Requiem for Leon, the Best TV Personality You've Never Heard Of

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Requiem for Leon, the Best TV Personality You've Never Heard Of

In December of 2017, Leon Bernicoff, an 83-year-old retired schoolteacher from Liverpool, passed away after a short illness. When his wife, June, announced his death on Twitter, hundreds of thousands of people showed their support, and tens of thousands sent messages of condolence. When I found out just a week ago the Leon had passed, I found myself getting quite emotional, as he had been a small but important part of my year living abroad in the United Kingdom. We'd never met.

During my year in the U.K., I encountered a category of television show that can only be described as “the concept of this show sounds horrible, but it’s actually amazing.” For example, the unfortunately named Undateables, a reality show that followed people with physical and mental disabilities through the trials of dating was, despite its title, highly empathetic, deeply felt, and humanizing. I don’t think I saw a single episode that didn’t make me cry.

The other show in this category that I came to love--in fact, it ended up being my favorite UK show full stop--is called Gogglebox. The concept sounds even stupider than the last one: you watch people watching TV. To be more precise, you watch a handful of different families from around the UK (well, England and Wales, anyway) talk about a selection of shows each week.

I know, I know, how could this possibly be any good? And yet, it was! It quickly became my most anticipated hour of television each week. From stationary cameras set up around their living room televisions, I’d watch as the stars of Gogglebox (I honestly can’t think of a better way to describe them) would chat their way through a sampler platter of the week’s telly. From mainstay ratings grabbers like Strictly Come Dancing and Get Me Out Of Here, I’m A Celebrity! to dramas like Happy Valley and Luther to news reports and documentaries from the BBC and ITV, each week was a different taste of what the British small screen had to offer.

But more than that, the collection of families brought together was a grand tour of Britain—a middle class family in North London, a working-class family in Durham, two hair-dresser ex-boyfriends and their dachshunds in Brighton, two gospel-preaching women in Brixton, a posh couple never without a drink in their hands in Sandwich, a pair of best friends watching from a trailer in Hull… the list goes on. And while at first it can feel a bit awkward, a bit forced, it’s amazing how quickly you slip into their living rooms, and how quickly (and despite the saccharinity, I really don’t think I’m overstating it here) some of them slip into your heart. Which brings us to Leon and June…

Leon and June were early favorites of mine. The couple, who would watch their shows from their living room in Liverpool, had the kind of relationship you hope to grow into: two people who have shared their entire lives and still find themselves irrepressibly delighted by each other. They’ve debated what “friends with benefits” means (the conclusion they came to was “friends who are receiving government benefits”), and discussed Tom Jones (“Sir Tom Jones,” Leon corrects). 

Though the bulk of the show consists of clips and commentary, there’s also a delightful amount of B-roll (the production of Gogglebox has remained a kind of intentional mystery for me, but I guess they just leave the cameras rolling during some bits). I’ve seen Leon dance with June, steal candies from a tub he was supposed to wrap as a gift, complain about his diet, and fiddle with a light-up Christmas sweater that wouldn’t turn off. “Fuck ’em” he says, before smiling down at the lights.

But after spending months watching them, I began to feel like I knew them as people (and I speak not just of Leon and June, but of many of the Gogglebox families). I know that Leon was an Everton football club super-fan (though I couldn’t for the life of me tell you where Everton is); I know that he was a lifelong Labour supporter (he once referred to former Prime Minister David Cameron on air as a “fuckface Tory” and a “posh knob”); I know that he and June used to take their kids to the Liverpool Zoo (from the episode where they watch The Secret Life of Zoos). And I know that he was madly in love with his wife.

This last point was driven home in so many different ways, from the look in his eyes as he’d mischievously tease her (or the look in his eyes as she’d tease him), to the unfiltered emotions he showed several times—once during an episode of Planet Earth where a starving polar bear roamed the icebergs looking for a meal, another while watching the end of Gladiator. I have been reduced to tears more than once by Leon’s tender commentary, especially regarding his feelings for June.

What I eventually came around to realizing was that, distinct from more typical reality television, Gogglebox provides an unparalleled intimacy with its stars. They watch from their own living rooms, on their own couches, photos of their own grandchildren on the coffee table.* As someone who has a low tolerance for reality TV faux-earnestness (I nearly broke into hives watching two episodes of this season of The Bachelor), the chatter and jokes of the Goggleboxers comes off as genuine and endearing. 

But it’s not just their reactions to the popular TV shows that’s eye-opening; they regularly are asked to watch news reports and political interviews, and if you think they’re keeping their political opinions to themselves, you are incorrect. One fascinating example from my year in the UK was when Barack Obama visited ahead of the Brexit Referendum, and expressed his desire for the UK to remain in the European Union. Opinions were strongly split—sometimes down the middle of people’s living rooms. It was commentary at least as interesting as a lot of talking heads. (I found Leon’s rant about David Cameron, below; watch that and tell me that’s not good television.)

They’ve tried Gogglebox-style shows in other countries, though it hasn’t been as successful as its original iteration. The American version, The People’s Couch (which sounds more like a communist IKEA franchise) aired on Bravo from 2013-2016, though never quiet got the foothold of its British counterpart. 

It’s entirely possible that a good deal of my personal besotting is due in no small part to my general ongoing Anglophilia; I’ve only watched a few clips of The People’s Couch and the exposition talk that doesn’t seem to bother me in Gogglebox grates on my ears without the buffer of an accent. Plus, with Gogglebox, there’s a two-layer cultural exchange happening, exposing me not only to everyday Brits but giving me a taste of what shows they’re consuming (I don’t know that I actually have the patience to sit through an entire episode of Strictly, as it's referred to in casual conversation). Throw in the unique flavor of British self-deprecation, and its possible that this is a project that works best in its original flavo(u)r. For what it’s worth, I’m not sure I found any Britons who enjoyed Gogglebox quite as much as I did (they, as it turned out, were watching entire episodes of Strictly). 

I can’t really even really push that hard for my fellow Americans to watch Gogglebox, since it seems to be pretty hard to find in the States (though, if you ever find yourself in the United Kingdom, even in a hotel room just for a night, you should absolutely fire up Channel 4’s On Demand feature, All4, and see if there are any episodes of Gogglebox available to watch). Short of that, you can find scattered clips online. Aside from June and Leon, keep a look out for Jenny and Lee, Ellie and Izzy, Giles and Mary, Sandra and Sandy, and Dave and Shirley, though really, they're all good value.

I suppose all I really want to say is, thank you, Leon, for agreeing with June to share your living room with us. It was a delight watching telly with you, and you won’t soon be forgotten. Here's hoping you're somewhere, looking down at your light up Christmas sweater, saying "fuck 'em" and having a laugh.

*If you’re curious, yes, they are being paid (reports state the each Gogglebox family receives £1500 for every week they were on the show, and I wouldn’t be shocked if some of them got upgraded sofas from longtime sponsor Sof-o-logy).

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Why Won't Anyone Take (I,) Tonya Seriously?

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Why Won't Anyone Take (I,) Tonya Seriously?

It’s hard to feel bad for I, Tonya, the film from Craig Gillespie about 90s figure skater Tonya Harding; the movie did well at the box office, was praised by critics (enjoying a 90% rating at review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes), and has scored three Oscar nominations—no small feat.

When I saw the film for the first time, I was deeply impressed by its complexity, its brutality, and sure, it’s grim, dark humor. It touched me in a way I hadn’t anticipated, and which no other film released in 2017 managed. I’ve now seen it a total of three times, and frankly, I think it gets better with each viewing.

Which isn't to say it's a perfect film: the way it chooses to age (or not) it's characters can make it difficult to place them in their lives (when, late in the film, Harding clocks her age at 23, I was kind of surprised). And the rendering of Shawn Eckhardt by Paul Walter Hauser—Harding's "bodyguard" who receives most of the blame for the "incident" with Nancy Kerrigan—while funny, also comes off as a crude working class lampoon, right down to the aggressively depressing strip club where he and Gillooly meet. 

Still, I liked the movie a lot, and when the Academy announced its nominees last month, I was kind of Mugatu’d upon seeing that I, Tonya was left out. Others have spent time bemoaning the snub of Sean Baker’s excellent movie The Florida Project, and rightly so, though that might have been more of a problem of exposure than of an active snub.

But so many people I’ve talked to (and I’m sorry friends, because I know I won’t shut up about it) have been more or less nonplussed by I, Tonya’s absence from the Best Picture list. People liked the movie, but nobody seems to see it as the Important Film™ that I think it really is.

 Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding.

Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding.

Why I, Tonya should be taken seriously

The film investigates a lot of different ideas in deep and clever ways (blame, punishment, ability, image, class), but the one I kept returning to over and over again was the fascinating way the film explores the idea of narrative control.

The frame of the film—announced loudly by a title card that declares that the movie is “Based on irony free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly”—immediately problematizes the concept of narrative authority by casting doubt on any of the facts presented. The writer and director might as well have hung a sign on the front of the movie that says “We don’t have a fucking clue what actually happened.”

(If you’ll indulge me a moment of super brief literary analysis of the sentence: “based on” kicks off the game, channeling a construction that the cynical moviegoing audience has come to assume means “not true.” “Irony free” and “wildly contradictory” are sneaky elements to throw in here—”irony free” refers to the interviews, not the film, which is filled with irony; “wildly contradictory” makes it sound like the interviews themselves were wild, when in fact, it was just the contradictions [most of the interviews, which are sprinkled throughout the film, seem quite tame]; more importantly it helps us forget that the interviews were given in earnest. “Totally true” might as well be saying “false,” or at the very least “problematic.”)

But even this disclaimer, which attempts to instill a note of authority by telling us it’s dramatizing events as told by the people who experienced them, betrays itself immediately: though we see present-day Tonya Harding for a brief moment, she’s actually the last of the interviewees to speak.

 Julianne Nicholson as Diane Rawlinson (left).

Julianne Nicholson as Diane Rawlinson (left).

This theme of who controls the narrative weaves its way throughout the film in two important ways: the most obvious is the meta-construction of the film itself, the illusion the filmmakers have created to make it seem like we’re seeing a dramatization of a simple, straightforward story, by cutting back and forth between the interviews, and then by breaking the fourth wall, having the characters in the dramatization speak directly to the camera, to the audience. Several of these moments happen during particularly brutal scenes—especially when Tonya is on the receiving end of domestic abuse from her husband.

(These scenes were also controversial in many of the negative reviews of the film, especially as many of them were accompanied by a rollicking soundtrack; it's possible it could have been a tone-deafness of the film, but I think there's an argument to be made that the dissonance between the subject matter and the music and the breaking of the fourth wall tricks us into watch something we might otherwise flinch away from.)

The idea that this is an authoritative account of what happened is as faulty as trying to sort out which bits of The Usual Suspects “actually happened” vs. which were a creation of Kaiser Soze; and yet, rather than casting doubt on these scenes, this method of showing us something and having different characters calling them bullshit, to my mind, makes them weightier. Sometimes, I, Tonya will call out this problem in the middle of the scene—perhaps my favorite moment is one which depicts Tonya firing a shotgun at her abusive husband, and then looking into the camera as she says “This is bullshit. I never did this.” (But of course, we've just seen it happen.) The moment almost invokes the famous Groucho Marx line, “Who are you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?”

What makes all this flashy storytelling so well suited to this story in particular is that one of the major struggles of the character of Tonya Harding in the film is trying to control her own narrative. She wants to be a successful skater, and the thing that’s holding her back is her life story. When she’s told she doesn’t “fit in” with the look the skating judges want, the film implies (fictitiously, perhaps) that her dad makes her a rabbit fur coat. Later in the film, she attempts to wrangle her story by going back to her abusive husband (which ends up kicking off the events that lead to “the incident,” which is when things really spiral out of her control).

“The incident” itself taps into this theme as well: Gillooly says in one of the interview cutaways flat out: “Everyone remembers the incident differently and that’s a fact.” He and Tonya have fevered conversations in the days following about “getting their stories straight,” which they’re never able to do. Clarity is always just out of grasp of these characters.

(Another sidebar here: an important part of this question of narrative authority is that one of the causes of the story spinning wildly out of control at the time was the advent of the 24-hour news cycle, which the movie comments on by featuring interviews with Hard Copy reporter Martin Maddox. The role of the media in the film is addressed subtly, but I think nimbly—Gillooly claims that “The press got everything wrong,” and we see how the insatiable hunger of the media fueled the coverage. When the Olympic Committee threatened to take Harding off the team, she sued them, and says to the camera, “Do you think CBS, who was showing the games, was gonna let this ginormous ratings fucker not happen?” I’m not trying to assert that the media made something out of nothing, nor that this exculpates the real-life Harding, but not acknowledging the extent to which the media made hay out of “the incident” would have been negligent. The media as a whole takes a beating in this film, not just because it doesn’t get the story right, but because it glories in not really caring that it gets it wrong.

(All of which is to say that, in 2017, when we paid dearly for the insatiability of a media machine with the Presidency of Donald Trump, a film like The Post, a sleepy, self-congratulatory [nearly masturbatory] flick gets the BP nom, but a film that portrays the media like a school of piranhas does not, says something about how hard we want to look at ourselves.)

I could go on (clearly), and would like to briefly note the way the film treats the concept of who is and isn't a "monster," but that can be your assignment for your next viewing. 

Why I, Tonya isn’t taken seriously

I’ve meditated on this a lot since I saw the film, and more since it missed the mark for a Best Picture nomination. And it’s not just the BP snub: looking at Metacritic’s list of movies that pop up the most in critics’ top films of 2017 lists, I, Tonya comes in 21st, behind 8 of the Best Picture nominees (Winston Churchill biopic The Darkest Hour somehow fails to make the top 25), but also Baby Driver, the mixed-reviewed mother!, and R-rated Wolverine-pic Logan.

Maybe the most straightforward (and boring) answer is that the Academy (and critics more generally) still have a hard time with comedies. The other comedic critical darling of 2017, The Big Sick, also netted only one Oscar nomination, for best original screenplay.

But to call I, Tonya a comedy—which would be understandable, given how the film was marketed—would be an error, at least, without the modifier “dark.” There are funny moments in it, absolutely, but the tragedy at the center of it makes the film weighty. Indeed, it seems this dissonance is part of what earned some of its negative critical ire. Manohla Dargis writes in her review in The New York Times that “it becomes increasingly baffling why the filmmakers decided to put a comic spin on this pathetic, dispiriting story.”

(This makes me think that Dargis might have missed the final moments of the film, where Tonya says “America, you know. They want someone to love, but they want someone to hate. And they want it easy. But what’s easy? The haters always say, ‘Tonya, just tell the truth.’ But there’s no such thing as truth. It’s bullshit.” We’re treated to an intercut of Tonya lady-boxing after being banned from skating to earn money—literally fighting, getting bloodied—and her flashing back to her first triple axel, her emotional high point in the film. The arc of the story might be tragic, but to say it’s in no way funny seems heartless.)

Another strange element at play here is how the film exists in relation to the real events it claims to portray (or not, as the case may be). At the time, most people divided themselves into those who believed Tonya and those who condemned her, and the fact that the film takes neither side—that is, it doesn’t take a side about her innocence or guilt vis-a-vis “the [fucking] incident”—leaves some people perturbed. A column printed in the Oregonian from former sports columnist J.E. Vader entitled “I, Nauseated,” begins “It was painful to hand over the money for a ticket, knowing that some of it would go to an unrepentant felon.” He views the film as a complete and utter vindication of Harding, and therefore, an affront.

In fact, the lack of definitive blame in the film is not a mistake or an oversight—it’s one of its central ideas. Vader cites as gospel truth Gillooly’s testimony to the FBI that Harding was involved, but misses the fact that the whole point of the film is that there’s no way to know with any certainty if that’s true.

One scene that a few of my friends cited as the place where they found the film overreached comes late in the film, during the height of the post-incident press madness. Remembering it, present-day Harding observes, “I thought being famous would be fun. I was loved for a minute. Then I was hated. Then I was a punchline. It was like being abused all over again. Only this time it was by you. All of you. You’re all my attackers too.”

These friends had taken the you to be the audience (which, fair), and found that to be more than a little disingenuous. But in a movie with layered storylines and perspectives, the answer is more complicated. In the moment, Harding was speaking directly to the screenwriter, Steven Rogers (assuming the line happened verbatim). More generally, she could have been referring to the media, or to the people who gobbled up the Harding/Kerrigan feud at the time.

But if my friends are right—if the film is indicting us for watching—is that wrong? At what point does the audience become complicit in the act of the text? Ascribing the film the level of seriousness it wants involves acknowledging our own involvement in the narrative, and that’s uncomfortable (possibly more uncomfortable than envisioning what the fish’s penis looks like in The Shape of Water).

i-tonya-2.png

Ultimately, it seems the reason I, Tonya wasn't taken seriously by the Academy turns out to be the same reason that Tonya Harding herself wasn’t taken seriously by US Figure Skating—they just don’t look the part. Where Harding didn’t dress right or come from a nuclear family home (at least, as posited by the film), I, Tonya isn’t about a noble cause or a tortured artiste or a coming-of-age or the Second Fucking World War. It’s about us, right now, and unlike the estimable Best Picture nominee Get Out, which uses the lens of horror to show us—that is, liberal white people—our own role in racism, I, Tonya gives it to us more or less undiluted. (And, for what it’s worth, I worry more white people than we’d like to admit confused the act of seeing Get Out with actual serious racial self-examination—a fault of the audience, not of the film; still, I’ve got my fingers crossed for Get Out to win.)

In some ways, it’s kind of a beautiful echo, maybe one that is worth more than the award itself; because, if either Harding or I, Tonya got the acclaim they deserved, those authorities would subsume them, perhaps even smother them. Harding may wish she’d gotten an Olympic Medal, or maybe simply that she’d been allowed to continue to skate, but the fact of the matter is, nearly a quarter of a century later, there are no movies titled I, Kerrigan or I, Yamaguchi. By the same token, let The Post or The Shape of Water or The Phantom Thread join the ranks of films like Crash and Chicago and A Beautiful Mind; statues come and go, but an enduring, intelligent, and incisive story can last forever.

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The most important LGBTQ movie of 2017 did not have any peach fucking in it

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The most important LGBTQ movie of 2017 did not have any peach fucking in it

Call Me By Your Name, directed by Luca Guadagnino and based on the novel by André Aciman, tells the story of a 17-year-old teenage boy (played by a 23-year-old) named Elio who has a love affair with a 24-year-old man (played by a 31-year-old) named Oliver in the exquisite paradise of a villa outside a small town in 1980s Italy. The movie captures the slow, hot laziness of an easy summer, the strange proximity of an attractive stranger, and the fleeting, near-desperate nature of lightning-in-a-bottle love.

 Armie Hammer as Oliver and Timothée Chalamet as Elio in  Call Me By Your Name .

Armie Hammer as Oliver and Timothée Chalamet as Elio in Call Me By Your Name.

It does not, however, concern itself that much with gay stuff. Yes, there are certain dynamics to the budding relationship that are specific to two men, but neither the movie (nor the book upon which it was based) is desperate to make any observations about what it means to be gay or queer or homosexual or even just different. (It might even be worth noting that Aciman himself isn’t gay, though the director of the film is.) Which isn’t to say that the genders of the protagonists are unimportant—the story differentiates between the sex-for-sex’s sake that Elio engages in with a local girl and the next level emotional and physical fusion that the two male lovers experience by using sexuality as the differentiating line.

But I’d argue that the movie’s main concern is not about sexual orientation. Elio faces no internal struggle in either book or film about who he is, seeming to brush blithely past the first stage of Vivienne Cass’ coming out identity model—identity confusion—and just takes a deep breath as he mashes his face into the netting of Oliver’s bathing suit. Nor does Oliver, happy to throw himself headlong into an affair with his professor’s teenage son.

The movie concerns itself much more with longing, that anxiety of trying to know what someone else is thinking while not being able to stop thinking about them (in the novel, Aciman executes this idea expertly, writing from Elio’s point of view, extending the longing into an acute ache, one that I found deeply resonant). The articulation of the languorous afternoons oppressive with heat and lust is wonderful, and having the characters brought to life by two heartthrobs like Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer doesn’t hurt either.

 Michael Stuhlbarg, left, and Chalamet and Hammer in  Call Me By Your Name .

Michael Stuhlbarg, left, and Chalamet and Hammer in Call Me By Your Name.

It is probably the most affecting scene (in both film and book) that cements the story’s disinterest in sexual identity. It comes towards the end, when Elio has a heart-to-heart with his father, brought to life spookily-well by Michael Stuhlbarg (who has the distinction of being in three Best Picture nominated films and is nominated himself for none of them). In that conversation, Elio’s father gets real with him about the potency of the connection he and Oliver have. Never once in the conversation (or possibly the whole film) do the words “gay,” “queer,” or “homosexual,” show up. In some ways, even though the film is set in the ’80s, it seems like it wants to exist in a post-sexual identity society, where everyone is everything, and all are prepared for love and lust to surprise it in unexpected and arresting ways.

I’m not trying to argue that CMBYN shouldn’t be getting the accolades it is getting, nor that it isn’t an important film for queer cinema (well, white gay cinema, anyway). I would have *loved* to have had this movie available to me as a confused, closeted teen (hell, as a confused out twenty-something), and I hope as another addition in the canon of contemporary cinema it gives everyone who sees it a wider scope through which it can view the possibilities and preciousness of love.

All of this is to say, that the most important LGBTQ movie that came out in 2017 was one that was barely screened anywhere, it seems (I’m not even certain it got its Oscar-qualifying limited LA run). I saw it during a three-showing run at the Arena Cinelounge, which is a very comfortable theater inside an office building on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. I wouldn’t have even known about it, except Slate’s movie critic Dana Stevens endorsed it as part of her weekly appearance on the Slate Culture Gabfest.

BPM (Beats per Minute), directed by Robin Campillo takes place in early ’90s France, and explores the lives of the activists of the Paris chapter of ACT UP, the direct-action HIV/AIDS protest group (I’ve since learned that ACT UP is an acronym—AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power). And unlike Call Me By Your Name, which seems to shy away from its own sexuality, BPM is beautifully, unapologetically queer.

A solid 30% of the movie takes place in a University lecture hall where the group hosts its meetings and “debats” or discussions of how they can best further their cause. The film rather nimbly educates/reminds its audience of the context and stakes of this time period in the AIDS epidemic—governments dragging their feet to put policies in place to help protect at-risk populations, pharmaceutical companies slow to release drugs and make them widely accessible, while also guarding closely their proprietary research, and a public that ranges from uneducated to unsympathetic to simply hateful.

 Antoine Reinartz in  BPM.

Antoine Reinartz in BPM.

(In one incredibly stirring scene, the ACT UP activists storm a high school, interrupting classes to give the students a crash course in safe sex that the school refuses to give them. They invade one classroom where a teacher attempts to shut them down and retrieve the condoms being passed out, while in the next classroom, the teacher says, “Listen up, kids, this is important.”)

BPM forces all of its characters to interface with their sexuality actively, and I mean this both on an identity level and on a physical one.

Identity is a huge part of the film, and demonstrating their sexuality in public is a big part of the ACT UP cause. While this is done gleefully during a cheerleading march in the Paris Pride Parade, it’s underscored in a chilling way in a scene where two activists who are putting up posters get scolded by two other gay men, who want ACT UP “to just leave us alone,” that is, allow them to have unsafe, closeted sex.

Physically, the movie just isn’t afraid of gay sex the way that Call Me By Your Name seems to be. Guadagnino defended his decision to leave out any explicit gay sex, saying at the New York Film Festival, “To put our gaze upon their lovemaking would have been a sort of unkind intrusion.” (I’d argue that Aciman’s novel is all about re-envisioning intrusion as intimacy—even more eyebrow-raising than the peach scene in the book is one where Elio and Oliver hang out together while defecating, but that’s a different essay, I suppose).

 Nahuel Pérez Biscayart and Arnaud Valois in  BPM .

Nahuel Pérez Biscayart and Arnaud Valois in BPM.

Where CMBYN pans away from two boys getting it on, BPM seems to zoom in, or at least, doesn’t want to look away. Even more importantly, it doesn’t abstract sex into a homogeneous act—the characters discuss protection, positions, and their personal realizations that they were gay (underscoring the relevance of Cass’ model). In a scene that I found very affecting (though this might have more to do with me being a sexually active gay man in PReP-saturated Los Angeles than anything else), two men, Sean who is HIV-positive, and Nathan, who is not, are about to have oral sex for the first time. As Nathan is about to go down on Sean, he’s stopped. “I prefer it with a condom,” Sean says.

Another aspect of queerness that makes BPM distinct from its more popular American cousin is the way that it engages with history. Several characters describe early gay experiences and the ways in which they were hidden, shameful, and hurtful. Nathan talks about getting picked up by a man who would drive him several hours away so they could have sex far from the watchful eye of his family. Sean tells the story of the teacher who he had an affair with in high school, and who gave him the virus “his first time.” In these and other instances, love is something that is inherently political and historical, and which has to everywhere fight against a shaming culture.

In fact, maybe it’s this aspect which describes why a film like Call Me By Your Name is having a moment while BPM is not: the sex in the former is apolitical. In a gay-marriage-for-all world, there seems to be an appetite for uncontroversial love (let us set aside for a moment the controversy over the disparate ages of the lovers). In Aciman’s novel, we retain the high stakes of the affair through being privy to Elio’s yearning and anxieties; we are less in a bubble than we’re experiencing Elio’s tunnel vision. But in the film we lose much of that, and are content to get lost in the blinding yet attainable light of Armie Hammer’s smile. Their love exists in a bubble, and even when the bubble is burst, all we can think about is the bubble.

In BPM, though, sex is a death-defying act; survival is not a melodramatic couch-faint, it’s an immediate and terrifying question. Taglines I remember from my own AIDS-obsessed sex education resurface here in pillowtalk: safe sex is 100% their responsibility and 100% your responsibility. It begs the question: can sex be depoliticized?

Maybe a better way to frame the question is this: what does it mean that the single queer-centric film nominated for Best Picture in 2018 takes place in the 1980s and seems unconcerned with HIV/AIDS? What does it say that this film shows a sexual romance between a 17- and 24-year-old and doesn’t include a discussion of consent or safe sex? And what is it about this act of sex—about putting penises in men’s butts—that still makes our directors feel the need to look away?

Guadagnino has made a beautiful, compelling film, to be sure; Campillo, in BPM, has created an important and relevant historical queer text, and everyone should seek it out.

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The Profound Sadness of an American in Britain

There are two strange things that are standing out to me today being an American living in Britain. (There are several, to be sure, but I’m talking today about two.)

The first has to do with the extent to which the British population tends to be left of the U.S. Not on all issues, but when it comes to a lot of things—healthcare, welfare, and education, for instance—even though the debate is plenty intense, the fulcrum at the center of the see-saw is almost always deep in liberal territory. But nothing, nothing looms larger in the British conception of America than our attitude towards guns.

Which is why I was so surprised to find myself talking with a young Englishman just two nights ago who was arguing against increased gun control in the US. The guy, let’s call him Gerald, was an acquaintance of a friend of mine and an arch-Conservative, a rarity on the famously leftist campus of the University of Sussex, where I’m studying for the year. Gerald was an Antonin Scalia-like Constitutional originalist, and his arguments were ones that weren’t unfamiliar to me, even though I hadn’t heard them—nor had I specifically been challenged to rebuke them—in a long while. But they went like this: how can you allow the Supreme Court to interpret laws willy-nilly with no heed given to what the people who wrote the laws (in this case, we’re talking about the all the white guys who wrote the Bill of Rights) originally intended?

 From the Florida Knife & Gun Show, May 2014. 

From the Florida Knife & Gun Show, May 2014. 

I’d like to say I acquitted myself admirably, that I had a Hollywood-like rousing argument that put Gerald’s position to shame. Something like Will McAvoy’s speech from the pilot of The Newsroom, soaring and beautiful and succinct, possibly with violins and some timpani in the background.

Instead, I rustily fumbled through arguments that existed unphrased in my heart but which hadn’t needed to be brought to bear in some time. I also was caught off-guard by Gerald’s politician-like interruption technique (a kind of a rarity in the otherwise rather polite Britain), allowing statements like “If you don’t follow the original intent of the people who wrote the law, then how does the law have any meaning?” to go unaddressed. It was a disconcerting experience, not one that challenged any of my deeply held beliefs—that the Constitution is a living, breathing document; that the judiciary’s job is to interpret the law, not follow the words blindly; and that we needed gun control in our country—but one that made me doubt my own ability to translate those deep convictions into words.

One memory I return to time and time again—and one, had I been more on my A-game the other night, I would have shared with Gerald—was of a December morning at my parents’ house in New Rochelle, NY, home for the holidays from Grad School. It was a lazy winter morning of us sitting around, watching TV, when a map came up on CNN showing the tri-state area, a pin sticking out of Western connecticut, less than 50 miles from where we were. This was the first news report coming in about the Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting, and as my family and I watched the coverage over the next few hours and learned of the young lives lost, I felt an ache in my heart, a sickness that anything so awful could happen not just in my country, but within a stone’s throw of where we were.

As the fallout of the shooting progressed over the hours, weeks and months that followed, the sickness remained, first as the photos of the children killed (and the teachers who tried to save their lives) were published in newspapers, then as the details emerged of the mentally unstable man who had ready access to the tools of his massacre, and finally to the utter inefficacy of the US Senate to represent their constituents, defeating an assault weapons ban 40-60, despite majority support amongst Americans polled.

I would have told Gerald that we need our judges to interpret our laws because a law written about guns in 1776 when they required adding gunpowder and a bullet between each shot (and not the ability to unload dozens of bullets per minute) might need some reinterpretation (leaving aside whether you believe the Second Amendment is about private gun ownership in the first place). I would have told him that while an outright gun ban would be great, that the government is being barred from simply regulating guns, and that if we were able to regulate them the way we regulate cars or dangerous chemicals (or blood donations, for that matter), we’d be in far better shape to combat gun violence than we are now. I would have told him that there’s something simply crushing about my country’s inability to do anything to curb these attacks, the now five-times-reposted article from The Onion, “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens” having long ago lost it’s dark humor and instead embraced the grim reality of America’s impotence in the face of the gun lobby.

But I didn’t say these things. Because at that moment, on June 10, 2016, the problem felt chronic, static and non-acute.

***

THE OTHER STRANGE THING about living in the UK is that, when you wake up, almost everyone back home is still asleep. So I was more or less all by myself this morning to read through the reports of a mass shooting in Orlando at a gay nightclub. But I found myself wishing I’d had Gerald there with me, for me to point and say, “this.” This isn’t what our founders intended, this isn’t what America is about, this can’t be how we allow ourselves to be defined.

Instead, I’ve been sitting here on my own as the horrific details continue to emerge, watching my Twitter and Facebook feeds as my friends wake up to the awful news. And as the sickness once again sets in, it’s accompanied by a second feeling of dread, one that echoes The Onion’s recycled headline: that this is becoming far too familiar, far too expected, and that the more we rack up these shootings, the less they’ll shock us.

This isn’t the first mass shooting that’s made news across the Atlantic since I’ve arrived in the UK, though it has affected me more than the others. I don’t know whether to ascribe this to the fact that it took place in a state that I lived in for three years, or the fact that the numbers jumped so dramatically from 20 to 50 dead, making this the worst shooting in U.S. history, or that it happened at a gay nightclub and that the shooter’s intention appears to have been to specifically target LGBT people, (and to what extent it is the product or by-product of trickle-down homophobia, as my friend Steve Foxe rightly pointed out).

Or maybe it has to do with the fact that, as I’m here in the UK on a Fulbright Grant, and I’m meant to be acting as an ambassador between our two countries, I find my diplomacy skills (such as they are) stretched to breaking. I’ve spent time trying to explain to my British friends how the Presidential Primaries work (and how they could lead to the nomination of Donald Trump), how religion plays a larger role in most Americans’ everyday lives (even atheists), and how our healthcare system works (or doesn’t). I’ve even had a few conversations where I attempt to contextualize gun ownership for utterly perplexed Britons, reflecting on my time in North Florida, my [admittedly anthropological] visits to gun shows, and my conversations with friends who come from gun-owning families—that it’s not just a matter of physical ownership of guns but an identity as a gun owner, and that when people propose gun control legislation, gun owners react (rightly or wrongly) with the same emotional passion as Trans people targeted by bathroom bills.

But after a day like today, I feel defeated—as a writer, as an ambassador, as an American.

I don’t have the soaring, Will McAvoy, violins-and-timpani argument at my fingertips. I don’t know the magic words that will help anti-gun control citizens and politicians to reexamine their stances on these issues, or the foolproof logical arguments that will show jurists and amateur originalists alike how far they’ve strayed from the path of reason. All I can do is hope: hope that the next Supreme Court Justice rebalances the court to privilege common sense over reactionary literalism, hope that the populist anger that fueled so much of the 2016 primary can be channeled into substantial change, and hope that we don’t lose our sense of shock, outrage and profound sadness in the face of repeated horrors.

 

 

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If one more straight person tells me not to support Hillary over LGBT issues, I am going to lose it.

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If one more straight person tells me not to support Hillary over LGBT issues, I am going to lose it.

Last week, a video titled “People who shouldn’t vote for Hillary Clinton” popped up a couple times in my Facebook feed. The list included “Black People,” “Young People,” “Liberals,” “People who don’t support killing fully-formed fetuses,” “People who don’t like short-tempered people,” “People who don’t want any trouble with Russia,” “People who like honesty,” “People who want transparency,” and “People who want peace.” It’s a problematic list.

But the first group told not to support Hillary is “Gay people,” which is followed by various clips of Clinton expressing her one-man-one-woman-marriage opinions, many of which were from the 2008 Democratic primary.

I don’t mean to shock anyone, but this is not the first time queer people have heard these sentiments expressed by politicians. It’s important to remember that the Democratic Party didn’t officially support marriage equality until 2012; gay people are used to having to take a pragmatic approach to politics, because for a long time, that was the only way we could hope to have a seat at the table.

We’re used to sharing a country (and, until recently, a party) with people who don’t like us, and while I don’t pretend to speak for all LGBT people, it’s a bit rich to be told in 2008 to take a compromise position, and then be told off in 2016 for choosing not to support the idealist candidate.

My spidey-sense tells me this particular video’s origin is somewhere on the right, but I've had plenty of posts in my feed from Bernie supporters about Hillary’s “bad record” with on gay marriage (and Bernie’s better record). Most of the arguments contained an air of How could you possibly support her?

There are two answers to this question, and Dan Savage gave the first one on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert last week:

“She wasn’t always good on gay marriage, but neither was Barack Obama…When you go to somebody, go to a politician, and you say, ‘Please change your mind,’ when they change their mind, you don’t then spend the rest of their lives going, ‘F*ck you for not changing your mind sooner!’ You say, ‘Welcome to the right side of this issue, we’re glad to have you.’”

Savage is 100% correct here, and being magnanimous about it, which in pragmatic terms is exactly the right reaction: supporters of LGBT rights shouldn’t be arbitrating how we got to a place where marriage equality is a nationally recognized Constitutional right, we should be celebrating it and focusing on the next battle (moronic bathroom laws or employment and housing discrimination, for instance).

The other answer, however, accesses a deeper question in the larger Hillary/Bernie tension that has roiled Democrats for the past year: isn’t Hillary just a fairweather progressive? How can you even compare the brightly burnished liberal credentials of Senator Sanders with the shifting, changing positions of Secretary Clinton?

To answer that, we need to take a trip back to 2008. Growing up in a liberal culture bubble between San Francisco and New York, the 2008 primary was the first election I experienced where my friends and family split over whom to support. The Obama fever in my Facebook feed was strong, and I had to do some real soul-searching over who to support.

I ended up supporting Hillary, largely because though I admired Obama’s conciliatory, bi-partisan rhetoric, I wanted someone who was going to twist the GOP’s arm until they said “uncle”. When I made my Hillary-support known, I had two (straight) friends try and stage Hillary-interventions with me. “How could you possibly support her over Obama?” they asked, bewildered.

I gave my answer about GOP arm-twisting, and when Hillary ultimately conceded, I enthusiastically supported Obama (and looked on in horror at Sarah Palin). When Election Day rolled around, I was as excited as everyone else in Brooklyn when Obama was declared the winner. 

Well, almost as excited. At the Election Party I was at, while people popped champagne open, me and the only other queer person there, a friend of a friend named Mary, kept watching the TV, because there were a couple more results we were interested in: Proposition 8 in California, but also similar marriage bans in Arizona and Florida, as well as Arkansas’ Act 1, which banned gay couples from adoption. 

While people partied in the streets, Mary and I watched as, one by one, these four anti-LGBT election measures passed. Bittersweet doesn’t begin to describe the disparity of my feelings. My fellow Queer Americans and I had been asked to put our values (and, frankly, our dignity) on hold so that the politicians of the Democratic Party could court the center of the electorate. And we’d been willing to do it, but it still chafed.

This is a roundabout way of explaining that, for many gay people in 2008, we were forced (shoved, even) to the “pragmatic” end of the pragmatism/idealism spectrum. And that was fine, especially when we were looking at the alternative. I shared the sentiment with friends that I figured Obama probably privately supported marriage equality, and that we were playing the long game, a long game that ended up panning out (though I credit Vice President Biden with that policy shift more than President Obama). 

But for me, that swallowing of the bitter pill of 2008—of needing to vote for someone who didn’t support marriage equality—reinforced my notion of politicians as pragmatists, not idealists. This was one of the reasons why I had trouble supporting Obama in the first place: if he was the idealist candidate and one of his positions was that he didn’t think I should be able to marry the person I love, wasn’t I betraying my own ideals by voting for him? Didn't I have to view him as a pragmatist in order to square him with my own beliefs?

Hillary has many faults, but I’ve never seen her pragmatism (and, okay, lack of idealism) as one of them. She’s a divisive political animal created by a divisive political system, and I have no problem understanding why people on the Left wouldn’t want to support her.

What I can’t abide are people who’ve never had to humble themselves before a voting booth telling me and my fellow LGBT Americans that we don’t know our own best interests. It’s just as condescending as people on the left talking about how misled African-American voters are for supporting her

Everyone should vote their conscience, but I hope that, come November, that conscience takes into consideration the full political picture of a country that is closely divided, especially when there is hate on one side of that division. There is a place for idealism, and even revolution, in our current political conversation. But when the stakes are this high and the consequences this dire, the only thing as poisonous as absolutism is that other a-word: apathy. 

 Caption:  DonkeyHotey /Flickr

Caption: DonkeyHotey/Flickr

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Keep it down in there: the worst advice to give to a writer

A friend recently posted an article from Electric Literature’s “Blunt Instrument” Q&A column for writers, where Eisa Gabbert tackles questions about writing. This was my first foray into Gabbert’s column, and it had the click-baity headline “Should White Men Stop Writing? The Blunt Instrument on Publishing and Privilege.” In it, Gabbert answers a question posed by a white male poet who poses the conundrum: “Write what you know and risk denying voices whose stories are more urgent; write to learn what you don’t know and risk colonizing someone else’s story. I genuinely am troubled by this. I want to listen but I also want to write—yet at times these impulses feel at odds with one another. How can I reconcile the two?”

After a few paragraphs of careful thought on the state of writing, publishing, and the interaction between race and gender and publication, Gabbert offers two concrete suggestions on how this writer might navigate this admittedly complicated question (and my hat goes off to Gabbert for tackling such a difficult question): 1) read more books by diverse writers and 2) don’t be a problem submitter.

Both of these are excellent suggestions. The first one is great because it acknowledges two truths: first, that the more voices we hear and are exposed to, the richer our writing becomes. The second is that publishing is an industry, and if we create a demand for more diverse authors, the publishers will rise to meet it—not because they’re good people, but because they want to make money. Somehow in this age of materialism (and books are materials, you better believe it) we’ve forgotten that in capitalism we vote with our dollars. And reading widely is not always easy, especially when, as Roxane Gay recently noted, what’s served up to us most readily often leans away from diversity.

Suggestion 2) is good because it falls under the “don’t be an asshole” philosophy of life. Gabbert asserts that when she edited a magazine, “men were far more likely to submit work that was sloppy and/or inappropriate for the magazine; they were also far more likely to submit more work immediately after being rejected.” Submitting work that is inappropriate to the magazine or that is sloppily put together is just a dick move—one that anyone is capable of. On the other hand, in the day and age when magazines are starting to charge reading fees, it seems to me that there’s less room for magazines that do collect these fees to complain about getting too many submissions. I don’t doubt that the overflow of submissions are clogging the works, but this strikes me as an operational problem for the magazine, not something that they can reasonably expect the unorganized group of submitters to self-police on. Why shouldn’t you submit sloppy/inappropriate work to a lit mag? Because it’ll get rejected. Making sure that your work is the best it can possibly be before you submit it is just good common sense.

But before she gives these two suggestions, in one of her earlier paragraphs, Gabbert makes another suggestion, even though it doesn’t get called out in its own paragraph, addressing the problem that editors claim they have submission pools with more men than women:

“…people inevitably respond by telling women to write more, submit more, and pitch more. I think this is exactly the wrong response: Instead we should tell men to submit less. Pitch less. Especially white men. You are already over-represented.”

This suggestion struck me as the most disingenuous and ungenerous advice one could ever give a writer. First of all, because it is extremely impractical. What constitutes “less”? Should this poet only send out every other poem he writes? Should he look at how many poems he submitted last year and reduce that submission output by a certain percentage? Thirty percent? Eighty percent? 

But second of all, it's bad advice because writing is already really hard, and the only way to meaningfully do the work of being a writer is to do it with the gas pedal pressed to the floor. Cheryl Strayed’s now iconic “Write like a motherfucker” should be a mantra for all writers, because otherwise you will never get it done. There are a million things that will stop you from writing, and the only thing that will keep you writing is your own dedication, perseverance, and sitzfleisch. If as a working writer you’re not giving it everything, you might as well not be giving it anything. As far as I can tell, even though Gabbert says “I don’t think the answer is [for you] to stop writing,” in telling this guy to submit less, she’s subtly (perhaps unintentionally) suggesting that he might want to consider not writing.

And that is the harshest thing a writer can wish upon another writer. Not because everyone is a special snowflake (though they are), and not because every writer deserves to be published (even if they might), but because every writer at some point in their career has needed someone else to say “keep going.” Every writer I know has contemplated defeat, giving up their creative endeavors for something more practical, more remunerative. The world has plenty of systems in place to talk people out of writing—I’d hope that a column on a respected web site that aspires to be a resource for writers would not want to be one of those obstacles.

My answer to the white male poet is this: you have gotten to the heart of one of the central dilemmas in literature and publishing in our day and age, and there are no easy solutions. But cutting yourself off (or even cutting yourself back) from writing and submitting is not the answer (and asking any writer—regardless of identity—to hold themselves back from writing is an irresponsible request). You can’t control who your parents are or the identity you were born into. And if your drive to be a writer is like mine, then trying to deny it or control it is futile (if your drive to be a writer is not urgent, then you have a different issue to wrestle with). Sitting at home and not submitting while you feel bad isn’t going to do anything for anyone. So enter the world of writing with passion for your work, and with an openness to the writing of those around you. Take an honest look at your reading list and ask yourself if you are engaging fully in the diverse world of literature, and take steps to ameliorate it if you aren’t. Take what you learn from all the work you read and use it to analyze your own work. Become the world’s best reader, and help turn other people on to the amazing women, POC and LGBTQ writers that you read. Become an active member of your literary community with your awareness of the imbalance and take what positive steps you can to try and shift it. You can’t change a conversation by staying silent.

Again, I’m glad Gabbert has taken on this question and wrestled with it, and I think much of her thoughts on the topic were spot-on. However, in the community of writers, this specialized village of people who know what it’s like to look at a blank page and start with nothing and end with something, I believe we should all aspire to have each other’s backs when facing doubt. Let the rest of the world be responsible for talking us out of writing. 

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