Film Review: First Girl I Loved

When you are a teenager, having a crush can be truly agonising and all-consuming. It’s equal parts thrill and terror when your feelings are reciprocated, as you innocently try to work out how to turn those feelings into a relationship. But, if you happen to be a heterosexual couple while you’re navigating all this, there are endless guides on how you should act and your partnership is symbolically celebrated every day in songs, TV shows and movies. That’s why a First Girl I Loved is unusual, and so very welcome. Unlike 99.9% of films produced on the topic of love, it is unashamedly gay, even as it works through how shame feels if you are gay.

Written and directed by Kerem Sanga, First Girl I Loved is a smart, affirming film about teenage love. Dylan Gelula  plays Anne, who has fallen for senior cool-girl/softball star Sasha, played by Brianna Hildebrand. We follow Anne and Sasha as they try and figure out what the unspoken spark between them might mean, and what it could possibly lead to. Anne’s best friend Clifton, played by Mateo Arias, complicates the story with his own feelings for Anne spilling out in dangerous ways.

FirstGirlILoved_Promotional_Still_AN_CL_stairsWhile the closure of the film was a little clunky (and I wondered if they actually had a few different endings in mind), overall First Girl I Loved is utterly engrossing. The opening scenes are framed tightly and closely around the protagonists, and we remain at eye level, almost as if we are right there with them – behind the softball fence, lingering at the doorway to the bedroom, walking down the street sipping $4 wine. We’re next to them all the way, not as a voyeur, but as a friend along for the ride.

26-first-girl-i-loved.w1200.h630Gelula’s performance is very commendable. She strikes a delicate balance between unbearable apathetic teen, and captivating hero that we want to succeed. Through Anne we see just how brilliant and strong teens can be, even if they’re totally clueless. Teens are often denigrated by society writ-large for being naive, but First Girl I Loved shows the pain and beauty of fumbling through, the intelligence involved in not knowing but pushing on nonetheless. The awkward innocence of Anne and Sasha’s interactions is wonderfully executed, and there was something so familiar about their veiled giggling banter that I felt like I was watching my young self up on screen.

1As I sat watching the film unfold, I found myself desperately wanting things to work out for the characters. I wanted it to end happily not only because I was so engrossed in the story, but because happy endings for gay characters are so few and far between. It’s been great to see more films coming out that address romance between women, like Lovesong in 2016 or Carol in 2015, but many remain stories about tortured, impossible love, or a love that’s always on the horizon that we never get to see fully flourish. That’s why Imagine Me & You from 2005 is still one of the greatest lesbian romance films – not only does it relish in the genre of romcom rather than locating gayness in the seriousness of arthouse, but it moves through unspoken desire to love shouted from the rooftops.

First.Girl_.I.Loved-szn1While I can imagine some queer theorists arguing that the lack of traditionally happy endings for gay films is welcome, because who wants to live up to that heteronormative expectation anyway, it’s also pretty shit to constantly have popular culture either ignore your relationship or portray it is an inevitably difficult affair. While there is something to be said for representing the reality of homophobia and the difficulty of queer life, it is a pain that everyone else gets the option of fantasy (because let’s be real it’s not like heterosexual life really ends happily for everyone) except for gays who must remain proper realists.

The-First-Girl-I-LovedFirst Girl I Loved is no romcom, and it is serious. But it does manage to deal with difficult issues and give us a sense of both catharsis and hope, even as it leaves many things unresolved. It doesn’t make the empty promise that so many teens are barraged with that “it gets better”, but it does suggest that queer kin can be found and that inner strength is possible while traversing difficult and unknown terrain. First Girl I Loved gifts its audience a small beam of light for navigating this path, and for that it should be celebrated.

The Queer World of Stranger Things

Joyce Byers: He’s a sensitive kid. Lonnie used to say he was queer. Called him a fag.
Jim Hopper: Is he?
Joyce: He’s missing, is what he is!

Judith Butler: Crafting a sexual position…always involves becoming haunted by what’s excluded. And the more rigid the position, the greater the ghost, and the more threatening it is in some way

Eleven: The gate, I opened it. I’m the monster

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It’s almost too good

*SPOILERS (OBVS)*

I watched Stranger Things this week, yes, five months late to the party (just in time for Christmas so I can be creeped out by the lights). I could list a bunch of excuses, but really I just generally avoid anything that has a whiff of scary. But the thing about the horror/supernatural/sci fi genre is that it tends to engage with questions of the strange, the bodily and the abject, and is therefore inescapably relevant to queer theory and feminism. So, when I found myself in that inevitable position of why can I find literally nothing to watch on Netflix?, I gave in (and boy am I glad I did), because it turns out that Stranger Things is the gayest, campest, queerest, most feminist thing out at the moment—perhaps even in spite of its own intentions.

The troubling thing about watching shows later than everyone else is that you’ve missed the cultural discussion. So when I started feverishly googling “queer Stranger Things” and “feminist Stranger Things” after the series ended, I was surprised at arguments that worked hard to demonstrate how the show is anti-feminist, or like, stop making it about feminism already, and how people are stuck on questioning whether Will is gay or not. I was also intrigued by how everyone was obsessed with Barb and the grand injustice of it all. To me, all of these things entirely miss the richness of insight that the show has to offer on questions of gender and sexuality.

*****

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Oppression, comin’ atcha

Let’s get to the feminist themes of the show first. It’s not feminist because it overtly trumpets “political, social and economic equality with men” (it doesn’t), but rather, it engages a feminist lens that magnifies sexism in all its forms and portrays female and genderqueer characters who resist in spite of the oppression that’s bearing down on them from all angles (literally).

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Joyce, holding her ground

That Joyce communicates with Will via lights isn’t just for special effect—it’s a comment on the gaslighting that many women experience in their everyday lives. Gaslighting is when someone is led to believe that they are misperceiving things, and that they are crazy/losing their mind. The term originates from a 1930s play where a man tricks his wife into thinking she’s going mad, which involves him messing with the gas lamps in the house. Many women experience gaslighting as a subtle form of emotional abuse in intimate relationships. Joyce is told by all the men around her (the police, her oldest son, her ex-husband) that she’s crazy and that she’s mis-perceiving (so crazy in fact that she can’t even recognise the body of her own son), YET she persists in her rescue mission. The ultimate lesson is: believe in yourself and grab a f***ing axe while you’re at it.

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Karen Wheeler (note checked shirt for later)

The show also did a kick-ass job at celebrating mothers as at once loving and fierce. For one, there’s Karen Wheeler, Mike and Nancy’s mother, who is constantly reminding her children: I’m here if you need me. And we might wonder, where the hell is the dad most of the time? Their mother is the centre of it all, she’s the one doing the emotional labour. Joyce repeats a similar mantra of support to both Will in the Upside Down, and Eleven when she’s in the sensory deprivation tank: I’m here for you. Of course we could read this as stereotyping motherhood, but in a world where mothers are so frequently represented along a binary of either strong and evil, or caring but passive, I think it’s a celebration of strength in vulnerability. Unlike the mothers of the original 1980s slasher flicks, these women are to be revered, not feared. The lesson is: celebrate the mothers, they’re the ones keeping sh*t together.

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The patriarchy involves women leaders too

Fathers get a rather different wrap in the show, but the complexity of masculinity is also engaged with rather than made one-dimensional. Perhaps the most notable father is Eleven’s “papa” Dr Martin Brenner, who dare I say represents the patriarchy, that is, the “rule of the father”. This character also demonstrates the long history of science and medicine ruling over bodies, particularly female or genderqueer ones. For instance, he tells Eleven that they are “sick” and that he will make them “better”—a reflection of the disciplining of non-conforming bodies that has long been documented (thanks Foucault). There is also the absent father /deadbeat dad (Lonnie), who functions to show us the abuse that occurs in the family home and the perils of single motherhood. And then there is Jim Hopper, the dad who has lost his daughter. With this storyline we are made privy to the vulnerable side of masculinity, and the very few options for expressing these kinds of emotions that men are offered in life. For Jim, his sadness hardness into detached coolness. Similarly, for Jonathan Beyers—who reveals crying after being forced by his father to kill a rabbit as a child, to “make him a man”—his vulnerability hardens into stalkerish reclusiveness. The lesson is: the rule of the father (or whatever you want to call it—patriarchy, gender expectations, etc) is bad for everyone.

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How good is Nancy?! (Note checked shirt underneath)

You know what else is bad for everyone? Slut-shaming. Nancy experiences some pretty heavy slut-shaming not only from her friends at school, but from the police. While Nancy is all, Barb is missing! the cops are all, but did you have SEX? Nancy realises that justice isn’t going to be served through the formal legal channels, and that she’s going to have to take things into her own hands if she wants to get things done. She’ll pick up a gun, say “screw that” to the nuclear family, and unthinkably crawl through goo in a tree in order to rescue her friend. Unlike many rescue stories, the hero here is a woman. When it turns out that the monster has killed her friend, Nancy doesn’t give up, she grows in her resolve. Indeed, after this she’s out for revenge, but the female-rescuing-female trope subverts the normal “revenge” paradigm that usually focuses on rape. You know who cared about Barb in a world that just generally didn’t? Nancy did. That was the entire driver for Nancy, her friend. The lesson is: sh*t, Nancy is awesome.

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Eleven not even messing around one bit

Last but not least on the question of gender, Stranger Things engages with the gender conformity that is thrust upon us in a world of heterosexuality. In order to “pass”, Mike and his friends dress Eleven up in pink, a blonde wig, and makeup. Mike is rather happy about Eleven’s new “pretty”, but Eleven’s not so sure. When Eleven is accused of being too aggressive and too crazy (after hurting Lucas), they cast their wig off and strides into the supermarket to take whatever they like, slamming doors along the way. They’re saying, you don’t own me, you can’t control me. While Joyce teaches us that you can be a mother and a fighter, and Nancy teaches us that you can be feminine and a hero, Eleven shows us that femininity can be restricting and awful when it is thrust upon us.The lesson is: you can be queer in your gender expression and save the world.

*****

This last point brings me to my queer reading of the series. Again, this isn’t to say that the show is queer because there are a bunch of LGBTQ characters in it (this is debated), but rather, we can undertake a queer reading that reveals the show’s underlying themes related to subverting the normal when it comes to gender and sexuality.

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A camp extravaganza

First, the obvious things. The overabundance of christmas lights is super camp. Camp refers to a sensibility seen as linked with homosexuality, a focus on the over-the-top, and the rejection of middle-class taste. Camp is also often associated with Christmas, with its gaudy decorations and glitz and glam. Joyce goes totally OTT with the Christmas lights, and the same time that she’s tearing down the walls of the family home. It’s no wonder that when Lonnie comes home he tries to force “normal” family life by literally patching things up and taking the lights down. But Joyce won’t have it. The Beyers residence is a camp wonderland that does family life differently.

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Misfits abound in Stranger Things

Second, the title Stranger Things, refers to the strange that is so central to queer readings. Queer theory focuses on “queering” the normal, and has often been about celebrating that which is considered “strange”. In the show, all of the heroes are “strange” in some way, they are misfits who reject how things are “supposed to be done”.

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Will (in yet another checked shirt)

Very importantly, there is an overt emphasis on Will’s presumed gayness, with references made to his “queerness” almost every time he comes up in conversation. Whether his character is gay or not is really besides the point, because there is another story bubbling under the surface here (which this article from the Advocate basically hints at—but it’s much more literal than they suggest). When the school bully asserts that Will is “in fairyland now right”, we should take note. If we read this claim in conjunction with Judith Butler’s claim that we are always “haunted” by those sexual subject positions we exclude, we can understand the Upside Down as also implicitly referring to “inversion“, the old way that sexologists in the 19th century used to describe homosexuality. This isn’t to say that the Upside Down is a world of homosexuality, but rather, that it is the shadow world that the bigots project as the opposite normality.

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Mouth breather

It’s also a world that casts queer bodies into what Butler would call the “ungrievable“—where some people’s sexuality and gender cannot be understood to the point that their lives cannot even be mourned in death. That the “real” Will is illegible (he is a shadow, and his “body” is a fake) , that almost no one cares about Barb going missing, that there is barely a blink that several people have disappeared in a matter of days…It all testifies to understanding the Upside Down as that which is cast out of the world, that is not allowed to exist in “normal” life. But what can move between worlds, and what can be identified by those who are critical of normality, is the monster, i.e. homophobia. Here, the monster is the ultimate “mouth breather” (its face is all mouth after all), it is THE bully, the homophobe.

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Barb, another outsider (and checked shirt wearer)

Along these lines we can also note that unlike the old horror movies of yore, it is not the youngsters engaged in hetero sex who get taken by the monster…Barb gets taken specifically because she doesn’t want to engage in that milieu. Who else gets taken? As the police briefly discuss, two men who went out “hunting” that week but their utter lack of concern about this makes us think maybe there’s some subtle homophobia going on there, like, well, we know what goes down in those woods…

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Perhaps Will is reflecting on his internalised homophobia

It is also not surprising that the monster is unleashed in the processes of spying on Russians—as many have documented, fear of communism was often promoted through connecting “commies” to “homos”. As George Chauncey notes, “The spectre of the invisible homosexual, like that of the invisible communist, haunted Cold War America”, which manifested in the USA as the Lavender Scare during the 1950s. In their spying on the Russians, Eleven predictably also spies homophobia. Of course, Eleven gets blamed for unleashing havoc, buying into the notion that it is them who is monstrous, rather than homophobia that is the destructor. We see this play out in life all of the time—when conservative politicians argue that that it is really gender and sexual non-conformity that is the real concern (think of the children!) rather than the bullying and hate-crimes that are committed against those who don’t fit the “normal”. Notably, the monster in Stranger Things forces ingestion on its prey as a way to reproduce, that is, it creates internalised homophobia. By the end Will is literally vomiting up this monstrous self-hatred, and the family home is neatly (too neatly) patched up back to normalcy.

That the monster is attracted by “blood” also calls to mind the AIDS crisis that emerged in the 1980s, and that was a central subtextual theme of many of the horror films that Stranger Things references. At the time AIDS was first called “Gay Related Immune Deficiency” or GRID, and again, it was homosexuals who were seen to be the source of death, rather than the victims of homophobic governments who were slow to act on the emerging health crisis.

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The lab, lined by grids

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Steve’s room, so many grids

Interestingly, Stranger Things is dominated by grids. The corridors of the Hawkins National Laboratory that holds the doorway to the Upside Down depict a grid that is also mirrored in Steve Harrington’s bedroom decor (that we see just before Barb is taken). Many of the characters also wear plaid/checked i.e. grid patterns. In fact, the world of Stranger Things is literally littered with grids. The double meaning of this grid obsession is also the “grid of cultural intelligibility” that Butler discusses—the norms of sexuality and gender that constitute the fabric of the social world. Going to the Upside Down means falling off this grid, where you can be the prey of homophobia without cultural recognition.

The lesson of all of this is a reminder that the monster of homophobia needs to be fought, not internalised, in order to keep everyone safe from falling off the grid.

*****

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Stranger Things questions, rather than merely replicates, the dominant paradigm

All of this is not to say that the Duffer Brothers have been reading Judith Butler (though, it’s not that unlikely) or any other queer theory or feminist texts for that matter. Rather, we can see these elements of Stranger Things as testament to the zeitgeist permeating the popular subconscious from the 1980s to today, that involves a mash of ideas about gender, sexism, sexuality, and homophobia. The show manages to tap into these issues and depict the realities of oppression, all the while making its non-conforming characters the heroes. This is really what makes this show stand out in a field of popular representations: it does more than reproduce normative ideas, it offers a challenge to them.

 

Feminist Utopias and Battling Cruel Optimism in Ghostbusters

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This is not a drill

When I first heard about the new Ghostbusters, I was bursting with anticipation. But when the trailers started coming I quickly tuned out. Like a child who has peeked at their Christmas presents before the big day, I needed to hold the excitement in. It all seemed too good to be true. So when the lights went down at the cinema last night, I turned to my girlfriend and said “holy crap—they really made this film!”

By way of review, the film itself is highly enjoyable but clunky at times.

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Hands up who wants to go get a science degree after seeing this film

Don’t get me wrong, I was still hanging on every word out of Melissa McCarthy’s mouth, but the direction and editing needed some tightening up. It was probably a three star affair. But the film more than makes up for its pacing and logic problems with its sharp ideas and cast who pull it right through.

Whether this was a great filmic success is not really the point. The point is that they made a movie dominated by smart and funny female leads, who explore issues of gender and race inequality, with large hints of queer sexuality. It feels like a miracle in a world otherwise saturated with films epically failing the Bechdel Test.

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Outside of the film however, cruel optimism is arguably still going strong

However, the irony in celebrating this bastion of female representation is that I spend much of my academic time critiquing the idea that we should focus on representational politics. I often argue that our focus on getting diversity in film and television obscures the material inequalities that underlie the lack of diversity in the popular realm in the first place. When we are presented with images of “successful” characters from ordinarily marginalised groups, this can help to present a false sense that “anyone can make it” despite the odds stacked against them. This connects up with cultural theorist Lauren Berlant’s idea of “cruel optimism”, which refers to those fantasies we hold onto (like “The American Dream”) that are actually cruel promises destined to fail. Berlant writes:

“Fantasy is the means by which people hoard idealising theories and tableaux about how they and the world ‘add up to something’. What happens when those fantasies start to fray—depression, dissociation, pragmatism, cynicism, optimism activism, or an incoherent mash?” (2011, 2).

Cruel optimism operates where there is a desire and attachment to a kind of projected future, but where this possibility is either impossible or “toxic”. Berlant warns against investing in these projections, because when they fail, it can lead to serious disaffection and demoralisation (or, an unhelpful continuation of false positivity).

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The film doesn’t hold back about the discrimination women experience

So, I have to admit that I was worried that the all-female Ghostbusters might be doing its part to contribute to a cruel optimism about gender equality, to say “don’t worry, women can make it too!”, despite the real-life discrimination, harassment and assault experienced by a diversity of women on a daily basis (and on that note, the Ghostbusters cast). But the beautiful thing about this film is that it owns this reality, and runs with it. The film is surprisingly open about gender issues, directly representing the ways that women are systematically dismissed and derided.

When the characters are thrown out of their academic institutions, it is biting commentary on the historic sexist assumption that women pursue the “irrational” (here represented by an interest in the paranormal). When they are dismissed by the authorities and the “men in charge” it is a reminder of the fact that when women report abuse (here represented by the violent male mastermind) there is a practice of active disbelief. When they are vilified online and represented by the media as liars, it is a reflection of the abuse that women experience in these realms.

Ghostbusters doesn’t present cruel optimism: it reflects the true cruelty of the present. There is not a sense that this can be easily overcome, rather, a mass-scale battle led by a vanguard of ass-kicking diverse women is partly what is needed to make any ground.

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Kate McKinnon, the openly gay dreamboat, plays Jillian

The other thing that Ghostbusters does so well, is show us glimpses of the revolutionary future on the horizon. This is reminiscent of the late José Esteban Muñoz‘s work on queer utopias. Muñoz argues that there is a queer future that we are able to glimpse even in the darkest of moments, where oppressive norms of gender and sexuality have been undone:

“Queerness is a longing that propels us onward, beyond romances of the negative and toiling in the present” (2009, 1).

In Ghostbusters we catch sight of this queer future in the team’s workroom. Here there is no hierarchy (they are all leaders), much empathy (like when Patty cares about Abby’s blood sugar levels), endless patience (even for Kevin who is terrible at answering the phone), and a deep but balanced engagement with questions of science (they make cool stuff) and humanity (like Jillian’s speech to Abby about love). The film is always on the verge of showing us out-and-out queer love, with a complicated triangle between Abby and Erin (past lovers?) and Abby and Jillian (present lovers?), only slightly ameliorated by Erin’s attraction to Kevin. There is also a diversity of bodies, backgrounds, skin colour, and sexuality. Ghostbusters doesn’t shy away from how difficult gender relations are in the present, but it does show us a hint of a future where things could be different.

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They ain’t afraid of no Men’s Rights Activists

There are times of “reverse sexism” within the movie, and I think that kicking a ghost in the groin is probably a bit unnecessary, but largely these moments are used to reflect on the standards that women experience today. The treatment of the assistant Kevin for example, explicitly functions as commentary on the sexual harassment women can expect in most workplaces.

It is no wonder that the MRAs of the Internet are up in arms about this insta feminist-cult-classic. While the sexist and racist hate directed toward the movie serves as a reminder of how far we have to go, it also reveals how challenging this film truly is. As they always say, the feminist proof is in the sexist-reaction pudding.

 

Fifty Shades of Feelings

A few people have asked me what my thoughts on the notorious Fifty Shades of Grey saga are. After wading through endless articles arguing for and against the recently released film, I didn’t feel very comfortable with how either side was addressing the debate, with fans often being demeaned amongst the critiques. You can read my response, The ‘mommy porn’ myth: who are the Fifty Shades of Grey fans? published on The Conversation.

Like many people who have engaged with Fifty Shades, I had a complex (and at times contradictory) set of responses while watching the film. Here’s a rundown of how I felt, represented via the aid of Buffy gifs…

1. When the lights went down

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2. When the dialogue started

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3. When we were introduced to Christian

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4. When Christian tries to seduce Ana by biting her toast

three5. When Christian was creepy as f*** and tracked Ana’s mobile phone

eleven6. When the characters finally got naked 

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7. When the sex started

four8. When Ana orgasmed about a million times losing her virginity

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9. When I checked in with my girlfriend to see how she liked the “red room of pain”

six10. When Christian sold Ana’s car

eight11. But then my mixed emotions because it was a strangely alluring danger fantasy

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12. But I still wanted Ana to just tell Christian to f*** off

ten13. When Christian was all “I like BDSM because my mother was a crack whore”

tumblr_mdwullwUCF1rp4xpeo1_50014. When shit got a bit real at the end

tumblr_lx1vm3PPdC1qh01r8o1_40015. Now, every time I see an article saying Fifty Shades is extremely dangerous

Beep-me-buffy

Date Night Films for Any Occasion

Watching-Scary-MoviesIt’s that time of the year again – the dreaded V-Day. If you’re not shacked up and hoping your partner will finally buy you flowers, you’re probably single and trying to avoid restaurants filled with loved-up couples. Either way, you may be looking for a movie to watch with your boyfriend/s/girlfriend/s/genderfriend/s this weekend (that is, unless you’ve decided to go see Fifty Shades or protest at the cinema). So just in time, here are my recommendations for snuggling up with your handsome self or your kissing buddies:

Great on-screen chemistry with these two

Great on-screen chemistry with these two

What If – When you need an offbeat but surprisingly good romantic comedy 
This quirky Canadian film came out in 2013, but with little fanfare upon its release, you may have missed it. Starring Harry “Daniel Radcliffe” Potter and MPDG Zoe Kazan as the strangely named characters Wallace and Chantry, the dialogue is delightfully relaxed and the side plots are just as entertaining as the central story. Offering a nuanced approach to the complications of love and commitment, this rom-com is well worth a watch.

Your fantasies of Lena Headey as a redhead are answered

Fantasies of Lena Headey as a redhead made real

Imagine Me and You – When you feel like a gay chick flick
Same-sex rom coms are few and far between, but this one is a real winner. It has a pretty crappy rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but this assessment is just factually and scientifically incorrect. This film stars Hot Cersei (Lena Headey) alongside Piper Perabo, and it’s a match made in lesbian imagination heaven. The best thing about the film is its adherence to all of the elements of your usual trashy romcom, but with a gay storyline. What more could you want?

Also Ginnifer Goodwin is super cute

Also Ginnifer Goodwin is super cute

He’s Just Not That Into You – When you feel like a chick flick that is truly terrible
I love this movie. With basically no redeeming features, this film is utter garbage, reinforcing every terrible norm of gender you could imagine (women are desperate to marry, men are either liars and cheaters or weaklings, women have no agency in the dating game, women are controlling, etc). I tried to do a feminist analysis of this film once, but after the opening scene had 8 pages of notes and had to stop. Because it is so devastatingly awful, this is one film where you can truly take a break from thinking. My favourite quote from the film is “It’s hard to focus on nutmeg when the guy who might be the guy of my dreams refuses to call me”

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You can’t go wrong with a cat narrator

The Future – When you need a film that reflects the difficulties of relationships
Written, directed and starring the effervescent Miranda July, this film explores human connection, loneliness and making mistakes. Narrated by a cat, Paw Paw, this magically-real film is one to watch when you feel like something that reflects the messiness of making yourself vulnerable in love. This one’s a keeper.

I just also really love this outfit that Nastassja Kinski wears at one point

I just also really love this outfit that Nastassja Kinski wears at one point

Paris, Texas – When you feel like epic cinematography with poignant themes
Directed by the visionary Wim Wenders, Paris, Texas is a quiet and compelling film. Exploring the complexities and old scars of family relationships, this film slowly sinks into your skin, as you bask in its desert landscapes. Hopeful but dark, this is one to watch when you feel like some existential reflection on date night.

It also stars Icelandic singer Bjork, so that's pretty cool

It also stars Icelandic singer Bjork, so that’s pretty cool

Dancer in the Dark – When you’re feeling like a gut-wrenching drama that will leave you audibly sobbing
So you feel like a big depressing cry – this is the film to go for. Directed by the sadistic Lars von Trier, this movie is a masterpiece of film making that uses Dogme-like techniques to make the film seem exceptionally real, even as characters consistently launch into song (did I mention it’s a musical?). I once re-watched it in a philosophy class, and when the lights went on at the end even the teacher’s face was dripping with tears. I was basically having a fit with how upset it made me.

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Plus Shelley Duvall is weird looking and rad

The Shining – When you don’t feel like sleeping properly again
I felt like I should include a horror movie on this list, but since I haven’t seen many, this is one of the only ones I can recommend. Because apparently watching scary movies is fun for some people. It’s a classic, so if you haven’t seen it already, get on it and make snuggling up to your crush/es on the couch all the more necessary. To calm down afterwards, be sure to watch The Simpsons parody.

Because life is indeed a Cabaret

Because life is indeed a Cabaret

Cabaret – When you need a musical that’s edgy and political
I cannot get enough of Cabaret. The choreography, the songs, the historical political themes, the Liza Minnelli. This film literally has everything you could want in a film, let alone a musical. It’s the film to watch as a compromise when your partner/s can’t stand musicals but you desperately need some camp realness on date night. You’ll probably want to download the soundtrack afterwards too – and will be strutting down the stairs belting out the lyrics in no time, no doubt to your lover’s delight.

A film all about women

A film all about women

All About My Mother – When you feel like intertextual stimulation
The film to watch when you feel like having a discussion about the way it re-imagines the archetype of the Southern belle, and how it re-works the themes of A Streetcar Named Desire and All About Eve. Or, if you’re less of a wanker than I am, this film is enjoyable on the themes of motherhood and female relationships. Director Pedro Almodovar is a true auteur, and the film has sublime casting and beautiful character development. You don’t really have to be an English major to enjoy this one.

The powerful Venus Xtravaganza

The powerful Venus Xtravaganza

Paris is Burning – When you feel like a documentary
My favourite documentary of all time, Paris is Burning explores the drag-ball scene of late 1980s New York. Directed by Jennie Livingston, the documentary is told by the people living as superstars in this underground world. As much about race and class as it is about gender and sexuality, Paris is Burning is ultimately a story about being erased by “normal” society but finding family in the effort to achieve belonging.

Double the Cage, double the excellence

Double the Cage, double the excellence

Adaptation – When you feel like great screenwriting and an unpredictable plot
Written by Charlie Kaufman, and starring Nicolas Cage and Meryl Streep, this film just couldn’t have more going for it. It’s funny, dramatic and a little bit off at times, which makes it very enjoyable. Plus did I mention Nicolas Cage? Playing twins? Double the Nicolas Cage can never be a bad thing. While you’re at it, please also watch Nicolas Cage Losing His Shit

Animated foxes with more style than most people

Animated foxes with more style than most people

Fantastic Mr Fox – When you realise Wes Anderson made a stop motion animation of a Roald Dahl book and you haven’t seen it
Admittedly I’m just listing films I like now. I love director Wes Anderson, even though he’s clearly a privileged motherf***er, he is damn good at making films. If you’ve got a whole weekend with your loves or yourself, I’d recommend just marathoning his entire oeuvre. Meanwhile, Fantastic Mr Fox is romantic and cute, full of adventure and beautiful to look at. A totally rompy delight. Do it.

Goldblum good times await you

Goldblum good times await you

Jurassic Park – When you feel like some Jeff Goldblum
If you’re one of those crazy crackers that hasn’t seen Jurassic Park since it came out at the movies (or indeed, if you were born post-1993), you need to watch this classic STAT. Not only is the fourth one coming out in July (i.e. this is planning in advance for a future date night), it is just literally one of the best movies ever. Also there is probably never a time when you don’t feel like some Jeff Goldblum, and this is peak Goldblum material. Yes. Oh yes.

Happy film watching!

Scourge of the Girl Crush: 7 Nearly-Gay Movies

Sam Frost and Lisa Hyde 4EVA

Sam Frost and Lisa Hyde 4EVA

I have this habit of erasing straightness from movies and TV shows, to the extent that I often remember things as explicitly gay, when really there’s heteroromance as a main focus. For example, in this year’s series of The Bachelor on Australian television, I was convinced that the main man Blake was gay, and that his top two women left at the end – Sam and Lisa – were in love (I still stalk their Instagram accounts and hold to this theory). When it all went to crap, I couldn’t help thinking it was probably because everyone was gay, and the new girl Blake picked was just the only one willing to be his beard.

It's like this see

It’s like this see

I was recently asked by a friend why I was so insistent on seeing queerness in straight romances, like, isn’t this some kind of reverse homophobia?! I answered that there are is so little queerness represented in the mainstream that by default I see queer storylines in some kind of attempt to open up space. As Jill Mackey writes about seeing the gay in the straight:

Despite [the] dearth of honest representations of ourselves and our lives, lesbians continue to see mainstream films, and we make up for the lack of representation of ourselves by “reading against the grain” for representations of women that we might appropriate and interpret as signs of lesbian love and desire

I'll save the queer reading of Princess Bride for another time

But I’ll save the queer reading of Princess Bride for another time

Of course I don’t see every romance this way and there are some “straight” partnerships I definitely love – Buttercup and Wesley, Elizabeth and Darcy and all of Love Actually, for example. But in many movies, I just can’t help seeing epic romances between the female characters, which leaves me in a state of perpetual disappointment and/or simply mis-remembering the endings (always tricking myself that the fanfic in my head actually happened). Adding to my angst is the fact that many films try and pass off any possible queer vibes as simple non-threatening “girl crushes” instead. This makes me pretty mad, because it suggests that there is a “safe” way for women to be nearly-queer, while still asserting an explicitly “no-homo” sentiment (many “bromances” also promote the message of safely-not-gay).

So, entertaining a mix of both delight and disappointment, here’s a rundown of my top seven nearly-gay-girl-couples (spoilers ahead):

drinking

“We got played by the same guy… do you want vodka or tequila?”

7. Carly and Kate, The Other Woman
The Other Woman
has an interesting premise – when Carly finds out that she’s actually the mistress of the man she’s been dating, she becomes unlikely friends with his wife Kate (and they team up to do awful things to him). The movie explores their burgeoning friendship and (if you ask me) there is a great deal of homoeroticism in their unintended ménage à trois, particularly when they discuss their desire to still have sex with the cheating guy, yet “withhold” for each other. All I’m saying is that there is a lot of sexual tension, drunken rollicking and under-wedding-skirt action. But really for me the unacknowledged love between the two women is cemented when Carly “falls” for Kate’s handsome yet fairly two-dimensional brother. It’s like seeing her choose to take the second prize in a raffle. The bro don’t cut it.

"You are more beautiful than Cinderella! You smell like pine needles, and have a face like sunshine"

“You are more beautiful than Cinderella! You smell like pine needles, and have a face like sunshine”

6. Rita and Becca, Bridesmaids
This one’s not quite as painful, because really the lesbian themes are pretty overt, so it’s not so much about reading into things as celebrating a minor storyline. These guys have a serious crush on each other, and the femme-on-femme action couldn’t be better. In fact I love them so much I can’t even remember how this storyline ends, despite seeing the film several times. I think they go back to their husbands, but in my head they get shacked up in Vegas. My only wish is that there was a lot more of the film dedicated to them and I’m still hoping for a gay wedding spin-off.

"A woman's touch can quickly fill the empty flower boxes on a window sill. One smile from her and zoom, little buds begin to bloom

“A woman’s touch can quickly fill the empty flower boxes on a window sill. One smile from her and zoom, little buds begin to bloom”

5. Katie and Calamity, Calamity Jane
What can I say about these two? They move to a hut in the wilderness and dance around singing a song called “A Woman’s Touch”. About how good the touch of a woman is. Yeah. At the end the Hollywood producers stick a weird double wedding scene in there where Katie and Calam marry some forgettable guys, but it’s pretty hard to believe. Did I mention that Calamity also sings at length about her “Secret Love“? Mmm. 

"It's time to see what I can do. To test the limits and break through. No right, no wrong, no rules for me I'm free!"

“It’s time to see what I can do. To test the limits and break through. No right, no wrong, no rules for me I’m free!”

4. Anna and Elsa, Frozen
Okay, stay with me on this one. I *get* that Elsa and Anna are sisters, but the queer themes here are out of control. I mean it’s really nice to see sisterly love represented as “true love” instead of romantic love, but it’s hard to overlook the intensely gay themes of the film. Funnily enough, when Frozen came out and was lambasted by a bunch of right-wing religious nut jobs, I agreed with their readings of the film as super gay (but obviously disagreed with the conclusion that this was a bad thing). The way I see it, there was some serious Freudian taboo stuff represented at the beginning when Anna gets “touched” by Elsa (representative of the sexual exploration that children do), but then Elsa is forced to hide her queer touch. When she runs away to the mountains and sings “Let it Go” it definitely smacks of coming out of the closet (plus she femmes up like a super high femme of excellence). Olaf the camp snowman is like a concrete manifestation of her queer desire, and not surprisingly turns up at the beginning, but doesn’t come to life until Elsa “comes out”.

"I just wanna meet I guy I like as much as you"

“I just wanna meet I guy I like as much as you”

3. Paige and Sasha, Life Partners
This movie is painful because it follows the story of Sasha, an openly lesbian woman (representation – tick), who is best friends with a straight woman Paige. When Paige gets a really straight boyfriend and stops hanging out with Sasha, everyone has a bad time, particularly anyone in the audience hoping the women would get together. Apparently this film was trying to push boundaries by representing this kind of relationship (and is based on a true story/ directed by the real-life Paige). But what you end up with is wondering why Paige stays with her super clean cut man, when Sasha is about a zillion times more interesting and dashing in every way. It’s like the film is an ad for homosexuality through painting a picture of a monotonous and droll heterosexual world. It’s very confusing.

"That's my jam. It's my lady jam."

“That’s my jam. It’s my lady jam.”

2. Beca and Chloe, Pitch Perfect
Oh Beca and Chloe! Or, as Tumblr kids refer to them, “Bechloe“. Pitch Perfect is one of my favourite movies (I would watch it as frequently as I watch Mean Girls, but I can’t deal with all the vomiting), but the non-eventuating Bechloe storyline is a killer. They have so much chemistry, they are pretty much literally on fire for each other. The shower scene! The party scene! The finals scene! OMG it’s a Bechloe love-fest! Except that it’s not, and when I re-watch I am continually reminded that there is some dude that Beca gets with at the end. I’m sorry but getting sentimental over Breakfast Club? Whatever. I’m sure Bechloe will live on in Pitch Perfect 2. And in my heart.

"I'm with Muriel"

“I’m with Muriel”

1. Muriel and Rhonda, Muriel’s Wedding
I re-watched Muriel’s Wedding on TV the other night, and was delighted to see the glaringly obvious gay themes in there that I’d never noticed as a kid. Not only does the film indulge in an uber-kitsch camp aesthetic, but it seriously challenges the institution of heterosexual marriage by mocking it at every turn. Rhonda sweeps in and transforms Muriel’s life, and the two are miserable when they part. There is also the scene where Rhonda discovers Muriel’s book of fake wedding pictures and is utterly distraught, and when Muriel finally does get (sham) married, Rhonda sits like an outcast at the back. But your heart skips a beat when they look at each other leaving Porpoise Spit at the end – practically on the verge of kissing at every moment.

There it is, my depressing/delusionally heartening list that would make for a super marathon of film watching. If you have any other films with similar not-yet-queer themes, let me know in the comments below!

Best Lesbian Date Movie Ever

pride5

A shot from ‘Pride’: Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM)

Seeing as I usually only cover depressing Adam Sandler movies here at binarythis, I thought that it was high time I do a review of something more uplifting. Yesterday my girlfriend and I went to see Pridethe true story of how a gay and lesbian activist group joined forces with a mining town to fight the Thatcher government’s attacks on miners in 1984 -1985.

We assumed that it might be emotion-making – seeing as we both cried watching the trailer. But we didn’t expect quite the workout that our tear ducts got, and we laughed at our own sentimentality as our eyes welled up in pretty much every scene (to be fair to us, beforehand we accidentally primed ourselves for an afternoon of happy tears by watching Ellen Page’s coming out speech).

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Ben Schnetzer as LGSM leader Mark Ashton

Particular tear-jerkers for us were every time:
– someone mentioned the importance of solidarity
– people spontaneously sang union songs
– there was the shaking of hands/friendship between the gays and lesbians and the miners
– someone stood up for what they believe in, even though it was really tough
So yeah, pretty much the whole film.

As someone who has been involved in political struggles, particularly around students and education as well as refugees here in Australia (#HeyAsio), the movie struck a chord with me because it showed the way in which activism can fundamentally transform people’s views and bring them together to fight for a better world. This is summed up in my favourite quote from the film, from one of the miners who visits a gay club to thank Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) for raising money:

When you’re in a battle with an enemy that’s so much bigger, so much stronger than you, to find out you had a friend you never knew existed, well that’s the best feeling in the world. Can you see what we’ve done here, by coming together all of us? We made history!

Real-life Pride March, 1985

Real-life Pride March, 1985

Though I really wanted to know more about the struggle on the picket lines (and how they managed to maintain such an extremely long strike), the focus of the film was really the journey of the gay and lesbian group who supported the miners. It was so refreshing to see a film where intimacy between same-sex couples was the norm and where it was not made into a plot spectacle or reduced to a joke. Overall the film managed to cover a great range of struggles encountered in queer life (homophobia, parental relations, AIDS, coming out, and finding pride) as well as political organising (building coalitions, schisms forming, the difficulty of leadership, and the challenge of those who argue for “partying not politics”).

When we got home we listened to Bread and Roses as we made dinner, elated with a sense that history reveals human beings are capable of remarkable solidarity.