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

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.

20 August 2019

Il Compleanno (2009)

Il Compleanno (David's Birthday) is a gay-interest movie sort of typical of the late 1990s and early 2000s, one in which queer desire is fatal, causing grief and destruction. It seems, in other words, outmoded even for 2009, when it was made. It's all a bit too Thomas Mann for my taste. But, in truth, this is a much more complex drama than one only about the deadliness of queer desire. I thought all of the characters were intriguing. The beautiful beloved object was the least interesting of the movie's six characters. If only the director had balanced things better, this actually showed promise, but Marco Filiberti, who wrote and directed, seems focused on the fatalities and destruction caused by queer desire – even caused by the desirable object of queer desire. And so David's Birthday is quite a disappointing party.

18 August 2019

Helden (Heroes) (1958)

Helden is very funny. It's based on Shaw's play Arms and the Man and works very well. It has much of Shaw's moralism, but is way more fun than his usually talky comedies. Franz Peter Wirth's adaptation is filmic through and through - there are almost no traces of staginess.

Lady in the Dark (1944)

Lady in the Dark is a strange movie. In the first place, it is outrageously sexist – perhaps even by the standards of 1944 – and in the second, it transmutes the stage musical into something that isn't really a musical at all but has these sort of fantasy numbers, a bit like Chicago would do 58 years later. But the filmmakers also cut "My Ship", which is frankly unforgivable. Mischa Auer is hilariously genius (as usual) in a supporting part.

14 August 2019

Malila: the Farewell Flower (2017)

I loved Malila: the Farewell Flower (มะลิลา). It never got a theatrical release in the U.S., although it played several film festivals, including LGBTQ ones. It's a gorgeous movie about spirituality and queerness and flowers and death and grief. It stars a brilliant Sukollawat Kanarot, who is a big TV star in Thailand, and it was directed by trans filmmaker Anucha Boonyawatana. It's lovely. Oh and the score is gorgeous!

06 August 2019

Cactus Flower (1969)

Oh my god, Ingrid Bergman is so funny in this! Cactus Flower is actually very, very funny. It's a non-Neil Simon Neil Simon farce starring Neil Simon regular Walter Matthau, and it's delightful. I am sure it works perfectly as a stage play, and if it is a bit stagey here, it is performed brilliantly. I really liked this.

Khartoum (1966)

What a strange and intriguing film Khartoum is. In the first place it's insanely orientalist and racist, and there's so much blackface. But the battle sequences – and this is a film in which battle sequences are the most important element – are very, very cool. The photography is also brilliant, gorgeous even, and the whole thing, despite its so-called epic qualities, is actually rather tight and nicely directed.

As usual, I am surprised by Basil Dearden. He is a very good director. (Weirdly, I still haven't seen his gay film, Victim. Soon, perhaps.)

04 August 2019

Birds of Passage (2018)

For me Pájaros de Verano (which is being distributed in the U.S. as Birds of Passage) didn't quite work. The feelings in it are just a little too restrained; the direction feels almost cold, which simply doesn't fit with the subject matter here – family crime melodrama. I really liked both of the film's stars, Carmiña Martínez and José Acosta, but again I wish both of them had been allowed to let loose a little bit, especially at the film's end. As it is, the film's first act, which has the least amount of action in it, ends up being Pájaros de Verano's most compelling section. It's a shame, because Ciro Guerra's Abrazo del Serpiente was my favorite film of 2016. Oh well. Pájaros de Verano looks cool, anyway.

03 August 2019

A Midsummer's Nightmare

For me, Ari Aster's new horror-adjacent film Midsommar doesn't really work. I wanted it to work going in, and this is also my impression of most other people's response to Midsommar as well. We all want Ari Aster to succeed; we all have a great deal of good will toward him; we are compelled by many of the images he has in his brain; but we aren't quite satisfied with what he's putting out. I read one person saying I'd watch Ari Aster direct a commercial for yogurt, which is, to my mind, the kind of weak praise equivalent to saying I didn't really love this movie, but I'm glad he's making things I can watch. In any case, Midsommar is much, much better than a yogurt commercial, but it never really feels satisfactory.

I think the problem is that although Aster is operating using a great many of horror's generic conventions, he continually refuses to use the most pleasurable ones. So there is a building dread throughout Midsommar; one feels a kind of constant terror of the horrors to come, but then there are no serious or satisfying payoffs. We never see the monster; we never watch the knife sink in; no one gives us a good, terrifying scream. Instead, he actively elides moments that could do this. In Midsommar, for example, when Josh is killed while reading the Hårga's insane holy book, there is almost no build-up, there is no terror, and there is no satisfaction when he is actually killed. Plot-wise, Josh is killed for reasons typical of the genre: he sneaks out at night and tries to look at something he shouldn't look at. What this means is that Aster sets up genre expectations, but then doesn't deliver on them. Josh is killed in an almost matter-of-fact way, we see no blood or wound, and his body is disposed of immediately. Mark, too, is killed for generic reasons, but instead of us getting to watch this, Mark just disappears. The next time we see him, he's dead. Now, of course, Aster doesn't need to fulfill my generic expectations, but if he's not going to, I would appreciate something else instead. Don't do the genre, fine, but then give me invention. Take me somewhere else.

Midsommar consistently feels one note to me. All of the characters stay playing their single one note throughout the film – think about Christian's empty, beautiful stare or Pelle's placidity or even Dani's grief. And the way he's shot the film does this too. Everything in the film feels the same – slowly haunting, respectful, beautifully composed, and distant.

But enough complaining. As I say, Aster's work is consistently interesting, even if I left Midsommar emotionally unsatisfied. And like the person who wants to watch Aster's yogurt commercials, I too am interested in what he will do next. It's all too weird to be boring.

In Midsommar I am especially haunted by the images from before we get to Sweden – especially that image of Dani's sister with the pipe of vehicular exhaust taped directly to her face. It's a disgusting, disturbing image, and I neither can get it out of my head nor want to. Aster focuses on his corpses most intriguingly. We consistently are asked to look at the inside of bodies, of bodies broken open, showing us their viscera and often in various processes of decay (I am thinking, too, of the disgusting meat on the table during the May Queen's feast and the bear's viscera as they disembowel him). Aster is interested in what happens when the insides of our bodies are on the outside – as with the very strange thing that the Hårga did with Simon's lungs, which looked like wings as he hung there suspended in that little hut. I think all of this is very interesting, even if I don't think there's much to say about it except that it's there.

Natural Viagra
What I do think there is more to say about is the question of families – biological and found – with which both Hereditary and Midsommar are filled, drenched even. Obviously, Hereditary is about family (it's in the title), but I would say that that film is about a kind of tension between loving one's own biological family and loving the family that one has chosen. Annie's insane mother obviously opts for her chosen family over her biological one and is actively using and manipulating her biological kin in order to appease the family of the demon she serves. Hereditary and Midsommar are also about love and longing within the family. Peter in Hereditary and Dani in Midsommar want and want and want from their families, but they get nothing back. Peter begs his mother to love him, to forgive him; she cannot. And Dani emails and emails her sister and calls her parents; they don't reply. But meanwhile, the filmmaker actively destroys these families. We watch both of these families die in gruesome detail. What I am saying is that Aster is invested in destroying the family even though he is also interested in representing familial longing. Dani and Peter long for family desperately. They need their family's love. But not only is there no family, the family has been actively, violently broken apart (the images of the family's destruction in Hereditary are frankly horrific).

The family offers no solace
...And then in both films, the characters find familial solace in chosen families, or, if we're being technical about it, in cults. In Hereditary and even more clearly in Midsommar, we find that the main character begins to belong once she finds the chosen family. She avoids it, doesn't think it's a good thing, is disturbed by it, but once she gives in to the family she begins to find that she has a place there. (I think this is true of both Annie and Peter in Hereditary.)

I see both films, then, as stories of desperate need for familial belonging – of filial, fraternal, and sororal affection and desire. But in both Hereditary and Midsommar, that desire cannot be fulfilled by the biological family. Instead, the characters in these films must figure out how they fit within familial structures of belonging that are not biological. Peter and Annie can't find love in the biological family; they can only find belonging in the cult of Paimon. Dani and Christian can't make a family together, even after four years, but each can belong in his or her own way in the cult of the Hårga. In each case, affection/desire for one single person must be violently destroyed in favor of affection/desire being shared among the group, a kind of communism of affection that is understood in Aster's cults as superior to the love of a couple or the love of the nuclear family.

Whether Aster's own ethics see this kind of affection as superior to the love of a family or the love of a couple is a whole other question. Because of the affective confusion with which Aster leaves us at the end of both films, one finds it difficult to pinpoint the filmmaker's perspective on this desire for the family, and it is perhaps difficult in general to figure out whether Hereditary and Midsommar end happily or sadly. It may be that Aster sees the endings of both Midsommar and Hereditary as satisfying ones, in which each person has taken her rightful place in the world. For me that isn't true. I see the endings of both films as intellectually horrifying, even if they didn't work for me that way affectively. In other words, I wasn't scared, and I'm not haunted, but I do find myself intellectually troubled.

Welcome to your new family

The Solid Gold Cadillac (1956)

The Solid Gold Cadillac is delightful. Judy Holliday is so much fun. I thought this whole thing was really cute, but the ending, especially, was perfection.

02 August 2019

Testament (1983)

I sort of hated Testament? Maybe not. But I guess I also don't really get what this movie was.

There's a nuclear explosion and radiation is everywhere, and then the family we're spending time with slowly dies off. Ok. But... what's the takeaway? We don't really know the family well enough or spend enough time with them for the film to work as a solid character study, and there's a journalling convention that the main character takes up early in the film that totally disappears by the end when it could really have helped us identify with her. Instead, everything in it just sort of happens in a kind of daze. Oh well.

Kevin Costner and Rebecca De Mornay have small parts as a married couple with a young child. It was cool to see them. And this movie was also filmed in Sierra Madre, very close to where I grew up and where my parents still attend church.