October 30, 2012

Queer Review: A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge (1985)

A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge
Director: Jack Sholder
Writer: David Chaskin, Wes Craven
Cast: Mark Patton, Kim Myers, Robert Rusler, Clu Gulager, Hope Lange, Marshall Bell, Robert Englund

A misbegotten sequel, A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge not only fails to be as good as the original, it's an awful and amazingly homophobic film to boot.

Freddy Kruger (Robert Englund) is back and this time he is no longer content to simply invade peoples dreams, he wants to recruit a someone in the real world to continue his evil work. That someone turns out to be teenager Jesse Walsh (Mark Patton) who is struggling to adapt to a new neighborhood. When Jesse starts having nightmares and acting strangely, his parents think he is on drugs, but they have no idea for the nightmare that is in store for their boy.

The Queering
The original A Nightmare on Elm Street managed to effectively blur the lines between reality and waking nightmare. A Nightmare on Elm Street is an entirely pedestrian effort that I don't even think was trying to capture the nightmarish qualities of the original. I am being kind when I call sequel is a pale imitation of its predecessor. In the original, Freddy Kruger haunted peoples' nightmares. Here Freddy is going for the more prosaic, and less interesting path of simply taking over a surrogate in this world and having him do the dirty work. Boooooring...

There is however both a queer subtext and a queer text, neither or which lead to anyplace good or interesting. The explicitely gay character, the sadistic Coach Schneider, is the first to die horribly. The other, the films protagonist, Jesse, is coded, but in a rather obvious way. As I talked about in my review of the original, I wondered about the connection between the AIDS crises and the popularity of slasher films. Here, that connection is affirmed by having Jesse waking up with night sweats in imitation of one of the AIDS/HIV diseases better known symptoms.

In addition to waking up with night sweats, Jesse also displays a lack of interest in having sex with his girlfriend, ends up in a gay bar, and in one critical scene rejects the advances of his girlfriend to go hang out with a guy. However, Jesse being coded gay puts a disturbing twist on the ending. If we read Jesse as struggling with his sexuality, and I'm pretty sure the filmmakers intend for him to be read this way, then the climax of the film becomes about the superiority of heterosexuality triumphing over the disease of queerness.

Furthermore, due to Freddy's attempts to "recruit" Jesse the filmmakers end up invoking some of the most disturbingly false attacks on gay men. While Freddy in the first film simply served as a warning against promiscuous sex, here he becomes a sexual predator of a much different nature. Not only is Freddy attempting to recruit a teenager to the gay lifestyle, but his newly established queer nature puts an entirely different spin on the fact that he was an established child murderer in the first film. For no child murderer is just a murderer in Hollywood, there is almost always the implication of sexual violence. This too is alluded to by Freddy's disturbing tendency of leaping onto his victims as if preparing to commit sexual violence.

What I am getting at, is that in A Nightmare in Elm Street 2 Freddy Kruger has been sub-textually reinvented as a gay pedophile, thereby creating a film with more homophobic overtones than Cruising.

That is an accomplishment all filmmakers should have nightmares about even the possibility of achieving.

It is a nightmarish thought that a film this bad and homophobic was able to get made. No matter what street one lives on, A Nightmare on Elm Street is to be avoided.

The Rating
ZERO out of ****


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

Classic Review: A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

A Nightmare on Elm Street
Director: Wes Craven
Writer: Wes Craven
Cast: Heather Langenkamp, Johnny Depp, Robert Englund, John Saxon, Ronee Blakley, Amanda Wyss, Jsu Garcia, Charles Fleischer

An effective examination of the lines separating reality from dreams and dreams from nightmares, A Nightmare on Elm Street remains one of the best of the 1980's era slasher flicks. Overall this is well made flick with plenty of memorable and gruesome imagery designed to cause nightmares whether or not one is awake or asleep.

When teenager Tina (Amanda Wyss) is brutally murdered, the police finger her boyfriend Rod (Jsu Garcia) as the main suspect. But Tina's friend, Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) suspects that Rod is innocent for both she and Tina had been sharing similar dreams of a man with knives for fingers who has been haunting their sleep. When Nancy investigates, she begins to realize that this man is Freddy Kruger, a child murderer who suffered a horrific fate after he was acquitted of his crimes in a court of law.

The Queering
The 1980's was the era of the slasher films (started in 1978 by Halloween) and like it's sibling series, A Nightmare on Elm Street started out on a high note before quickly descending into dreck. Well, actually, I have not seen that many of the sequels of either series, but between what I have heard from others and having viewed A Nightmare on Elm Stree 2: Freddy's Revenge, I am not going to be running out to view the subsequent films of either series. Ultimately, both series would be dragged out unnecessarily, thereby undermining the reputation of the originals.

As for A Nightmare on Elm Street itself, Wes Craven effectively toes the line between harsh reality and waking nightmare. The murders are presented in such a way, that the refrain of "don't fall asleep" will not be difficult for many of the more sensitive members of the audience. The first kill is particularly brutal with the victim being dragged up a wall and across the ceiling by invisible forces. Later, another character meets an equally gruesome fate that a responding paramedic talks about "needing a mop, not a body bag". Obviously, this is not a film for the faint of heart or the overly sensitive.

One of the cardinal rules of slasher films is that those who have sex are the first to die. A Nightmare on Elm Street follows this rule, but not strictly. Virginity it turns out is no guarantee of survival here, the characters who have sex simply get offed sooner rather than later.

However, the theme of burgeoning teenage sexuality begetting monsters that this pattern eludes to, is hammered home in a shot of Freddy's hand coming up from between Nancy's legs when she is taking a bath. In a way almost, while aimed at teenagers, slasher flicks appear to be mostly a reflection of parental anxieties about the dangers of adolescence. One wonders how much of the AIDS epidemic in the 80's helped propel the popularity of the slasher films or it was mere coincidence that this genre simply ended up paralleling the reality of sex that could literally kill people by coincidence. Granted, the idea of killing the sexually promiscuous started in 1978 by Halloween well before AIDS was pushed to the forefront of the national consciousness. What I want to know, is if there had been no AIDS crises, would the cheesiness of the genre have caused slasher films to die out earlier?

A Nightmare on Elm Street is worth seeking out for anyone, whether they live on Elm Street or not.

The Rating
***1/2 out of ****


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

October 27, 2012

Queer Review: Cloud Atlas (2012)

Cloud Atlas
Directors: Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, and Lana Wachowski.
Writers: Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, and Lana Wachowski. Based upon the novel by David Mitchell.
Cast: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, Keith David, James D'Arcy, Xun Zhou, David Gyasi, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant,

This adaptation, brought to the screen by Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, and Lana Wachowski, of David Mitchells' novel highlighting the interconnected nature of the human experience, is visually amazing, but also occasionally incoherent. Furthermore, a lack of subtlety and too much cross cutting between stories prevents Cloud Atlas from reaching the heights it so desperately strives for.

Cloud Atlas tells 6 different stories about those elements that tie us humans together and drive us apart, set across different time periods, starting in the period of American Slavery and going into the far distant future.

The Queering
Both the Wachowskis and Tom Twyker are easily among the most ambitious filmmakers working today. However, ambition does not always equal success. Fortunately, the filmmakers set the bar so high that the minor missteps do not derail the project as a whole. That does not mean that the problems are not serious in of themselves.

The biggest issue I had was with the frequent cross cutting between stories, which kills a great deal of narrative tension. I get that this was done to emphasize the connections between the stories, but frequently this method not only kills a lot of suspense, it ends up being too on the nose. In the same category is the overused voice-over, which tends to go about pointing out things to the audience that could have been demonstrated in a more cinematic or less obvious fashion.

While I'm bitching, I should also probably point out that Tom Hanks, while otherwise a fine choice for the roles he's playing, frequently sounds like he's chewing on marbles whenever he speaks while playing a character with an accent. Otherwise I had no issues with the acting.

Cloud Atlas has been described hyperbolicly as the most ambitious film ever made. There is an argument to be made that this is true. There are so many themes, ideas, bumping against characters who are all then reborn in different stories, that it gets difficult to keep track of everything and everyone.

There was so many ideas, motifs, and visual metaphors that I wanted to properly analyze and for which one viewing was nowhere near sufficient to do so. I can only offer up vague hints at what I think the Wachowskis' and Twyker were trying to say. Reincarnation is touched upon repeatedly. The idea of love conquering all. The lust for freedom from oppression. Consequence versus coincidence. These are ideas that have been present in the directors previous works. In fact Cloud Atlas highlights the similarities between these directors previous works in ways that I had not previously thought of. I would go into more detail here, but I don't feel like writing an entire novel and one would be necessary to do this properly.

Criticism has been leveled at Cloud Atlas over the fact that there are actors playing roles of different races. Things like black face and yellow face are things that have been used to mock people of color for decades. While I'm not going to tell people what they should be offended over, it's worth pointing out that the criticism tends to focus on the white actors who are playing Asian characters, and ignores the fact that pretty much every actor and actress (black, white, and asian) ends up playing a role of a different race at some point. Halle Barry plays a white woman in one segment and a male asian doctor in another. Donna Rae also plays a white abolitionist.

Berry is also not the only one who transgresses gender, Hugo Weaving also takes on the role of a female nurse. Other queer content includes a segment about a gay man who is blackmailed by a famous composer into being the older mans muse. This story ends tragically when the young man kills himself. While it gets tiring to have LGBTQ characters always ending up killing themselves, I could not help but wonder how much Lana Wachowski saw herself in this story, given that she recently admitted to having nearly committed suicide herself.

I get the criticism against films where a LGBTQ protagonist ends up killing themselves, but I think it is also possible to go too far the other way and end up erasing the fact that too many in our community are driven by the oppression we face to the most extreme solutions possible. Just saying.

Furthermore, going back to having characters who play roles that transgress race and gender, I think I should point out there are two potentially problematic issues. One is that the majority of the lead cast is predominantly white men compared to a smaller number of females and minorities. The second is that the filmmakers, in attempt to highlight the main themes of the films, are trying to get the audience to see past an individuals race. A noble effort, but this can still be seen as problematic in that people who claim that they "don't see race" are usually white people who wish to ignore not only the existence of people of color, but pretend that we live in a post-racial society. This ultimately results in the erasure of black people and the issues that they face. I am not saying that this happens here, but I would argue that such an interpretation is possible.

While Cloud Atlas fails to make it all the way to the stars that it shoots for, it still manages to soar in the upper atmosphere above the clouds. Highly recommended, no atlas is too expensive if you need one to find this movie.

The Rating
***1/2 out of ****


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

October 24, 2012

Silver Demon: Denial

So while trying to do serious research on The Holocaust, I keep coming across Holocaust Denial crap and getting distracted by it. Or rather sucked in. It's pretty much all the same to me as the 9/11 Truther Movement.

I have to confess, I just don't get it. Where does this kind of shit come from? What causes people to want to deny an established record in favor of a wild hypothesis with no established reason or evidence behind it?

Whenever I come across such sites my mind gets even more twisted around then it probably would by reading about what actuallyhappened in the concentration camps. I feel, I imagine, much like one of those super sentient computers that Captain Kirk keeps coming across on Star Trek, where Kirk just destroys the darn thing by presenting it with a logical paradox. Wait but your evidence that Auschwitz was full puppies and kittens, not gas chambers, is logically flawed. How can you believe it! But you obviously do! THIS DOES NOT COMPUTE *ARGH* *smoke starts pouring from ears*

Part of me, in spite of the obvious time suck this would become, would like to go through and spend some time debunking the crap that comes up on these sites.

For example, one time I was doing research on Father Mychal Judge, for one of those posts I abandoned halfway through, I came across a photo of Judge being removed from the World Trade Center, where the background had been washed out thanks to photo manipulation.

The photo, from a 9/11 Truth discussion board, had a caption that read "photos from 9/11 frequently show washed out backgrounds when mild contrast adjustments are applied. Clear evidence that 9/11 was staged."

In any case, my first reaction was: um, er, no, it's just a sign that the contrast filter on your photo manipulation software is working just fine. Because that's typically what happens when you adjust the contrast, some part of it gets "washed out". If your background happens to feature large amounts of smoke and dust, it will be particulary prone to this happening.

Anybody who has spent time playing around with photo manipulation software and particularly spent some time experimenting with the contrast control could tell you this.

In any case, I really hate to think about what might happen if such a person ever started watching the video of JFK getting assassinated on their computer. Oh my god! The video plays through twice as fast after I hit the 2x button! Time must be warping so therefore OBVIOUSLY OSWALD MUST BE AN ALIEN!

That is all I have to say on the matter.

October 22, 2012

Queer Review: Blood of a Poet (1932)

Blood of a Poet
Director: Jean Cocteau
Writer: Jean Cocteau
Cast: Enrique Rivero, Elizabeth Lee Miller, Pauline Carton, Odette Talazac, Jean Desbordes, FĂ©ral Benga, Barbette, Fernand Dichamps, Lucien Jager

A surreal trip into the mind of an unnamed poet, Cocteaus' non-narrative debut feature succeeds entirely on the strength of its' visuals.

A poet/artist (Enrique Rivero) creates a drawing that comes to life and starts to speak to him. He tries to silence it but ends up going on a strange journey, where he finds himself peering through key holes, witnessing a deadly snowball fight, and partaking in a card game where he must literally gamble with his own life.

The Queering
Generally speaking, I do not like surrealistic motion pictures that abandon a coherent narrative early on. Blood of a Poet was an exception. Personally, I was able to remain engaged and interested throughout the entire running time.

There are three reasons for this:
1) A relatively short running time (the entire film clocks in under 1 hour).
2) With no pretense of a narrative, the audience is free to focus on the images and therefore put the bulk of their efforts into interpreting the underlying meanings of that imagery.
3) The vivid imagery Cocteau has created is both memorable and symbolically meaningful.

Cocteau has created here the best example of cinema attempting to create filmed freestyle poetry. This is reflected not just in Cocteaus' stylistic choices and the short length, but in the lack of coherent narrative as well. Like many poems, this is not intended to be understood on a literal level, rather Cocteau is presenting the audience with a series of related images.

Blood of a Poet is known for its' homoerotic and gender bending scenes (Jean Cocteau was openly gay) but those images that struck me the most strongly were those with a strong feminist subtext. There is plenty of commentary going on here, with Cocteau offering up commentary on how hegemonic masculinity is dangerous for both men and woman.

Blood of a Poet is bookended with shots of an obviously phallic tower being demolished. We then move on to the artist himself, who gets upset when the female face that he's drawing starts to talk back to him. He tries to erase her mouth but the mouth ends up on his hand. Naturally, he has to make out with this creature. All I could think of during this were the lyrics by Pink, "It's just you and your hand tonight!" Art as masturbatory naval gazing indeed.

This is followed by a scene where the poet, after the hand is transferred to a nearby statue, follows the statues instructions and jumps into a mirror. Freud, with his "all human action is motivated by the desire to return to the womb" theory would have had fun interpreting this bit. Eventually of course, the poet is reborn in a memorable shot that is simply the scene of him entering the pool/mirror shown in reverse.
Then there is the shot of a female figure adorned with make up to make her look like a living sketch, a reflection presumably, of mans desire to draw women as he pleases.
Guns (another phallic symbol) of course feature prominently in several sections where a person is either shot or kills or attempts to kill themselves. These bits emphasize as well the destructive nature of unbridled machoism.

The climactic scene, where the poet/artist plays a card game in front of a royal audience where the stakes end up becoming quiet literally, a battle for his life. Here, the thematic subtexts are the broadest and include commentary on class, race, and the creative process itself.

Ernest Hemingway once wrote, "writing is easy, all you do is sit down in front of a typewriter and bleed." In the final scene of Blood of a Poet the sacrifices an artist must make are made perfectly clear when the poet/artist loses the card game and commits suicide. His death causes the bourgeois audience to clap politely. The image invokes the idea of the artist as a sacrificial offering to an audience that does not understand or care about what they are consuming. A fitting image indeed for this particular work.

For those who enjoy (or at least do not mind) surrealistic, non-narrative films, Blood of a Poet is worth seeking out. I would argue enduring bad poetry would be a reasonable price to pay, but this is not a film worth shedding any actual blood over.

The Rating
*** out of ****


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

October 16, 2012

Paragraph 175 (2000)

Okay, while doing research for my novel Silver Demon, somehow overlooked (until now) this powerful documentary on the NAZI's persecution of gay men during the Holocaust.

Fortunately, it's available for free online, so no point in me giving a review.

I will say that for those who can stomach the material, I highly recommend it.

Paragraph 175

October 12, 2012

Queer Review: The Color Purple (1985)

The Color Purple
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Menno Meyjes. Based upon the novel by Alice Walker.
Cast: Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover, Margaret Avery, Oprah Winfrey, Willard E. Pugh, Akosua Busia, Desreta Jackson, Adolph Caesar, Rae Dawn Chong, Dana Ivey, Susan Beaubian, Carl Anderson

Steven Spielbergs' first attempt at making a serious/adult film falls flat for a variety of reasons. While highlighting a handful of good to brilliant performances (Whoopi Goldberg, Margaret Avery, Oprah Winfrey) the screenplay unfortunately paints nearly every element, from characterization to tone, in the most melodramatic method imaginable. Worse the saphic relationship between Celia and Shug was drastically toned down from what was present in the book.

Celie Johnson (Whoopi Goldberg) is a poor black women in the deep south during the Jim Crow era. Her abusive husband, Albert (Danny Glover), causes her to be estranged from her sister Nettie Harris (Akosua Busia) and hides any letters Nettie sends to Celie. However, Celie finds some comfort in a relationship with Shug Avery (Margaret Avery) and the two form an intimate relationship.

The Queering
Steven Spielbergs' first major blockbuster (Jaws) succeeded mainly by not showing the monstrous shark early and often, but rather through glimpses and intimation. When dealing with a film about domestic violence, the technique of hide, don't show, is not so effective. We know that Celie is subjected to horrible abuses throughout her life. Her father rapes her and she has two children that she believes he killed. She is then later "given" (in a scene reminiscent of a slave being sold at auction) to her husband Albert, who treats her alternatively like a servant, a prostitute, and a punching bag.

However, we know this mostly thanks to the dialogue, we are only shown on screen glimpses and intimations of the horrors of Celies' life. Ultimately, I could not help but feel that rather than exposing the horrors of rape and domestic violence, Spielberg ends up romanticizing these things to a degree. I have no problems with a film showing a strong female character overcoming a horrific situation, but The Color Purple never really feels like it's doing this. Instead, I felt like I was watching an amateur boxer dancing clumsily around these issues but never really delivering the goods.

If one wishes to see a film that deals honestly with the issues of poverty, domestic violence, as well as ethnicity and race, I would highly recommend Once Were Warriors, as one example of a film that pulls no punches on these issues.

As for the lesbian relationship between Celie and Shug, it is made fairly explicit in one scene that these two are becoming intimate lovers. However, from what I understand (having never read the book by Alice Walker) that this relationship was much better developed and explored on the written page.

There is also a brief but rather strong subtext I noticed that developed between Albert and Shugs' husband. In the first scene where Shugs' husband shows up, the two men exchange meaningful glances. Soon they're having fun smashing smashing Easter eggs on each others foreheads. From what I understand, this is not typical of male bonding but in any case they're shown wandering off into a nearby field, arms around each others shoulders, presumably to have sex, er as a plot convenience to give Celie and Shug time to go through the house so that they could find the letters Nettie had sent to Celia that Albert had deliberately hidden (rather than say... burned).

Overall, The Color Purple suffers from an embarrassingly bad script, which paints using only strokes a mile wide and leaves no cliche unturned. Not only that but Spielberg, who is nominally one of the most technically accomplished directors in Hollywood, has created with The Color Purple his most technically incompetent film ever (at least of those I've seen). There are some nice transitions here and there, but overall, most of the early scenes are confusing, the cinematography is frequently uninspired, and family relationships between the minor characters are nearly impossible to figure out without a cheat sheet. Spielberg certainly is not helped though by the horribly schmaltzy and frequently inappropriate score by Quincy Jones.

The title of The Color Purple refers to the need of people (and things apparently) to be loved. While I did not hate Speilbergs' interpretation of Alice Walkers' novel, I can not say that I loved it either. This is yet another movie that is pretty much only for those with a strong interest in the history of queer cinema.

The Rating
** out of ****


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

October 9, 2012

Setting the Record Queer: The Isophyls of History

While doing research for my novel Silver Demon, I was going through Keith Stern's Queers in History and came across the entry for Gerald Heard, which mentioned his idea of isophyls. The term itself comes from the greek words "iso" and "phil" meaning "same" and "love" and is roughly the Greek equivalent of the Latin term "homosexual".

According to Heard, the isophyls are a secret society that has been the primary influence throughout history. He stated in a series of lectures to the ONE Institute that "in advanced societies, the isophyllic type, relieved of breeding is produced and so specialized as to run the elaborate organizations."

I must admit Heards' idea fascinates me, but is there any truth to this? Have LGBTQ individuals been the primary movers and shakers throughout civilization?

I don't intend to answer Heards' question directly, but a surface examination of the biggest names in history might make it appear so. Alexander the Great, Plato, Isaac Newton, Shakespeare, Abraham Lincoln, and Julius Caesar, all have historical evidence which points to them being likely isophyls.

Then there are lesser known individuals who have greatly influenced history in indirect ways.

It was Bayard Rustin who persuaded Martin Luther King to adopt non-violence and organised the infamous 1963 March on Washington during the African American civil rights movement. Rustin was openly gay.

George Joachim Rehticus was banned from Leipzig for 101 years after being accused of seducing a 17 year old boy. This did not stop him from promoting Copernicus' heliocentric model and thus helping to give birth to modern science.

Alan Turing is credited as being the father of modern computer science and his code breaking skills, specifically his creation of the Enigma code breaking machine, was instrumental in the defeat of the Axis powers. He was prosecuted for being in a same sex relationship and his punishment (chemical castration) most likely resulted in his suicide.

Furthermore, since Turing, many trans woman, such as Mary Ann Horton, Lynn Conway, Sophia Wilson, Audrey Tang, and Kate Craig Wood, have made significant contributions to the development of the world of computing.

Susan B. Anthony can be considered the founder of the Woman's Suffrage Movement and had passionate affairs with her co-activists.

Eleanore Roosevelt helped found the United Nations and chaired the committee that drafted the Universal Decleration of Human Rights. She also lived with journalist Lorena Hickok and the letters between the two have revealed that they were lovers.

In spite of all this, and the above examples are really just the tip of an iceberg, it feels a bit arrogant to suggest that one's own community is somehow responsible for every major civilized advancement ever. But there is a possible explanation that I would like to discuss here.

While we members of the gender and sexuality minority community have not always been prosecuted for our deviations form the norm, there are few times in history when such persecution did not take place. This means that many members of our community have been forced to endure the additional difficulties of navigating a world where we become outsiders in our own countries and homes.

No pain, no gain, or so the saying goes. Has the persecution we have faced as a community helped to strengthen some of our members or to inspire them to new heights of thinking?

It is no difficult task to find LGBTQ artists whose status as an outsider informed their creative output. But what of other fields, such as science, history, politics, or engineering? Could simply being queer actually provide an advantage in these areas as well?

I can recall reading as a youth in one of the novels in the Star Wars Expanded Universe, the story of Qwi Xux a gifted scientist who had been part of a group who had been recruited (technically enslaved and brainwashed) by the Grand Moff Tarkin into designing the Death Star and other weapons for the Empire. The relevant part for this article is her background, while she and her peers were enslaved, they were forced to study and work under extreme circumstances - if any of them failed, they were forced to watch their home village be destroyed before being executed. Qwi Xux was the only one of her peers to survive the training.

I bring this up because of the parallels to what might be the reason why a disproportionate number of gay, lesbian, bi, transgender/transsexual, intersex, and so on, individuals who have significantly changed history. Like Qwi Xux's fellow peers, too many have us have ended up dead, either by our own hands, by being subjected to direct violence, or allowed to die through lack of proper medical care as occurred during the AIDS crisis.

However, it does appear that there are those of us who have also managed to go on to become extraordinaire, to take their suffering and allow it to transform themselves into greater individuals. Perhaps it is time we adopted a new motto: "We're here! We're queer! And we built this world."

October 7, 2012

Queer Review: Personal Best (1982)

Personal Best
Director: Robert Towne
Writer: Robert Towne
Cast: Mariel Hemingway, Scott Glenn, Patrice Donnelly, Kenny Moore

A mediocre effort, Personal Best does little to distinguish itself from many other sports film outside of the fact that happens to focus on queer female athletes and a tendency to shun most of the cliches that accompany the sports film genre.

When Chris (Mariel Hemingway) comes in last at a track event, she attracts the attention of Tory (Patrice Donnelly) an older lesbian. The two eventually becomes lovers and after Tory persuades Coach Terry (Scott Glenn) to allow Chris on the team, Chris manages to convince Terry of her talent. However, while the track team is preparing to qualify for the Olympic games, Terry ends up favoring Chris over Terry and attempts to pit the two females against each other.

The Queering
There are many things I would like to applaud about Personal Best. For one, it deals openly and honestly with a lesbian relationship, even though it came out in the early 80's. Another is that the training/sports sequences are effectively presented and usually manage to generate some suspense. Furthermore, the focus on female athletes is also a welcome change for a genre that almost exclusively focuses on men.

I also felt there was a rather deliberate effort on the part of the filmmakers to avoid many of the more annoying cliches associated with sports films. Terry never gives a grand speech about how winning is everything and TEH GLORY FOREVERZ! The plot does not conclude with the "big game" - this is actually all about qualifying for an Olympics, that thanks to the possibility of a U.S. boycott, the athletes might not even be able to attend.

However, after the writers removed all of the melodrama, speeches, and underdogs who come from behind that usually accompany sports flicks, what you have left is, well, something too bland to even be called "vanilla". Personal Best is more appropriately likened to watered down, low fat vanilla.

After what I considered a promising start, Personal Best spends most of the middle section meandering through tepid melodrama, before redeeming itself with an ending that is at least more involving than most of the material proceeding it.

However, I think it is worth comparing Personal Best to it's male equivalents, either in terms of the sports genre or it's presentation of same sex love.

As far as sports dramas go, when most sports films with male characters would be going for 11, Personal Best goes for 1. There are times when I had to remind myself that these characters were Olympic class athletes, as they almost never seem all that interested in winning, or glory, or even in doing particularly well on a given day. Maybe the lack of motivational speeches is to blame, but neither the actors or the script really do much to sell the idea that these are professional athletes locked in non-contact combat.

I've been around enough athletes to know the kinds of pressures many of them face. There are rigid diets that must be adhered to. Strict training schedules that cannot be abandoned, even when one is not on the track. One does not simply lift a few weights, perform a couple of stretches, and then wash down an ice cream Sunday with a bit of Gatorade before showing up for practice or a big game. Compare the level of pressure these characters appear to be up against and compare that to what was on display in Black Swan which was about ballet, not training for the Olympics.

There are two possible explanations for this and the truth probably lies somewhere in between them. One is that the filmmakers believe female athletes are not as competitive as male athletes. This is not true as far as I know.

The second explanation is that the filmmakers decided that the content (LESBIAN ATHLETES WOO!) was juicy enough, and that trying to spice things up further would be like adding chili powder to jalapeno peppers. The blandness of the final product shows just how wrong that thinking was. Personal Best does however manage to avoid sinking to the level of Making Love, a film that was also released in 1982 and another example of where the filmmakers appear to come down with a case of, "well we got queer content, no need to do anything else to make this interesting, like actually bother writing a decent script".

Now as far as queer content itself goes, there is another element that differentiates Personal Best from it's male equivalents. Namely that there are way more shots of the nude female form then would ever be of male characters in a mainstream film - at least for the foreseeable future. Not that this is interesting in of itself, it just goes to further highlight the double standards that continue to exist in modern cinema.

While managing to avoid being a personal worst for anybody involved, Personal Best is anything but. Not to be avoided, but only worth seeking out for those with a strong interest in seeing lesbian characters on film, sports flicks about female athletes, or someone studying the history of queer cinema.

The Rating
**1/2 out of ****

TV Spot

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