In his great A Brief History of My Body (Colombus, Ohio: 2020) Billy-Ray Belcourt writes, ‘Is there anything left to say about the closeted gay kid? Sometimes I think, without pathos, that the coming-out story is endangered, and rightfully so. Best left in the previous century, where it teemed with subversiveness. Back then, to confess to a different desire in a different direction was to expose oneself to existential risk, among other types. The avowal — you are gay — had everything to do with a refusal of the world-as-it-was‘ (p.24).
I know what Belcourt means but it’s not the same for everyone much less everywhere. Working from Argentina, Marco Berger has become the poet of the closet. Has any other filmmaker explored its various extents, the gradations, the degree through which it can shift, in such detail and over the course of so many films? His oeuvre is a pointillist study of desire in the closet but on the point of emerging.
His latest, Un Rubio was all ´meaningful glances, sidelong views, sideways compositions of frames within frames, the small gesture, the way small things become deeply meaningful. Men desiring, men loving, men crying: all without much dialogue.´One can see all of this in Taekwondo. See, for example, in the images above, how a simple rack in focus in itself becomes a metaphor for the closet.
In Plan B, ”Scenes often begin on empty spaces, anticipatory of the people that will soon inhabit them; and scenes often end on empty spaces; characters have lived a moment; and the irresoluteness of it lingers and overhangs the scene.’ Note how even the shots remain similar from film to film. The one above left is from Plan B; the one of the right from Taekwondo.
In Ausente, ´’Social oppression is what creates the closet, and Martín having to live in the closet is what creates those sidelong glances, the looking on in secret, the interior yearning facing external barriers and lived through lies, the danger, the endangering’ The image on the top left is from Ausente, the other two, first anticipatory space, then that space filled by shadows who are looking on but hidden from view, are from Taekwondo.
In Hawaii, ´What separates Eugenio and Martin is class and this is depicted in the starkest of terms. But throughout the first part of the film what keeps them apart is also the uncertainty about the other’s sexual orientation, the false clues they give each other regarding their sexuality, the insecurity that their own desire will not be returned. They play peekaboo games with each other. But what they hope to win by doing this is at the cost of real understanding and becomes a block’. The image on the left is from Hawaii . Taekwondo has many examples of almost identical images or inserts of crotches, like the one of the right.
People have commented that not much seems to happen in his films. But I would argue that either they don´t know how to look or that they lack empathy in relation to conflicts that arise between individual desire and a closet that shifts depending on social situation and social context. A closet that not many of us, no matter how óut´we are, are immune to. There are very few of us that have the luxury of being out in every context, at every first meeting, no matter what the situation.
I´m not without sympathy for that perspective. Take ,for example ,the opening shot of Taekwondo below. One could argue that the whole film is in that shot: A couple, initially out of focus, approaches the camera, and in doing so, come into focus as a couple. But to me that would be that would be a misremembering of the shot, see how as the title comes into view, the couple veer of to the right. There are impediments to that coupling. Impediments that the film will explore: neither of the young men is sure the other is gay or reciprocates his feelings. There will be another man, Leo (Francisco Bertín, one who´s had sexual relations with Fer (Lucas Papa), is deeply in the closet, and will get in the way of the budding relationship, primarily through trying to get it on with German (Gabriel Epstein)
Now look at the end below: The first shot is a characteristic re-framing, from the darkness of the inside, as if peeking out, as all their friends leave the summer home. Finally the couple, Germán (Gabriel Epstein) and Fernándo (Lucas Papa), are alone, they get closer. The camera shows us the now empty tennis court, the soccer paraphanalia, all the sites previously peopled by friends now empty of them, and it´s only then, by themselves and in the dark, that the couple may kiss. Now look at the start of the film in the clip above again. You´ll see that the couple does come into view, but as the title comes up, they swerve to the left of the frame. The couple that´s come into focus but it can´t be held, there are impediments that have to be taken care of. The closet is ever-present in all of Berger´s work, but particularly in this one.
The story of Taekwondo is a simple one: Fer has invited a new friend he´s met in his Taekwondo class, German, to join him and his friends, all men, most of them friends he made at various stages of his school life — from kindergarten to High School — for a summer holiday. Most of the men are straight, three of them aren´t, two have a history, the other two have a crush on each other but don´t know if the other person is gay and, if so, whether that attraction is reciprocated.
What´s unusal about this film is that it very much feels like a typical Marco Berger film yet with an interesting perspective on heterosexual masculinity, perhaps the contribution of Martín Farina, who, significantly, is credited as co-directing the film. See the scene below where Fer is looking on at German, the longing evident to his friend, with the friend hinting that everything would be ok if that longing were to be acted on, a hint that Fer completely understands but nonetheless does not respond to.
What´s at stake in this film is the tensions created by gay men in a heterosexual context. This is brought into the film forcefully as soon as Germán enters the house, and he´s introduced to Fede, El Gordo (Juan Manuel Martino). As they´re all greeting each other, the film brings in a big close-up of Fede´s penis (see below) and from that moment on that becomes the elephant in the room. The men are undressing like this because there´s an assumption that it´s all amongst heterosexual men. But that´s not the case. Would the men behave differently if they knew there were three poofters amongst them? Almost certainly. Even if they do call each other gay every so often and discuss previous experiences when they were children. Who´s looking (the characters, the camera, gay, straight), how and when are they looking? What is the significance of that look. These are all questions the film puts into play
The closet is both protection and a threat in Taekwondo, and its boundaries are constantly mobile and shifting. See the clip below with Germán reading his book, trying to focus so as not to pay attention to the man taking a shower nude next to him, whilst Léo appears, clearly taunting him with an unwanted advance, one that could reveal and shatter. The meaningful glance, the flash of cock, is both desire and threat, and its effect on German is clear from the last line he mutters to himself.
The film is full of looks at crotches that seem both undirected (who can that close-up of Fer´s crotch be attributed to: the camera, or Germán), followed by more clearly attributable point-of-view shots between Fer and Germán as they each try to figure out what´s going on between them.
The film has a wonderful moment ( see below) where a camp gay friend comes to bring some grass and he and Fer, can talk clearly, amongst gay friends, and it´s worth noting that it´s a type of ease, of clarity of communication, of understanding amongst gay men that is not seen elsewhere in the film.
One of the things that makes Taekwondo so rich and interesting is the way the heterosexual men are treated in the film, which would make a good study of masculinity and homosociality. We see their dreams, hopes, attitudes to sex, their competitiveness, but also their affection for each other and for Fer, who is central to the group; it is after all his house and his friends. The real threat comes from Leo, the closety gay man, constantly talking about his girlfriend, but threateningly imposing himself, and making of himself a barrier and block to the desires of the protagonists´. See the scene below where Germán accompanies Leo to do some shopping but Leo takes a detour. We see how a bed is ever-present, and then Leo effectively begins to cock-block by telling a story of how in love Fer is with a woman, a friend os his own fiancée.
Taekwondo is a film were very much happens, not in terms of plot, but in terms of what the film has to tell us about individual desire in a homophobic context, the closet, masculinity, homosociality. Perhaps thanks to Martín Farina, it´s the film in Marco´s oeuvre that is most densely peopled and where heterosexuality is not just a veil or a threat but a sexual orientation that takes on many shapes, including friendly ones. We understand these men´s hopes, desires, their fumbling failures, as easily as we do those of the protagonists. It´s a good-hearted film, but also a complex one where all the meaning and feeling is in the small detail, the hidden glance or even the outright look that can nonetheless be veiled as something else when challenged. Berger´s is a world that I´m happy to inhabit even, perhaps particularly, with Farina´s shaping glance.