Sunday, August 28, 2016

My Queer Queue, August 2016: Objectification for all

I don't watch as much stuff off Netflix's "Gay and Lesbian" section as you might expect.  Someone (I can't find the source, but I know I first saw it on tumblr) coined the phrase "If it's not sad, it's bad" to describe the conflict of LGBT cinema--we have a lot of tragedy and bittersweetness in our stories, and the cheerful ones are often terrible.  And, since the LGBT community is actually an agglomeration of several communities (what I heard one person name the Alphabet Soup Suffering Coalition), it's tragically common to see one identity celebrated at the cost of another.  Certain topics are also much more common, like sex work, which could be interesting if it weren't an excuse to sexualise and fetishise the characters.  There are seriously so many movies about the Troubled Chemistry between a Normal Person and Some Kind Of Sex Worker, Probably A Stripper Because That's Not Going TOO Far.  Ugh.

While we're on the subject, content warning for death and coercive sex work.

Anyway, despite my trepidation, I do venture in there once in a while, usually when I get tired of screaming to just let Captain America and the Falcon go on a goddamn date already.  And I probably don't have enough to say about most of the things I watch to make an actual full post about any of them, but if we go for a bunch at once we start looking at commonalities and exceptions and themes, so let's try that and maybe it'll become a regular thing.

This month's selection leans towards dude stuff (more ladies if/when the blogqueen gets in on this):
These were all movies that I picked out because they looked like they were about guys falling in love and not suffering horribly.  Which they... mostly... were.  "Mostly" in this case meaning, like, 55%?  We'll start from maximum tragedy and climb upwards from there.

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How To Win At Checkers (Every Time) was kind of fascinating, even if it immediately dashed my hopes of "happy".  It's a Thai movie about a boy named Oat (oh-at), who lives with his aunt and idolises his older brother Ek.  Ek's deeply in love with his boyfriend Jai, and their best friend Missy is trans, and probably the thing that threw me the most about this movie was that it avoided any explicit homophobia or transphobia 98% of the time.  The rich bully in the neighbourhood never throws slurs at anyone, even while he's being a jerk.  The overbearing aunt tells Ek "You can date any boy you like, but dating across class lines is going to cause trouble".  Missy is characterised as a gorgeous badass, unabashedly trans, and the hot girl all the high school boys want to get with.  No one questions her gender at all.  (Oat does snap something transphobic at her in a heated moment, but he's 11, he's upset and lashing out, and he immediately gets told off for it.)

That said, literally the first scene of the movie is 20-year-old Oat flashing back to watching his brother die horribly.  It both is and is not a spoiler to say that we eventually see this dream didn't really happen, because Ek still died horribly, just in a different way, later on and out of sight.

With homophobia off the table for conflict, the plot instead focuses on class divides, because Oat's family is just getting by, while Jai is sarcastically described as "taller, richer, and whiter" as we watch him blow out candles on a birthday cake in a stereotypical suburban home.  Ek and Jai are old enough for the annual military draft lottery, but Jai's parents are rich enough to bribe the local black market boss into ensuring their son won't get chosen.  Oat tries to do the same for his brother, but he's 11 and not good at subterfuge, so his plan backfires and Ek ends up on the boss's bad side.

Upon realising that this movie wasn't going to feature Evil Bigots, I began to wonder why they had so many queer characters--not because I disapproved, but because you and I both know that the rarest of all LGBT cinema is "totally normal storytelling except not heteronormative".  I didn't have to wait long for the answer, because in the aftermath of the draft (Jai was not chosen, Ek was, and Ek is disgusted that Jai would use his class privilege to dodge his duty as a citizen) we also see that the black market boss owns the queer club where Ek works, and has reassigned him from bartending to sex work.  I kid you not.  So we get an uncomfortable scene of no one stopping Oat from walking upstairs to find his brother in bed with an unpleasant man twice his age, and then the local bully drags Jai up there to see as well, everything falls apart, Ek and Jai break up, Ek goes off on military service and gets randomly murdered by someone targeting soldiers on patrol.

When discussing Life Is Strange and the rarity of a non-customised bisexual protagonist, I mentioned to Erika that I didn't think the game would have been made with the genders swapped, because (even when otherwise pretty good!) there was still objectification going on, and our culture is a lot more comfortable with objectifying women than men.  The programmers wouldn't have been so on board writing and modelling a flirtatious scene of a male Max and Warren going skinny-dipping in the school pool.  No voyeuristic fun to be had there.  By a similar token, someone writing about a desperate guy getting forced into sex work isn't going to write about a straight dude.

And there are some good reasons for that--for sure, the relationship between sexuality and isolation and taboo and survival sex work is a complicated and important one.  But this isn't a nuanced exploration; this is a single scene about a hot guy getting fucked to illustrate his powerlessness, desperation, and humiliation.  That's about as artistically deep as an exploitation film.

So, even in this film with zero evil homophobes, the primary arc is still about a gay man being stripped of his agency, powerless to protect himself, and finally die a cruel and pointless death.  This is the inescapability of queer tragedy in film that we have to deal with.

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Weekend is a film that desperately wants to be artistic, and is a good study in how "indie" is itself a film genre even though it conceptually shouldn't be.  Archetypal techniques include group scenes with no sound filtering (to really get that "unintelligible home video of Christmas with the family" feel), montages of main characters trudging soulfully through urban landscapes, and smash cuts to totally silent tableaus.  It takes place over the course of a weekend, when a couple of guys randomly hook up at a bar, spend a couple of days realising that they would actually really like to try a relationship together rather than a casual fling, and then part ways because one of them is going to an art school thousands of miles across the sea.  The bulk of the movie comprises odd conversations they have along the way, like Glen's explanation of his current art project (audio interviews/monologues with all of his casual sex partners), with breaks for mundanity (a montage of Russell's day job as a lifeguard), very specific sex scenes (like, you do not ever have to wonder what precise acts they enjoy), and a frankly hilarious quantity of drugs.  So many drugs.  I don't know what's up with the drugs in this movie.   Forget pot.  They will literally pause a conversation to snort three lines of cocaine and then go back to talking, with minimal indication that this might somehow affect a human brain.  It is so weird.

They do part ways in the end, in a very sweet and anguished and MAXIMUM INDIE scene, with a goodbye kiss at the train station and parting words that we can't hear because, again, no sound filtering, that's how you know it's artistic.  I can't say the movie doesn't have a plot, because it's very much about how much these guys affect each other over the course of a weekend, with Glen losing some of his affected casualness and hipstery detachment, and Russell (the less-out one) overcoming some of his internalised homophobia.  And at least it's not outright tragedy.  If you want a movie that is about The Generic (white cis male) Gay Experience and common issues around affection and masculinity, I guess I might recommend it?

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North Sea Texas is of the same ilk, but it's about teenage boys in Belgium and features more homophobia.  (The name has nothing to do with the US Texas and everything to do with the local bar.)  It covers the teenage years of a boy named Pim who lives with his mom and befriends neighbour boy Gino.  Pim and Gino grow closer in increasingly sexual and romantic ways before Gino breaks things off, gets a girlfriend, and starts saying that the "playing around" they did was something people grow out of.

Now, obvs, this is not my favourite way for potentially-bisexual characters to be presented, and it's irritatingly common.  Like, yes, experimentation is pretty normal and doesn't always mean someone's not straight, but the fewer Treacherous Flipfloppers in media the better.  But we'll come back to Gino.

Marcela, Gino's sister, clearly has a crush on Pim, and when she realises he's into her brother (by prying through Pim's room and finding his Shirtless Gino Sketchbook) starts trying to cause trouble.  Their mother refuses to believe it anyway.  (Aside: one of my relatives once asked about my dating life in a way that vaguely allowed for the possibility I wasn't straight.  My mother immediately leapt in to talk about the last girl I dated, four years earlier, though I haven't dated anyone since.  I'm sure she meant well.)  Pim's own mother (who regularly talks about what a free spirit she is), happily rents a room to Zoltan, twentysomething vagabond and hottest man in Belgium.  He's around and shirtless just long enough for Pim to start getting his hopes up before Pim walks in on Zoltan and his mother in bed, and they run away together the next day, literally abandoning Pim.  Gino and Marcela's mother dies as well, but on her deathbed brings together Pim and Gino's hands, and in the aftermath they are passionately reconciled.  (Whether Gino's really bi or was just temporarily trying to convince himself he was into girls is not addressed.)

Apart from being a slow indie movie with lots of silent scenes and withdrawn characters, North Sea Texas stands out as a movie in which the central couple of queer teens end up together (I think?) and yet still manages to be impressively cruel to its heroes, with parents dying and abandoning them left and right.  So it's not exactly feel-good, but it's still the first one on this list that isn't apparently aiming for a sad ending.

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Finally, we have Seashore, which is arguably the most upbeat on this list, but also the least that's actually like a movie.  By which I mean a lot of these indie movies seem like they started filming with an idea rather than a story, and forgot to fill in all of the blanks.  Seashore is set in Brazil (I wouldn't have guessed; everyone is white) and focuses on Martin, sent by his parents on family business that is never explained at all.  He's got to deliver a message to someone on the coast and get a response?  Or something?  The script knows that this is 100% an excuse plot and doesn't pretend to flesh it out.  The point is that, for moral support, he is accompanied on this trip by his BFF Tomaz, who spends much of the movie trying to decide whether or not to come out to Martin.  It gets increasingly awkward, not least since Martin ends up having the great idea that they should pick up hot chicks and take them back to the cottage for (non-group) sexytimes.  Tomaz dodges it by being all "Whoops, I got way too drunk, can't have sex with you but you seem like a super nice lady, thanks" and eventually finally takes the Plunge of Truth the next day.  Martin, professional good role model, is just "Oh, really?  Hah, I can't believe I tried to set you up with a girl yesterday" and all is well.  When his family mission ultimately fails and his family back home is loudly disappointed with him over the phone, Tomaz remains his best moral support, and their banter quickly progresses from "No one gets to be your boyfriend unless I approve of him, lol" to "So what is it like to kiss a dude anyway" to "Gosh, where did all of our pants go".

(The sex scene was a little uncomfortable, maybe because I'm used to actors of this age playing 15-year-olds rather than their actual ages, and while it's not porn, it's--like Weekend--very clear and specific about what's going on.  I understand the script was vaguely-autobiographical, but I also definitely wondered how much of this was just about titillating the creators.)

I thought for a moment that it was going to go for Maximum Artistic Angst and Martin would end up drowning himself in the sea the next morning, but then I remembered that the ocean is literally textbook 'rebirth' imagery and this film is all about people finding themselves.  So while the pacing of this film is ssssssssoooo sssslllllowwwwww that multiple reviewers wondered if it had a script or just really awkward improvisors, it actually gets the highest score here on Queer Boys Being Sweet And Affectionate And Not Suffering.  Which is apparently the niche-iest of all niche genres.

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Since this is a new post idea, I'm more interested than usual in feedback: is this a thing people would like to see as a monthly series?  Are there specific movies that y'all think I should check out?  Do you want more investigation of specific themes and cliches in the field?  Sound off, my friends.

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