Monday, April 1, 2013

5 Underrated/Understated Queer Films

After a brief hiatus, I’m back to business as usual! I wanted to highlight a few underrated and understated queer films that I've seen over the past few months.

Open (2010) by Jake Yuzna

Open is a genuine, albeit low budget, feature-length debut from director Jake Yuzna. Yuzna’s film is an intimate character study portraying the lives of several individuals confronting uniquely queer realities. Open considers the role that medical science plays in the formation and expansion of identity. The cinematography is surprisingly astute but the real triumph is in the film's unapologetic and frank depiction of queer intimacy, queer bodies, and queer sexuality. The acting is a bit staggered at times but Open remains a challenging and beautiful work.  

Acting - 6
Cinematography - 9
Intersecionality - 9
Other Critics - 6
Queerness - 10

+1 Bechdel Test: Passes
+1 Groundbreaker: Open depicts queer bodies and queer intimacy without gimmicks or fanfare.
+1 Unicorn Power: The film isn’t afraid of being too “artsy” or challenging.
+1 Voodoo: The ending is ambiguous and leaves the viewer wondering.

+0 Trigger Warning: Slight TW for some sexual content and nudity. The film might lead to awkwardness if you’re watching with parents or small children.

QFB Rating: 44/50

Marwencol (2010) by Jeff Malmberg

I’m surprised that Marwencol doesn't receive more attention as a queer documentary. After being the victim of a brutal hate crime, Mark Hogencamp suffers from extensive memory loss and debilitating post traumatic stress. In order to cope with his intense anxiety, Hogencamp begins constructing and documenting a surrogate life by repurposing various models, figurines, and dolls. These components generate a therapeutic reality that aid him in his physical and mental recovery. Through a process of documentation, his efforts eventually gain national recognition in galleries. Ultimately, Malmberg’s documentary serves as a deeply intriguing look at intolerance, disability, and community. Marwencol articulates both the value and limitations of artmaking as catharsis.

Acting - N/A 10 (it’s a doc...)
Cinematography - 7
Intersecionality - 9
Other Critics - 9
Queerness - 8

+1 Groundbreaker: It’s rare to find a documentary that incorporates so many intersecting issues (i.e. queer identity, outsider art, disability/recovery, etc.).
+1 Unicorn Power: Mark Hogencamp is a mesmerizing individual who Malmberg captures is respect and sensitivity.  

QFB Rating: 45/50

Undertow (2009) by Javier Fuentes-Leon
Undertow is a uniquely beautiful and heartbreaking ghost story about two men living in a Peruvian beach town. Miguel, a married man and soon-to-be father, begins an affair with a local painter. Their relationship slowly becomes an increasingly "open secret," as the protagonist struggles with his long-suppressed identity, the bigotry of his neighbors, and growing domestic responsibilities. Undertow shows strength in it’s originality and impressive acting.   

Acting - 10
Cinematography - 10
Intersecionality - 8
Other Critics - 8
Queerness - 8

+1 Unicorn Power: The originality of the screenplay is inspiring. It was nice to watch a film with an eccentric premise that took itself seriously enough to also implement quality acting.
+1 Voodoo: This Peruvian ghost story is appropriately haunting. It is a narrative about loss and reconciliation that lingers.

QFB Rating: 46/50

Humpday (2009) by Lynn Shelton
After watching the trailer, I had moderate to low expectations for Humpday due to its seemingly low production quality and unlikely premise (shame on me!). After viewing the film, I was highly impressed by its clever dialog, which addresses heteronormativity and the limitations of binaristic sexuality. I was also surprised by its oddly convincing characterizations. Ben and Andrew are two friends who, by way of trying to call each other’s bluff, agree to enter a film into an independent porn festival. The goal of their project is to show two “straight” men, compromising their “innate” hetero urges for the sake of art. Although I think the Humpday could have pushed further into the awkward tide of performative identity, it did generate some fantastic discourse on the subject, while managing to remain funny and unpretentious.

Acting - 10
Cinematography - 8
Intersecionality - 7
Other Critics - 6
Queerness - 9

+1 Groundbreaker: Humpday starts some refreshing discussions about heteronormativity and masculinity. It also reflects on the shortcomings/pitfalls of binaristic sexuality.

QFB Rating: 41/50

Old Joy (2006) by Kelly Reichardt
I want to start off with a bit of a disclaimer. Old Joy is "boring." Or I should really say, it's a very "scenic" film. The style is consistent with the meditative, environment-oriented aesthetic that director Kelly Reichardt established in her breakthrough film Meek’s Cutoff. Old Joy strives to capture the intimacy of silence and the contemplativeness of travel. The awkward friendship between the film’s two primary characters holds a hypnotic tension, leading to an enigmatic closing scene. Bubbling under the surface of the film's docile surface is an intriguing subtext concerning suppressed desire, reunion, and friendship. I can’t say that Old Joy is a conventionally entertaining film, but I will say that for some reason I couldn’t stop thinking about it once it was over.

Acting - 7
Cinematography - 10
Intersecionality - 6
Other Critics - 7
Queerness - 8

+1 Unicorn Power: The film has an unconventional structure that is not preoccupied with a need to entertain. Instead, the director seeks to depict the introspective awkwardness of reunion.
+1 Voodoo: The cinematography is strangely hypnotic. The ending is ambiguous. Old Joy asks viewers to interpret certain events on their own and the film becomes more interesting for what it doesn’t reveal.

QFB Rating: 40/50

Gearing up for a Reboot

Hello everyone! After a bit of hibernation, The Queer Film Blog is gearing up for a reboot! Stay tuned for new words and a new design for the summer. <3

Friday, June 22, 2012

Queering the Mainstream: Gender in "Prometheus"

(Do not read the following article if you still intend to be surprised while watching Prometheus.)

Ridley Scott’s kinda-prequel to the Aliens franchise, Prometheus, has gotten quite a lot of attention due to its laborious ad campaign, which spread virally across YouTube over the course of what has felt like decades (it was actually less than a year but seemed much, much longer). I have to admit that as a huge fan of both Alien (1979) and Aliens (1986), I was very excited to see an installment that appeared to have a comparable visual and conceptual rigor, combined with a strong suite of actors. As the reviews suggest though, I came out of the theater with highly mixed emotions. The allegorical ambitions of Prometheus fall a little flat and the story fails to completely satisfy a suspension of belief that good writing tends to aid. The characters are often impossibly stupid, and most of them (with the exception of Noomi Rapace and Michael Fassbender) are so disposable and underdeveloped that the viewer is excited to see them die, since it often promises a glimpse of some unimaginable creature. With that said, the visuals are stunning, the concept is compelling, and the overall vision is admirable. However, perhaps one of the most compelling aspects of the Alien cannon has been its constant gender positioning and repositioning. Ellen Ripley, the femme fatale of Scott’s original Alien, played by Sigourney Weaver, provides fairly large shoes for filling. Shoes that I desperately hoped would fit Noomi Rapace in her role as archeologist Elizabeth Shaw. Maybe that’s a bit unfair but Ellen Ripley was an incredibly significant character for me growing up. She contradicted contemporary portrayals of women in all her gender-non-conforming glory. As a budding queer, it was truly refreshing to watch a strong female character who didn’t get bogged down in some tedious hetero romance. Instead, she kicks a lot of tuchus in spite of the surrounding patriarchy, while showing a depth of character that resisted being overly sentimentalized. Perhaps this is partly due to the fact that Weaver’s character was originally going to be cast as male. Thankfully, it was decided that a female lead would help Alien stand out in a male-dominated genre.

In Prometheus, Elizabeth Shaw is a bit more emotional and naive by comparison. This could have been a problem if Rapace was a less skilled actress but she seems to be convincingly human in the role, unlike Charlize Theron, who always seems to have her drama dial set one notch too high lately. A scene that did spike my Ripley nostalgia though, involves Shaw using an automated surgical unit to extract a newly acquired alien fetus (yes, there must be at least one involuntary impregnation per Alien plot, otherwise it’s not worth seeing). Her character frantically administers anesthetics, while trying to convince the machine to extract a lethal parasite from her abdomen. I’m not sure if anyone noticed this, but the scenario seems extra loaded with political allegory. When Shaw realizes that her “pregnancy” will kill her, David (the not-so-friendly robot), refuses to remove it and renders her unconscious. Strangely, some of the crew seem aloof to her rational desire for an immediate abortion, hinting that they also have a stake in a corporate agenda to study these creatures further. The allegory becomes more salient later on after Shaw awakes and struggles to arrange her own C-section. Unfortunately the surgical machine is only formatted for male anatomy, an aspect of the film that seems laughable but does solidify notions of female oppression and the war over women’s reproductive freedom, which are coincidentally hot button issues this year.

The film also creates a binaristic struggle that seems awfully gender-charged. The "Engineers” for instance, appear overtly masculinized (although admittedly we know very little about them or their preferred pronouns), while the aliens have typically incorporated some female attributes. The “facehuggers,” or in this case, the freaky parasitic cave worms, have a rather vaginal flare, and historically the aliens themselves inhabit a matriarchal system fronted by a queen. Gender also seems to inform the relationships between Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), David, and Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron). Weyland notes his fondness for David, who he considers like a son, but fails to mention that Vickers is in fact his daughter. The familial connection is revealed later in the film, suggesting that Weyland prefers a robotic son that he can conveniently program, over a strong-willed daughter who challenges his authority. Sadly, Vickers is pretty despicable herself and rather heartless.

So what is all of this gendered imagery saying? You’re guess is as good as mine. Like the plot itself, the messages are equally muddled. But here it goes...

Prometheus appears to reflect on established gender tropes (both masculine and feminine). Masculine tropes are embodied by the “Engineers,” who look like Greek statues, and the corporate interests of Weyland. Each entity thrives on control; controlling nature, controlling women’s bodies, and controlling the things that they create (androids, weapons, technology, black goo, you name it!). One could infer that feminine tropes are elicited through “uncontrollable” elements (like aliens), but also primarily through nature itself, which Weyland and the Engineers both attempt to manipulate and dominate. This gendered positioning of Technology vs. Nature is really nothing new but the characters in Prometheus (whether male or female) seem to fail because of their need for control, rather than a desire for genuine knowledge. In some ways, this dynamic begins to un-gender what are frequently stereotyped qualities, while acknowledging significantly gendered tropes within film.

At the end of the day, Prometheus still suffers from a number of inconsistencies and offers viewers a muddy incorporation of political and existential subtext. The discussion that it initiates concerning power and control as they relate within a gendered framework is interesting but not fully realized. In spite of the muddled outcome, I am still interested in seeing how future installments tackle questions posed in Prometheus.

This post was written in conjunction with the 2012 Queer Film Blogathon hosted by Garbo Laughs and Pussy Goes Grrrr!

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Top Five Queer Film Soundtracks

1. Pariah (2011) by Dee Rees 
Dee Rees brings together a diverse ensemble of exclusively female musicians in Pariah. Combining hip-hop, punk, and soul, this eclectic score reflects the complex identities expressed throughout the film. Featured artists include Sparlha Swa, Tamar-kali, and Khia.

2. The Runaways (2010) by Floria Sigismondi
Joan Jett... enough said.

3. Love Songs (2007) by Christophe Honoré
Love Songs is a French new wave musical that falls somewhere between The Dreamers (2003) and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964). Honor√© offers a soundtrack that is catchy and delightfully buoyant.  

4. Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001) by John Cameron Mitchell 
Based on Mitchell's 1998 musical, Hedwig and the Angry Inch was song-driven from its inception. The film presents riotous melodies written and arranged by Stephen Trask. 

5. Velvet Goldmine (1998) by Todd Haynes 
Velvet Goldmine chronicles the story of Brian Slade, a 1970s glam rocker modelled after David Bowie's stage persona Ziggy Stardust. The film features several original songs, as well as contributions by Brian Eno and Lou Reed.  

Honorable Mentions:

La France (2007) by Serge Bozon
Although the plot may not technically be "queer" per se, this film IS technically fantastic. Bozon effortlessly integrates song into this not-quite-a-musical production.

Cry-Baby (1990) by John Waters 
Regardless of the film you choose, John Waters will always supply you with a quirky and irreverent score. Cry-Baby gets extra points for having original music that happens to not suck.

Based on a 1973 stage musical, The Rocky Horror Picture Show spawned a cult phenomenon of shadow performances, midnight screenings, and periodic spanking. The camp is palpable, and the songs are as infectious as they are timeless.

Note: Some of you may be wondering why the iconic musical "Rent" (2005) by Chris Columbus has been excluded from this list. Simply put, it should have never left the stage. Personal bias aside, as a compromise, I will post an earlier AIDS musical. (Yes... there is more than one.)

Zero Patience (1993) by John Greyson
Greyson's film is a colorful and surreal Canadian musical that focuses on the early history of AIDS. It challenges the myth that HIV was introduced to North America by a single carrier known as "Patient Zero" (aka Gaetan Dugas).

Friday, May 18, 2012

Review: "Pariah" by Dee Rees

Hollywood is bloated with coming-of-age narratives; however, Dee Rees's breakthrough film Pariah accomplishes the difficult task of generating a truly unique and thought-provoking story within a familiar framework. Rees manages to universalize her film's central themes without sentimentalizing the experiences of her characters, or attempting to create master narratives regarding queerness and race. Part of the film's complexity derives from its simplicity. At its core, Pariah is a story about a teenager named Alike who struggles with identity and acceptance, but it also incorporates dynamic intersections between race, class, and gender. 

Pariah will inevitably be compared to films like Precious by Lee Daniels, and perhaps Gun Hill Road by Rasheed Ernesto Green. Unlike Precious thoughwhich attempts to consolidate societal issues within its central character, Pariah lays out a more subtle story, allowing viewers to locate themselves within Alike's fight for acceptance. While Precious functions as the Forrest Gump of urban plight, amassing a fairly unrealistic series of misfortunes that some could argue becomes tragedy porn, Rees's rendering of Alike remains powerfully individualized and nuanced. 

In the process of discussing identity, Rees also challenges stereotypes about race, highlights class struggles, and complicates ideas concerning gender, misogyny, and family life. In one of Pariah's opening scenes, Alike and her friends go to a lesbian strip club. The excitement of engaging with this new queer community becomes problematized by the misogynist setting that Alike ultimately outgrows. This growth is amplified by the character's pursuit to define themselves on their own terms when it comes to interests, gender, and sexuality. 

Pariah also engages in a discourse about class by positioning Alike's family next to Laura's family (Alike's best friend, played by Pernell Walker). While Alike's family appears to be solidly middle-class, Laura must quit school and work in order to take care of her sick sister. This conversation concerning class alerts viewers that there are multiple social dilemmas affecting the attitudes of characters and offers several subject positions that make the film much more intricate.  

Both Adepero Oduye, who plays Alike, and Kim Wayans (Alike's mother, Audrey), give outstanding performances. The volatile mother-daughter relationship in Pariah is aided by a masterful screenplay. Although Audrey embodies the social rejection that queer people often face, Dee Rees is patient enough not to completely vilify Wayans' character. We are offered several scenes that give us insight into the mother's own feelings of insecurity and isolation as she contends with loneliness and her husband's presumable infidelity.

Lastly, you cannot discuss Pariah without  praising its masterful cinematographic style, which manages to be rich and abundantly vivid. The camera work balances chromatic nighttime vignettes with comparatively starker day shots that dip in and out of twilit domestic interiors. Filters are used sparingly and effectively for thematic tone but avoid eking toward cliche. The camera itself appears buoyed, rather than shaky, offering viewers a voyeuristic intimacy. Adding to the atmosphere are smoldering tunes by Tamar-kali and Sparlha Swa, who enrich the film's soundtrack.  

Pariah has been universally praised by critics, scoring an impressive 96% on Rotten Tomatoes. Some reviewers have criticized the film for being overly contemplative or formulaic. I would argue that Dee Rees is reinventing and reclaiming a common framework. She effectively integrates the subject positions of historically ignored communities, while remaining true to a vision of individualism, and resisting the tokenization of her characters. In any case, those who discredit the revolutionary capacity and cultural significance of Pariah have not been doing their homework. Dee Rees is a visual poet and a powerful storyteller. It will be exciting to see what she does in future projects. 

Additional Considerations:

[ B ] - Passes the Bechdel Test
1. The movie consists primarily of female characters.
2. Female characters talk to each other frequently. 
3. Female characters discuss things other than men.

[ G ] - Groundbreaker
Dee Rees's sensitivity to subject position makes Pariah a truly groundbreaking film. Reinventing what should be a common framework, Pariah surfaces as a genre altering force.

[ U ] - Unicorn Power
Pariah demonstrates an irreducible uniqueness through its lead character, Alike, who is both vulnerable and self empowered. Dee Rees's devotion to her characters and their specific identities proves that she is a visionary and a true unicorn among directors.

[ V ] - Voodoo
The film's ending offers closure but leaves the viewer wondering what Alike will do next, and how the character will continue to change as she embarks on a journey of continued self discovery.

First Girl-Centric Film From Pixar

Really looking forward to watching this one! "Brave" is the first girl-centric film from Pixar, and Brenda Chapman is their first female director. (But seriously, what's with the growing feminist archery trope a la The Hunger Games?)

Article: Rocking Comment from Brave Director Brenda Chapman

Why is our society so obsessed with "outing"?

Why is our society so obsessed with "outing"? The gender/sexuality binary only manages to build a closet next to a prison cell. As normative society lifts its hand to open the closet door, it fails to notice the bars that it's reaching through. They may have the strength to open the closet but we have the keys to their cages!