From think-pieces

Queer Eye: mastering self-care and wrapping up political critique in a neat little bow

Queer Eye, despite its titular directness, is not about queer perspectives. If we were to time travel back to 2003, and if we were to speak of the original, campy, tolerance-seeking Fab Five, then perhaps the title would better describe the series’ contents. But it’s 2019. All that is produced within this culture of easy-to-binge television, with Netflix at the epicentre, is crafted within the context of a capitalist agenda. Thus when Queer Eye is criticised, which it certainly has been within the LGBTQ+ community, it tends to be for how it leans towards a rather marketable presentation of queer culture, one in which outsiders can dip their toes as they please, for its radicalism and queerness is softened to translate a movement hesitant straight audiences can root for and enjoy.

With series such as RuPaul’s Drag Race, there is certainly growing popularity of this new strand of reality television that simultaneously tempts a heterosexual audience while accessing and exhibiting queer culture. But where the original Fab Five were fighting for tolerance in a society where LGBTQ+ exposure was (and still is) limited, they represented just one version of gay masculinity, one that is now seen as performative and stereotypical; the “bitchy” gay with a quick-witted tongue who rolls off double entendres. Of course, it goes without saying that this personality is just one stereotypical version of gay masculinity, but it was a rather lonesome representation of queer culture in reality television. Perhaps this stereotype was easy for the mainstream to cling onto, and perhaps exposing this one version of gay masculinity generated the rhetoric often exchanged between straight women, who long for a stylish, complimentary and unthreatening ‘gay best friend’. Maybe that is being cynical. Of course, the original Queer Eye did represent a nascent enterprise of queer culture on television, and that is undoubtedly significant. However, although it does contribute to the still small queer reality tv canon, it is easy to see why many members of the LGBTQ+ community were not entirely thrilled at the announcement of its revival, even if the revival inadvertently promised to compete with its parent-show and right its wrongdoings.

Now, a year on from its regeneration and in a world that seems far removed from the political and social specificity of the naughties, Queer Eye exists with an entirely different cultural and political gravity, and this is largely due to how it is consumed. Its first episode voices the nature of this consumption; the new Fab Five, serving as a microcosm for the LGBTQ+ community, apparently no longer need to fight for tolerance but for acceptance, and therein lies an affectation that illuminates its update. Queer Eye now exists within and feeds upon the modern commodification of queer culture. It situates itself on the other side of historical oppression, where tolerance has supposedly been sought and queerness is no longer Other but marketable. Though the optimism of its intention, to shift from seeking tolerance to acceptance, is progressive, we as a culture are simply not there yet. In actuality, transgender persons are unable to fight in the U.S. army and only eighteen states ban conversion therapies on minors for sexual orientation and gender identification. These statistics are plucked from a vast scope of phobia and violence, and are, of course, specific to the United States. There are multiple and various systemic and social oppressions towards the LGBTQ+ community everywhere. You don’t need statistical evidence to see it or experience it.

Queer Eye’s productivity then is its focus on the trivial. If one was to shuffle up and select any of its episodes, it’s pretty safe to expect 45 minutes of beautification, and a gentle, albeit poignant, unpacking of the psychology and emotional baggage of a straight man while, as Laura Penny describes in her 2018 article The Queer Art of Failing Better,  ‘a handsome stranger teaches [him] how to make guacamole’. Queer Eye operates as a leisure activity that unifies a handsome gay man and his straight subject and audience. It is certainly charming television, and I think many of us would be lying if we said that we didn’t love watching Jonathan Van Ness whir around a helpless straight man, fixing his beard. However, it is equally easy to see how cautiously Queer Eye presents queer culture and its underlying political activism, and by the 45-minute mark, everything is wrapped up in a neat little bow.

There are particular moments throughout the series that render deep discomfort, and it’s due to the sanitisation of how the series itself is marketed. It seems that according to executives, a series that follows queer men cannot be popular if it is socially critical, and Queer Eye demonstrates this limitation. In her article, Laura Penny explores an instance in season 1 episode 3 “Dega Don’t” wherein Karamo Brown, as the only black member of the Fab Five, has a conversation with Cory, a police officer, about police brutality and its personal impact on his family. Karamo explains how his son is too frightened to apply for a driving license because of the high risk of violence, or fatality, for his skin colour. When following the motion of dialogue, one begins to see that there is a kind of balancing act, compositionally as Karamo and Cory are sat side-by-side, forward facing in a car pretending to ignore the dashboard camera, and rhetorically, as the balancing slowly seeps into the subject matter. There is an open-armed approach to the subject of police representation, and Cory describes his resentment for how he is seen as violent just because he is a cop, and this, as we are lead to believe, is an apparently comparable trauma to experiencing police brutality. After minutes of shared compassion, Karamo finishes on a ‘we just need to keep talking from both sides and see past our differences’ trope as an antidote to the conversation, and to systemic violence. It is a tense moment that ultimately leads to nothing. It is a balancing act between resisting critical commentary on a state institution and keeping the episode light-hearted. It is wrapping up critique in a neat little bow.

However, there are, of course, many moments that outweigh the like of which I’ve just described, interactions that are genuinely open-minded and capture a sentimentality and unity between straight and queer persons without compromising queer identity. In each episode, there is always a process of coming together, and it is always a far greater distance for the straight man to reach this ‘middle ground’, to a place of queer acceptance, where the Fab Five await, open-armed and cheering his arrival.

Perhaps it is because Queer Eye is so therapeutically positive that its moments of sanitisation and political glazing are evermore concerning. As mentioned before, if Karamo were to rightfully critique systemic racism within police institutions it would entirely shift the tone of the series. Then, perhaps Queer Eye, and more broadly reality television, is not the place for those conversations to be had. Yet if a series is centred around the spread of queer positivity and seeks tolerance and acceptance, and especially regarding how small the queer reality tv canon still is, it does carry a certain responsibility to acknowledge the relational status between its subject and its audience. In other words, queer reality tv is an easy access point to queer culture for straight audiences. But, as the queer television canon grows, beyond the genre of reality television and within, perhaps this will become less of a criticism directed to Queer Eye, for it will carry less responsibility to vocalise politics, because frankly, in amongst the violence regularly inflicted upon the LGBTQ+ community, and in spite of the appropriation of queer culture by faceless corporations, perhaps it is perfectly acceptable for there to be an apolitical space of self-care and makeovers. If Queer Eye is about anything, then, it is precisely that acceptance. If we are to overly criticise Queer Eye I think we actually divorce ourselves from reality, not via the escapism it generates out of its softness but through a cynicism of its absent politics. It is imperfect, but it is also reality tv. It flags a movement in the direction of far politically richer exposure for queer identities in the mainstream, and it’s certainly a wholesome start.

gazing outwardly from A Room With A View (1986)

James Ivory’s adaptation of E.M. Forster’s A Room With A View is divisively stylised with a satirical portrayal of aristocracy, and with notes of nostalgia for quaint Britishness. In 2019, it invites revision. Twice removed from its 1980’s production of Edwardian subject matter, ARWAV maintains a rather obscured position in the cultural imagination. It has, since its genesis, divided critics, as has heritage cinema generally, for its ascribed sordid, banal vision of rather enervating caricatures that depend on conservative nostalgia, and a longing for a time of sensibility and anti-progressivist values. It’s worth noting here that these views constitute that of those who are anti heritage cinema altogether, and deem ARWAV an example of such. Others suggest ARWAV is not a heritage film, but a product of transnational creative effort that sought to deconstruct class and sexual stereotypes across social boundaries. Much like recent period-erotica Yorgos Lanthimos’ 2018 The Favourite, ARWAV borders on a camp aesthetic in its embellishment and decorative priority, refined with its romantic centrality and its witticism, with its period representation as central to its irony. Of course, The Favourite is not heritage cinema, but I’d like to suggest that ARWAV isn’t either. That description, one charged with negative connotations, disservices ARWAV‘s complexly satirical portrayal of aristocrats and tourism, of romance and subjectivity.

It is one of many films that constitute 1980’s emergence of such nostalgic films, a movement we can largely attribute to Thatcher’s governance turning British creatives towards a reimagining and commodification of the past as their subject matter. With its success perhaps largely indebted to its popular cast of actors, ARWAV, if nothing else, upholds as a prototypic rom-com in its critical acclaim. However, I shall suggest it exhibits a far more sophisticated perspective altogether, one that assumes anti-heritage cinema in its portrayal of heritage filmmaking.

A Room With A View (1986) dir: James Ivory

ARWAV essentially follows a group of English tourists as they traverse rural and urban Italy, attempting to soak up its culture while remaining detached and voyeuristic. For Miss Lucy Honeychurch (Helena Bonham Carter), note the absurdly ‘English’ name, Italy personifies a repressed, passionate spirituality, a sensual and romantic freedom that is inhibited back in England. Britishness is far from an idyllic vacation in spatial and figurative measure. In their position as affluent tourists, the characters gaze upon Italy and project their own fantastical versions of its culture, carving out a utopian space upon which they are far more attuned to their emotional sensibilities and romantic intuition than social convention would usually allow. Of course, this creates a neat dichotomy in cinematic terms, the distinguished and opposing spaces and their distinct affectations. However, herein this separation lies a contention of which Ivory is entirely aware.

When paired with tourism, the act of gazing refines what we mean when we try to draw the parameters of what a tourist is and what they essentially do, and this complicated, problematic position. Gazing is a historically and culturally specific action that implies hierarchy and mobility. It is far more penetrative and active than seeing for this implication of power. Gazing, as active, contains a superior gazer and implies a less autonomous, more passive, subject. Take classical art for example, the masculine gazer and his feminine subject trace back to antiquity. This action can be applied to ARWAV, wherein gazing is exercised to satirical excess and generates the fluidity with which English characters orient Italy on an entirely separate plane to Italian inhabitants. Guided by selectivity, they construct a vision of Italy that either challenges or reinforces their touristic imagination, never slipping below the surface of whichever envisioned ‘Italy’ they desire.

A scene that evidences this constructed view is the stabbing in the square, wherein Lucy faints at the sight of a brawl-turned-stabbing, yet quickly returns to the side of the street, quite literally, to her position as tourist. Her safety is secured in a shaded spot, having acquired evidence of her preconception that Italians are passionately violent. This marks one of the only interactions, if one can even call witnessing an interaction, between Lucy and an Italian space. Of course, this moment is certainly obscured for how unlikely it is to witness a stabbing in the street in Florence, but nevertheless, in catching one moment of tragedy, violence is sewed into Lucy’s fabric of Italy. The rest of Lucy’s experiences, of course, are contained within the titular room from which she views, or in the haze of her memory upon returning to England.

A Room With A View (1986) dir: James Ivory

Though ARWAV demonstrates a love for highly aestheticised gentility, it undoubtedly suggests it is a privileged, inauthentic position to be a tourist. Touristic gazing renders an authentic experience impossible, and it seems that this does not matter for the aristocracy. The English tourists in ARWAV are bound to their position unless they expel their preconceptions of the terrain upon which they wander, in search of evidence for their own idealised, fabricated space: a romantic yet violent, exotic yet civilised Italy that pertains to a vision that they long to see. And this is not such an action they choose, for their preconceptions are rooted in a greater agenda within which Italy is a tool. For Eleanor Lavish (Judi Dench), Italy is the blueprint of her upcoming novel, thus her conceptions are of commercial benefit. Characters’ view of Italy is always, willingly, tethered to their preconceptions, every moment charged with a bias that is either confirmed or contradicted. All experiences are measured against a touristic vision they have imagined or hoped for. They are either disappointed or gratified with all that they see, and both assume a preexisting vision, a vision that is exercised through the act of gazing.

A Room With A View (1986) dir: James Ivory
A Room With A View (1986) dir: James Ivory

The act of touristic gazing extends beyond the narrative and into cinematic reception. We too, as critic Ellen Strain names us ‘armchair travellers’, imagine what we see rather than experience it, or at least the filmmakers imagine for us. In ARWAV, Italy is not just a mise en scène as a touristic metaphor, but it is, of course, literally a mise en scène. This complicates where exactly our sympathies are directed, as they seem tethered to the English tourists and their vision of Italy, though it is clear that we are not to take their vision as reality. Yet, of course, the film is glorious to look at it, with abundant cinematography of rural and urban Italy. One then asks, does ARWAV‘s indulgently, beautiful construction merely constitute nostalgic, romantic filmmaking or does it quietly reinforce the film’s premise, including the audience in the role of touristic gazer? I think the latter is far more interesting to consider, and it does not exclude the former. We, as audience, don’t see Italy. We see Italy on film. And perhaps this vision is comparable, if not entirely similar, to the characters’ own satirised and detached gaze, their position as the indulgently naive voyeur.

If ARWAV is heritage cinema, it would be far less self-critical. If heritage cinema longs for nostalgia and commodifies itself as an agent of a simpler past, then ARWAV presents its antithesis. It presents a stock characterisation of the past. It’s a cartoon, not a fresco. It’s a mockery of Edwardian aristocracy. It plays with absurdity and with the rapid love often seen in the novels of Forster and Austen, noted influencers of the heritage movement.

ARWAV is inappropriate and ridiculous, unreal and lavish. It is not heritage cinema, rather, a union of convention and critique that doesn’t for a moment take itself too seriously.

the dizzyingly grotesque fabric of mulholland drive (2001)

Mulholland Drive(2001) dir. David Lynch. (left) Laura Harring (right) Naomi Watts
Mulholland Drive (2001) dir. David Lynch.

 

Everything contained within David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001) seems ornamental and meticulously arranged, its creativity stylised with mystery at its core. Electricity whirs around every static object and every canned phrase, and its terrified audience is reminded that this is just a film, just a film, ‘just a tape’. As its narrative follows hopeful actress and amnesiac through fractured realities of Hollywood, Mulholland Drive becomes an apparition that progressively retracts further in on itself and away from its own construction of reality. And by the film’s end (also understood as its beginning), we arrive at its internal, twisted centre.

 

Though it presents a familiar devotion to insatiability and a fervency for neo-noir that characterises Lynch’s repertoire, Mulholland Drive is considered by some the apex of his career. Lynch rather consistently produces films which are distinctly hypnotic in their half-conscious, disorientating terrain, yet these qualities are especially refined in Mulholland Drive. Essentially, Mulholland Drive emphatically presents an exhibition of sacrifice that surpasses its precursors, a highly dramatised sacrifice of cinematic convention and narrative formula, made visible by its replacement with illogic, aesthetics and impulsion. Enervated and disturbed by this disorder, its audience uncovers something compellingly insidious that permeates and shapes the tangled, fatalistic lives of Betty/Diane (Naomi Watts) and Rita/Camilla (Laura Harring), though they aren’t ever certain to what exactly that something is.

 

Mulholland Drive (2001) dir. David Lynch. (left) Laura Harring (right) Naomi Watts
Mulholland Drive (2001) dir. David Lynch. (left) Naomi Watts (right) Laura Harring

 

It is both empty and overflowing, insufficient and intoxicating. Mulholland Drive illuminates an instability of perception, narratively and meta-cinematically, as its audience is pulled through a temporal and spatial kaleidoscope with unnerving rapidity. They are constantly tempted and perplexed; tempted by whatever is in that blue box, perplexed by the converging beginning and end, though both threads of speculation yield more unanswered questions.

 

it is a film,

it is grotesque,

it is abstract art

 

Theorising Mulholland Drive requires a process of abstraction. It is exhaustively unending, as affirmed by its cult following, to try and piece this film together in a way that mirrors our own conceptions of linearity and experience, and this is its ingenuity. Mulholland Drive doesn’t capture realism, rather it captures a perversion of realism and its uncharted spaces, along with its literal and continual assertion that it is a film, it is grotesque, it is abstract art.

Mulholland Drive experiments with technical and critical ideas of filmmaking, as Lynch dangles a narrative before his audience yet resists quenching their appetite for familiarity. He poses questions rather than answers, offers intrigue rather than information. Though to call this film a master of intrigue would inhibit its complexity, clamp its creative parameters. Rather, Mulholland Drive captures all that is excellent in filmmaking by honing in on its antithetical, darker ego. It robs its audience of security and linearity, it redefines how we consume film and generates a crowd of infiltrators who peer inside a private, perplexing game between Lynch and cinematic meaning.

 

Mulholland Drive (2001) dir. David Lynch
Mulholland Drive(2001) dir. David Lynch

the big lebowski (1998): the slacker and the spectator

Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski (1998)

Joel Coen’s The Big Lebowski (1998) exhibits an unusual strand of comic excellence. It’s part of the 90s emergence of film noir/ comedy, with Tony Scott’s True Romance (1993), Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994), and Coen’s own Fargo (1996) among its precursors. These films exist within a cinematic universe wherein criminality is distinguished with moments of high art cinematography and a consciousness of the spectacular, ridiculous nature of the fiction on screen. Where The Big Lebowski particularly succeeds is with its playful exaggeration, sensationalising its own hilarity with a nod to film noir and its own parodied version of its genre. Comedy definitely isn’t realism, though it often presents itself as such, with Jeff Bridge’s ‘The Dude’ as the ultimate, recognisable slacker.

“what are you talking about?”

It’s a question Jeff ‘The Dude’ Lebowski (Bridges) constantly asks Walter Sobochak (John Goodman), or whoever he is with, and one the audience asks too. With a consciously comic strategy, aligning a character’s confusion with the audience’s, Bridges’ character interacts with the audience in a way that is unusual in comedy. The Dude almost breaks the fourth wall yet doesn’t commit to such a generic convention. Rather, he speaks for us, not to us. Instead of looking out at his audience, reminding them of the often forgotten yet glaringly obvious aspect that they are watching a film, The Dude seems to acknowledge the film’s chaos in a way that obscures conventional comedy. He is more than a vehicle by which the comedy measures against his own reaction, and in turn, our own. The Big Lebowski‘s comic success acknowledges The Dude’s specific position as an outsider and spectator, visually and charismatically, as he peers inside a world of criminality.

Becoming more than the protagonist for his centrality to the plot, The Dude as a slacker is vital to the comic integrity of the film. Hilariously and famously underdressed in a robe and jelly sandals, the gag of the film is that Bridges’ character seems to deliberately embody someone who looks as though they’ve accidentally wandered onto the set of the film’s production.

Elements of accident and chance shape the film’s narrative and character arcs and add to the hilarity. With accident as its premise, the plot itself revolves around the hazardous confusion between Bridges’ character and another, far more affluent Jeff Lebowski. The Big Lebowski envisions a style of comedy that isn’t insular and self-contained, but one that flows off-screen with an unruliness that feels faultlessly improvised and hilariously unending and accidental.

This produced spontaneity is definitely not a criticism of the Coen brother’s expert story-writing, rather a seemingly impossible accomplishment within a genre of films that are so often garishly constructed and unbelievable.

The unbelievable aspect of The Big Lebowski isn’t the slacker and his spectatorship comedy, it’s the criminal world he completely juxtaposes yet finds himself inhabiting.

Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski (1998)
The Big Lebowski (1998)
John Goodman and Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski (1998)

american dream and nightmare: suburbia in film

 

‘Little boxes on the hillside,

Little boxes made of ticky-tacky,

Little boxes on the hillside,  

Little boxes all the same.

There’s a green one and a pink one

And a blue one and a yellow one,

And they’re all made out of ticky-tacky,

And they all look just the same.’

                                                                             – Malvina Reynolds, 1962

As pro-suburban policies were launched in conjunction with a national construction program of 1945, suburbs sprouted all over America and increased the attainability of the American Dream. Surviving from frontier to front-line, this ethos saw nuclear families in pastel neighbourhoods supplanting the horrors of war with their picket fences, Tupperware parties, and flowerbeds.

William Levitt, hailed as the ‘father of suburbia’, developed a scheme with his firm Levitt & Sons that allowed them to build mass-producible and inexpensive housing for the flood of returning veterans in America. In the three separate developments of New York (1947-51), Pennsylvania (1952-58) and New Jersey (1958), the firm offered small houses that could be built in just one day. Despite the modern approach to assembly, the homes themselves strayed little from the conventions of house design upheld by Americans at the time. The structures were revolutionary in their construction, but nostalgia was manifest in their appearance. Within the settings of the ‘Colonial’ or ‘Ranch’ type, the lives of nuclear families were aided and improved by efficient, hygienic and top-of-the-range appliances. Returning from the horrors of war, the veterans were awarded with domesticity.

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A neighbourhood of Jubilee models, Levittown, Pennsylvania, c. 1953

However, due to the standardisation of the Levittown houses, the homogeneity of the streets became a popular criticism. As Levitt sorted his residents by income, each house-type was grouped by neighbourhood, rendering swathes of streets indistinguishable. The long history of racial segregation further upturns this narrative of a suburban utopia. The development in New York was founded on the basis that it was only available to white people alone. Indeed, this stipulation was written into the house contracts by Levitt stating, ‘no dwelling shall be used or occupied except by members of the caucasian race’. Sales agents were advised to turn away black families and automatically register their applications as unsuccessful. Even after the states enforced a non-discrimination law, sales agents located the black applicants away from their white neighbours. The homogeneity of the residents is thus facilitated by this aim to constitute a community with a specific racial identity.

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The suburban landscape of Levittown, New York, c. 1952

The little boxes of American suburbia are some of film’s most frequented locations, its homogeneity frequently rendering the protagonist or narrative as extraordinary in comparison. In films that centre around a singular character, think Carrie, Donnie Darko and The Truman Show, the protagonists display their deviation within a stifling suburban setting.

In Carrie (1976) (dir: Brian de Palma), the title character faces unanticipated menstruation, peer-bullying, and abuse from her Christian fundamentalist mother. Carrie Whites’s telekinetic powers are the ultimate deviation from the claustrophobic household and school her mother and peers respectively enforce. Following Carrie’s murderous revenge and the burning down of her house, the final scene begins with an opening shot of suburbia. Birds sing and the sun casts shadows on a manicured lawn. The scorched plot where the White house once stood is set up as its inverse. This contrast serves as a reminder of suburbia’s nightmarish potentiality, one that is shown in the final scene, to still haunt the sole survivor of Carrie’s rage.

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Carrie (1976) (dir: Brian de Palma)

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Carrie (1976) (dir: Brian de Palma)

In Donnie Darko (2001) (dir: Richard Kelly), suburbia is first introduced as a landscape of mundane yet tranquil normality. In the opening scene, Darko cycles through the streets, the camera panning to the morning joggers. Darko’s father is shown blowing leaves off his lawn, and his sister plays on a trampoline. Immediately Darko is set up as the anomaly – an adolescent who frequents a psychotherapist, disturbs classes, and treats his family with hostility. Again the underside of suburbia is unleashed. The tranquility first introduced is done away with by the end of the film and instead suburbia is set as the home of supernatural powers, multiple universes and sexual deviants.

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Donnie Darko (2001) (dir: Richard Kelly)

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Donnie Darko (2001) (dir: Richard Kelly)

In The Truman Show (1998) (dir: Peter Weir), suburbia is a simulation. As a product of a corporation, the life of Truman Burbank is broadcasted live around the world as reality entertainment. Here suburbia is not intended to be residential. Instead, cameras are hidden within each wall and suburbia is presented as the ultimate facilitator of voyeurism. When Burbank realises the reality of his situation, this realisation marks his deviation from the suburbia. He becomes transgressive, determined and defiant, assets the suburban simulation attempted to suppress.

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The Truman Show (1998) (dir: Peter Weir)

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The Truman Show (1998) (dir: Peter Weir)

The placidity regularly assigned to suburbia is exploited in the genre of horror. Films like Halloween (1978) (dir: John Carpenter) set the horrific actions of Michael Myers within the sleepy streets of Haddonfield. Get Out (2017) (dir: Jordan Peele) subverts this in the setting of the Armitage country-estate. However, despite its isolation, the systematic racism and manicured appearance of the estate seem Levittownian in their presentation.

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Halloween (1978) (dir: John Carpenter)

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Get Out (2017) (dir: Jordan Peele)

American Beauty (1999) (dir: Sam Mendes) has been described by critics as a satire of middle-class notions of beauty, sexuality, materialism and personal satisfaction. In the opening monologue, Lester Burnham introduces his suburban place of residence with contempt:

‘This is my neighbourhood. This is my street. This is my life. I’m 42 years old. In less than a year, I’ll be dead … And in a way I’m dead already’.

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American Beauty (1999) (dir: Sam Mendes)

Films like Edward Scissorhands (1990) (dir: Tim Burton) and The Virgin Suicides (1999) (dir: Sofia Coppola) use suburbia to emphasise the abnormality of their central storyline. In the former, Edward’s behaviour, appearance and physicality are stark contrasts to the pastel utopia of the suburb. As the film progresses, his disruption to the homogeneity of the community ultimately results in his eviction by mob force. In the 1999 film, it is the suicide of the youngest daughter that disrupts – the setting of suburbia heightening the atypicality of her action.

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Edward Scissorhands (1990) (dir: Tim Burton)

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The Virgin Suicides (1999) (dir: Sofia Coppola)

For Levitt, suburbia offered security. In film, that veneer is firmly pulled back.

 

 

 

 

 

 

girls in uniform (1931) in review: connecting sexuality to anti-authoritarianism

After its initial ban, in the 1970s Weimar film Mädchen In Uniform (1931) (dir: Leontine Sagan) was rediscovered by feminist critics who categorised it as an early ‘coming out film’. The narrative follows: a Prussian, authoritarian regime in an all-girls school for families with aristocratic or military backgrounds becomes inhabited by Manuela (Hertha Thiele), the ‘new girl’, who becomes, much like her female peers, besotted with their governess, Fräulein von Bernburg (Dorothea Wieck). Although it is comic, exciting and entirely female in its cast, some critics condemned its reliance on tropes such as experimental sexuality, unserious homosexuality, demonstrating little more than sororal affection and silliness. The queer romance of the film is most clearly identified in the unique relationship Fräulein von Bernberg begins with Manuela, as they exchange kisses and Manuela is gifted a petticoat, much to the jealousy of the other girls. Though much of the film is stylised with great affection for their relationship, their romance is obscured by their dynamic: teacher and student, a relation that is (rightfully) no longer romanticised by critics but criticised as an imbalance of power and of exploitation. Furthermore, their romance isn’t always clear, as it is often interpreted as maternal affection. There is much to be said regarding how their relationship is framed within such an ambiguous dynamic, and how a similar ambiguity is manufactured in the context of the film at large: as a commentary on anti-authoritarianism.

Using an entirely female cast of teachers and students, Mädchen unusually offers a multifaceted spectrum of femininity, showing women as varied in behaviour, attitude, age and position in relation to each other. We can compare the physical affections between girls compared to the boundaries of teachers who act coldly and militantly in their severity. The young girls celebrate rising body culture: they laugh and enjoy the sex appeal of American film stars and romantic novels, popular culture and jazz. They stand for a pro-Western attitude, representing the young Weimar generation in progressive ideas. They unite to form an embodied celebration of affection and sexual openness, contrasting the context of the strict regime of their environment, and of course, critiquing the growing national socialism outside the film.

It’s important to note that romance between women became accepted in film before it became acceptable between men. However, this is not a feminist marvel. Unlike men’s homosexuality, women’s homosexuality was (and often still is) softened, or pardoned, for being sweet, sororal and unthreatening to anything serious. This clear homophobia and erasure of women’s homosexuality is also closely connected to the eroticised image of homosexual intimacy between women, seen in centuries of art and literature, even by the supposedly most prudish epochs (see Victorian writer Christina Rossetti’s suggestively lesbian poem Goblin Market).  It seems, culturally, that deconstructing the monument of heteronormativity is less imposing, less damaging when it concerns women. This lends itself to such deeply rooted misogyny in how queer relationships between women are viewed, as erased of their validity under the guise of playful experimentation, or women viewed as sexed, affectionate creatures by nature. It seems it is men who are most instrumental to the ideas and preservations of sexuality and heteronormativity. In this forgotten place, in their liminal position, women’s sexuality is minor and discounted. Mädchen in Uniform attempts to expand this liminal space using the tool of ambiguity and complex power dynamics. It complicates female homosexuality even further than it already is using various hierarchical structures: woman and girl, teacher and student. Thus, it is often unclear how celebratory of queerness and homosexuality this film actually is, and if it isn’t, what does it celebrate instead?

Mädchen thematises and emphasises the role of affection and solidarity in the face of an authoritarian institute. Above its romantic narrative, there is a very real tension between regime and action, how the girls behave to combat their environment and how they behave in order to cope with it, as these behaviours are often one and the same. Perhaps their affection and queer behaviour are portrayed as merely reactive to, or at least highlighted by, the oppressive authoritarian ideas that govern their school, as homophobia is usually rife in authoritarian states. 

Mädchen is anti-authoritarian, but perhaps it can be better defined as a critique of authoritarian practices. It articulates a very specific political tension between the right and left poles of thinking and action. The girls, as the title states, are in uniform, sharing a unanimous, unexpressive identity. This anti-progressive image contributes to other militant images that frequent the film. The school’s headmistress, Fräulein von Nordeck zur Nidden (Emilia Unda), is figured as representative of the older generation, and thereby held in tension with progressivism. Cast as the villain for her caricaturesque portrayal of Prussian, traditional values, Nidden is shot with expressionist shadows cast across her face, contrasting the lightness and clarity in which Manuela and the girls are filmed. This deliberate light vs dark imagery represents the new cinematic movement of New Objectivity, bidding farewell to expressionism as a mode of the past and for Mädchen, a symbol of anti-progressive values.

Some critics have disagreed that Mädchen is anti-authoritarian; it’s important to note that Mädchen’s producer Carl Froelich went on to produce Nazi propaganda films. Aside from this clearly problematic association, the film itself, irrespective of its crew, does create scepticism surrounding its presentation of anti-authoritarian ideas firsthand. By the end of the film, after some plot filler including a metatheatrical performance of romance Don Carlos and an attempted suicide, little has changed by the time we arrive at the credits. The school’s regime is still in practice even after Manuela tries to commit suicide by throwing herself down a stairwell, symbolic of hierarchy and mobility in itself. Equally, throughout the film, we are given a humanisation of Bernberg, a romanticised teacher complicit in an institute of authoritarianism.

If one is to take anything away from Mädchen, other than its comedy and its basic celebration of sexually liberated women in all their variety and queerness, it is to note that homophobia is a crucial aspect of fascism. Mädchen closely predates the epoch in which male homosexuality entered the rhetoric of national socialism’s ideas of ‘man’ and masculinity, and homophobia remains one of the most weaponised aspects of patriarchal, oppressive states today. But perhaps, As Richard W. McCormick has said, these anti-democratic forces’ “defeat in this film, however momentary, is one that should cheer us all”.

thelma & louise (1991): redemptive violence, femininity and queering masculine space

[contains spoilers, content warning: rape, sexual violence]

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This essay weaves together some of the cinematic elements that animate romance, dark comedy, redemptive violence, absurdity, feminism and queer space – tethering them to the centre of the compelling cinematic universe of Thelma & Louise (1991).

Callie Khouri’s screenplay

“I don’t remember ever feeling this awake”

In writing Thelma & Louise, Callie Khouri composed a 131-minute long love song for the screen, an ode to women and freedom, and in doing so earned herself the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Thelma & Louise has one of the most beautiful, quick-witted scripts to emerge from this genre, a genre that can only be seen to fit a loose definition of comedy, action, mystery, romance, in one marvellous, amorphous conflation. Below are some of the iconic quotes that evidence Khouri’s mastery at writing the female voice as an agent of the reworked crime/romance/comedy genre.

Louise: You’ve always been crazy, this is just the first chance you’ve had to express yourself.

Thelma: [with her gun to the state trooper’s head] I swear three days ago neither one of us would’ve EVER pulled a stunt like this, but if you’d ever meet my husband you’d understand why.

Thelma: You awake?

Louise: Guess you could call it that, my eyes are open.

Thelma: Me too. I feel awake!

Louise: Good.

Thelma: Wide awake. I don’t remember ever feeling this awake. You know what I mean? Everything looks different. You feel like that, too, like you got something to look forward to?

Louise: We’ll be drinking margaritas by the sea, mamacita.

Thelma: Hey, we could change our names.

Louise: We could live in a hacienda.

Thelma: I gonna get a job. I’m gonna work at Club Med.

Louise: Yeah. Now what kind of deal is that cop gonna have to come up with to beat that?

Thelma: Have to be pretty good.

Louise: Have to be pretty damn good.

fluorescent light motifs

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Borrowing from a Lynchian aesthetic, the fluorescent lights are emblematic of Edward Hopper paintings, of the illuminating metropolises of America at the height of mid-twentieth-century modernity. If Thelma & Louise is to writer Callie Khouri a love-song to women, to director Ridley Scott it is a romantic novel translated onto film, to simulate rain-speckled gas station signs and advertisements that glow neon from the highway.

feminising the road-trip

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Perhaps the reason Khouri writes such a vibrantly comic and erotic road-trip tale is that it is her reimagining of what is otherwise a historically masculine genre. To avoid any comparison to its masculine contemporaries and predecessors, Khouri reinvents the road trip film as an active site of femininity and romance mitigated with a plot of criminality. Even the initial crime itself is feminised, as an act of sexual violence against women, male-on-female. Thus the violent action throughout the film, all of which comes as a result of the male-on-female violence at the start, is the only remaining satellite that orbits the masculine genre at its core, and is feminised. Therein lies a kind of liberation in the betrayal of masculine convention. We don’t witness Thelma and Louise meet a historical expectation of weak feminine subaltern characters wrapped up in action, instead, there is inversion. Their friendship is eroticised, the men they meet are enemies for their abuse of power or their enforcement of the law, their violence is reactionary at first and evolves into comedy, influenced by that of which they’ve seen on TV. In all aspects, there is an inversion of the female role and of the action genre, and together, in the absence of men in a man’s universe, they find a space where femininity and action coexist in harmony.

“nobody’d believe us”

Louise: I think I fucked up. I think I got us in a situation where we both could get killed. Damn, I don’t know why I just didn’t go to the police right away.

Thelma: You know why. You already said.

Louise: What’d I say again?

Thelma: Nobody’d believe us. We’d still get in trouble, we’d still have our lives ruined. You know what else?

Louise: What?

Thelma: That guy was hurting me. If you hadn’t come out when you did, he would’ve hurt me a lot worse. And probably nothing would’ve happened to him ’cause everybody did see me dancin’ with him all night. They would’ve made out like I’d asked for it. My life would’ve been ruined a whole lot worse than it is now. At least now I’m havin’ some fun. And I’m not sorry that son of a bitch is dead. I’m just sorry it was you that did it and not me.

Rooted in the film’s feminism is a harrowing consciousness of rape culture and the judicial system’s treatment of rape victims. One of the first incidences we witness a self-awareness of Thelma’s otherwise naive characterisation is her acknowledgement of the reaction to those who claim to have been raped, upon reflecting her own close encounter with assault. The act of self-defence, Louise shooting the attacker, represents a process that is altogether contentious and perplexing according to judicial law: the grey areas of innocence, guilt, attack and defence. Thelma & Louise takes a social and feminist issue and turns it into something we as audience are subjected to stomach: the same consciousness of our own culture’s attitude to rape and sexual violence. Even after 27 years, little in attitude has changed. Beneath the fluorescent lights of the bar and the drinking and the comedy, there is a known reality. We don’t take Louise’s violence as we take a typical action film’s violence, as superficial entertainment, hypermasculinised, emphatic power assertions. We don’t view the violent act of shooting the attacker, preventing Thelma’s rape, as escapist mythology, but as a mode of survival. Thelma and Louise don’t experience the cinematic luxury of slinging a gun and outrunning the bad guys. They commit violence as a mere reaction to the violence inflicted upon them, ‘them’ as a symbol of women.

Louise: In the future, when a woman is crying like that, she isn’t having any fun.

violence as a vehicle of control, more pertinently, taking back control

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Thelma & Louise has been criticised by some for its abundant violence. Some have even stretched far enough to claim misandry. Troublingly so, these inconclusive critiques raise the question: is cinematic violence only ever permissible when it’s male-on-male, female-on-female, or worse, male-on-female? If so, does female-on-male violence have to be so outrageously untethered to a known reality in order to be permitted? If so, only the blood-spattered Uma Thurman armed with a Samurai sword in exoticised rural Japan is allowed. Apparently, female-on-male violence for cinematic and aesthetic entertainment can only exist if it promises to leave the U.S. and travel into the realm of the unbelievable in order to be unthreatening, in order to uphold the monuments of violence that are ‘normal’, or at least the ones we are used to seeing. It is probably worth remembering that the only man who is actually killed in Thelma & Louise is the sexual predator, in an act of self-defence, right at the beginning. God forbid there were actual spontaneous female-on-male killings, or perhaps our newly found sensitivity to violence would render us uncomfortable and upset. Any other kind of violence though? Sure. Grab a gun. Go crazy. When we enter the realm of the fictitious, of the cinematic, we should maybe debunk this sensitivity to violence that seems to only exist for female-on-male exclusively. Especially, in this case, when the violence is an act of self-defence. If even reactionary violence can be seen as ‘too violent’ or misandrous, then we are at a crossroads in which we must actually decipher what cinematic violence means regarding gender relations entirely.

Incidentally, not only is the violence compelling (here, I refer to the killing of the sexual predator thus it is definitely not misandrous but deserved), it is necessary. Our position as audience depends on it. It circumvents the structure of the story, it emancipates Thelma out of her subordinated life and it draws the women closer together. Without the crime spree, catalysed from the killing at the start, we would spend our viewing expecting the weekend to come to an end, as the credits roll and a far more bleak finale presented to Thelma and Louise: returning back home to their suffering, their normal.

In fact, in its necessity, violence becomes a vehicle of control. In a hyperbolic and feminised fashion, embellished with one-liners, the violence throughout keeps the plot in motion whilst garnering control for the women. In stark contrast to their occupations back home, a housewife and waitress respectively, once they unwittingly begin this spree of criminality and outrunning the law, they find an obscured sense of control within their own lives, a kind of redemption for the violence they have both endured as women.

it passes the Bechdel test

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I wouldn’t usually examine a film according to its Bechdel assessment. Bechdel tests can be rather unfortunately sobering and feel somewhat futile to discuss for their indication of cinema’s stagnant lack of gender representation, but here it seemed significant to mention. For a film that orients femininity through a narrative of criminality, we see the feminine space operate to cinematically and symbolically omit men: Thelma and Louise running away from male partners for the weekend, the killing of a sexual predator and the preoccupation of skirting the notably all-male law enforcement in their constituents. In constant motion, following Thelma and Louise on the run, we spectate their dialogues and their omission of men as subject (passing Bechdel) and we witness this omission in practice. Throughout the narrative formation itself, men are not subject, but object. Nearly always in the distance (excluding Brad Pitt’s thieving cowboy subplot), men are at a remove spatially and temporally; across another state, back home, in a helicopter or police station, in memory. From the lens of Thelma and Louise, whose perspective from which we are exclusively confined, we are given access to a meta-cinematic visualisation of passing and somewhat reframing the Bechdel test altogether. Our heroines certainly do have at least one conversation about something other than men, and they have at least one of these conversations in the 1966 Ford convertible as they drive on into the desert, far from the men who subjugate them.

the punctuative and concluding kiss

Arriving at the end of the film, where Thelma and Louise have been surrounded and the anticipated confrontation with the law is at our feet, we stand over the grand canyon. We are given more dialogue of how much both Thelma and Louise feel they have changed, their reluctance to go back home and their exchange of silent compassion. They implicitly agree to “drive on”, over the edge of the canyon, and in doing so, punctuate the film’s absolutely beautiful, necessary absence of men. Thelma and Louise’s tireless effort to escape the men who dominate their lives (domestically or even societally, ie, the law) inevitably draws them into each other. What is seen by many as the final piece of evidence for the film’s queer undertones, is concluded with a kiss before they drive off into the canyon, “to keep on going”. This ending has left its mark on cinema and routinely and referentially lives on in modern culture. I don’t think (mainly female or queer) audiences have ever been so thrilled and heartbroken and emotionally invested in a car flying into a ravine. Perhaps because of the love story framed with criminal excitement we experience this unusual sense of beauty in this mania and euphoria. It isn’t Tom Cruise jumping out of a helicopter, it’s our heroines turning their backs on mistreatment, injustice and unfulfillment. It is, in all its absurdity, the happiest, most beautiful resolution for Thelma and Louise, and for us their audience, as their faithful companions.

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