Camilla Long Is Wrong About “Moonlight” 

I imagine that Camilla Long, film critic at The Times, is likely spending today licking the wounds she incurred after the thorough dragging she recieved on Twitter this weekend, following her callous, racist, and embarrassing review of the films Moonlight and Hidden Figures. And righftully so! Her review is easily one of the most absurd and offensive things I’ve come across in 2017 that wasn’t from the White House, and Long should be ashamed of herself, both as a person and a “critic.” In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I haven’t seen Hidden Figures yet, so I shall reserve my opinions on Long’s opinions on that film for another time. However, I did see Moonlight, and, aside from being particularly unsettled by the overt racism of Long’s piece, I also disgreed with her non-racist criticisms. She’s wrong about Moonlight. 

The most obvious offense in the piece is Long’s claim that Moonlight could not possibly be “relevant” to an audience she conceives of as mostly “straight, white, and middle class.” The immediate emotional response, of course, is “Fuck you.” The more measured and thoughtful response, though, is to point out just how dispicable this position is. Make make no mistake: this is a racist ideology, and Camilla Long is a racist for espousing it. This is the exact ideology against which last year’s #OscarsSoWhite campaign railed. This is the exact ideology that has left us with a preponderance of movies about white characters of all stripes, which are often lavished with critical praise despite the actual strengths of their merits (here’s looking at you, La La Land) and a disheartening shortage of equally varied depictions of people of color. That Long apparently considers “being relevant to white people” some sort of requiste for cinematic or artistic accomplishment only further articulates her own racism: such a perspective seems impossible to maintain outside of the lens of white supremacy. That is, Long’s big gripe with Moonlight is that, unlike practically every other movie ever made, it isn’t about affirming whiteness.

Of course, one might expect Long to deny that any such imbalace between the represenations of whites in film (especially Hollywood) and the representations of the rest of us even exists: she insists (so wrongly) that stories like Moonlight, which charts the experiences of Chiron, a gay, black man in Miami, at three different points in his life, have “been told countless times, against countless backdrops.” Both viewer experience and Long’s failure to offer any concrete examples belie this notion. 

Because she’s going out of her way to be racist, Long fabricates several demerits with which to accuse Moonlight. She thinks it is an “interesting disctinction” that Juan, the adult drug dealer who acts as a surrogate father figure for Chiron, keeping the boy safe from both bullies and his drug-addled mother, is middle class himself, and that he is “calm, appreciative, fully ‘woke’ dude living in beautiful interior-designed house,” and one can only assume that by “interesting distinction” she means that it is unlikely. Also confounding, for Long, is the willingness with which Juan’s girlfriend, Teresa, shares in the responsibility of looking after Chiron and welcoming him into their home. In both critiques what is made clear is that all Camilla Long knows of blackness is what she’s seen in the movies. Juan and his house are both for Long “too nice” because the only idea she has of a black man who sells drugs is that of one who maybe dresses like Juan, with his baggy clothes and his do-rags, but who possesses all of the anger, violence, hostility, and domestic squalor–the black criminal exterior–that Juan lacks. Long simply cannot reconcile her presuppositions with the images before her. Likewise, her dismay over Teresa’s kindess seems fueled by too many movies in which African American motherhood is at best pitied and at worst vilified (anything from The Color Puple (pitied) to Precious (vilified) to The Help (both)). The representations of black mothers who are both happy women and competent mothers are out there (even if Long hasn’t been exposed to them); however, Long’s views makes clear that these images are no where near as prevelant as their counterparts–even for a woman who makes her living reviewing films. 

Long seems to have missed entirely the point of Moonlight. She calls the picture the film paints of “the African American community’s attitude to gay sex” “one-note,” but the film itself harldy seems interested in representing the attitude of an entire demographic, of either the one-note or textured variety. Rather, it is a very specific tale about the very specific experience of a very specific boy–a specificity rarely afforded to stories about people like Chiron. This specificity is evidenced by the intimate closeness of the filming, which situates the viewer firmly in the world of the film (or should) and what Long calls its “single lines of agonised dialogue,” which is actually spare, striking, even poetic. But Long’s view of black Americans as all members of one ghetto or another again prevent her from seeing Moonlight correctly. Why must it be that the film articulates an African American attitude toward homosexuality and not, for instance, a working class attitude (for Long, the “ghetto”), or even a “heteronormative” attitude (which it certainly is)? Because Long can’t help but generalize blackness, and black people; therefore, she can only deduce generalities from black art. 

That she simply didn’t “get” the movie is evident in her other large criticism, which concerns the film’s fragmented storytelling technique, which Long confuses for meandering plotlessness but which is actually quite successful. The film is broken into three distinct parts. The first part features Chiron as a bullied youth who is taken under Juan’s wing. The second part features Chiron as a quiet, bullied teenager whose burgeoning homosexuality finds expression in a beachside encounter with his friend, Kevin, played against his mother’s harrowing descent into drug addition and his growing relationship with Juan and Teresa. In the film’s third part, Chiron is an adult, now a drug dealer himself, who somewhat spontaneously reconnects with Kevin after several years. 

It is this third part that draws the strongest connection between the film’s vignette form and its content. The flirtation between Chiron and Kevin when they meet as grown men is as endearing as it is weighted with the hesistency and subtlety their lives have taught them is necessary where their sexuality is concerned, and although the actors who play these characters at each stage of their lives bear little physical resemblance to one another, it is impossible to witness the tender touching that ends the film without remembering the violence that has preceeded it. Despite Juan’s apparent acceptance of Chiron’s homosexuality early in the film, the larger society in which he lives has left its mark on Chiron’s psyche. Once bullied for his small size and his gender performance, as an adult Chiron has transformed himself into a massive hulk of guy, appearing even more the drug dealer than Juan, which is enough to suggest an effort to dispense with his old reputation and victimization–that is, to emulate or even exaggerate the notions of masculinity and manhood which had formerly opppressed him (and in this way still do). Affirming this is his confession to Kevin that no one has touched him since that night on the beach. It’s quite obvious that Chiron has insulated himself against both the injustices of his past and the desires of his present; that he has quite literally built himself up as a fortress against them, or a dungeon to keep them in, and that it might be just as easy to continue this way. Just as easy, certainly more convenient, perhaps even safer. 

And yet, he doesn’t. Instead, he goes to visit Kevin. Instead, he lets Kevin touch him, lets himself be touched. Yes, these events are isolated from the events of the film’s first two parts–and those parts from each other–but it is precisely this isolation that drives home Moonlight’s overrarcing point, and one of its triumphs. Camilla Long may want movies that order life into a cohesive chronology that explains the end result, but Moonlight says no. Moonlight resists that. Its anti-narrative is disruptive, even combative, because it has to be: it is queer. This queerness disrupts the narrative structure, which is also necessary, for how to accurately and truthfully convey black and/or queer lives via a structure that oppressives and excludes them? 

Mostly–and perhaps most saddening–is that Long mistakes her racism and her inability to empathize with the black characters of Moonlight (and, I suspect, Hidden Figures) as a failure of the movie to be relevant. As such, she misses what is “universal” about Moonlight: at its core an immensely hopeful film, it says that our pasts don’t have to define us, that our experiences don’t have to be who we are, that we can go a different way. In light of her recent humiliation, such news should seem particularly relevant to Ms. Long.

The Nate Parker Problem

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Nate Parker is having a hard time. Although for the actor and filmmaker 2016 started off roaringly–in January, Fox Searchlight acquired his Nat Turner biopic, The Birth of a Nation, for an astounding $17.5 million after it screened at Sundance–by summer that roar, no less garrulous, revealed a marked tonal shift when we were reminded that as college a student back in 1999, Mr. Parker had been accused, though ultimately acquitted, of raping a classmate. (His friend and co-defendant, Jean McGianni Celestin, was convicted and sentenced to prison, but this conviction was later overturned. Mr. Parker and Mr. Celestin have, apparently, remained close over the intervening sixteen years: Mr. Celestin has a writing credit on The Birth of a Nation.) The discovery that their accuser committed suicide in 2012, coupled with Parker’s disastrous apology, in which he repeatedly evoked himself and presented that “painful moment” in his life as something that had happened mostly to him, only bolstered public calls for a boycott against Mr. Parker’s film, with popular writers like Roxane Gay vowing in The New York Times that she would not see it. Touted since Sundance as a definite front-runner for all manner of accolades this coming awards season, this praise was quickly replaced with speculation: would Mr. Parker’s troubled past hinder his chances for, particularly, Oscar glory? Would audiences be satisfied with the word of the court, which found Mr. Parker innocent of any wrongdoing? Would audiences, critics, and Academy voters be able to differentiate between Mr. Parker’s past and his present, his work and his art? Or would the bad press prove to be the proverbial nails in the coffin of Mr. Parker’s once-promising career?

Whether or not The Birth of a Nation will be embraced when it is formally released in October remains to be seen. In the meantime, things keep getting worse for Mr. Parker. This month, an interview the director gave with BET surfaced, in which Mr. Parker, among other things, laments the sorts of roles available for black male actors in Hollywood, noting that such performers are often required to perform in drag or play “men with questionable sexuality.” “To preserve the black man,” Mr. Parker is quoted as saying, “…you will never see me take a gay role.” The internet is still grappling with this: Ms. Gay notes that Mr. Parker’s comments “read as homophobia,” and Goldie Taylor, writing for The Daily Beastthough she plans to see the movie anyway, as well finds Mr. Parker’s comments distasteful. Ebony.com’s Michael Arceneaux was less forgiving, declaring, “He’s never getting a dollar of mine again.”

All press is good press, perhaps, and while Mr. Parker’s repeated public bunglings might not speak to the merit of his work, they do speak, I think, to the content of his character, and what seems very clear is that Mr. Parker is a misogynist. Because he was acquitted of those rape charges in 2001 it’s not fair to call him rapist, but his public attitude regarding that “painful moment” — as Gay notes, “The solipsism is staggering” — and his blatantly homo- and femme-phobic comments reveal the internalized chauvinism he mistakes for masculinity and the propagation of harmful systems of oppression he mistakes for a “legacy.”

Mr. Parker’s observation that black actors, especially black male comedians, are routinely given roles in which they have to perform as women is not inaccurate. The list of black actors and comedians who have performed in drag is long and includes, to name but a few, Eddie Murphy, Wesley Snipes, Martin Lawrence, Jamie Foxx, Ving Rhames, Arsenio Hall, the Wayans Brothers, and Tracy Morgan. Keenan Thompson routinely portrays women on SNL, just as Flip Wilson, in the 1970s, regularly donned a dress on his own television show, and Tyler Perry has built an entire career (and amassed a considerable fortune) upon pretending to be a woman

Mr. Parker is certainly not the first to comment on the phenomena. In 2006, Dave Chappelle famously discussed the issue with Oprah Winfrey, recounting a story in which he “took a stand” against producers who wanted to put him in a dress for a Martin Lawrence picture. The following year, director John Singleton griped to Black Star News, “I’m tired of all these black men in dresses,” and wondered why no one was organizing protests against the tradition. It’s a frequent enough occurrence to bear discussion, and the emasculation of black men as a tool of continued oppression is not without its theoretical merits: the condition of the black American male as he navigates a society bent on his destruction, and the tactics, both subtle and overt, upon which that society might rely, always bear consideration. Nevertheless, the argument that images of black men in drag or portrayals of black men who are not necessarily heterosexual are somehow detrimental to, as Mr. Parker would have it, the preservation of the black man is both disparaging and reprehensible, and that too bears discussion. Aside from suggesting that there’s something shameful or grotesque about femininity (his self-pitying recollection of those rape allegations drip with this same, thinly veiled misogyny), it’s a deplorable act of erasure and exclusion, attempting the removal of gay black men from the equation–as if their homosexuality somehow cancels out their blackness.

If it seems like I am here conflating homosexuality with cross-dressing or drag, it’s only because Mr. Parker’s comments conflate the two. While he expresses, explicitly, an unwillingness to play gay, the roles he offers as examples–Martin Lawrence’s Big Momma in Big Momma’s House and Mr. Perry’s multiple Madea movies–are hardly gay roles. These characters aren’t even of dubious sexuality: Mr. Lawrence’s Malcolm Turner is a straight cop who only puts on a dress because he needs to go undercover, while Madea, matriarch to an ever-revolving band of relatives, is an ostensibly heterosexual (and apparently progenitive) woman. (Indeed, Mr. Parker’s attribution of homosexual subscript to the Madea films is laughable, when one considers Mr. Perry’s consistently flawed perception of black homosexuality, wherein same-sex desire necessarily leads to disease and the destruction of family.) Mr. Parker, lacking the depth to see things like sexuality and gender as textured issues requiring textured terminology, uses these terms interchangeably, a collusion as offensive as his insistence that queer roles would be contrary to “material that I can be proud of, that my kids can watch, that my grandmother can watch.” This view upholds a rhetoric that frames homosexuality as somehow crude, distasteful, or otherwise inappropriate for the family. (And let’s not even talk about the hypocrisy this point of view betrays, considering Mr. Parker’s drunken college three-way–as if there’s nothing even a little gay about running a train on a girl with your bestie.)

It’s evident that Mr. Parker’s version of black masculinity, with its obvious macho underpinnings, is one that considers homosexuality as not only deviant but obscene, and likely fails to recognize the boundaries of sexual consent. That he cops to these notions under the guise of faux black empowerment and concern for the black community only is equally discouraging, as his positions, far from advancing any cause of liberation, in fact encourage further animosity within the larger black community and strengthen divisions between marginalized groups, which only benefits the status quo. In a time when Hollywood has been confronted with its own diversity issues and has vowed to work to address those issues, it’s disheartening — and perhaps a bit terrifying — that someone with Mr. Parker’s insidious message might become the beneficiary of that change.

 

The Black, Queer Poetics of “Make My Bussy Jump!”

It opens, this slim volume of poetry, in my opinion one of the most important American collections so far this century, with a poem called Nudity: 

“He saw my scars and/kissed them until/I saw them/anew/Fingerprinting all over me.”

At first, one balks at the familiarity, at the cliché, even, of the metaphor evoked by the poem’s central image: those lover-kissed scars made “anew.” Yet when one considers the historical relevance of scars to the black, queer, American body, with which these poems are unfailingly, and self-purportedly, concerned (the book is subtitled “Black Gay Erotic Poetry” and is formally dedicated to “Black men who enjoy sex with Black men”), the metaphor opens up. One thinks of actual scars. One thinks of Anthony Gooden, Jr., and Marquez Tolbert, two gay black lovers who, in Georgia, in March of this year, had boiling water poured on them while they slept side by side. One thinks of Jimmy Garza and Ramiro Serrata, who lured a gay black man to their home and then beat him nearly to death with all manner of household implements — frying pans and broomsticks, a coffee mug and a sock filled with batteries — before sodomizing him with a mop handle. One thinks, too, of course, of metaphorical scars, those left on the gay psyche by a culture that consistently denigrates and punishes and misrepresents, inscribing upon it a diminished self-vision. At the poem’s turn—”He…kissed them until/I saw them/anew”—this vision is altered, revitalized. That a kiss, at least commonly an expression of love, facilitates this revitalization clarifies the poem’s larger conceit: physical intimacy between gay men, the very act of gay sex/love, has reparative potential. Further: If this new vision is a response to the lover’s gaze, isn’t it true to say that it is the nudity, the simple act of disrobing suggested by the title, which makes the lover’s gaze possible in the first place? Before they can be kissed the scars must be revealed. It’s but a small leap, then, to conclude that the body itself — in this case, explicitly the black, queer body — is progenitor of all these things.   When that body is routinely the target of violent, bias-motivated crime—when the act of gay love is so punishable—the poem teems with vitality. That is the power and the wonder of this and all of these poems.

The book, completely astonishing, is Make My Bussy Jump! by Edwin Brown III, who writes and performs under the moniker edwinsblackmagic. Magic, indeed: these poems, frank and confessional, at turns romantic and crude, are remarkable both for the winky formality of their structure and their searing, unique point of view. These poems tear at the scrim that obscures the queer black body from the status quo, offering a literature of queer desire that’s candid, unapologetically raw, and unwaveringly committed to carving out a poetics for—as much as a poetics of—black (male) queer sexuality.

Appropriate to their politicized subject matter, these often gritty poems are unsparingly graphic in their portrayal of the body—though never exactly gratuitous. Take, for instance, the poem Gush, which discusses the sonic experience of anal sex: “But fr/It’s the sound it make/That I love the most/That boy fart and squirt/And moan and shake.” Uninterested in tidying up for guests, these poems continually bare themselves for the reader, exposing some of the finer aspects of gay sex, no matter how potentially alienating. “I stick him again,” the poem continues, “and again that butt quake/He just so gushy.” These images are presented with such apparent sincerity its hard to imagine the author possessing anything as pedestrian as the will to shock. Indeed: shock seems terribly beyond the point. Rather, intimacy and familiarization seem to be the goal. Gushy achieves that intimacy through its conversant quality of address, like a story between friends.

This technique is employed to similar effect elsewhere in book, such as in the poem When You Got The Juice, which opens with this query: “Am I the only bitch/that like to look at her hole/after the nigga handled it?” Although there’s a sense in which the question feels rhetorical, familiarity is nevertheless suggested by the narrator’s identification as “bitch” and “her,” a common colloquial tactic among some groups of otherwise cis gendered gay men. When deployed in real life, this apparent misdistribution of pronouns, far from denigrating, actually suggests familiarity, even affection, as it does in this poem—a familiarity likewise indicated, for instance, by the use of “handled” as a euphemism for sex. The abundance of vernacular and other non-institutionally sanctioned language both squares the poetic aim proposed in the book’s dedication and, combined with its blatancy, furthers the book’s frank, not quite anthropological tone. In an era obsessed with full-disclosure, the many divulgences of Make My Bussy Jump!, which may veer quickly into T.M.I. territory for some readers, are both timely and original.

It is not, however, only their rampant revelations that make these poems remarkable. Its evocations of queer black sexuality and discussions of the queer black body reveal the book’s concurrent obsession with queer black identity, marginally represented in literature but here educed again and again. According to Make My Bussy Jump!, a defining feature of this identity is its almost elastic fluidity, its resistance toward categorization, evidenced by its habit of wavering, undecidedly, between supposed binaries such as top and bottom, active and passive—even male and female, as we see in When You Got The Juice. In the title, “bussy,” a portmanteau of “pussy” (as slang for vagina) and “butt” (or “boi,” depending on your source), has an assumptive relationship to “bottoming,” or taking the passive role in homosexual penetrative sex. The word crops up a number of times in the book, in poems like Size-Queen and Good Bussy, and other poems, like “Where You Want Me To Cum?” and Sucking Dick & Eating Cheetos, make explicit the delectation the narrator finds in assuming that position. Finally, in Pornstar Status, the narrator somewhat edaciously claims the sexual inclination as part of his own identity, proclaiming himself “a real bottom/ten times over.” And yet, the poems aren’t always extolling the pleasures of bottoming. Gush, for instance, revels in taking the active role, and in Jamaican Alter-Ego the narrator promises, “Inna yuh belly mi gwan.” Versatility—an ambulation between these distinctions (often taken as markers of identity amongst gay men) rather than a strict and unfaltering inclination either way—seems to be the order of the house.

Importantly, this ambulation is never strictly sexual. Gender performance as well becomes a site of dual identification: Some poems suggest an identification with images of black female empowerment embodied on television by Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope in the series Scandal, and in real life by Beyoncé; conversely, in the series of Catcalling poems that come late in the collection, a performance of black queerness becomes practically indistinguishable from typical notions of a certain brand of straight masculinity identified by the title. This ambulation between the masculine and the feminine proves itself a destabilizing force in Catcalling 2, in which the male body (implicitly the straight male body), under a queer male gaze, and contrary to the typical literary arrangement, becomes itself an object of scrutiny and sexualization. The poem’s concluding assurance, “Thug life over here too my nigga/shiiiit,” distances the relevance of sexuality from expected gender performance—or even extracts it all together. One can be both queer and a thug, according to the poem. That the narrator delivers this line while showily grabbing his crotch—a gesture of assertive masculinity made iconic in the 1990s, when hip hop moved to the foreground of popular music—only furthers the message here.

A graduate of Howard University, edwinsblackmagic is not ignorant of his poetic ancestors. Though he makes something new, he is nevertheless working within a poetic tradition, and consciously so: Many of these poems share the cadence and music of the work of celebrated black American poets like Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen, especially when they are more concerned with affirming blackness, such as the poem # notes, with its refrain of “Black man you are beautiful/Hey/Black man you are beautiful.” Additionally, in much the same way that Hughes and other Harlem Renaissance poets were influenced by jazz, Make My Bussy Jump! is influenced by hip hop: The meter and rhyme scheme of some of these poems, the bombast and braggadocio of others, simply beg to be rapped. Like Nicki Minaj with her vivid pro-sex rhymes and Beyoncé with her swag-portending hot sauce always on deck, edwinsblackmagic poeticizes freshly about gay sex while smoking weed and munching on Flaming Hot Cheetos.

The influence of the Black Arts Movement and poets like Amiri Baraka and Nikki Giovanni ripple in the collection’s use of slang and vernacular and its concern with social issues facing all black lives. Queer, perhaps, but black and male nevertheless, and as such, imprisonment is a very real threat in some of these poems, such as Good Bussy, in which the poet jokingly imagines himself on Death Row, “framed/for homicide,” contemplating his last meal.

Not all of these poems come off. The series of numbered “conversations” are too sentimental and too many, and a few poems seem to retread ground the book has already covered. Nevertheless, the book never falters in its exactness of its vision. Its messages never lose their immediacy. Make My Bussy Jump! proves itself a living, vital document, gloriously ostentatious, taking for granted that the world is large enough to receive its black, flaming contribution to literature. One only hopes the world is ready.

 

 

 

On “Looking: The Movie”

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One should start, to get it out of the way, by saying that Looking: The Movie, which premiered on HBO earlier this summer, is exceptionally bad. Not bad as in “bad but fun,” or bad as in “bad but entertaining,” but bad as in “resolutely terrible.” This should come as no surprise, however: When the series, for which this telemovie is meant as a final chapter, debuted in 2014, it was met with a decidedly nasty response from audiences and critics alike, both of whom found of its storylines trite and its characters vapid and unexamined. One particularly excoriating review, by J. Bryan Lowder writing for Slate, called Looking “an almost unbearably boring television show,” “utterly flat in terms of narrative and characterization,” and likened it to “a lightly dramatized version of a press release originally meant for straight people.” The made-for-TV capstone, unfortunately, suffers from the same malaise as the series proper, managing an excruciating drabness that is the television equivalent of a cold bowl of Cream of Wheat.

Worse than the film’s confounding badness, however, is its insidious brand of respectability politics. In the series, these politics were embedded within an aesthetic interest in subtlety and uneventful simplicity–what Lowder called a “‘post-gay,’ nothing-unique-going-on-here ethos.” This ethos, meant to emphasize the normalcy of gay lives by showing gay people doing regular things, is back again, and accomplishes in the movie what it accomplished in the series: In its zeal to present gay lives as lives essentially unlike any other, it necessarily directs the movie not at the community it purports to represent but, rather, the status quo– for certainly gay men already know that in a quotidian sense they are “just like everyone else.” Yet the ethics at play in the movie are significantly more blatant and slightly more corrupt than they ever were, or seemed to be, in the series, and the movie works overtime to glorify traditional performances of masculinity among gay men, marginalize those who fail to comply, and vehemently reject thought that challenges the mainstream.

The film opens with Patrick Murray (played with a rankling bafflement by the Broadway actor Jonathan Groff) returning to San Francisco because his good friend Agustín (Frankie J. Alvarez, whose method of acting is gratingly over-reactive and self-aware) is getting married. Patrick has been living in Denver for the ostensible nine month interval between the end of season two and the beginning of the movie, having fled there after ending an ill-advised affair with his wealthy, not-quite-single boss and suffering an equally disastrous relationship with Richie, the charming, perpetually furrow-browed barber he met by chance. Patrick’s exile was a classic attempt at a new beginning, a self-reinvention, even, and we’re led to believe it worked: The Patrick who returns to San Francisco is markedly different from the one who left.

Looking can’t be bothered with anything as grueling as character development, so there’s nothing about Patrick, at least outwardly, that suggests this reinvention. Thank God the other characters are on hand to point out his many changes. We learn that the typically punctual Patrick has started running late because Agustín points it out it in the opening scenes, when Patrick meets he and Dom after arriving in town. Later, after Patrick hooks up with some twink he meets in a bar, Dom comments on his newfound sexual confidence. “You look different,” someone else tells Patrick, at another point in the film. “I’ve lost a little weight,” Patrick explains with shy confidence.

Within the diegesis, all of these changes are presented as positive: Patrick isn’t as uptight as he once was; he’s loosened up; he’s started taking care of himself. In short, he’s doing better. Telling, then, that one of the first of such observations his friends make is how “masculine” he’s gotten. It’s a small, quick line, forgettably mumbled by Dom (played by Murray Bartlett, capable but underused in the film), but its early occurrence situates it as the foundation upon which all the subsequent superlatives are built. That is, Patrick’s supposed masculinity becomes a primary characterization of his transformation. He even admits, at one point, that he has a much greater sense of self-worth than he used to, and it’s more than suggested that that self-worth is due at least in part to his noted progression from effeminacy to masculinity. As if to be effeminate is to be mired in self-loathing and a few extra pounds. There’s a dangerous femmephobia underpinning this narrative of self improvement, and it pricks sharply.

This femmephobia rears its head elsewhere, too, especially regarding Brady, who is Richie’s new boyfriend and the only character in the movie that can at all be described as “femme.” Though he dresses in male clothing, his comportment is decidedly effeminate: He’s all flailing wrists, dramatic gestures, and emotional public outbursts. That there’s something cruelly stereotypical about the character barely registers, as his presence is such a welcome contrast to the rest of the cast, largely populated by the sort of gay men who might describe themselves, had they Grindr accounts, as “straight-acting.” Brady offers a bit of balance against this strange and suspiciously cis gendered, apolitical group of gay men, at first in terms of his gender performance and then, later, when he becomes a voice of (however minor) political dissent, questioning the semiotics of Agustín’s and Eddie’s “big gay wedding,” wondering if it indicates “how dull we’ve all become,” and proceeding to rail drunkenly against conformity and normalcy-chasing in queer communities (at the reception, no less, because he gives zero fucks). Here, the film squanders a perfectly good opportunity to have an actual conversation about the necessary intersection of politics and gay lives and offer a textured portrait of gay male thought, instead giving Brady an argument vague and depthless enough to be easily silenced by Patrick’s flimsy, “Yeah, but can I live?” rebuttal. It’s telling that Brady, at one point described by another character as the physical embodiment of “a blog no one reads,” yet also the film’s sole representative of a gay politics that might be skeptical of heterosexual institutions like marriage  and traditional gender performance, is not taken seriously, either by the characters or the film itself. Instead, he’s treated as an aggressor and becomes nothing more than an emotional, maniacal (one wants to say “hysterical”), queen, ranting about how to be gay and making a scene on what’s supposed to be a happy occasion. Emerging as the closest thing this snore-fest has to a villain, Brady is both flaming and totalitarian.

Yet merely humiliating Brady is not enough for the movie: He must be punished further. Fittingly, at the film’s tidy conclusion, Richie–played, importantly, as every gay man’s straight-acting dreamboat, the ultimate prize, by Raúl Castillo–leaves Brady and returns to Patrick’s side. When Brady stumbles off after his spat with Patrick, we never see nor hear from him again. Not a villain after all; rather, a sounding board against which Patrick asserts his right to conform. As a result, the dual morals of Looking: The Movie seem clear: 1) that femme characters, and by extension femme lives, are at worst disposable and at best a means to an end, and 2) discordance will be met with disavowal and banishment. The urge among some gay men to penalize other gay men who don’t adhere to some movement-approved, ostensibly mainstream idea of homosexuality, either through their being or their politics, is an icky residual misogyny, and it’s a shame that Looking: The Movie laps it up like mother’s milk. As one of the very few filmic representations of gay lives available through a major outlet, it has a responsibility to do better.

suicide squad is awful as you’ve heard it is

suicide squad is as awful as you’ve heard it is.

the plot is sloppy and haphazard, clunking along pointlessly as moments of insufferably corny dialogue are plunked between sequences of lack-luster action. the art direction is not so bad–the joker’s (jared leto) green slick-back was really giving me ideas for fall, but harley quinn’s (margot robbie) daisy dukes and skin-tight tee, “daddy’s lil’ monster” scrawled across the breast, seemed like a cheap excuse to sex up a woman who is probably sexy in sweatpants. (the actress herself, in conversation with the new york times, expresses some ambivalence about the hot pants, but concedes that they are part of the character’s “iconography.”) of course, i’d have put her in the red and black jester’s costume she wore in the animated series, and which the movie tease us with early on–but that’s just me.

suicide squad introduces us to its titular anti-heroes by on-screen text that gives their names, neé and aka, and what they can do. as high-ranking government official amanda waller (played well but without investment by her majesty viola davis) walks national security advisors through a binder containing information on the top-secret task force she’s assembled, comprised of the worst criminals in the world, we meet our primary players. there’s deadshot, played by will smith, a sniper assassin who has never missed a shot. there’s diablo, a former cholo gangster who can spew fire from his hands, and captain boomerang, who throws boomerangs and hits on widows, and killer croc, a man who looks like a crocodile. (there are probably more characters but i’ve forgotten about them because, like the film itself, they’re forgettable.)

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in any case, waller has some hair-brained scheme to control these criminals by implanting exploding chips into their heart which she can detonate if they step out of line. to lead them she appoints captain rick flagg (an absolutely delicious joel kinnaman). there’s no immediate reason: waller has some speech about how the next world war will be fought by metahumans and the united states might as well be prepared. no sooner, of course, does she assemble this rag-tag group than one of them–an archaeologist possessed by a powerful witch known as the enchantress–escapes her control and begins wreaking havoc on someplace called mid city. send in task force x, who, inexplicably, are sent in to rescue waller and defeat the enchantress. none of it really makes any sense. the enchantress is building a machine to take over the world, but all this machine seems to do is turn ordinary people into shellacked minion soldiers under her control. one wonders why a sorceress so powerful–one who can make people see things that aren’t there, teleport, do basically whatever she wants–would go to all that trouble when she might just as easily cast a spell for world domination.

but no matter. there’s money to be made here, clearly. the show, no matter how tacked together, must go on.

a hungry margot robbie gives it her all but either it’s not enough or there’s not enough to give it to, or both. i was not at all impressed with her partially-realized  conception of harley quinn, but this might not totally be her fault: she certainly hasn’t been given very much to work with.

one feels worse for will smith as deadshot, who is forced to deliver some of the film’s worst dialogue and muster some of the films most artificial emotions. “you don’t kill as many people as i’ve killed and sleep peacefully at night by feeling things like love,” he tells harley quinn, which totally contradicts the idea, otherwise expressed throughout, that his primary motivation is his young daughter. particularly nauseating is a scene in which he attempts to teach her geometry through bullet trajectory–despite his previous efforts to conceal from her the nature of his business endeavors.

Will-Smith-Has-Interesting-Ideas-for-His-Suicide-Squad-Character-Deadshot

similarily disgraced is jay hernandez as diabolo, a conflicted ex-con whose weepy tale about how he murdered his wife and children is a moment of failed pathos so horribly written one can’t help but squirm. he has vowed never to wreak his pyrogenic havoc again. he relents, of course, for his new “family,” and to save the world, which is another thing that felt like hard bullshit about this movie: how quickly these characters–“textbook sociopaths,” allegedly, as harly quinn observes at one point–are bonded together, ready to give their lives for one another. sure, this sort of unlikely commitment is a tentpole of the sorts of movies in which gangs of misfits band together to do something brave and unexpected, but it was particularly hard to swallow in a movie about people who murder their own offspring, or swim in sewers, or do whatever captain boomerang does.

but of course, none of these characters is clearly drawn or convincingly motivated. one can’t help but wonder if the writer was given a story board and tasked with working backward.

which might go some way to articulating why so many dc fanboys are freaking out about the movie’s poor critical reception: as fans of the comic book, they come to the movie with not only an investment in but also an acquaintance with the mythology that critics who are excoriating the movie lack. i’m one of those critics. they only characters i knew anything about going in were harley quinn, because i worshipped the batman animated series that birthed her in the 1990s, and june moore/the enchantress, because I kept seeing her in the trailers and was like who is that witch because typically i’m down for anything involving witches. lacking an exposure to the source material, i was dependent upon the movie itself for both inspiration and a reason to care. the film delivered neither of these things and, no matter what the fanboys believe–some of whom were scattered, solitary, about the theater at the viewing i attended yesterday–the film needed to.

i’d feel remiss if i didn’t mention jared leto’s turn as the joker, one of the most iconic of all the characters in the dc comicverse. always a standout and a staple, the joker became a template for the deranged psychopath supervillain after heath ledger donned the purple suit in christopher nolan’s masterful the dark knight. that was a stellar performance, and it’s clear how much leto hopes to do something similar here. poor jared leto. there’s something cookie-cutter about his turn. he seems to think craziness is best expressed in animated lip movements and creepy soft caresses and false grandiloquence. to be fair, leto had his work cut out for him, taking on this role post-ledger, and it also works against him that the character is completely unnecessary in this movie. he really serves no purpose other than to provide for harley quinn’s momentary escape–a gesture hard to take as romantic when one recalls that he caused her capture in the first place. then he pops up again, in the film’s final frames, purely, it seems, to tease a sequel.

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most of suicide squad is run-of-the-mill scenes of fantasy of violence spliced with incoherent bits of exposition that i guess are supposed to stand in for plot points. there is not a face that appears on screen that does not seem to wonder, at least at one point, what it is doing there, not a performance that doesn’t fall flat, and i really can’t say enough about how corny the dialogue is. i really cannot. at times i felt embarrassed, it was so corny. in a year that has already seen its share of disappointing comic book blockbusters, from batman v. superman to x-men: apocalypse, suicide squad really stands out.

home movies

somewhere on a shelf in my mother’s basement, amongst the dozens and dozens of books, stuffed in with the dvds and vhs tapes my family amassed throughout my childhood, there is a home video my father recorded when i was very young. i’m not sure of my exact age, but i couldn’t have been more than three or four, as by the time i was five my parents had divorced and my father had moved out, and it is very distinctly his voice invisibly booming out directives from somewhere just out of frame.

who knows why or what he was filming. growing up my parents (first, my father, and later, my step-father) recorded birthday parties and easter egg hunts, christmas mornings and baseball games and piano recitals, but this video, shot in the basement of the house we lived in until the spring of the year i was in second grade, contains none of the festive attributes i would associate with the special occasions of my childhood—a birthday cake for instance, or balloons and brightly colored decorations—and if i was three or four, then the year would’ve been 1988 or 1989, and we had probably very recently acquired the video recorder, which i still remember, large and black and boxy, hulking on my father’s shoulder, his eye pressed to the soft rubber of the viewfinder. this video feels like a test video, as if my father has just gotten the thing home and out of the box, is taking it for an anxious first spin, a fresh tape snug in the deck, waiting to contain. essentially, he’s filming nothing, filming us, our family, in our at-home, mundane day-to-day. my siblings and I can be seen and heard chasing after my father as he pans around the basement, with its wood-paneled walls and the half-tiled floor upon which we used to roller-skate, begging for our chance to perform for his camera. over here! record me! we are shouting. my mother can be see trying to evade the camera’s view.

when it is my turn, the video shows my three or four-year-old self wearing a t-shirt sized for an adult male (it is my father’s; I remember wearing his t-shirts often, to bed mostly), which hangs over my tiny frame, falls down past my bony knees. and, I’ve belted one of my own belts around my waist, which lends the entire ensemble an overt dress-like effect. and, i’m twirling. when my father turns the camera on me i’m twirling and twirling so that the portion of the t-shirt below the belt flares up and out, rippling on the waves of my motion, billowing out like a woman’s gown. and i just keep twirling like that—proudly, smiling, pausing every few rotations to strike a pose of theatricality—until my father jerkily focuses his camera on something else, on my older brother executing some martial arts maneuver he’s been practicing: unable to bear the disequilibrium, the camera (gaze) (male) (specifically, the father’s) averts to something stabilizing (specifically, my older, appropriately inscribed brother, performing an appropriately inscribed act).

selfie #4

a very early memory, a fragment of a memory, from kindergarten: it is play time—not recess proper, but a small break between formal lessons in the afternoon, during which we are allowed to amuse ourselves with the toys and plastic kitchen set and books and board games in the little area at the back of the classroom. i am back there, on a rug with a perfectly ordered town printed on it, amongst a group of girls whose names and faces are not a part of this memory. i’m pretending to be a mermaid, writhing around on the floor with my legs twined together at the knees, imagining they are fins. we are all doing this, the girls and myself, but it’s very clear that I’m showing them how to do it properly. this is 1990, 1991: at home we’ve already added disney’s the little mermaid to our VHS collection—a particular favorite of mine, at that age. the girls follow my lead and we all sing part of your world at the top of our lungs until some boys come by to assert themselves by instructing us to shut the hell up. i learned something that day. i don’t know what.