwire, and Slate, among other publications. He lives in New Orleans and tweets about what he's watching @thefilmgoer.


Unrequited Love, Beautiful Sadness

by Louisa Giffard

 
illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

 

A girls’ high school, mid afternoon.

As I wait with her in the corridor for class to start, I realize with a jolt of alarm that she’s holding the love letter I wrote her. She looks down at it with a wry, amused smile, and then looks at me.

“You wrote this. This is a joke, right?”

“Yes.”

What else am I supposed to say? My heart is pounding so hard, I’m sure she can hear it.

I’ve never been so terrified in my life.

A roadside, at night. A campfire flickers as darkness yawns around two men.

“What do I mean to you?”

“What do you mean to me? Mike, you’re my best friend,” Scott says.

“I know man, I know I’m your friend. We’re good friends and it’s good to be...good friends. That’s a good thing.”

“So?”

“So I just...”

Scott looks away in sudden realisation.

“That’s ok.” Mike says, staring at the ground. “We can be friends.”

***

Have you ever been in love?

Unrequited love stays with you forever. Years later, you think you’ve recovered from the all-consuming, desperate yearning that shaped that part of your life. You think you’ve forgotten about the person whom you fell so hard for. Maybe they gently turned you down. Maybe they never knew. Maybe, like many queer people’s first incredibly important crushes, they were straight, and could never love you back.

You think you’ve forgotten, and yet here they are in your dreams, arriving when you least expect them, exchanging a simple hello or a glance. Or they’re simply a presence. When you wake, you’re confused. You wonder why they’re still here.

Anyone can fall in love and not have the feeling returned, but for queer people the experience is almost mandatory. This doesn’t make it any less painful.

There are many different ways to deal with a one-sided attraction, but one of the most effective is to throw yourself into distraction, to keep your mind busy, to occupy yourself with someone else’s problems. It’s no surprise that as an unhappy, lonely, gay teenager, I desperately searched for something I could identify with. When I found the world around me lacking, I turned to the world of film.

As a child, the relationships I saw onscreen did little to inspire me. Women and men engaged in hilarious misunderstandings. Women and men arguing over the fates of their children. Women and men inviting the odd gay uncle to their wedding, or politely declining the affections of an embarrassingly desperate gay admirer, or asking uncomfortable questions about queer people, indicating their own yawning lack of understanding. The way my sexuality was portrayed embarrassed me. It was a plot twist in a crime show, a comic-relief character’s affectation. It was seen as an awkward complication, a curiosity, rather than anything that could involve real love or real feeling.

It wasn’t until I was in my mid-teens that I discovered LGBT movies even existed, and could be rented and watched. And it just so happened that many of these movies were incredibly sad.

A common cry among LGBT moviegoers is the desire for happier, more positive queer films—for normalcy to be depicted on screen, characters who aren’t twisting in the midst of tragedy.

While there’s an argument to be made for positivity, this claim ignores the catharsis of a tragic character. There's nothing like a good cry over someone else's misfortune in order to make one's own problems seem small in comparison. While others hoped and wished and dreamed while watching happier films, I gravitated toward the tragedies. I knew they wouldn’t treat queer people like a joke.

When it came to queer tragedy, there was nothing more affecting and unusual than Gus Van Sant’s beautiful, dreamlike slice of strange Americana, My Own Private Idaho. I first heard about it reading a music magazine over a friend’s shoulder in class, seeing a short piece about River Phoenix’s role as a gay narcoleptic prostitute. I’d just seen Phoenix’s masterful turn in Stand By Me as a kid with a heart too big for his small town circumstances. I filed the title away in my head.

Two years later, I took a film unit in English. We could select any film in the entire history of cinema to discuss. I decided my need to see the film vastly outweighed any potential discomfort I might face talking to my peers and teacher about queer sex workers, so I chose My Own Private Idaho—if only to finally have a chance to see it.

It was a weird film for a sixteen-year-old to pick. A partial adaptation of Shakespeare's Henry IVIdaho is a story about a gay sex worker with narcolepsy, desperately in love with his detached, privileged friend. It’s a dreamy trip through a country I’d never visited. It was about sex work, and I hadn’t had sex yet. It was about queer men, and I was a teenage girl.

At the same time, it spoke to something that I had experienced—the painful intensity of unrequited love. It was one of the first movies that made me cry. A sign not only of the film’s exquisite, never-ending sadness, but also of my growing ability to place myself in these films, to feel these characters’ emotions.

Mike Waters (Phoenix) is a narcoleptic hustler in Portland, on a quest to find what remains of his family. He enlists the help of his beautiful, detached friend, Scott Favor (Keanu Reeves), a trust-fund kid drawn to street life not by necessity but by the desire to irritate his senator father. It’s less a story than a series of events. The two go on a road trip to find Mike’s mother. Scott and his older mentor, Bob, engage in playful Henry IV-inspired sparring. Mike is revealed to be the product of mother-son incest. Scott and Mike fly to Italy, always one step behind Mike’s mother, who ends up being the ultimate macguffin. When they arrive, it turns out she’s long gone.

The real tissue-clutching, sobbing heart of the film is Mike’s relationship with Scott. Scott looks out for Mike, making sure he is safe whenever he succumbs to a cataplectic fit. Mike, on the other hand, loves Scott, with that true, all-consuming, piercing love that queer youth know so well.

“I only have sex with guys for money,” Scott explains, when the two bed down by the side of the road in the wilderness. “And two guys can’t love each other.”

“Yeah—well, I don’t know. I could love someone, even if I wasn’t paid for it,” Mike whispers, hunched over beside the fire while Scott eyes him with concern. “And I love you, and you don’t pay me...”.

I could not have asked for a more perfect representation of the pain I was feeling. The characters were perfect, the roles of unrequited love personified. Mike, the one who loves, is all emotion, all feeling. River Phoenix plays the character as a lost soul desperate for connection. He has the sensitivity of James Dean, the youthful pain that lonely teenagers cling onto, the wounded beauty that makes you wish you could save him. He gives love because that’s all that he has to give. He’s paid to love, but when he wants to give it freely, it isn’t wanted.

And Scott? If you scoured the earth, you couldn’t have cast anyone better than Keanu Reeves—beautiful but aloof, concerned, eager to make Mike happy but unable to care in the way Mike so desperately needs. It’s easy to understand why Mike loves Scott. Wounding as it is—painful and wrenching and horrific—it’s also easy to understand why Scott cannot bring himself to stay, why he convinces himself that Mike will be OK without him. It’s easier to distance himself from his friend’s never-ending feelings.“I do love you. You know that."

Not only does Scott not love Mike in return, he eventually abandons him.

You see the hard set in Scott’s jaw as he looks at Mike later in the film, as Mike raucously celebrates at a wake and Scott, all crisp suit and carefully selected wife, tries his hardest to ignore him. Both have found ways to deal with their pain.

My Own Private Idaho ends with Mike in the middle of nowhere, collapsed on a road. Mike knows this road. We saw him standing on this endless stretch of tarmac when the film began. It’s the same road where he and Scott had stopped to sleep, when Mike decided to tell Scott he loved him. It’s always the same road.

“This road will never end. It probably goes all around the world...”

Mike Waters suffers more than a human being could be expected to bear. Raised in poverty by an unfit mother who later abandons him, he suffers from a debilitating sleep disorder and turns to prostitution to survive. His sleep attacks stem from stress and leave him open to exploitation. He’s a character you would expect to be hardened— callous, unpleasant and violent—but Phoenix plays him as pure vulnerability.

Mike has a childlike sensibility and understanding of his problems, combined with a world-weary acceptance of the futility of his position. There’s a push-pull, a longing for stability and love and home. However, memories of childhood only bring Mike stress and anxiety.

“This is nice,” he says absently as he wanders through a client’s house, examining her kitschy knick-knacks with a youthful fascination. When the client, a middle-aged woman, approaches him for sex, he remembers his mother consoling him. He collapses to the ground.

The next day, Mike wakes in a pleasant, unfamiliar suburban neighbourhood and starts walking. He’s stopped by Hans—a travelling salesman eccentrically played by Udo Kier. “Why don’t you get in?” Hans begs, imploring Mike to enter his car. “I’ll take you wherever you want to go. Where do you want to go?”

“Home.”

“Somehow I’m forgetting a German man named Hans,” Mike says, after Scott (Keanu Reeves) has explained to him how he fell asleep in Boise and awoke in Portland. In an almost indecipherable whisper, Mike continues.

“So how much did you make off me when I was asleep?”

This mention of the true horror of Mike’s situation is so brief, and so hard to hear, that I didn’t really hear it the first time I saw the movie. Or the second. Or the third.

Mike’s mumbled aside barely escapes his mouth before it's already gone. Everything is inward with Mike—his posture, curled and fetal. His voice a withdrawn mumble that falls back inside his body. He’s quiet because no one ever bothers to listen.

As a suburban Australian middle-class teenage girl, dutifully attending Catholic school and revelling in the security of a stable family, I was nothing like Mike Waters. My problems were minuscule compared to his. At worst, I had to contend with feeling unattractive and unpopular, achieving only acceptable grades in school no matter how hard I worked, and not having any queer people, any friends or mentors to talk to. The only thing Mike and I had in common was the shared agony of loving someone, no matter how unworthy or ill-suited they were to your affections. No matter that they’re straight and will never love you back.

For me, realising I was gay came suddenly. I was eleven. I fell in love. It was one of those crushes that seems Very Important when you’re eleven, or thirteen, or fifteen. The sort that adults doubt. She was in my classes, but we were never close friends. She was skilled at things I had no talent for and I had interests she didn’t share. I realized quickly that she would never accept or understand the stupid, irrational, all-consuming love I felt for her. I decided I wouldn't tell her how I felt. We had so little in common. It never would have worked.

I bear her no ill-will—we were both young—but it’s strange to think that someone can be so crucial to your life, so formative, and never know how important they were to you. Sometimes I wonder what she’s doing now, but I never look. I don’t need to remind myself.

Nobody was gay in high school; as far as I knew, I was the only one. I was certainly the only one who was either brave enough or stupid enough or fed up enough of hiding to tell people about it.

Coming out so early might have made me seem confident, but it was a lonely, unsupported experience, as lonely as Mike collapsing on that Idaho road as the camera cranes away, isolating him from those in his world, and from the viewer. Even now, it’s enough to make me weep.

I doubt the happy films many queer people (understandably) desire would have afforded me anywhere near the same level of connection. The chance of someone loving me back seemed unimaginable, the sort of thing I’d have to wait years to experience. Why would I want to watch movies where people easily fell into each other’s arms, or found happiness in less than two hours, when I knew the same thing might never happen to me? Mike’s experience was a world away from mine, but his feelings were heartbreakingly familiar.

And so I stand in defense of sad cinema, of all the miserable characters who never got their happy ending. If we insist on avoiding any film that depicts a “sad queer,” we deny ourselves the chance to identify with someone vastly different from ourselves, the opportunity to feel sorrow for someone else, and gratitude that we’ll never know the same trials ourselves.

As someone whose own sadness was mundane, a pedestrian expression of what seemed like a lack of opportunity for love, rather than a world conspiring against my happiness, My Own Private Idaho offered an escape. My unhappiness was due to a lack of something good, rather than the presence of something awful. While I could identify with the searing agony of unrequited love, probably the only queer experience I could lay any claim to, Mike’s miserable life was far more awful than anything I had ever had to go through.

In a perverse way, it gave me hope—a thankful feeling that my life would be infinitely better than what I’d just seen. My troubles, while sometimes overwhelming to me, were not that bad in the grand scheme of things. I was not Mike Waters, so I would be OK.

Eight years later, I’m still OK. Twenty-four years later, Mike Waters is still on that road.


Louisa Giffard is a visual artist from Canberra, Australia. She also creates video reviews of LGBT movies and period dramas under the name Infamous Sphere, and has been furiously watching films ever since she discovered that queer movies existed.


Lots of Us Are Doing Fine

by Kyle Amato

 
illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

 

Weekend is the only Criterion Collection Blu-Ray I own.

***

The film starts innocently enough.
Russell doesn’t want to be at this party. He may have at first but his tolerance has run dry.
He makes up an excuse. His friend probably sees right through it. But he understands.
He heads to the bar. He meets a boy.
It’s a familiar story, but it has an important twist.
I stare at the screen, alone in my bed, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
How is this story, what seems to be this simple gay romance, going to be ruined for me?
How is this brief glimpse of happiness going to be shattered?

***

Patricia Highsmith, author of The Price of Salt, said she received dozens of fan letters from lesbians praising her work, her decision to let Carol and Therese live."Yours is the first book like this with a happy ending!" one such letter said. “We don’t all commit suicide and lots of us are doing fine.”

***

‘Fine’ could easily describe Russell’s life. He has his friends. He has a nice apartment. He has a slow job as a lifeguard at an indoor pool. He doesn’t seem to have any real complaints. At least none that he would express.
Glen is not ‘fine’. He doesn’t want to be just ‘fine.’ He wants to be an artist. He wants to be gay. He wants the world to notice.
Glen pushes a tape recorder in Russell’s face. He wants an account of their evening. Russell doesn’t know how to react. So he laughs. Glen persists.
Glen wants honesty, but he can’t be honest with himself. Can’t be honest about what he really wants.
That’s what the tape recorder is for. Turning honesty into art. 
I consider pausing the film and getting dressed. It’s a Sunday. 
I should probably be doing homework. 
This counts as work, I decide. 
It’s an education.

***

The sex scenes are unlike any I’ve seen before. 
I’m enraptured. I look around, embarrassed, even though my bedroom door is closed. 
It feels so intimate. Like I shouldn’t be allowed to see it. 
I shouldn’t be allowed to picture myself in the same situation. 
Doing these things. 
They’re not graphic. It just feels real. And right.

***

“No one’s gonna come see it because it’s about gay sex.” 
Glen lights the joint. He’s discrediting his audio project before it’s even done. He thinks the straights won’t care. 
“It’s got nothing to do with their world.” 
He’s probably right, I consider. There’s no drama. No death. No real excitement. Just simple, plain, human interaction. 
Who would pay to see that?

***

“We mustn’t upset the straights.” 
Russell watches, listening. He’s not sure what to say. 
He doesn’t want his sex life to be public. But that doesn’t mean he can’t have a sex life. 
He can still have a relationship. He wants one with Glen. That much is clear. But is he too shy to breach the subject? 
I desperately check my video player. How much time is left? What’s going to happen to them? 
“Straight people like us as long as we conform.” 
And how am I going to do that? What does that even mean? 
Do I have to become a stereotype? Do I have to keep hiding this aspect of myself? 
Glen would be disappointed it took me this long to come out at all.

***

Glen drops a bombshell, though he acts like it’s nothing spectacular. He’s leaving for America the next day. For two years. 
Because of course he is. Gay men can’t stay together. They can’t be happy. It isn’t allowed. 
But Glen invites Russell to his farewell party.
Their weekend isn’t over yet.
Glen doesn’t like goodbyes.

***

The Price of Salt recently became a movie. 
Carol
Though the film was critically acclaimed, director Todd Haynes failed to be nominated for Best Director. Nor was it nominated for Best Picture. 
Rooney Mara, who played Therese, had only this to say: “If the gun in the film had gone off, we would have been nominated for Best Picture, maybe.” 
Maybe. 
That’s the worst part. 
Even when queer media makes itself depressing, full of anguish, it will still be ignored. 
What’s the point of this suffering if no one’s watching?

***

There’s a version of Weekend where we find out Glen is sick. Glen is dying. 
There’s a version where Russell gets hit by a car. 
There’s a version of Weekend where Glen’s ex John is abusive, and will stop at nothing to make his life a living hell. There’s a version where the ex succeeds. 
There’s a version where Russell has a girlfriend, or a wife. There’s a version where this innocent weekend is a moral failing of unbelievable proportions. 
But those versions aren’t real. They’re not what we get. 
The version that exists dares to reject tradition. It dares be optimistic. 
These men are not doomed for being themselves. 
They’re not doomed for finding each other.

***

Glen is still leaving. One weekend could never change a person completely. He says he doesn’t want a boyfriend. That he can’t have one. 
Russell still wants to try. So he goes to the train station. Glen knew he would follow. He’s a romantic. 
“They’ll either clap or throw us under a train,” Glen remarks. 
This isn’t a grand gesture. It’s small. It’s just between them. 
Russell doesn’t even get to give a speech. Glen cries. 
They kiss. 
Glen has to go. But he leaves Russell with the tape recorder. 
Of course he does. 
The end. 
I weep to nobody. 
I close my laptop. Take a moment to breathe. It’s time to start the day.

***

We can be happy. We don’t have to settle for ‘fine.’


Kyle Amato is a writer and comedian. He lives in Boston with his three beautiful cacti.


Gay Boys At The Movies: On Almodóvar’s Bad Education

by Manuel Betancourt

 
illustration by Sophia Foster-Dimino

illustration by Sophia Foster-Dimino

 

Two Spanish schoolboys go to the local movie theater to catch the new Sara Montiel flick, Esa mujer. We see them excitedly watching the Spanish and Hollywood actress on screen. “Que guapa es Sara!” one exclaims upon seeing her draped in a bright purple ensemble arriving at a nunnery. The improbable, potentially laughable (and camp-ready) plot of the film comes to a climactic point when Soledad de Jesus (Montiel), a former missionary nun who left the order after being raped by natives and became a well-known singer, returns to visit her former sanctuary. Seeing her now, Soledad’s former Mother Superior can’t reconcile the glamorous woman in front of her with the nun she once knew. Soon after, with eyes still fixated on Montiel, the boys begin pleasuring one another under the cover of darkness.

This scene, from Pedro Almodóvar’s Bad Education, always takes my breath away. Its bullishness is only matched by its tenderness—admittedly a word you wouldn’t think could suitably describe a scene about two middle schoolers jerking each other off in public. But therein lies the Spanish director’s gift. This is, after all, the person who featured a “General Erection” contest in his first ever film, later named a nymphomaniac character Sexilia, and all but ushered the NC-17 rating into the U.S. with his aptly titled bondage rom-com Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!. He’s made a career out of both trivializing and emboldening characters and storylines who may be (and have been) punchlines or cautionary tales in the history of cinema. Where other directors have sought to sanitize gay identity, crafting easily accessible films about characters who all but demand our sympathy, Almodóvar has often gone in the opposite direction. His films edge into uncomfortable territory, puncturing through what in Spanish we call “pudor”—a sense of modesty or shame—and Bad Education, which at its core is concerned with sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, is no different.

Alone at the movies, sharing a decidedly queer attachment to Montiel and to one another, Almodóvar’s schoolboys skirt the line between impish innocence and adult sexuality, refusing to see one as necessarily excluding the other. The director tellingly cuts between the boys’ wide-eyed faces illuminated by the glare of the screen and their silhouetted backs once their hands reach over to one another. This juxtaposition, between the earnest engagement of the boys with the over-the-top melodrama projected on the big screen and the covert yet quite public queer sexuality that the tableau depends on, is what makes the scene all the more transgressive. It brings together the discourses that surround the complex relationship gay men have had with cinema throughout the twentieth century, collapsing them into a moment of ecstatic pleasure at the movies.

Long confined to what Vito Russo cannily called “the celluloid closet,” gay men spent the better part of cinema’s first century recoiling from the loathsome or ridiculous representations made available to them. Not wanting to identify with the sissies or the villains that were debased in equal measure, gay men swooned in private for the dashing leading men on screen. Some even found solace in the strong-willed starlets who knew how to hit a note, strike a pose, and light a cigarette in black and white melodramas and technicolor musicals. That, we are told, is what gay men did back then. Before coming out and becoming pride-bearing individuals, gay men had no choice but to embrace those pleasures marked as shameful. This narrative compartmentalizes two interconnected (and often looked down upon) stereotypes that we’ve supposedly outgrown since the infamous Stonewall riots of 1969: the young gay boy who’s obsessed with Judy Garland and the grown man who’s more than happy to meet some strangers down a winding brick road. Rather than wave a flag of pride or recognition, Almodóvar’s Bad Education, much like his entire filmography, lunges instead for a seedy and fabulous underworld that refuses—for better and for worse—to be easily co-opted into the identity politics project that still looms over North American discussions of gay male popular culture. That’s why the scene fascinates me so much, for its unabashed embrace of the shamed and shameful pleasures that are often sidelined in contemporary discussions of minority visibility and representation.

Love of cinema brings these two young boys together and both convert their fascination with those figures up on screen into decidedly queer artistic endeavors. Ignacio grows up to be a Montiel drag impersonator. Enrique becomes a gay film director. In this way, they function as surrogates for Almodóvar himself, whose career examines his twinned interest on queer sexuality and cinema appreciation. It was during his time at a Catholic school that the Spanish director turned to Hollywood cinema to inoculate the bad education of what he called the “the squalid and slimy whisperings of [his] spiritual director.” “If by watching Johnny Guitar, Picnic, Splendor in the Grass or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof I deserved to go to hell,” he wrote in the autobiographical collection of essays, Patty Diphusa, “I had no alternative but to embrace the heat of its embers.” Young Pedro was already fascinated by films that spoke about illicit desires and which featured strong female roles amidst queer subtext. Almodóvar’s own filmography would eventually mobilize the director’s attachment to these films to create a rich vocabulary that would (like Ignacio and Enrique) recreate those pivotal moments at the movies. This autobiographical aspect of the film is what makes that movie theater scene resonate so much. Almodóvar asks us to go back with him to the origin story of his own moviemaking career, confronting us not as viewers but as fellow moviegoers.

More importantly, Almodóvar’s aesthetic marks this moment as pivotal in the film, the narrative hinge of his increasingly intricate plot. That schoolboy scene at the theater, which one initially assumes is a simple flashback, is instead a fictional recreation doubly mediated by the film itself. Before we visit the movie theater with the boys in the ’60s, Bad Education sets the narrative in motion in the 1980s with a man claiming to be Ignacio. He’s come to visit Enrique at his production company, urging him to read his short story “La visita.” The autobiographical text details Ignacio’s return to his old village as a transexual Montiel impersonator who calls herself Zahara. There, she meets with Father Manolo at his old catholic school, in essence borrowing the very plot of the scene we glimpse from Montiel’s Esa mujer. As Enrique reads the story, we see the scene played out: Zahara hopes to blackmail Father Manolo with, not coincidentally, a short story titled “La visita,” where she has written down the priest’s indiscretions with him as a young boy. We then plunge into Zahara’s short story as Father Manolo reads on and we see young Ignacio and Enrique at school. The scene at the movies (“I owe my best memories to the Olympo Cinema,” the narrator informs us) is part of this second nested narrative and is visually presented to us as distinct from the rest of the film by being shot and projected in a different ratio. Further muddling things is the fact that Bad Education is in itself a cinematic adaptation of Almodóvar’s own 1970s short story titled “La visita,” a text he’d already incorporated into his 1987 film Law of Desire, where his muse Carmen Maura (playing a transwoman called Tina) confronted the priest who’d seduced her as a choirboy in her youth.

Only once we reach Ignacio’s short story’s climax (where Father Manolo and another priest murder Zahara before she can publish her libelous text), do we learn that what we’ve been witnessing is, in fact, Enrique’s film being shot in the 1980s present. Twice removed then, the story of Ignacio, Enrique, and Father Manolo in the 1960s is initially presented as unreliably rooted in their older counterparts’ memories. Yet the last act of Bad Education reveals them to have been cinematic retellings of a fictionalized version of those childhood memories.

Cinema’s ability to inspire and recreate scenes of queer sexuality becomes both subtext and text in Almodóvar’s feature. While his later films have been criticized for being “made not of flesh and blood, but of celluloid,” (per Variety’s review of 2009’s Broken Embraces) the distinction between the corporeal and the cinematic have instead become irrevocably intertwined in Almodóvar’s late filmography. Memories of and at the cinema become indistinguishable from cinema itself.

In this, Bad Education is only the very limit of the Almodovarian project. In the cover of darkness, two quintessentially and usually distinct gay stereotypes—the diva fan who fawns over starlets and finds solace in their glittering presence, and the promiscuous trick who relishes the darkness of the theaters where these divas reside—collide into one another, producing something altogether odder. Queerer, even. Almodóvar, once an enfant terrible of Spanish cinema, has repurposed his own childhood into a template for surprisingly transgressive films. From Pepi, Luci, Bom and Other Girls Like Mom which opens with a sexual encounter on top of Superman collectible stickers, to his most recent film, I’m So Excited, which was a zany orgiastic mile high club comedy, the director has broken barriers and defied labels, adhering only to the law of desire that guides his sensibility. His films promote Frank O’Hara’s plea to mothers of America in “Ave Maria” (1964) to “let your kids go to the movies,” a pastime where your soul would “grow in darkness, embossed by silvery images,” which could also be a sexually instructive experience. Or, in Almodóvar’s words, a welcome lesson in deliciously bad education.


Manuel Betancourt is a New York City-based writer obsessed with all things pop culture. His work has appeared in Film Comment, Film Quarterly, Los Angeles Review of Books and Jarry Magazine.


Thirteen Ways of Looking at Duke of Burgundy

I. Look up Jess Franco, because this is an homage to a genre: 1970s softcore girl-on-girl exploitation films in European accents, backed with sweetly strung yé-yé music (harpsichord? concertina? flute?). Hazy double-focus slo-mo, with whispers. Through a crazed convex mirror.

A movie in which what is between her legs—only suggested, never shown—is a magic lantern to her queen moth eyes. A delicious locked trunk.

This isn’t an exploitation movie.

II. A silk secretary blouse: there’s nothing like it. Buy the perfume of this film, which is named in the opening credits.

III. Some plot summaries say that one woman is the maid and one woman is the mistress of the house, but that isn’t so. They are doing an elaborate role-play, with carefully hand-written parameters spelled out beforehand. Some critics may not reveal this in their plot summaries because they think this is the “twist,” but it’s not a twist: this is how all role-plays work: you take on the character and act out the erotic charade, a very grown-up game of make-believe.

IV. One might think, who has the time to do their power exchange this well? With such exquisite accoutrements? But in this film, everyone seems to have time. It’s a film about leisure as much as a film about pleasure or torture. It’s a film about the pleasures and tortures of leisure.

V. In which an academic lecture on moth sounds is also an exquisite form of consensual torture.

In which the psychodrama is nested in a psychodrama nested in a psychodrama, with multiple, telescoping endings. The film ends between her legs, in a nightmare fantasy fairytale sequence in the forest, in a lecture hall draped in brocade curtains, by removing one’s eyelashes and wig, with the tape marking the set.

In which there are absolutely no men. No children. It’s not a separatist nation, simply a place where only women exist.

VI. One fan on IMDB asks, Why butterflies? To which I reply here: John Fowles’ The Collector, about an amateur lepidopterist who kidnaps and keeps a beautiful woman. Or Nabokov and his lifelong passion. Or A.S. Byatt’s Angels & Insects, in which an entomologist falls in with a family of upper class, incestuous eugenicists. Or Animotion’s 1980s one-hit wonder “Obsession,” in which Holly Knight intones like a butterfly, a wild butterfly, I will collect you and capture you. I don’t know why it’s always butterflies that are gently pinned this way to perversion, but it seems to always be butterflies.

VII. How well this film understands fetishists: how specific the needs are, the same story, the same script played out and told over and over again. One can never get enough, and it works every time, like a charm. A literal magic charm—which is also the original meaning of fetish.

VIII. But here’s the thing: no one has seen this film. It made $30,000 at the box office.

IX. Other reviews say that the “twist” is that it turns out that the Dominant, the one in stockings and garters who “punishes” the one in peter pan collars, is in fact doing the bidding of her submissive, who has very specific needs and makes them known. See how the Dom must drink glass after glass of clear water to get ready for their afternoon game?

But this isn’t a twist, either. In BDSM, this kind of Dom is “service topping,” or the sub is “topping from the bottom,” calling all the shots. Or it’s simply seen as a legitimate form of power exchange; doing it well, doing it right, often means that everything must be pre-negotiated. Opinions on this vary. There’s some debate.

X. The sultry blond in black marabou. And how what you do dirty in bed at night does have some repercussions the next day: an afternoon nap in the sun in a white eyelet dress on a white iron bench, exposed.

XI. At every turn: vampires! I mean, lesbians!

XII. How the worst betrayal is when she polishes another woman’s boots, and lets another haughty scientist in an up-do tell her off for a while.

If we could all just say our safewords to end our torments.

The notion that finding someone we love who understands our most deeply-seated and twisted desires is a luxury, not a reasonable request, and that we should be ashamed for wanting it.

How did they nail all these details, these complicated truths?

XIII. I’m thinking of getting this line as a tattoo: As long as I’m used, I remain alive.


Arielle Greenberg is the Resident Poet at Bright Wall/Dark Room. She is the co-author of Home/Birth: A Poemic; author of My Kafka Century and Given; and co-editor of three anthologies, including Gurlesque. She lives in Maine and teaches in the community and in Oregon State University-Cascades' MFA; she is currently teaching a course in American cinema to insightful students at the Maine State Prison enrolled through the University of College at Rockland (hi, guys!). Arielle writes a regular column on contemporary poetics for the American Poetry Review.


Now Playing: Everybody Wants Some!!

 
illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

 

The Movie I Saw And The Movie I Want

Richard Linklater loves boys. Oh, um, I don’t mean that, okay, give me a second. All right. Richard Linklater makes art about boys. I mean: it’s his focus. It’s his main interest. Two years ago, after years and years and years of hard work, Linklater brought his most critically adored film, Boyhood, to the big screen. Boyhood took a dozen years to film, following the life of—you guessed it—a young boy from early childhood until he leaves for college. It was a profoundly moving piece of film-making, yet another wonderful addition to a career that already included the Before trilogy, School Of Rock, and Dazed and Confused.

In fact, it’s the raucous, playful tone of Dazed and Confused that feels most like Linklater’s latest film Everybody Wants Some!! (Two exclamation points!!) It is the month of August, it is 1980, and like many good Linklater films, we’re back in Texas. Jake (Blake Jenner) is driving to college with “My Sharona” blasting on the tape deck. The entirety of Everybody Wants Some!! takes place over the course of Jake’s first weekend of college, spent almost exclusively with his baseball teammates.

You want memorable characters? Everybody Wants Some!! has only memorable characters. Jake might be our entrypoint—our handsome, broad-shouldered, bright-eyed new pitcher—but every other member of the team has a specific draw to him. McReynolds (Teen Wolf’s Tyler Hoechlin in a role that might make me, um, start watching Teen Wolf) is a mustachio’d, crop-top wearing alpha male. Willoughby (Wyatt Russell) is their benevolent stoner. Douglas (J. Quinton Johnson) is a handsome and charming ladies’ man (maybe the only one in the bunch). Niles (Juston Street) is the transfer player from Detroit and he is a presence—tall and threatening with giant glasses, constantly referring to himself as the “Raw Dog.” And of course there’s Finnegan (Glen Powell, a revelation) as our guide, our shepherd, our wise idiot. And that’s not all of the boys, no, not at all. These are the ones I remember most vividly, but every character is funny and true and perfect. No one is an archetype. They’re people.

You’ll notice, maybe, in that sea of characters that I didn’t list any girls. Well, there is a girl; singular. The Girl, Beverly (Zoey Deutch) is a quiet, theater major who takes an interest in Jake. And why not? They’re both nervous, kind freshman. She likes that he’s not as boisterous or sleazy as his teammates. He likes that she’s...I don’t know, cute? She is cute and earnest and kind. Girls don’t have to be much more than that, especially when the other female roles are defined as “Country Girl” and “Mud Wrestling Champion” and “Buxom Coed” or—if you can believe it!—"Friend Of Buxom Coed.”

And here is the problem, I suppose, with me and Everybody Wants Some!!. I know this is a movie about boys. I knew going into it that it was a movie about boys and how boys live and how boys perceive things. There is a line in the film that goes: “When we’re playing baseball, all we talk about is pussy, and when we’re talking to girls, all we can talk about is baseball.” I’m paraphrasing, but the sentiment is correct. It doesn’t hurt me to see boys talk about girls like that; I know they do.

Where my heart breaks, only a little, is knowing we could never have an all-female version of Everybody Wants Some!!. Do you know what I mean? The thought of a movie about a dozen girls, all different and wonderful and specific and not all nice and charming. I guess you’ll tell me this movie exists and it’s called Pitch Perfect and actually there are two of them. That’s fair. Those movies have a lot of female characters. But those films are big and broad; they’re for everyone. They don’t have the quiet wisdom of a Richard Linklater movie. They don’t have the scope, the depth. They don’t have time to be introspective without the fear of having to state a theme. They don’t have subtlety. So much media about women has to scream, “this is about women!” without letting them be, well, women.

It’s weird we have to fight for “female versions” of movies these days, isn’t it? It’s weird that we have to remake movies about men in order see women on the big screen. I roll my eyes at an all-female Ghostbusters and I roll my eyes at the sorority-centric Neighbors sequel. The idea of an all-female Ocean’s 11 makes me want to tear out my hair. I don’t want stories retold for the sake of a female lens. I don’t want to be catered to a decade after the fact. I just want to see original stories with so many women talking and existing and learning and laughing and growing. It’s a weird thing we have settled for.

I know I’m supposed to review the movie I saw and not the movie I wanted to see. The movie I saw was funny and heartfelt and specific and wonderful. I could have listened to these boys talk for another two hours and another two hours more. The movie I wanted to see doesn’t exist. At least, not yet. I loved so much of Everybody Wants Some!! but I couldn’t help how much more I would love it if it had opened with a girl driving off to college. Sun shining, windows rolled down, "My Sharona" blasting on the tape deck. I want to see so many different types of girls living in a house together: tall, short, fat, thin, blondes, brunettes, women of any race. I don’t need to see them coming together and stating their differences and learning and growing because of it. Fuck that, I want to see them party. I want to see them hang out. I want to see them fearless, jumping into a swimming hole, going out, meeting guys, drinking, fighting, with a non-judgmental directorial eye letting them live as they are.

When I think about the scandal of diversity in Hollywood, I think less about what is nominated for an Oscar and more about the types of muses I want to see. I want the subject of girls and of people of color to be the types of muses that boys—young, male characters, with all of their faults and charm displayed on screen without making a Statement—are for Richard Linklater. I want to see characters other than boys exist on screen and watch them play and learn (sort of, well, not really) with no consequence other than they learn what it is to be alive.

This is the movie I want, but it’s not here. Not yet, I’d like to think. So while I wait, I have Everybody Wants Some!!. It’s good. It really is wonderful. I think of a young boy seeing this film and loving it wholeheartedly, watching what he feels like could be his life in another world. And I think of me, knowing I’ll see myself in another world one day, too.


Fran Hoepfner is a Contributing Editor at Bright Wall/Dark Room. She is a writer and comedian based out of the Chicagoland area.