We return to Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk, his sumptuous romantic drama set in 1970s New York, for a deep dive, and take the opportunity to revisit his previous film, 2016’s Best Picture winner Moonlight. It’s an enriching conversation and we’re glad we took the time to engage in it. (The first podcast can be found here.)
We begin with Moonlight, working through our responses to what we experienced differently since having seen it previously (Mike last saw it during its cinema release, while José has seen it a few times on more recent occasions). The film’s final third is given serious thought, José in particular enjoying the opportunity to properly work through his longstanding problems with it, which amount to the film’s fear of the sex in homosexuality, its conscious refusal to openly and honestly depict two gay men being intimate – the film denies them even a kiss at the very end – and the critical establishment’s bad faith in refusing to engage with this particular point. It’s great to have finally discussed this topic, particularly paying close attention to the final few shots, where the problems are condensed and made perfectly clear; as José says, it’s an itch he’s wanted to scratch for a long time.
Moving on to Beale Street, we re-engage with some points we brought up in our first podcast, such as the dissonance between the opening intertitle’s invocation of drums and the soundtrack’s absence of them, and the relative richness of the characters that surround Tish and Fonny to the central couple. And we draw out new observations and thoughts, in particular returning on a few occasions to the conversation between Fonny and Daniel, discussing the lighting that drops them into deep shadow, picking up just the lightest outlines of their features as if to expose their souls instead, and how shot selection, editing and the use of a rack focus develop the drama and bring the characters together but simultaneously isolate Daniel within his own traumatic experiences. Mike picks up on a motif of redness in their eyes, acknowledging that the reading he offers is always going to be a stretch but finding it meaningful nonetheless.
We discuss the use of photo montages to reach for the universality of experience that the title implies and we felt was an issue the first time around, José describing how they thematically focus the film on black male incarceration and the lived experience of black masculinity in the United States. Mike feels that it’s a bit of a hangout movie, wanting to spend time with the characters and in their world, despite – perhaps because of? – the hardships they experience and discuss at times; certainly because of the romantic transparency, the care and love that characters show for each other, and the richness of their conversations. José finds fault with how the Latinx characters are lit and generally visually portrayed to less than their best, arguing that they were excluded from the visual romance that bathes the rest of the film.
And we see direct comparisons between Beale Street and Moonlight. Beale Street‘s sex scene is an obvious point of discussion with respect to Moonlight‘s ending, but we also find parallels in the elements that depict or imply betrayal between friends, Moonlight‘s hazing scene and Daniel’s ostensible usefulness as an exculpatory witness for Fonny sharing complexities around whether the betrayals they depict are truly betrayals.
A hugely enriching discussion that we had great fun having, thanks to two intricate, beautiful, thought-provoking films.
The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.
Gender-bending in turn-of-the-century France, with the true story of Colette, probably the most famous female writer in French history and author, although they were published under her husband’s name, of the Claudine stories. With representational interests that give voice and presence to people and lifestyles one might not expect in a period film, and two very good central performances, one sensitive and complex, from Keira Knightley, and the other fabulously charming, Dominic West’s, there are things we like. But our overall response is disappointed, the positives dulled by a poor script, some badly developed characters, and direction that allows no metaphor to pass unvocalised.
Mike considers it a potentially smart film destroyed by a pointless fear of its audience not getting it; José sees it as the middle-of-the-road cinema it is, for better and worse. It’s worth a look in some respects, but we can’t claim it’s a good film.
The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.
Rachels Weisz and McAdams soar in this delicate, passionate, complex drama of social pressures and forbidden love. Set in the North London Jewish community, Disobedience tells the story of two women whose love for each other is reignited when one returns home following her father’s death.
Everything is rendered complex, nothing is simple. Weisz’s anger at having been cast out of the community, McAdams’ subjugation and repression into a way of life she doesn’t desire, and Nivola’s denial and ambition are all expressed deeply and combine in intelligent and subtle ways. José is spellbound by the depth of feeling from the very beginning; Mike feels the lack of context early on is disappointing, seeing the film’s clichés rather than its originalities. And we share a certain reservation as to the film’s visual qualities, Mike suggesting the Jewishness of the story is reflected in its understatement, but again there is complexity present in its aesthetic and we appreciate its coherence.
We also like the seriousness with which the film treats its setting, the lack of condescension with which it depicts Jewish ceremonies and customs, Mike in particular finding it exciting to see authentically represented all manner of occasions and nuances of English Judaism. And the synagogue’s choir sings beautifully.
Though we don’t agree on everything, we are deeply moved and find it an enriching film. It’s very much worth your time.
The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.
The road to banal and disappointingly homophobic biopics of rock legends is, as they say, paved with good intentions. The Queen story/Freddie Mercury biopic has been in the works since 2010, with creative differences amongst the filmmakers made public and Brian May and Roger Taylor apparently exercising tight control over how the story would be told. What they apparently wanted was sanitised, bowdlerised, pasteurised, inoffensive to the delicate sensibilities of an audience that would rather not look too closely at the sexuality of a gay icon. Which sounds absurd, but considering the old man sat near us in the cinema who audibly said, “oh dear”, when Freddie was shown kissing a man… Jesus, they might have had a point.
José expresses his disappointment at seeing yet another gay story in which being gay leads to isolation and unhappiness: ‘the sad young man’ trope evolving into the ‘dead queer’ one. Freddie is lonely, surrounded by cats in a vast empty house, pining for a woman. His gay relationships are chaste and the one openly gay character, comfortable with who he is, is cast as a snake, a villain. Freddie’s sexual drive bursts out of his music; are we supposed to believe he experienced no joy in being gay? Brian May – the character – is depicted as a particularly annoying pest, clean, perfect, and forever commenting on Freddie’s lifestyle and behaviour as if to vet it; or perhaps as if to ensure the audience is comfortable. The more we think about it the more homophobic it is.
Our discussion of the film’s attitude to and portrayal of Freddie’s sexuality is central, but two other key aspects to his life also come under criticism – his music, and his death from AIDS. The latter is skated over almost entirely, sympathetically included right at the end to help you feel good about feeling bad for him. The music can’t be hurt, of course, and it’s a pleasure to hear banger after banger, but as Mike says, you may as well go home, read the Queen Wikipedia page and put on the Greatest Hits. What drives the band, what drives Freddie, aren’t things the film appears to have even considered might be interesting questions. Things just… happen. In chronological order. Mainly.
Ultimately we ask ourselves who this film is for. We watch it at a distance, wondering why it is the way it is, not really involved in it until that final act in which Live Aid provides Freddie with the opportunity to make the entire world his own for twenty glorious minutes. And once we get there, everything else becomes insignificant for a while, because it all comes together, the music, the character, and the best parts of Rami Malek’s performance – his physicality and stage presence – and we get to watch Queen for a while. (Or at least a very good tribute act.)
The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.
Watching The Inheritance was an unforgettable experience. It is epic theatre — it runs in two parts from 1:15 to about 4.30 and then from 7:15 to 10.45 — but not in the Brechtian sense. There’s no distanciation here: The Inheritance is theatre as a form of social communion. The theatre seemed to hush at the right moment, without cues, as if guided purely by anticipation. It’s a state-of-the-queer-nation play which touches on the last thirty years of queer histories, the inheritance one generation bequeathed to those that followed, dramatised through a varied cast of characters. I was so moved by the whole experience that, for the first time ever, I actually bought the play at the intermission to re-read later, just in case I’d missed anything.
The mise-en-scène seems on the surface of the utmost simplicity. One empty platform with levers, beautifully designed by BobCrowley so it can be lifted and dropped, first used as a floor, then as a table on which all of the characters, who often step on the performance space through the audience, act out. But the entrances, exits, line readings, even arm movements — all of which earn some effect — belie that first impression of a ‘simple’ mise-en-scène. It’s minimalist in terms of look and what’s visible — though behind it is a hidden screen which sometimes parts to reveal houses and trees occasionally and to great effect; as symbols, cues and setting — but very complex and worked-on in terms of conceptualisation and direction (by Stephen Daldry).
E.M.Foster appears as a narrator who critiques, offers motivation and changes the action. In the writer’s note in the programme of the production, Michael Lopez writes, ‘Foster himself is in it, for the story of my life cannot be told without him’. The play uses the structure of Howards End. Lopez acknowledges how he first saw The Inheritance as a straightforward adaptation, ‘an almost tit-for-tat contemporary updating with gay men from different generations as its central characters. I knew my story needed to be in part about AIDS, for the story of gay men cannot be told without it. Yet almost as soon as I began to write it, I discovered that I was creating something new.’
‘If Howards End, for me, was a gay man in 1910 reaching a hand across time to a young gay boy in 1993 assuring him that he was seen and that he was not alone, The Inheritance is that young boy now grown up, reaching back and saying thank you. It is my act of gratitude to Foster for rescuing me when I was most in need of it.’ This inter-generational conversation about identity, love, desire, loss and death is what The Inheritance is about.
In The Inheritance, the opening line of Howards End, ‘we may as well begin with Helen’s letter to her sister’ becomes ‘we may as well begin with Toby’s voicemails’. Here the two Schlegel sisters are conceived of as a gay couple, Eric Glass (Kyle Soller) and Toby Darling (Andrew Burnap), together for seven years, and agreeing to marry shortly after the play begins. The unfolding of their relationship is the spine of both parts of the play. The character of Leonard Blast is split to encompass both a performer (Adam) and a hustler (Leo), both wanting to acquire culture, and both played by Samuel H. Levine: and there’s a moment where Levine moves in and out of each character within one moment that is a theatrical tour de force.
In fact there’s a lot of ‘doubling’ in the play. Paul Hilton who plays E.M Foster (Morgan), and who as Morgan is an active narrator who gets quite a lot of say in shaping the action, also plays Walter, the kind and gentle man who’s been with Henry Wilcox(John Benjamin Hickey) for 36 years and whose relationship with him is damaged over fundamental issues of ethics and morality when he takes in an old friend in the last stages of dying from AIDS: Henry not only disapproves but actively forbids. Walter befriends Eric, who will later also end up marrying Henry after Walter’s death, and who will also have fundamental differences of opinion when he too decides to open up their house, his house, to the ill and marginalised. Eric in some ways is a new generation’s Walter, acting ethically with the same kinds of compassion and in the face of very familiar forms of discrimination. So the doubling happens by actors playing more than one role, by characters exhibiting similar character traits but from different generations, and through thematic rhymes across both parts of the play.
For example, when we’re introduced to Toby Darling, we assume he’s a flighty, superficial middle-class mannered queen. But we then find out he’s a working class boy from the boondocks. The character he writes for a play, Elan, and which he passes off as autobiographical, is in fact who he wants to be: ‘Rich kid, seventeen, raised on the Upper West Side, sexy as fuck, sarcastic, rude, yet undeniably compelling. He’s basically me.’ is what Toby says. But in fact the person who is like that is Adam, who will get to play Elan. Toby inscribes his book to Adam as ‘To Adam, whom I hope to be when I grow up’. Yet Toby is more like the lost Leo, out of the house by 17, and exchanging the use of his body for substances and subsistence.
Toby will desire Adam and ruin Leo. The only reason Toby didn’t end up like Leo is because Eric saved him. Eric will also save Leo later, like Walter saved so many people earlier; and Eric and Walter will both love Henry, though the older one stayed with him in spite of his faults, and the younger one has different expectations and is able to make different choices. All this doubling takes place amidst a narration that starts off with anonymous people like ‘Young Men 8’ but then goes on to take concrete form, e.g. Young Man Number 8 becomes Toby Darling. The general, generational, social, illustrated by the concrete: individual characters and experiences. Structurally, it’s a marvel.
There’s a terrific theatrical moment, the very end of Act I, where Eric tells Walter, ‘I can’t imagine what those years were like. I don’t eve know how to…
I can understand what it was like. But I cannot possibly feel what it was’.
I’ve reproduced Walter’s response from the published play so you can imagine how powerfully it works on stage (see below)
When Vanessa Redgrave, the dreamy first Mrs. Wilcox of the Merchant-Ivory film, appears near the end of the play as Margaret Avery, the elderly caretaker of the house, here formerly a hospice for the terminally ill, and stabs her womb with her hand remembering how careless she’s been with the son who she didn’t know had so little time to live — well, you could *hear* the audience sniffling and sobbing.
Redgrave plays the house’s caretaker here with a dreadful southern accent. She seemed at times amateurish but then also simultaneously poetic and heartbreaking. Her rendering of the extraordinarily long soliloquy about her son; her love for him and guilt; and what led her to to help Walter turn his house into a hospice is beautiful, moving: quite something to see. And her presence, the aura of her history of politics and performances, adds something to this experience aside from her playing. A day of theatre where even the unsatisfactory bits seemed to add rather than subtract from the experience.
The first part curtain, with the dead from thirty years ago rising from their graves to talk to the new one, had me in tears. And at the end of the second part — when in a flashback Henry asks Walter for guidance: ‘What do I do now Walter? Tell Me what to do?; ‘You do what they could not’, says Walter, ‘you live’ — the audience did literally leap to its feet: cheers, whistles, tremendous outpouring of emotion. The play’s a bit didactic, with attempts to educate that seem clunky and inorganic. In fact there are many issues: it’s a bit preachy, and creaky, and repetitive. It could all be shorter. But I was fascinated by how to me at least it didn’t matter. Even what on the surface seems wrong with it worked for it, and certainly on the audience
Much of the plot of The Inheritance revolves around gifts those who are bequeathed them are thwarted from recognising or accepting. Walter leaves the house to Eric, but like in Howards End, Henry and his sons decide not to honour that pledge. In the end Henry says ‘no man should have to ask for what is rightfully his’ before turning the house over to him. And we can see this plot point as a metaphorical discourse on gay history in the culture at large. The film not only uses Forster as a starting point but references Edward Carpenter, Baldwin, Hollinghurst, even Call Me By Your Name. Though there comes a point half-way through the play when Morgan tells the current generation: ‘You are essential to the story I like to believe I was helpful to you as you started it. But I cannot help you finish it. It isn’t my right to. The past must be faced. It must be learned from. But it cannot be revised. I had my time. Now it’s yours’.
The history of the plague years, the place of so much death and dancing, the birthplace of all the gay activism that directly shaped all the recent gains, from film festivals to gay marriage to the existence of this play, is the rightful inheritance of a younger generation of gay men. But it too has been thwarted, partly through the death of so many men so many years ago now, partly through social exclusion, partly by the fact that so many who get to write history died before they could. The HIV virus itself is also a form of inheritance, in this case an unwanted one, but certainly one passed from generation to generation.This larger social argument is paralleled by individuals like Eric not recognising their own gifts; those which they’ve inherited but in turn also developed, and which need the support of others to come to the fore and be recognised even by the subjects themselves.
This play, and films like 120 Beats Per Minute, are one generation’s attempts to reclaim what is rightfully theirs: the legacy of a history. A ghost of one generation is disinterred to illuminate the gains and grievances, losses and achievements, the culture of another: so that a new generation could rightfully claim the inheritance that is theirs. It might have problems as a text. But it’s an extraordinary experience in the theatre. Kudos to writer, director, actors and all the others for making it so.
A touching documentary about a gay man, Saar Maoz, born and raised in a religious kibbutz in Israel who’s kicked out of it for ‘not following the rules’, ie. being gay. He moves to London in his early twenties, meets a man he loves and starts a long term relationship. It doesn’t last. Amidst the sorrow and sexual experimentation that follows the break-up, he becomes HIV. He finds support from the London Gay Men’s Choir and then, at 40, finds himself in complicated discussions with the very extensive members of his family about whether to return to live in Israel. What makes it so moving is that the family is very loving yet almost murderously homophobic: ‘Why don’t you just kill yourself?’, asks one of his brothers. This is the type of film where the wish for a sibling’s death encased in an avowal of love is rendered understandable.
Saar Maoz is a great subject: charismatic, exuding energy and intelligence, emotionally transparent yet very vulnerable; moving fluidly between a learned ironic stance and a need for love so naked it feels an ache. What at first seems a contradiction becomes reduced to a tension as the film progresses. It’s encapsulated also by the London Gay Men’s choir, at once camp in their movement, kitschy in their song selection, yet simultaneously pure and true in their singing. The film places Maoz between family, where he is loved but is outcast (the scenes with his father are great), and community where he is a cherished but minor part of a very large group. In between them, Maoz suffers and longs.
Ultimately, London, with it’s cosmopolitan and multi-ethnic culture and make-shift support group of choir, medical lifeline, exes and friends, is nonetheless seen as a place of exile: where Maoz has gone to spare his family angst and shame, at great cost to himself. In the end, he decides to return to Israel, and to his family, in a job — running an HIV/AIDS organisation — that requires him to be out about both his sexuality and his HIV status. It’s a choice that raises lots of interesting questions: what is community? what is family? what does Maoz find in blood-ties that he couldn’t invent or construct for himself in London?
Who’s Gonna Love Me Now is not a formally daring or innovative documentary. But it will resonate and be of interest to anyone familiar with cross-cultural conflicts within families.
This thought was incurred by the Before Stonewall programme of films at Lincoln Centre and by Guy Madden’s excellent programme of films at Harvard, as well as the suspicion that retrospectives of ‘gay’ films almost always dwell on instances of representation rather than ‘sensibility’ or ‘structures of feeling’ or other elements that are harder to classify but just as clearly communicated, and historically perhaps even more important, as they were a subcultural form of communication but clearly understood through mainstream media, something akin to the minstrelry Henry Louis Gates Jr. describes in Blues, Ideology, and African American Literature, A Vernacular Theory, when he describes blacks donning black-face in minstrel shows and performing to a mixed audience in a way so inflected that the black audience were aware but the white audience possibly not.
I saw Foul Play when I was 14 and it’s the first film I saw which I knew was somehow gay without it having any gay characters to speak of. Today there are many things one can point to: the film’s empathy with outsiders and misfits of all kinds (though some might find the scene above on the verge of being offensive; the film makes amends later); the feminist overtones which then over-hung the incipient gay liberation movement — a girlfriend gives Goldie Hawn’s Gloria a whole array of tool with which to defend herself against male aggression; the San Francisco setting; the way the Dudley Moore character travels through the saunas and discos in search of a quick shag in ways much more characteristic of gay men of the period than heterosexual ones; the type of cinephilia, with its adoring send-ups of thriller/horror tropes; the opera sub-plot and it’s comic use of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado; the plot to kill the pope; the camp humour with which it’s all told; the tracing of this sensibility to its director, one of the first to be openly gay, who had written Harold and Maude before and would later go on to direct such camp classics as 9 to Five and Best Little Whorehouse in Texas before dying of AIDS in 1988: one easily notes the patterns of the films and of the career. Back then, the only thing I could point to was how in the last shot, the extras looked like the pornstars that then adorned the covers of Blueboy or Mandate magazines, and were later to adorn the covers of Falcon videos. As you can see from the clip above — where Goldie Hawn plays a librarian who is being chased for a microfilm she doesn’t know she has by a killer nicknamed The Dwarf — it’s all very gay, in every sense of the word. And one knew it, even then, even at 14 but without quite knowing why.