By Toby Ashraf, Judith Dry, Peter Knegt, Matthew Hammett Knott, Sophie Smith and Erin Whitney | Indiewire December 19, 2013 at 12:11PM
Two weeks ago, this column reflected on the many positive reasons that 2013 was a landmark year
for queer cinema and queers in cinema. In the
spirit of community, we opened things up to a
half-dozen or so contributors, asking them for some of their own personal highlights in that regard. Well, as things go, for every step forward there's usually a couple steps back. So once again we asked around -- this time about some of the things folks weren't so appreciative of when it came to queers and the movies this past year.
The results are listed below in alphabetical order, and keep in mind that everything is subjective. One particularly divisive film is on both this list and the positive-oriented one, while two others were widely acclaimed by queer and straight critics alike, so we fully expect and respect some disagreement. But with that in mind, here's our list. Please feel to free to challenge them, or just add your own lowlights, in the comments section:
Angela Robinson and POWER UP break up
This is a lowlight for me for so many reasons. 13 years ago this month. The Professional Organization of Women in Entertainment Reaching Up (POWER UP) was founded. A non-profit, its aim was to improve the visibility of queer women in film both by funding their projects and by recruiting and mentoring young women across a variety of roles. These are laudable goals which remain ever-necessary and which produced the likes of Jamie Babbit’s "Itty Bitty Titty Committee" (2007). Despite this, POWER UP has been mired in controversy almost since its inception. The latest development is the rift between Angela Robinson (whose feature film "D.E.B.S." started life as a POWER UP funded short) and Stacy Codikow, the organization’s founder. Robinson released a statement in October cutting all ties with POWER UP, and disassociating herself with the recently released "Girltrash: All Night Long." Robinson wrote the film and was involved in every step of its production, but cited working with Codikow as "the worst experience" of her career and refused to condone the final cut. Whatever went on here, it’s sad to watch an institution with such great aims eat itself from the inside. It’s sad too because Robinson is a marvelous filmmaker. She is playful, self-aware and wonderfully funny. I want to see the film that she was happy to release, but it looks like interpersonal politics mean that might never happen. [Sophie Smith]
Stacie Passon’s “Concussion” was one of the films I couldn’t wait to see in 2013. This was not least because it was produced by Rose Troche, who has done so much for queer visibility in cinema. But its plot also promised much: affluent suburban housewife Abby is hit by her son’s baseball and in the fallout confronts her wife’s ebbing desire by taking up as a high-class call girl. The first 20 minutes or so lived up to expectations: a quick-witted script was complimented by slick cinematography and an immediately captivating performance from Robin Weigert. For me, however, this promise didn’t just stall, it took some deeply uncomfortable turns. Abby’s first encounter with sex work is as client, and it is ostensibly not "high-class." The meeting is "dirty" – as Abby herself consistently reiterates when recounting it - the woman a druggie who – dear God! – offered Abby a hit herself. Perhaps this was meant as a satirical jab at the hypocrisy of middle-class morality when it comes to things like this, but if so, it was neither convincing nor sufficiently developed: instead it just seemed that Passon was reassuring her audience that hers was a story about safe, sexy sex-work, not the grotty kind poor people do. Not once did the film confront the particularities or peculiarities of its own conceit: Abby remains seemingly unchanged by selling her body multiple times, to women of various ages –in one instance young enough to be her daughter. She might as well have bought a Ferrari for all the film does to draw out the nuances of this as a mid-life crisis. We got nothing, either, on the central relationship between the two women; Abby’s wife and their marriage were thinly drawn to the point of vacuous. The whole thing made me wonder if “Concussion” was a slightly half-hearted exploration of Passon’s own privileged frustrations: a happy escape from quotidian nuisance, but not a story she was burning to tell. This thought seemed further buttressed when she revealed in the Q&A that no, she hadn’t researched sex-work, save to confirm that this sort of polished variety did exist. Curiously, both Passon and Weigert suggested an adequate explanation for this was that Abby herself was a novice in such affairs: this is fine, until Abby stops being a novice and starts being a jobbing call-girl, and yet her story continues to be told by people who have done no research into how those experiences might affect her, positively or otherwise. Critics have variously heralded “Concussion” as a brave new direction in lesbian filmmaking, a ‘merciless satire’ and a film to rival the output of Bergman: I have no doubt Passon is capable of these things, but for me this film belied a disappointing lack of development. It didn’t challenge itself, and the audience was left unchallenged because of this. [Sophie Smith]
Every good queerdo should have a well thumbed stack of science fiction paperbacks on their bookshelves -lovingly tucked in between Sarah Waters and Jeannette Winterson. (That's where mine are.) So I was cautiously optimistic when I heard news of an "Ender's Game" feature film due in November of this year. Based on the novel by Orson Scott Card, this outsider hero narrative served as a gateway science fiction book for many young people, queer and ... not queer. As publicity for the film began, I was shocked to learn that the author's homophobic beliefs were as vitriolic as his characters' hatred of the buggers (an intelligent alien species trying to destroy humanity.) How could the author of such a "Queer" story -- that of a weakling child genius sent to a children's military school complete with a naked shower fight scene -- be giving his Hollywood money to Focus on the Family? News that Scott Card's deal entitled him to none of the movie's profits did not deter calls for boycotting. Fortunately, the boycotters didn't miss much. The movie, like its author, was a total dud. [Judith Dry]
The GLAAD Awards Honor Brett Ratner
Bill Clinton, Steve Warren, Anderson Cooper, Adam Lambert and Brett Ratner were the five people that the GLAAD Awards decided to honor in what was clearly a benchmark year for LGBT representation in mainstream culture. Five filthy rich white dudes, two of whom are not only straight but don't exactly have perfect track records when it comes it to LGBT issues (here's hoping Frank Ocean simply declined the invitation, because I can't think of a more obvious and worthy honoree with respect to last year). Of the five, Ratner is clearly the most disturbing choice. An "ally award" a year or so after he infamously said that "rehearsal is for fags" during a Q&A for his film "Tower Heist," a comment that in part led to his resignation as producer of the Academy Awards? Ratner explained during his speech that he has since learned a "valuable lesson": "A word can matter. Whether its said with malice or as a joke. And being insulted for using the word cannot compare to the experience of any young gay man or woman who has been the target of offensive slurs of derogatory comments." Well, I'm certainly glad Mr. Ratner figured that out. And though he seems to at least appear devoted actions to his words (he's been working with GLAAD to produce and direct pro-marriage equality PSAs), to give him an award for that is ridiculous. Especially in this day and age of film careers crumbling because of these sorts of comments and "making good examples of yourself" often smelling like strategic damage control. [Peter Knegt]
"I'm So Excited"
Quo Vadis, Pedro? "I’m So Excited" is still one of those films were I secretly think and hope that someone else other than Pedro Almodóvar directed it. College humour meets gay stereotypes meets a story that left me the most unexcited I have ever been watching an Almodóvar film. Going from punk rebel and church critic to camp master to brilliant queer story teller, the director left the world bewildered with his latest work. For a moment, the alcohol and drug-addicted party flight attendants are bearable in the name of irony but as this bad joke enfolds, you can’t help but feel that this is the most homophobic and superfluous film you have seen in a long time. It also raises the question of who is supposed to laugh about that – queens with low self-esteem or homophobic art house lovers? I love you, Pedro, but you should keep your hands off comedy, unless you get your Pepi, Luci, Bom and Other Girls Like Mom groove back. [Toby Ashraf]
Jared Leto's Character In "Dallas Buyers Club"
Back in September, I devoted an edition of this column to a rather aggressive trashing of "Dallas Buyers Club" after seeing it at its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival. And I'll admit I was a caught a little offguard by how few people seemed the agree with me once reactions started coming in. "Dallas" ended up with pretty glowing reviews, and is now on track for Oscar nominations for stars Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto (with the latter probably even winning). My mind a bit boggled, I went and saw the film again, wondering if I'd simply gone into it with a preordained opinion. But I honestly felt the same way the second time around. I could go on and on, but I already did. The one thing I would like to reiterate, though (and spoiler alert ahead -- though its hardly a surprise in the film), is the portrayal of its only LGBT character, Leto's Rayon (who unlike McConaughey's Ron Woodroof, is completely fictional -- so there's no excuses of "well, she was a real person"). Largely an issue of the film's simplistic screenplay (which really seems to be written by people that have very little perspective on the history of AIDS), Rayon rarely extends beyond caricature. We never find out much about her beyond her relationship to Woodroof, and though she has a boyfriend that is present in many of the film's scenes, we never even find out his name. And while the film consistently lionizes Woodroof without really giving us a reason to feel like he deserves it, Rayon is continuously victimized (a Hollywood tradition for queer characters), largely through her inability to overcome a drug addiction that eventually leads to her death (the screenplay even gives Leto the line "I don't want to die!" to hysterically mumble in its final scenes -- which god help us will probably be the scene the Oscars play before Leto wins one). Woodroof is clearly a drug addict too (not to mention an alcoholic and a sex addict), and also struggles with overcoming it. But "Dallas Buyers" portrays his struggle with much less judgement than Rayon's, and ultimately blames her death on her drug addiction. This isn't really Leto's fault, but for him to win an Oscar for it just encourages this kind of representation to continue (which it probably will either way). [Peter Knegt]
Jodie Foster’s "coming out speech"
Note the scare quotes. The Golden Globes took a turn for the unexpected when Jodie Foster decided to use her acceptance of the Cecil B. DeMille award to allude to her sexuality for the first time in public. I am not here to criticize the content of her speech, nor her decision to make it. I am glad for anyone whom it inspired or enlightened. And yet, in every word and gesture, Foster made it clear that this was not an “announcement” she ever wanted to make. “I already did my coming out about 1,000 years ago” she explained, “gradually and proudly to everyone [I] actually met”. At best a reconciliation, at worst an admission of defeat, it came after decades of the actress contending with a media that required her to define her sexuality in a way that did not suit or appeal to her. This is not about feeling sorry for Jodie Foster, the Oscar-winning multi-millionaire. But if this is how our culture captures and displays its “positive gay role models”, I think I’m good with Alexander the Great. [Matthew Hammett Knott]
The Lesbian Whitewashing of "Saving Mr Banks"
I can’t be the only person who would have happily replaced one of those interminable flashback scenes of drunk n’ crazy Colin Farrell with a moody sequence concerning, say, P. L. Travers’ torrid affair with the American Jessie Orage. There are those who would say the fact that the Mary Poppins author had significant relationships with women throughout her life is entirely irrelevant to the story of Disney’s fraught adaptation of her most famous novel. And yet the entire narrative of "Saving Mr Banks" was supposedly concerned with "Disneyfication" - that is, the bland homogenization of a spiky personal narrative to prepare it for commercial consumption. There are numerous compelling ways that Travers’ unorthodox sexuality could have been used to illustrate just what made her so uncomfortable with handing over her personal history to this hideously heteronormative storytelling machine. But I’m not sure what I expected from the studio whose idea of overtly gay characters are Timon and Pumba. [Matthew Hammett Knott]
Just when you thought Vito Russo’s "Celluloid Closet" might be nothing but a historical document, here comes Brian de Palma’s train wreck of a film called "Passion," which yet again features a powerful seducer whose sexuality is linked to her inevitable punishment. Apart from the usual sexism (women fight each other over men and power), de Palma pulls another ugly rabbit out his cliché hat, namely the lesbian side kick Dani, played by German actress Karoline Herfurth. Her open lesbian identity can be used to blackmail her (sexual assault), laugh at her (she is in love with her boss and makes a pass) and must be punished eventually. Her motivation - jealousy, unrequited love and revenge logically lead to her death. The only upside of this: hardly anyone has seen the film... [Toby Ashraf]
The Sex Scenes in "Blue Is the Warmest Color"
Watching Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) and Emma (Léa Seydoux) voraciously lust after one another in "Blue Is The Warmest Color," I felt more of a voyeur than an empathizer -- I didn’t see myself, or any sense of a woman, in them. They didn’t look at each other during sex, they didn’t talk or whisper or giggle (it was Adèle’s first time, why wasn’t she nervous?). Most importantly, they hardly even kissed during the first nearly-15-minute sex scene, and if you’re as passionate and lustful as those two you’d definitely be kissing. None of their sex scenes (except maybe the last when they finally interact as a couple) felt like two women making love, but more so like two heterosexual women acting out a male’s aestheticized lesbian fantasy. Their sex, which should more accurately be called endless-ass-slapping-sessions, doesn’t play as something performed for a queer audience, by a queer audience, or to depict queer people. Just as Joachim, the gallery owner in the film, says that men’s ecstasy is shown via women in art, the sex scenes in “Blue” are merely Abdellatif Kechiche’s ecstasy shown through his actresses. “Men try desperately to depict it,” Joachim says of mystery of the female orgasm. Sorry Kechiche, but even after nearly 20 minutes of sex scenes, you didn’t quite hit the mark. [Erin Whitney, who had nice things to say about the film too]