Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

18 November 2019

Why So Serious?

Joker is pretty good at what it wants to do. Joaquin Phoenix's performance is chilling and very scary, and the movie itself is quite scary too. The thing is, though: I didn't really enjoy this very much at all. Even the third act triumphant revenge sequences were joyless to me. The first act is so relentless in its beatdowns of this poor man. It's one-note, almost (dare I say it) comedic (although it never really is this), in the pain it delivers at this man's doorstep.

I don't, for the record, think the movie is irresponsibly violent or anything like that. Joker is fairly careful about its violence. Consider, for example, the sequence in the non-girlfriend's apartment. The film actually works to make us afraid for the young woman and her daughter. We will for nothing to happen to them. We hope he doesn't hurt them. I felt this same way with his diminutive coworker who comes to visit and witnesses him killing the other guy they work with. Please don't kill this guy, I thought. And of course he doesn't.

It's clear in these moments that Joker is a sentimental movie in its own way. It doesn't wish death and destruction on everyone, or at least not quite everyone. Little people and mothers with young children are spared this film's wrath. The rest of the universe, however – as we find out at the end of the movie – can simply burn, and society itself should be utterly destroyed. But save the children and the co-workers who smile at you.

If only any of this had been pleasurable. But the relentless of the first act of Todd Phillips' film set me up, as a viewer, only for more of the same. For me, Joker never really let up from this tone, and I had trouble enjoying any of the film after act one, even if I knew we were sort of supposed to take pleasure in the finale. I found the whole thing off-putting.  It's just not any fun.

Oh! One more thing that I can't get out of my head. When the three guys come to beat him up in the subway – the guys he kills, I mean – they're singing a song from Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music: Isn't it rich / Are we a pair / Me here at last on the ground / You in midair. They even seem to know the second verse. Now, these are supposed to be young businessmen who work for Thomas Wayne, and given that this film is supposed to take place in a version of 1976 (I infer this from the numerous references to Lumet & Chayefsky's Network and Scorsese & Schrader's Taxi Driver throughout the film) and Sondheim's musical premiered in 1973, I suppose it's possible that these young businessmen might have committed "Send in the Clowns" to memory, but I find this improbable. Perhaps it is simply much more likely that the joker is psychotic and that the scenario the film shows us, in which he kills the three men, is just as fictional as the sequence two scenes later when he kisses his neighbor. My point is that we can't even trust what we see in the movie. What I guess I hope this means, after all, is that this joker is misinterpreting the ugliness and brutality of the world around him and that it just ain't all that bad. Either way, the joker's read on the world is not a perspective I have the ability to enjoy. I need a few more jokes.

13 November 2019

The Lighthouse

I would like The Lighthouse better if it weren't all so obviously supposed to mean something. Thomas (Robert Pattinson) is a younger man doing a few weeks of work on an island, working at a lighthouse doing gruntwork and laboring in the service of an older, craggy former sea-captain also named Thomas and played by Willem Dafoe. They both begin to go insane – or maybe it is just Pattinson's character who goes insane and Dafoe's character is the cause of it. The older man is also keeping the younger man from accessing the shining light at the top of the long, winding staircase inside the lighthouse. It is clear from the beginning of The Lighthouse that the younger man wants to behold the light, to tend it and care for it in the way the older man is able to do, but the older man locks the grate and keeps the younger man out.

Robert Eggers' newest film, then, is about a descent into madness – fine; I think that's super interesting, and it makes for an intriguing follow-up to his earlier film The Witch, also about madness and an inability to trust what one sees. 

But in The Lighthouse, Eggers gives us a descent into madness that is supposed to be symbolically weighted with meaning: The man who sees the sun must die, and Prometheus, who steals fire from the gods must have his liver eaten by eagles (seagulls in this film's final tableau).

I thought this movie was fun (and actually quite funny) to a certain extent. But I found most of its attempts at a depth of profundity to be shallow. The real depth in the film is in its beautiful photography and excellent production design – in other words, on the film's surfaces.

As for deep meaning, one could try to suss some out, and the movie itself seems to prompt this. You can google and find webposts that say things like "the end of The Lighthouse explained! – maybe the two Thomases are really the same man, or perhaps the two Thomases and the seagull are all the same person, or perhaps the younger Thomas is haunted by demons he brings to life himself, or maybe the whole thing is an intense allegory à la Mother! – but the surfaces of The Lighthouse are always more interesting than its purported depths.

I'll be honest: Willem Dafoe isn't really my cup of tea. I think he's really fun in comedy, but as a serious actor, for me, he overdoes things. I think Pattinson is great; that's not really up for debate. But the movie as a whole... eh.

12 November 2019

Las Herederas (2018)

The Heiresses is an intriguing character study with a very good central performance. Ana Brun plays an older lesbian whose partner gets incarcerated. She then needs to build a new life on her own and figure out how to live. This takes her in several unexpected directions as she begins to work as a taxi driver for older, wealthier ladies. I do wish this script had been just a bit flashier, but I really liked this movie.

A Moment in the Reeds (2017)

A Moment in the Reeds is very interesting and beautifully shot. I loved the two main actors in it, too. But... this film's explorations of gay immigrants to Northern Europe felt unfinished or underexplored. What the film is really interested in is how stories like those of gay immigrants to Finland might put the stories of gay Finns into relief. This seems to me a less-than-careful approach to an interesting and important topic. The end of the film, too, leaves a lot to be desired. All of this isn't to say that this film isn't quite good. It's just not everything I wanted it to be.

05 November 2019

The Castle of Terror (1964)

This Sergio Corbucci–Antonio Margheriti horror movie, which is titled Danza Macabra or The Castle of Blood or The Castle of Terror, is pretty stupid and fairly boring. It also, quite disappointingly, does not have a vat of blood in which people drown. This put me to sleep.

02 November 2019

Blackboard Jungle (1950)

Well... Blackboard Jungle is about teaching high school in the inner city – I think we're supposed to be in Chicago. Glenn Ford plays the protagonist, and I love watching Ford at all times, so Richard Brooks' movie definitely has that going for it.

But I am hung up on the title, and if you look at this poster and combine the title with the poster, you get a series of images that are designed to communicate an old message. White woman, torn dress (or is it just hanging off the shoulder?), inner city kids, jungle... well it becomes fairly clear that we are in race-baiting territory.

Blackboard Jungle, to its credit, looks like it's selling one thing (a story about black students being unruly or unmanageable), but it's selling something altogether different. This is a film where race is everywhere and constantly being discussed, but this is not a film about race, and I'm not sure it has anything to say about race, either. Sidney Poitier plays the most important black kid in Ford's classroom, and it's hard not to love Sidney Poitier no matter what you're doing. Poitier's character turns out to be all right, as the kids in the '50s used to say.

This movie has good intentions, I think. But it takes a kind of colonialist or parochial tone that I found annoying, upsetting, and ill-advised. In many ways, Blackboard Jungle sees juvenile delinquency as a problem with the kids themselves and not their environments. The film's script attenuates this at certain points, but mostly Blackboard Jungle understands this to be the kids' behavior to be the kids' fault. I am skeptical.

01 November 2019

Devdas (2002)

Devdas is one of my housemate's favorite movies. It felt to me like a fairly standard Bollywood melodrama that was enlivened by some great performances by Madhuri Dixit, Aishwarya Rai, and Kiron Kher. I dunno, though. This didn't really have quite enough singing and dancing for my taste. And the sad ending was no fun. I firmly believe that if it's gonna be a melodrama it might as well end happily.

29 October 2019

End of the Rainbow

Judy isn't very good. It's a strange little movie that was clearly made with not very much money. It's also based on a stage play by Peter Quilter called End of the Rainbow, and although the film doesn't feel too stagey (there are plenty of sequences outside, and we move around quite a bit) many of the scenes are overly long, and Judy is a bit more dependent on dialogue than it ought to be.

Still, I found the whole thing really intriguing. Judy is also occasionally quite moving. There's a sequence in act two in which Judy – who is lonely in London – leaves the stage door very late at night to find only two middle-aged gay men waiting for her. She asks them, sheepishly, if they'd like to go get a bite to eat with her, and they're truly beside themselves. They wind up back at their apartment, where the men make her eggs, and they talk about sodomy laws in Britain (which had only just been relaxed in 1969 when the film is set). One of the men sits down to play the piano and Judy sings "Forget your troubles come on get happy, you better chase all your cares away. Shout hallelujah, come on get happy, get ready for the judgment day" in the saddest, most exhausted register, and the whole thing was just too much for me emotionally.

This is the movie at its best. There are also some really excellent musical sequences, where Judy sings in the Talk of the Town night club for a theatre full of delighted patrons. It's hard not to love listening to the fun nostalgia of "The Trolley Song".

Judy is also super weird. Renée Zellweger's Garland is never not interesting to watch. It's just that I've seen Judy in so many movies, and in so many television clips. And Zellweger is not Garland, right? I guess, I sort of forgot every once in a while that she wasn't Judy. It wasn't necessarily bad, and as I say, it's always interesting as a performance, but the whole thing is just a bit strange to sit through ... in an uncanny way.

Still... I liked it. And I sort of loved Zellweger, even though I don't usually like her. I found the whole thing fascinating, even if I'm honest, it's really not that great.

28 October 2019

Never Look Away (2018)

Never Look Away is a fine melodrama.

But, I dunno... it's just not that interesting. It feels like it's already been done. The script is at times stellar, and Tom Schilling and Paula Beer are both great.

Sebastian Koch – who is a brilliant actor and first billed here – really doesn't have enough to do. And this is in a three-hour movie!

The real takeaway from Never Look Away, though is Caleb Deschanel's photography, which is truly extraordinary. The film deserves a view if only for that.

27 October 2019

King Solomon's Mines (1950)

King Solomon's Mines begins – in the first minute of the movie – with the killing of an elephant and the mourning of the other elephants for his loss. After this, there was basically no way I could enjoy this movie. How any director could think someone would enjoy watching an elephant be murdered while other elephants grieve is beyond me. Anyway, the rest of the picture is standard white-people-in-Africa-on-safari stuff, although this one does feature a great deal more African fauna than usual, and it is in a different region of Africa (southeast and central Africa) than the geography that usually makes it into Hollywood movies.

26 October 2019

Jerichow (2008)

Jerichow feels like an early movie for Christian Petzold. One can see clearly his interest in ethical quandaries – certainly this is what all of his subsequent films will be about – but Jerichow is mostly just an intense melodrama with great performances by the three central figures. The ethical dilemmas the film explores really aren't that interesting.

25 October 2019

Images (1972)

Images is a pretty crazy picture by early 1970s standards, but it really is a movie in line with, say, John Schlesinger's Midnight Cowboy and Polanski's Repulsion. That is to say, it's a psychological horror movie about a descent into madness or certain ways of coping with madness. There would be more of these movies to come in the '70s, but this one is interesting for Susannah York's performance and for the film's various obsessions – with cameras, with taxidermied animals, with chimes, smoke, and unicorns.

22 October 2019

Two Men in Manhattan (1959)

Deux Hommes dans Manhattan is not Melville's best, and it's clearly one of his earlier films, but it is interesting for starring the director himself (even though he's not great) and for being shot in New York City. Still, this is no place to begin your Melville viewing. Start instead with Le Doulos or Le Samouraï or Le Cercle Rouge.

Valiant Is the Word for Carrie (1936)

Yet another combination of the mother with the fallen woman. This is, perhaps, the most beloved plot for the Best Actress category in the 1930s.

Gladys George is good in Valiant Is the Word for Carrie, but this is nowhere near her best work, and most of this plot is insipid stuff. Jackie Moran is great as little Paul, and I thought John Howard was fine as adult Paul, but Arline Judge, who is second billed here, is fairly terrible.

Valiant Is the Word for Carrie just isn't worth Gladys George. It's nice that she got her only Oscar nomination for this movie, but one does wish it had been for something better.

And at the end of the movie, a character actually says valiant is the word for Carrie, as if we didn't know what the movie was called.

21 October 2019

The Souvenir (2019)

The Souvenir was a hit at Sundance, and I am baffled, bewildered, and beguiled. My god this film is bad. This is about a young, idiotic woman who begins dating a heroin addict. She doesn't seem to see this as a problem, even though he steals from her, gives her nothing, and is a complete and total downer at all times. He brings her on his scores, and she just seems fine with it. It's an insane story.

But the worst part is that, frankly, about an hour into The Souvenir I started wondering why he was with her. This drug addicted loser was actually the most interesting thing about this foolish woman. As for the movie itself: it is tedious beyond measure. It's a throwback to '90s mumblecore, and not in a good way, if there ever was a good way to be '90s mumblecore. I was completely bored out of my mind by this movie.

I saw Gaspar Noé's Climax in 2019, so The Souvenir can't be the worst movie I see this year, but it will be close to the bottom, I can tell you that.

Update: apparently, Joanna Hogg is making a sequel to this movie called The Souvenir Part II! I do not know who asked for this, but it was not me.

17 October 2019

To the Stars

There are plenty of better-than-average sections of Ad Astra. The trouble is that the movie itself is just mostly average. It manages to hit all of the basic generic tropes of the loner-in-space film, and if there are a couple of cool sequences that seem novel in the movie, these are overwhelmed by the generic basicness of the whole thing. Brad Pitt is excellent, of course. His performance is wonderful, and honestly I quite liked this film. It just doesn't really ever hit its stride or soar; it plods along instead, stubbornly refusing to surprise us and confident that we are happily along for the ride.

16 October 2019

What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? (1969)

What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? is sort of terrible. It's part of that hagsploitation subgenre of cinema begun with What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? But What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? really lacks a lot of interest, and Geraldine Page seems actually to be trying to act, even though she should be leaning into the camp. This decision on page's part doesn't really work, but the real problem here is that Ruth Gordon – who had just won an Oscar for Rosemary's Baby really isn't given more to do.

While we're talking about things that are terrible, all of my friends made fun of me for talking about how attractive the young Robert Fuller was. And I guess he is sort of generic. But hey, I was doing my best to enjoy this movie, and Robert Fuller was the eye-candy.
Robert Fuller. What?

15 October 2019

The Rains of Ranchipur (1955)

The Rains of Ranchipur is fairly terrible. The script has a few excellent one-liners, but mostly this is a terrible melodrama, with a (typical) magical Indian character who teaches a young, selfish white woman how to (it's this bad) love herself. I mostly disliked this whole thing, but the special effects are really excellent, and I suppose it is notable that Richard Burton plays an Indian man in this without as far as I can tell (and despite what the poster seems to show) donning brown makeup.

12 October 2019

Ash Is Purest White (2018)

I was expecting something very different from what I got with Ash Is Purest White. This is a fascinating character study slash crime film that follows the relationship of two people over two decades. In many ways, their relationship is melodramatic, but this is also a movie about survival and being alone. I really, really liked this.

03 October 2019

The Practice of Love (1985)

Die Praxis der Liebe is Valie Export's fascinating, challenging, but ultimately pretty superb meditation on (at least to my mind) Irigaray's concept of woman as the sex which is not one. This is an exploration of women's art, women's writing, women's knowledge, sex, power, and the patriarchy. I was really into it.

01 October 2019

White Banners (1938)

Fay Bainter is a revelation in this. The script is melodramatic and a bit overwritten, and the plot is a common one from the 1930s - in which a woman must sacrifice her child in order that he or she can have a better life.

But White Banners is so well told, the narrative is so dependent on concerns other than the family melodrama, and the film is so beautifully cast, with Bainter, Jackie Cooper, and Claude Rains, that Edmund Goulding's film really works very well.

Bainter was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actress for this movie in 1939, but she didn't win. Bette Davis won for Jezebel. Bainter is, of course, also in Jezebel, and she won Best Supporting Actress for the same movie. So it all comes out in the wash, I guess. And watching Fay Bainter remains a pleasure.

30 September 2019

Young Sherlock Holmes (1985)

Eye roll. Anthony Higgins is fun as the fencing master in this movie, and if I'm honest I will admit to liking Bruce Broughton's too-sweet score, but otherwise... this kind of wink-wink nostalgia movie – heavily dependent on the dramatic irony of knowing who Sherlock Holmes will be as an adult – is not for me. The fact that Barry Levinson's usual brand of nostalgia in this case is tainted a) with an absurdly boring heterosexual love plot between two teenagers and b) with a heavy dose of Orientalist colonial racism made Young Sherlock Holmes decidedly less than enjoyable.

29 September 2019

Paint Your Wagon (1969)

A musical comedy starring Lee Marvin – who cannot sing at all – and Clint Eastwood – who can, kinda. This is also the tale of two men devoted to one another and married to the same woman and a town of whoring, drinking, gambling, kidnapping gold-miners. The music is great, especially the scoring and choral direction. Joshua Logan's direction of the film itself, which clearly cost a fortune, is absolutely great. It has extraordinary crowd scenes, tons of great practical effects, and it's hilarious. The whole, however, is not really equivalent to the sum of its parts.

28 September 2019

Inherit the Wind (1960)

This is very smart and the script absolutely sparkles with both wit and wisdom. My enjoyment of this picture, however, was a bit tempered by just how much time it gives to religious insanity. This film also forces us to listen to "That Old Time Religion" and "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" numerous times apiece. It was all just way too much for me. There were some true religious nut-jobs in this movie, and the movie gave them a lot of airtime without – to my mind – really telling us the film itself thought these people were terrible.

Also, this is not about the Scopes Monkey Trial, despite the way that poster foregrounds the chimpanzee and says this is the fabulous 'monkey trial' that rocked America. Fabulous? Really? What the movie is really about is a kind of long-form debate about what Christianity ought to look like in the future.

26 September 2019

Goodbye, Columbus (1969)

Goodbye, Columbus is pretty great. It's a smart script, and I enjoyed this. Its tone is really smart, too – moving deftly between broad comedy, comedy of manners, and serious drama.

25 September 2019

Timecode (2000)

A friend of mine screened this at a faculty film club in Tallahassee. Timecode is quirky and very strange – as any film that is mostly improvised is bound to be. But it's also quite a funny satire, and is a very interesting experiment in film. I really enjoyed this, even though the four-screen conceit doesn't work for at least half of the time. The trouble is where do you look? What are you supposed to watch? The director doesn't have much control here - even with the actors - and so the tone is uneven in general. Still, this is a fun experiment, and I enjoyed the film.

24 September 2019

The Ninth Circle (Deveti Krug) (1960)

Wow. Wow. Wow.

So, The Ninth Circle was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Oscar the same year (1961) as Pontecorvo's Kapò, Roberto Gavaldón's brilliant Macario, and Clouzot's La Vérité (also brilliant), and they gave the damn Oscar to Bergman's boring The Virgin Spring. In any case, The Ninth Circle is very, very well made, and it is surely – with Kapò – one of the first films made about the camps. So much of the film is a love story (under Nazi duress) that I was expecting something else entirely from this film by the end – I, incorrectly, as it turns out – assumed the ninth circle was a reference to Dante's final circle of the inferno and signified the betrayals of Judas, Lucifer, and Cain.

But Deveti Krug shifts boldly in subject matter in the middle of the third act, and the ninth circle of the title turns out to be a literal section of the camp and not a literary reference to treachery. (Incidentally, Peter Weiss's The Investigation uses the circles of the Inferno as a formal way of tracking through the camps and the Nuremberg trials, and in the play we move further and further inside the camps.)

Because the movie shifted so drastically, I really wasn't prepared for the punch France Štiglic's movie delivered, and I ended up truly stunned by The Ninth Circle. Boris Dvornik, who plays the male lead, is outstanding in this.

20 September 2019

Harakiri (1962)

Harakiri is an excellent film, superb in every way. The writing is stellar, the acting is uniformly great. It's also deeply affecting while also being very cool. The cinematography here is the real star, though: Miyajima Yoshio's work is incredible. There are sections of the film that are breathtakingly shot. It's brilliant. Satō Kei also gives a genius performance in the role of the leader of the Iyi clan. This whole thing is just impeccable. If you haven't seen it, or if samurai films seem all to run together in your brain, you should revisit this one.

17 September 2019

I Wish (2011)

Kore-eda is just so good. I loved I Wish (奇跡). It's touching and sweet, but as with all of Kore-eda's movies, I Wish undercuts its sentimentality with farce and doesn't allow us to get mired in its sweetness

15 September 2019

Ivan Pyryev's Brothers Karamazov (1969)

Brothers Karamazov (Братья Карамазовы) is a magnificent film. Ivan Pyryev died before he could finish it, and the two lead actors - Mikhail Ulyanov and Kirill Lavrov finished it for him. This film is epic and grand, with big emotions, gorgeous camerawork, beautiful costumes, and a truly brilliant performance by Ulyanov. I loved this, and it deserves every accolade it's been awarded.

12 September 2019

The Peanut Butter Solution (1985)

Well this is weird. My friends with whom I do an unseen movie night (where we watch a movie that none of us has seen before) chose this insane children's film as our movie this week. So many strange things happen in it that make no sense and fail to connect up. The movie follows the logic of, say, a father who is telling a bedtime story to a child who keeps interrupting to ask weird questions so that he has to keep inventing nonsensical explanations for things. In short, The Peanut Butter Solution makes no sense. It was fun to watch, though.

10 September 2019

Gaily, Gaily (1969)

Gaily, Gaily is an innocuous period comedy set in the early 20th century. It's a bit of a shame, because this could have had something to say about government corruption and 1969 and young people rebelling and finding solace in art, but Norman Jewison's film settles for easy laughs and broad comedy. One can't complain too much, though. It's rather a pleasurable romp. The costumes are great, Melina Mercouri is quite fun, and the whole thing is filmed with a kind of madcap glee.

09 September 2019

Marooned (1969)

Marooned is great. It's terrifying and wise and honestly it's sort of stunning that this movie came out 4 months after the moon landing and 4 months after Hurricane Camille leveled the coast of Mississippi. This is a movie with a botched re-entry into Earth's atmosphere and a hurricane. It's powerfully directed and beautifully acted. Gene Hackman is excellent and sad as one of the astronauts, and Lee Grant is really wonderful as one of the astronauts wives. Richard Crenna and Gregory Peck give sturdy performances. And David Janssen, who I don't think I've ever seen in anything, is bright and charming. I was really into this. I do love a scary space movie.

07 September 2019

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966)

Meh. This film version of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is fun, but it isn't really funny. Although the film's style is fairly clever, they've cut a lot of the songs. I liked the music-video quality of many of the numbers – "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid", especially. But the actors playing Hero, Philia, and Dominia are all underused.

06 September 2019

Farewell, My Lovely (1975)

Farewell, My Lovely is a kind of copycat Chinatown without – it seems to me, at least, any stakes. In the first place, Robert Mitchum is doing a voice-over, and he tells us way more than we need instead of the filmmaker just showing us. Sylvia Miles is excellent in a small role, but this mostly never picks up any momentum, even when Sylvester Stallone is murdering a lesbian madam in a Hollywood cathouse.

04 September 2019

Escape Me Never (1935)

Escape Me Never is not at all what I expected, although I suppose the title ought to have tipped me off that I was watching a melodrama and not a comedy. But Paul Czinner directed the first act of this like a comedy, and so I was lulled into believing this would be a light, fun film. It turns out to be one about co-dependence and, incidentally, much more interesting than I thought. Elisabeth Bergner, who made a sensation with this film, deserved every accolade she got.

01 September 2019

The Farewell (2019)

The Farewell (别告诉她) was really funny and quite charming. I really liked its Chinese critique of USAmerican liberalism, too. Mostly, though, this was funny, and that is what I wanted from it. Also the music in this movie was superb, and it had several really excellent performances.

30 August 2019

A Few Questions about Etiology and Sexuality

Two weeks ago, my uncle emailed me to ask me if I would tell him more about my sexuality. He said he was curious about some aspects of it and had some questions for me to answer if I was willing. I said yes. His questions surprised me (mostly because of some of the assumptions they made about queerness), but I thought the answers I gave him might make interesting reading, so I'm sharing them here.

I've told some of these stories before on this blog, but because memories shift and pictures of the past change, it makes sense to tell these stories again with the different emphases and valences they have taken on in the ever-shifting present. I found these questions both easy and difficult to answer – difficult mostly because I rarely think about these kinds of things – but I tried to answer them as best I could. These were his questions.

  1. How old were you when you were exposed to a sexual situation either in the form of pornography or in person. Was the event accidental or what would be considered a violation, or an abusive event. Were you the victim of any protracted abuse either emotionally, physically, or sexually?
  2. How many experiences did you have before you realized you may be homosexual?
  3. What steps did you take to open up about it? How old were you when you did?
  4. You’ve mentioned that you are an atheist, what impact, if any, did your sexuality have on your theological beliefs?
This is how I responded:

First off, I think it fair to say that I begin from the basic assumption of benign sexual variation: people are different; they have all sorts of different desires; and we know that all sorts of various things form those desires and attractions. That said, I assume that what we call homosexuality or a homosexual orientation is no better or worse than any other basic orientation, and that if it is abnormal (and it is statistically less normal, at this moment in history, than what we call heterosexuality), then that doesn't make it bad or wrong or dirty; a norm is a norm because of societal pressures and assumptions, not because it has some kind of moral authority. This is as true of norms in weight, height, skin color, and right-handedness as it is for normative sexual desires. I want to say, too, that my experiences as a queer person can't really stand in for queer people as a whole, and I have found that people have all sorts of different stories and paths for the understanding of their desires.

The answer to your first question is that I was not ever exposed to sexual situations or pornography at a young age, and I was not sexually abused or violated either emotionally or physically. I first heard of homosexuality at church. I remember feeling different from other kids as a young kid – I was picked on and bookish – but I seem to remember more than anything other people's assumptions about my effeminacy or my lack of masculinity: things like my father telling me not to cross my legs like women do when I sat down but to cross my legs like men do, or other adults telling me to hold books by my side at arm's length rather than close to my chest (one of these is the way women hold books and one of these the way men hold books, apparently). I remember this one time I was at some talk about masculinity and sex held at a park by our pastor and him asking a few of us boys (I can't remember who else was there or how old I was, but this would have been in 6th or 7th grade) what we ought to do if we felt desire toward someone of the same sex. I remember knowing so little about sex and desire that I volunteered an answer and said aloud "you should ask that person". The pastor looked at me like I was an idiot and said "That person wouldn't know anything". I had no idea. I never saw pornography until I was in high school (and of course that pornography was heterosexual), and I don't remember ever walking in on anyone having sex.

Cute Boys                             Me                  
The answer to the second question relates to the church, too. As I said, I felt different as a kid, and of course I also felt sinful as a kid. We were all told how sinful we were all the time. So because I felt sinful, because I felt this different, evil thing inside of me for which I didn't have words, when the pastor brought up "homosexuals" as a kind of bogeyman (he did this frequently), I thought "maybe I am one of those". I always identified with the evil characters in fairy tales and children's stories, even stories from the Bible. I was a sinner, and I knew that, and so I knew I was one of the bad people. What I am saying is that I am not sure that I would have named myself a homosexual unless I wasn't told so frequently that I was bad and that homosexuals were bad. But who knows. I started finding myself attracted to other boys when I was in 9th grade, I think. That would put me at 12 or 13. And I had a name for that from my church. I had never heard of bisexuality or any other option. So I knew I was attracted to other boys, and I knew that made me a "homosexual", and I knew that was very, very bad. I prayed for a long time to ask my parents' god to make it go away, but my desires persisted. Their god didn't do anything to help me.

I know that some people learn about their sexual desires through sexual experiences – a person may try sex with various people and then figure out his or her sexuality from there, but that isn't what I did. I had my first sexual experience with a guy when I was 20 or 21 (quite old by today's standards). I had been attempting to stifle my desires and make them go away for about seven years before I ever was willing to try anything. I would say that I definitely missed out on this period of time that your question assumes. I wasn't really free to experiment sexually, or didn't feel myself free to do so, and so I didn't learn about anything that way.

In answer to your third question about when I began to open up about it – I was 20 or 21. Most everyone by this time had sort of figured things out, I think. If a young man is not talking about heterosexuality all the time, and if he hasn't had sex with a woman, he is probably queer. It's a sort of unspoken rule, isn't it? I think my parents probably knew I was queer (I'm not sure how long they had known), and definitely a good many of my friends already knew. Still, I came out to all of them one by one: first to my best friends, then to my parents. I was in college by this time, and this was very difficult because I had been actively lying for a long time, and this means I was a liar. It's hard to convince people that one is being honest when one has been lying to one's friends for a very long time. Even though it was 20 years ago, and I know that my lies were lies that my society wanted me to tell about myself, I still have a lot of guilt about this.

I remember my conversation with my friends Derek and Jaime very well. Derek said to me, "You'll always have a home with us." This was a question of an actual place to live – there was always the fear that my parents would kick me out of the house – as well as a question of an emotional place I could call home. It was the perfect answer. My friend Jill said "I already knew". My friend John hugged me and said he was afraid I was going to tell him that but that he was going to try very hard not to judge me. I don't know how well I remember the conversation with my parents. I most vividly remember my father beginning to talk about sin. I remember that I stopped him. I said to him that the word sin could not mean anything to me anymore because if I believed that I was destined for hell and that I was never going to be happy, then that led to me killing myself. If god simply hated me, then I should die. I had gone down that road in my mind already. But I had decided that instead of dying I was going to try to be happy and live a life in the world.

I don't think my atheism is related to my sexual desires. But I will say that I do think Christianity is incompatible with being a happy, well-adjusted gay person. Christianity has been hostile to homosexual activity for much of its history, and to my mind there isn't much sense in trying to reconcile all of that hatred. But that isn't why I became an atheist. I became an atheist when I realized that I really really wanted there to be a god, but that that desire for someone to take care of me was very similar to my desire for The Lord of the Rings to be real. (Seriously. It is quite a funny comparison, but this is what happened.) Just because I want something to be real doesn't make it real. Believing in a god would make the world so much easier to live in; believing that someone is watching over me and cares about me would make the world feel safer. But that doesn't mean there is a god. It just means it would be really nice if there were one. In other words, I came to atheism rationally through making logical sense of my feelings about the Christian god.

Obviously, a good many ideas have shaped my current views on sex and sexuality – many of which have changed in the last 20 years – but this is my recollection of the period up until age 21 or so. As I say, that was a long time ago, so my memory may be faulty, but this is what I remember.

It is only very recently that I have started to interrogate the interlinked history of homosexual practices and Christianity – I've only just in the last year read John Boswell's Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality and Louis Crompton's Homosexuality and Civilization – and I think that's mostly just because I haven't really even been interested in the Church's ideas about sexuality. They seem to me merely a method of social control. What is clear from history is that homosexual practices (and even more frequently bisexual practices) have existed in almost all societies everywhere around the globe. What changes around the globe is the different ways those practices have been treated by their societies. I simply haven't had much interest in what made me gay or what makes other people gay. To my mind, once we can say that there is nothing wrong with it, the reasons why people like the things they like sexually seem to matter just as little as why people are left-handed or like cilantro or don't like the color green.

27 August 2019

Seconds (1966)

Frankenheimer's Seconds was shot by James Wong Howe, and it's innovative and fascinating and completely unnerving. The film itself didn't really make sense to me – I just didn't get why the main character was so tortured and upset by what he'd done. I didn't understand why he couldn't make a go of his new life, or, indeed, why he thought he needed a second new face in order to try a third time. But Rock Hudson is a revelation in this, and the film's ending is totally great. Incidentally, Teshigahara's The Face of Another (released in the U.S. in 1967), which works with similar themes, came out in Japan around the exact same time as Frankenheimer's film.

26 August 2019

Victim: the Most Surprising Film from 1961

What a stunning movie this is! I've just watched Basil Dearden's Victim for the first time and I'm just bowled over.

Incidentally, I have had Victim in my queue for years as something I needed to see – important gay cinema and all that – but I only just watched it because I recently watched another Dearden movie (Khartoum) and thought it was well directed, so I looked up other movies I'd seen of his and remembered that I'd thought his direction of Saraband for Dead Lovers in 1948 was also quite good, and then I saw on his filmography that he directed Victim. In any case, I moved it up in the queue, and I'm certainly glad I did.

In the first place, Victim is a superbly made film noir: it's a crime film that follows several different people, creating a web of intrigue. In fact, it begins with a man fleeing the police for a crime we the audience knows nothing about and which the filmmaker keeps hidden from us. We know next to nothing about what is going on for the first fifteen minutes of the film. It's intensely interesting. We meet many of the film's major characters in this first fifteen minutes, but we are unable to make sense of almost any of it.

The plot of Victim, once this first act is over, is a kind of detective story, in which a man who has been wronged attempts to solve a mystery. This part of the film is intriguing and exciting, and trying to beat the con-artists and murderers is a satisfying narrative.

Sylvia Sims & Dirk Bogarde
But Victim is also a film that is invested in a pro-homosexual point of view: in 1961 when sodomy was still illegal in Britain. At least five times – and maybe more – the film makes the case that the anti-sodomy laws in Britain need to be changed, that they are simply a reward for blackmailers and thieves. There is a great sequence when a police detective tells his subordinate that he should be less prejudiced – Protestantism used to be illegal in Britain too, he informs the lieutenant drily. We also see people's ugly prejudices, and the film exposes them as relying only on disgust and not on any real basis of morality.

The central role is played by Dirk Bogarde (who may have been a closeted gay man himself), and Bogarde is insanely good in the role. It's a performance of powerful nuances. But, of course, he has an excellent script to work with, and Dearden's direction is honestly perfect. I really loved this film.

* * *

There is one thing I need to ponder for a little longer. Twice in the movie a character uses the phrase flourish like the green bay tree to refer to the idea that a homosexual might live a life of freedom. Both times the phrase is uttered contemptuously – first by the prejudiced cop and later by one of the blackmailers. The phrase is originally from the book of Psalms, chapter 37 verse 35. The King James Version reads:

I have seen the wicked in great power, and spreading himself like a green bay tree.

I am intrigued by this usage of the phrase. I was not aware of this, but clearly the phrase had, by 1961, become a kind of code for homosexual. A little Googling has turned up a use in Agatha Christie's 1952 novel Mrs. McGinty's Dead in which a character says that a character in a play she's co-writing can't be gay: "But you can't have him a pansy, darling", she says. "Not for this sort of play. I mean it's not green bay trees or anything like that. It's thrills and murders and clean open-air fun." This passage in Mrs. McGinty's Dead heavily implies that Christie's famous detective Hercule Poirot is a "pansy", but I'll leave that be for the moment, because I'm trying to follow up on this green bay tree business.

The "play" of which the character is thinking is, of course The Green Bay Tree by Mourdant Shairp from 1933 – a gloomy piece about a homosexual and his young protégé that ends in murder. The play avoided censorship by never making this completely explicit, and the author denied it, but everyone knew what the play was about, and if one didn't understand the play's subject matter to be homosexuality, The Green Bay Tree wouldn't make a bit of sense.

There is a Louis Bromfield novel called The Green Bay Tree, as well – this novel is not about homosexuality, and so this is likely not the source of this meaning being laid on the phrase.

Intriguingly, the Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable defines the phrase this way: to develop vigorously in a congenial environment, whether or not this is deserved. There is no hint in this definition that the phrase should be linked with homosexuality.

Similarly, the early 20th century theosophist Gottfried de Purucker uses the phrase without any inference of homosexual meaning in his essay "The Great Heresy of Separateness". In 2002, M.C. Beaton also used the phrase (apparently) without this homosexual inference in one of her Hamish Macbeth mystery novels, Death of a Celebrity.

But Christie's use in 1952 and Victim's double-use in 1961 seem to demonstrate that the phrase was widely understood in mid-century Britain as the vigorous development (to quote the Oxford Dictionary) of a certain kind of person.

Paw (1959)

Paw is an anti-racist Danish family film from 1959. It's a kind of Huckleberry Finn tale, where a young boy from the Danish West Indies (i.e. St. Thomas or St. Croix) comes to live in Denmark where his father was born. He is beat up and taunted by his schoolmates, and then his aunt dies. But he is taken in by a kindly old gamekeeper, and the two make a life. It's quite sweet, and there is loads and loads of footage of Danish wildlife, particularly birds. Although released in Denmark in 1959, it wasn't released in the United States until 1970 (!).

25 August 2019

Ingenjör Andrées Luftfärd (The Flight of the Eagle)

Ingenjör Andrées Luftfärd (The Flight of the Eagle) is one of Jan Troell's grand epics. Sometimes I like his mode of storytelling; this one in particular, however, left me a little cold.

It's an odd story to tell anyway, since it is very much about a doomed nationalist project of the late 19th century. But I think the thing that sort of bugs me about it is that Troell doesn't really use his film to analyze how and why these men ended up dying in the middle of a frozen wasteland. Instead we watch their demise in a sort of detached way – not detached from the men's emotional journey but certainly detached from the context of that journey. Troell is interested in the men's experience. Fine! But, he indicts no one, really, except Andrée himself, as if the project was simply one of ego. This is unfortunate, to my mind, and it makes the film a kind of lone-man-against-the-elements movie instead of a real portrait of Sweden in 1897.

The takeoff of the balloon is totally awesome, but the movie (and, of course, the 1897 expedition) both go downhill from there.

21 August 2019

Volver a Empezar (Begin the Beguine) (1982)


José Luis Garci's Volver a Empezar (Begin the Beguine) is a sad, charming story about a dying man. It's also very simply told. The film is a kind of tribute to people whose lives were interrupted by World War II, who left Spain and never came back. A generation – as the film says at the very end – whose lives were interrupted. I quite liked it.

Perhaps most improbably, of the 13 films that were nominated for the Foreign Language Oscar in the 1960s, '70s, and '80s – films by Pedro Almodóvar, Carlos Saura, Luis Buñuel, Francisco Rovira Beleta, and Jaime de Armiñán – this is the only film that won the award.

Two other Garci films were nominated for Oscars (Sesión Continua and Asignatura Aprobada), and I've managed to get my hands on subtitled bootleg copies of these movies recently, so I am sure I will watch them soon.

P.S. I have no explanation at all for this rainbow on the poster. Volver a Empezar is not a film about rainbows or floods or peace or homosexuality.