Without any conscious decision to do so, I ended up watching two movies this week that make an excellent pair: Beginners and Weekend. Both have a lot to say about repression, shame, sex, and families, but they do so with a generally light touch. Beginners is the more comic of the two films, though its real triumph is its balance of humor and heartbreak, while Weekend is more subdued — a little bit verité, a little bit mumblecore — and far less likely than Beginners to attract Oscar votes or general viewers, which is a shame, because it's better than almost everything that will be nominated for all the awards.
Beginners is writer-director Mike Mills's semi-autobiographical story of a father's last few years of life and a son's attempt to find a romantic relationship that will last more than just a little while. The father, played by Christopher Plummer, announces that, now that his wife of 40+ years has died, he feels able to admit openly that he is gay, and he is on the search for a boyfriend. It's not long, though, before he is diagnosed with terminal cancer, and the film moves back and forth in time between these last years and the life of his son, Ewan McGregor, in the aftermath of his father's death, when he inherits his telepathic dog (complete with subtitles) and starts a romance with a mysterious woman, Mélanie Laurent.
Weekend is much more focused in its timeline: it depicts a few days in the life of two British men who meet in a bar, drink a lot, spend the night together, and then have to figure out what next. The viewpoint character, Russell (Tom Cullen), lives a life surrounded by straight people, and though he is out to his best friends, his greatest desire is to have a "normal" life. The guy he brings home, Glen (Chris New), is much more radically queer, and one broken heart has bitterly soured him on the whole idea of romance. One of the primary narrative questions that creates suspense, character development, and catharsis is: Will Glen be able to get Russell to kiss him in public before Glen heads off to study in the U.S. for a few years? That the film makes this question essential, suspenseful, and emotionally powerful is just one tribute to its many virtues.
GLEN: The problem is no-one's gonna come and see it because ... it's about gay sex. So the gays'll only come 'cause they want a glimpse of a cock. And they'll be... And the straights won't come because, well, it's got nothing to do with their world. They'll go and see pictures of refugees or murder or rape, but gay sex? Fuck off.
RUSSELL: Fuck it. Doesn't matter, does it? I'd come.
GLEN: No you wouldn't.
RUSSELL: Yeah I would. [pause] Okay, maybe I wouldn't come.
The considerations of Series Q and queer theory heightened my interest in the ways the movies constructed their characters' identities, while the robocall reminded me of how violently determined some people are to regulate all of our identities.
Michael Warner cites "many of the basic impulses from which queer theory took its point of departure:"
a broadening of minority politics to question the framework of the sayable; attention to the hierarchies of respectability that saturate the world; movement across overlapping but widely disparate structures of violence and power in order to conjure a series of margins that have no identity core; an oddly melancholy utopianism; a speculative and prophetic stance outside politics—not to mention an ability to do much of that—through the play of its own style.These seem to me to be some of the impulses that energize these two films — and yet what is striking is how unmelodramatic it feels (even when the characters themselves are being melodramatic; we all have those moments). The styles at play in these films are many, but they are vehemently not campy or confrontational, not parodistic or anarchic or deconstructive. Beginners is certainly playful (cf. telepathic dog w/ subtitles) but its playfulness is standard (though entertaining) indie quirk -- it's one part Annie Hall, more than one part (500) Days of Summer, and no trace of The Living End.
And yet even though Beginners is perfectly at home as a low-budget Hollywood dramedy, it's also refreshingly queer in being sex-positive and shame-negative. The tortured, difficult relationship here is not the homosexual one, but the heterosexual one. McGregor's character of Oliver is certainly startled by his father's coming out, and struggles to be really comfortable around his father's boyfriend, Andy, but as he says later to Andy, his struggle is not with the homosexuality or even with the thought of his father as a sexual being, but with the sight of actual love when, in his own life, that is something he yearns for and lacks. Now, of course, we don't have to believe him -- maybe he says this because he doesn't want to be perceived as a homophobe -- but I do believe him. It makes sense to who Oliver is as McGregor portrays him.
Oliver's father's relationship with Andy is clearly contrasted with Oliver's own relationship with Anna. They very much enjoy each other's company, but they don't know what to do with that enjoyment, and Oliver's grief after his father's death continues to hold him back from any emotion beyond sadness. He fetishizes sadness. He gets into the cycle that every depressed person knows well, where the misery itself is strengthened by a feedback loop created by obsession with that misery.
Oliver's father could have wallowed in self-hatred for staying in a marriage for 44 years, but he doesn't, and he refuses to blame his wife for anything or to denigrate their relationship. It was what it was, and it provided him with comfort and a family and a stability that he probably could not have had otherwise. (Mills is smart enough to show us that Hal's perception of his marriage may be overly generous and even self-aggrandizing. If Oliver's mother had been the one to survive, she might have told the story quite differently.) He very matter-of-factly comes out, goes cruising, buys a personal ad, and gets a pretty good boyfriend. He's utterly pragmatic, too, and his relationship with Andy is an open one, which doesn't exactly thrill him, but Andy seems very good at giving Hal the sort of love he needs and desires. (I love how readily Andy dispenses with psychotherapizing: he fully admits he's seeking a replacement father-figure, and so what? We all have our fetishes.) The message to Oliver seems to be: Stop moping. You've got one life, so (as Tim Gunn would say) make it work.
The message Glen tries to give Russell in Weekend is similar — not make it work so much as fuck shame. (Oh, that would be a good bumpersticker!)
GLEN: You think talking about sex is dirty?
RUSSELL: You know what I mean. It's just I'm not sure if people wanna hear about the random sex life of strangers.
GLEN: You just don't want people hearing about your sex life.
RUSSELL: That's true.
GLEN: Imagine if everybody was just open about what they did, and then everything was normal.
RUSSELL: Yeah, but people are open.
GLEN: Are they?
RUSSELL: There's this guy in work today, I just sat there having my lunch, and he starts talking about how many fingers he can put up a girl's fanny.
GLEN: But was he gay?
GLEN: Well, there you go. [...] Gay people never talk about it in public, unless it's just cheap innuendo. I think it's 'cause they're ashamed.
RUSSELL: Maybe it's just they're a little bit embarrassed.
GLEN: Isn't that the same thing?
There's a lovely rhythm to it all that mixes both humor and sadness, as does the whole movie. This is. This was. Mills uses such sequences not only to give context and meaning to both Hal and Oliver's lives, but also to provide some quick histories of prejudice: what his mother had to struggle with as a Jew, and what his father struggled with as a homosexual.STILL BLACK AND WHITE AND COLOR PHOTOGRAPHS OF THE SUN, THE STARS, YOSEMITE, GEORGE W. BUSH FLASH BY: OLIVER (V.O.) This is 2003. This is what the sun looks like, and the stars, nature. This is the President. NOW PHOTOS OF THE SUN, STARS, NATURE, ETC. FROM 1955 FLASH BY: OLIVER V.O. And this is the sun in 1955, and the stars, and nature, and cars, and phones, and movies, and the President. These are what pets looked like. These are fireworks. This was smoking. PHOTOGRAPHS, CROPPED IN ON FACES FROM 1955, VERY FAST SEQUENCE OF PEOPLE KISSING: OLIVER (V.O.) (CONT'D) This is what it looked like when people kissed... FAST SEQUENCE OF FACES FORM 1955 LAUGHING: OLIVER (V.O.) (CONT'D) ...When they were happy... SEQUENCE OF FACES CRYING: OLIVER (V.O.) (CONT'D) ...When they were sad. FAST SEQUENCE OF MARRIAGE PHOTOS FROM 1955: OLIVER (V.O.) (CONT'D) My parents got married in 1955.
NOW A PHOTO OF A PUBLIC RESTROOM. OLIVER (V.O.) This is the only place my father could hide and have sex in the Fifties. NOW HISTORICAL FILM FOOTAGE OF GAY MEN BEING BUSTED BY THE VICE SQUAD IN THE 1950’S AND BEING LOADED INTO PATTY-WAGONS. OLIVER (V.O.) My father said if you got caught my the Vice Squad you could lose everything... This is everything. A RAPID-FIRE SEQUENCE OF FACES AND PEOPLE FROM 1950’S ADVERTISEMENTS - EVERYONE HAPPY AND ENJOYING THEIR CARS, FAMILIES, MEALS AND HAIR PRODUCTS. NOW A STILL PHOTOGRAPH OF A PSYCHIATRIST'S COUCH. OLIVER (V.O.) My father laid down on a couch like this and told the psychiatrist all his problems in 1955. The doctor told him that homosexuality was a mental illness, but it could be cured. AND THEN A MEDICAL MODEL OF A HUMAN BRAIN. OLIVER (V.O.) Not everyone got cured.
Which then cuts to this extraordinary shot:
...and then everything was normal...
I was particularly interested in Michael Warner's essay about the Q Series and queer studies because his book The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of a Queer Life is one that really struck a chord with me when I read it in grad school five or six years ago. Warner wrote (at least partly) in response to gay rights activists' pushes for military inclusion and marriage equality, which came to be the issues that attracted the most energy and resources among mainstream gay groups. It was a push toward normality, toward achieving an uncontroversial, even invisible, identity. It was an aspiration to be just like "everybody else".