January 28, 2012

Queer Issue: Some Quick Thoughts on the Academy Award Nominations...

Okay, regarding my previous post about Fincher's remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, it appears that my prediction that The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo would not win best picture, but Rooney Mara would have a shot at winning best Actress appears poised to come true. Unfortunately, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was not even nominated for an Oscar at all, while Rooney Mara, along with two other actors who played queer characters (Glenn Close as the crossdressing Albert Noobs, Christopher Plummer in Beginners).

Of the performances I saw, Rooney Mara certainly deserves the nomination. However, I want to point out something that's been pointed out before. Want to know the best way for an aspiring straight able bodied actor to win an Oscar? Play a queer or disabled characters. What a white actor? Well, since black face is politically incorrect, your best bet is to play a white character who helps a person with minority status who is facing discrimination and hardship to overcome that discrimination and hardship. See last years' Sandra Bullocks' win in The Blind Side for an example of this.

If Meryl Streep were to play a blind lesbian who manages to teach an inner city class (comprised mainly of poor blacks) the importance of education and thereby inspiring all of them to apply themselves so they can get into college, having nominations would be totally pointless.

January 15, 2012

Queer Review: The Sergeant (1968)

The Sergeant
Director: John Flynn
Writer: Dennis Murphy. Based upon the novel by Dennis Murphy.
Cast: Rod Steiger, John Phillip Law, Ludmila Mikaël, Frank Latimore, Elliott Sullivan, Ronald Rubin

Made during the final gasps of the Hays Code, The Sergeant, although flawed, manages to be one of the best queer themed films of it's era that I have had the pleasure of seeing.

The year is 1952, Master Sergeant Albert Callan (Rod Steiger), recently assigned to a U.S. military base in France, finds himself attracted to Pfc. Tom Swanson (John Phillip Law). Circumstances of course force him to suppress this attraction and Callan is forced to act on it indirectly. This Callan does by first assigning Swanson to doing secretarial work in his office, then by gradually working his way into Swanson's personal life. However, when Swanson rebuffs Callan's increasingly overt advances, matters take a darker and more disturbing tone.

The Queering
The end of the 1960's thankfully also saw the final death convulsions of the Hays code, thereby allowing filmmakers to include overt queer characters in films, along with other material that had been previously been banned by the code. The Sergeant is perhaps the most notable of it's era to include an obviously gay man and the least problematic to boot. It does not include a bevy of over the top theatrics, like The Detective, nor wander off into the realm of tiresome literary pretentiousness, like the Reflections in a Golden Eye. Instead, The Sergeant sticks to more modest goals, tell the story of a man who due to his circumstances, must suppress his desire to be with another man.

Unfortunately, The Sergeant has become something of a forgotten oldie. It is not available on Netflix and I had to pay an exorbitant amount to order it through Amazon. The reason for the high price, I found out afterwards, was due to the fact that this was a one time print job. While I can see why it is not considered a Classic, the fact that it is so difficult to find is a shame, this a movie that deserves a wider audience then it is currently afforded.

John Phillip Law gives a somewhat bland performance as the object of Callan's desires, but that was the nature of the character as written. Rod Stieger gives a memorable performance as Callan, never giving into overt melodrama or the temptation to overact, at least until the end, although that instance is excusable given the fact that the character is drunk.

I won't claim there is anything extraordinary about The Sergeant outside of it's ordinariness and refusal to do anything to detract from the main story. There are subplots but each one only serves the main story, there are no detours into the lives of any characters other then how they impact on Callan and Swanson. This is notable, as too often films try to make force their stories into making sweeping statements about The Human Condition, even when their story does not deserve such high mindedness. See, for example, the aforementioned Reflections in a Golden Eye.

I did have one major problem with The Sergeant and that was with the ending, which can be considered the one major concession to the Hays Code stipulation that a sinner or a criminal would have to be punished or killed for their transgressions. However, the ending fits the story as it had progressed up until the point and does not betray the characters or force them to behave in a manor inconsistent with their development. Therefore I am willing to overlook the ending.

No matter the difficulty in tracking down this Sergeant, it is well worth it for those with any kind of interest in the history of queer cinema.

The Rating

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January 12, 2012

Queer Review: The Maltese Falcon (1941)

The Maltese Falcon
Director: John Huston
Writer: John Huston. Based upon the novel by Dashiell Hammett.
Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Gladys George, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Barton MacLane, Lee Patrick, Ward Bond, Elisha Cook Jr., Jerome Cowan

Credited as being the prototype for film noir, The Maltese Falcon also features an early and particularly intrigueing queer subtext. Because of this, The Maltese Falcon contains one of the earliest and most obviously queer characters in cinema.

When private detectives Samuel Spade (Humphrey Bogart) and Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan) are approached by the femme fatale Brigid O'Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) they are suspicious of her story but since she's willing to pay, they agree to shadow the man she asks them to, Floyd Thursby. Soon, however, both Thursby and Archer are dead and Spade finds himself embroiled in a complicated affair involving the Maltese Falcon, a priceless artifact whose history involves the Knights Templar and was lost centuries ago. Several other parties, each with their own story of how and why they are after the Maltese Falcon, come forward. The effiminate Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) who cliams that he was double crossed by O'Shaughnessy, tries to hold up Spade. Then there is Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet) who claims to have been looking for the statue for 17 years and whose quiet politeness is merely a façade for an underlying dangerous nature.

The Queering
The Maltese Falcon is a hard movie for me to review. I can see, intellectually speaking, all of the elements that make it understandable why The Maltese Falcon is considered by so many critics to be a classic. The protagonist is a morally ambiguous private detective and the ending dark. Then there is the convoluted plot which forces the audience pay attention and figure things out for ourselves. On top of thatis the fact that The Maltese Falcon lay the groundwork for one of cinema's most popular and enduring genre's, the film noir.

However, all of that aside, I have to confess that The Maltese Falcon failed to move me on an emotional level. I understand that I am not espousing the most popular opinion here, but for all of it's strengths, The Maltese Falcon is not a perfect motion picture. There are more than a few scenes of overblown melodrama and poor acting and while I applaud the ending for being true to the characters and the story, I have to say it still left me feeling a bit empty.

Flaws aside though, there are some other strengths - besides the plot that was darker and more complex than other movies of the time. A scene where Gutman drugs Spade, in order to put him to sleep, is superbly shot and edited. I also enjoyed Lee Patrick's performance as Effie Perine, Archer and Spade's secretary, even though she only had a few scenes. Peter Lorre was more memorable playing a killer of children in M, but is otherwise effective as the obviously gay Joel Cairo.

While Joel Cairo was openly gay in the novel (from what I understand) but thanks the awful Hays Code, no mention of this is made. However, Cairo is not the only character in the film who can be queered. Spade calls Gutman's assistant Wilmer a "gunzel", which is a slang term for a submissive bottom to an older gay man. Combine this with Gutman himself being noticeably limp wristed and fey and so it becomes clear that the three antagonists are all apparently a bit queer. In other films, having three gay antagonists might be a problem, but since neither of our protagonists, Spade or his almost girlfriend O'Shaughnessy, is not set up as morally virtuous either, it's not a problem from my perspective.

It's not worth spending your life fortune and 17 years, as Kasper Gutman did, to track down this Maltese Falcon, but certainly worth seeking out, particularly for those with an interest in the history of queer characters in cinema.

The Rating


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January 2, 2012

Classic Review: Fight Club (1999)

Fight Club
Director: David Fincher
Writer: Jim Uhls. Based upon the novel by Chuck Palahniuk.
Cast: Edward Norton, Brad Pitt, Helena Bonham Carter, Meat Loaf, Zach Grenier, Rachel Singer, Bob Stephenson, Thom Gossom Jr., Michael Shamus Wiles, Joon Kim, Jared Leto, Peter Iacangelo

David Fincher brings to life Cuck Palahniuk's anti-establishment novel about an unusual support group formed by an insomniac. The atmosphere and black comedy ooze as freely as the blood that splatters from the Fight Club participants, making this a must see for all.

After his doctor refuses to help with his sleeping problems, an office drone insomniac (Edward Norton) starts attending support groups as a "tourist". He finds that the emotional catharses that he gets from these groups allows him to sleep at night. However, when he meets Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter) another tourist, his life is once again disrupted when the insomnia returns. Soon after, his situation worsens when his apartment is destroyed in an explosion on the same day he meets Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt). Seduced by Tyler's message of anti-consumerism, the two end up forming an underground Fight Club, where men are able to empower themselves through the age old method of beating themselves up. However, fight club is only the beginning for Tyler Durden who has bigger and more explosive plans for the group.

The Queering
I'll get this out of the way right now, Fight Club *is* my all time favourite movie, so forgive me if I gush a little bit during this review.

Overall, Fight Club is a thematically complex tale that explores the darker, more primitive side of human nature that society insists upon repressing. While Fight Club is a violent film, it does not mindlessly promote violence. The consequence of the masculine id run amok are shown in graphic detail as Tyler Durden leads Fight Club (and later Project Mayhem) down an increasingly depraved path. By the end, Tyler Durden is revealed to be just another problematic authority figure and the stark hypocrisy of the cult-like Project Mayhem which requires conformity and unquestioning obedience of it's members, cannot be ignored.

Starkly nihilistic in it's worldview, Fight Club does not allow for easy interpretation or analysis. One could call it a critique of masculinity, a scathing condemnation of consumer culture, or a celebration of mindless anarchy. All of these interpretations could be considered valid. Those who have problems with Fight Club, are probably going to be the same people who like their themes wrapped up into a neat little bow, delivered on a silver platter, and with a pretentious voice over explaining everything on the side.

Consider testicular cancer survivor, Bob Paulson (Meat Loaf), that the narrator meets early on when going to support groups. Bob's condition was caused by taking steroids, in a blatent attempt to conform to societies standards of masculinity. In short, by through his attempt to be the most macho man possible, Bob ends up emasculated and pathetic. When Bob later joins fight club, he is able to regain the masculinity he lost while pursuing societies narrow view of what constitutes the ultimate man.

The overarching theme of Fight Club (if it can even be said to have one) is how modern society, which places a high value on mindless consumerism and unquestioning obedience to authority, has completely degraded the human experience. It is easy enough to envision the narrator as a Marxist hero, completely ground down by the system, to then rises up to engage in a violent proletariat revolution against the bourgeoisie. He starts the film as a somewhat cynical, but still rather typical office drone and has, or at least claims to have, nearly everything. He does not realize that what he lacks is meaningful human interaction and ultimately, his isolation and loneliness is what allows him to be seduced by Tyler Durden.

Edward Norton gives a brilliant performance as the besieged narrator. Brad Pitt, who at the time Fight Club was in the process of transitioning from a popular pretty boy celibrity to serious thespian, plays Tyler Durden with an animal magnetism that commands the attention of the camera whenever he is on screen.

The most memorable and hysterical scene has the narrator beating himself up in his bosses office. The second most memorable scene, which is much darker and riff with religious implications, has Tyler burning the narrator's hand with lye in order to force him to acknowledge his own mortality.

Fight Club istself is rich with religious subtext. From a Christian perspective, Tyler Durden can be seen as a modern Messiah, whose message spreads quickest amongst the poor and working class, offering them hope that they could not otherwise obtain. Nortan, on one of the DVD commentary tracks points out that one can also interpret Fight Club through the lens of the Buddhist teaching of obtaining enlightenment by first killing the values of your society, then the values of your parents, then those of your mentor, and then lastly, your own. Others have also made a connection with Zen Buddhism.

There are two homoerotic subtexts worth pointing out, such as the one that exists between the narrator and Bob, who spend each most of their screen-time together in each others arms. The other subtext exists between the narrator and Tyler Durden, with the narrator acting like a jilted lover when Tyler refuses to divulge his plans for Project Mayhem. Considering Tyler Durden's line about "Self improvement is masturbation" and a certain key plot twist, the Freudian implications of this subtext are particularly mind-blowing.

Overall, it is the dynamic thematic content that gives Fight Club it's most lasting power. There are very few movies that come close to achieving it's high level of pragmatic philosophical outpouring and outraged ravings. As I said, it is my personal favourite movie and I doubt that any other will come close to unseating it.

Since you are not your bank account, there is no reason not to fight tooth and nail to empty it in order to be sure to see this movie.

The Rating


Want to find a review of a particular work? Check out the Title Index, the archive of all reviews posted listed alphabetically.