13 January 2012

Double Feature: Beginners & Weekend

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.

I watched both films after having just read three essays at The Chronicle of Higher Education about queer theory in the wake of Duke University Press ending its Series Q books: "The Q Factor" by William Germano, "Queer 2.0" by Jeffrey J. Williams, and "Queer and Then" by Michael Warner. Also, I live in New Hampshire, where this week's presidential primary caused us to be deluged with robocalls from various Republican candidates' affiliates, and so while I was watching Weekend, I got a call from an anti-marriage-equality group that wanted me to know how shocking, horrible, and disgusting it was that Ron Paul was the only candidate who hadn't signed their pledge to repeal any gay marriage anywhere at any time always. (If the call hadn't been a recording, I would have turned the movie's volume up loud and held the phone to the speaker.)

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?

The conversations in Weekend are often philosophical and political, but they also feel tremendously ordinary, and that's what so marvelous about them. They are interspersed with everyday observations — for instance, the ellipsis in the dialogue above cuts out a discussion of condiments. Thus, my quote above actually misrepresents the film, because this is a movie in which thoughtful, necessary conversations about society and personality and politics and utopia are interspersed with tossed-off banalities, and nothing is ever really resolved. Much like life. It brings us far from the (necessary! important!) didacticism of, say, The Normal Heart, and into the realm of something like Medicine for Melancholy. Back in good ol' 1992, The The sang a choice: "If you can't change the world, change yourself. / If you can't change yourself, then change the world," and while Hal in Beginners is all set to change the world now that he's changed himself, the younger folks of Weekend (and Medicine for Melancholy) are too deep in the stuff of their lives to think much about changing the world. A single public kiss becomes a powerful, personally revolutionary act, one that can bind the different worldviews of Russell and Glen.

The structure and style of the films is also compelling and meaningful. Beginners moves back and forth in time, following the logic of memory. Now and then it stops for a series of montages narrated by Oliver. The writing for the montages is beautiful, with each new image introduced with, "This is..." For instance, from the script (PDF):


      OLIVER (V.O.)
This is 2003. This is what the sun 
looks like, and the stars, nature. 
This is the President.


      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.


      OLIVER (V.O.) (CONT'D)
This is what it looked like when 
people kissed...


      OLIVER (V.O.) (CONT'D)
...When they were happy...


      OLIVER (V.O.) (CONT'D)
...When they were sad. 


      OLIVER (V.O.) (CONT'D)
My parents got married in 1955.
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.


      OLIVER (V.O.)
This is the only place my father 
could hide and have sex in the 


      OLIVER (V.O.)
My father said if you got caught my 
the Vice Squad you could lose 

This is everything.



      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 


      OLIVER (V.O.)
Not everyone got cured.

Both films mix handheld shots with more static shots, but the contrast is especially strong in Weekend, where close, somewhat jerky handheld shots are offset by shots like this:

It's a powerful effect, with the handheld shots creating a sense of intimacy and improvisation (though Andrew Haigh has said there wasn't much improvising) and the more distant, static, and very clearly composed shots highlighting Russell's sense of isolation and loneliness.

Sometimes the effect is more complex, too. Here's a (handheld, even voyeuristic) shot of Russell and Glen making up after their worst argument:

Which then cuts to this extraordinary shot:

There's the sense distance and isolation, yes, but now it has the added sense of these two men as the only two people in the world. Instead of being isolated and distant on their own individually, now they are isolated and distant together. The question the film raises and (smartly) never answer is: Is this enough? (It's enough for now.)

...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".

Some of the problems with such an aspiration are delineated in Warner's book and his Chronicle essay, but I wanted to bring up the topic because it is at least a shadow in Beginners and an explicit topic of conversation in Weekend. As Glen and Russell argue about the radicalism or not of marriage, Russell says, "A man standing up with another man, in front of everyone, saying that, 'I love you and I want to get married,' I think that's a pretty fucking radical statement. I mean, standing up and saying, 'I want to spend the rest of my life with you,' when everybody's looking at them, saying that it's wrong, it's disgusting, it's sick." Neither Russell nor Glen offers a particularly nuanced argument, but who gives nuanced arguments in the midst of a passionate conversation that is fueled as much by personality and emotion as intellect? (This is another example of excellent writing, too, because what Russell and Glen say to each other is fueled by the fears and anxieties each holds, and so they are, without perhaps even realizing what they're doing, justifying their own status quos. Russell is a mushy romantic at heart, but painfully concerned with how other people perceive him, and his argument for the radicalism of marriage is shaped at least as much by those personality traits as it is by anything else.)

Glen's position is somewhat closer to Michael Warner's and to the ideas of queer theory, though, again, without the nuance. The utopia he proposes to Russell when they talk about sex, though, is one that is very queer at its core: "Imagine if everybody was just open about what they did, and then everything was normal." The connection between the first and second clauses may be logically tenuous (one doesn't necessarily lead to the other), but the desire is radical: To expand the idea of normality so much that it effectively ceases to have meaning, and in ceasing to have meaning, it ceases to have the power to create abjection and shame for anyone outside its realm of acceptance. In some ways, studies such as the Kinsey Report moved the world in a step toward such a direction by showing how, in fact, the statistical norm for behavior was generally different from the social norm.

One final note about these two films: class. Beginners would be quite a different story if it were not about rich (and conventionally beautiful) people. Weekend has a bit more diversity of class — Glen seems to come from at least a little bit of privilege, since he's able to head off to the U.S. to study art and he seems perfectly able to afford as much alcohol and drugs as he wants. Russell is a different case, having grown up as an orphan and foster child, and now working as a lifeguard at a pool. There's a moment where he seems a bit embarrassed when telling Glen his job, and it plays out much like the early scene in Fear Eats the Soul when Emmi hesitates before telling Ali that she is a cleaner. Russell's envy of heterosexual families is complicated, resulting not from any one element of his life (his sexual identity, his class identity, his childhood) but from many of them. The normality he aspires to isn't merely a sexual normality, but the normality generally associated with the term "middle class life". For someone like Russell, achieving a boring bourgeois existence would, in fact, really be an achievement (whereas for Glen it would just be boring).

Russell and Glen's relationship may be doomed by more than distance. Their utopian dreams are at odds. Russell may nod along with the idea of a utopia where everything is normal, but he's too repressed for such a world — too beholden to notions of respectability, too enamored of shame and shaming.

In its final scene, Weekend returns to where its story began, but Russell is not the same. He has overcome at least a little bit of his shame. He is, quite literally, in possession of himself. Perhaps Weekend is ultimately a prelude to the real story: the story of who he will become. The filmmakers wisely leave that story to our imaginations.