If you only read this blog, you wouldn’t have any clue what “The Aisle Seat” is because I didn’t ever say that I started writing a column for Anthropology News about film and culture and … stuff. It’s monthly for a year, and it’s enormously fun. The Captain Marvel piece was my second. My first was about Bohemian Rhapsody, which is such a problematic film. This is how it starts:
On Sunday, Rami Malek won an Academy Award for portraying Freddy Mercury in the extremely popular Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody. In his speech, Malek made the case for the film’s progressive depiction of minorities: “We made a film about a gay man, an immigrant, who lived his life just unapologetically himself. The fact that I’m celebrating him and this story with you tonight is proof that we’re longing for stories like this.” Many people might quibble with this as “proof.” I doubt a film simply about a flamboyant queer Parsi would have reached the same audience as one about the front man of the band that recorded some of the world’s most iconic rock songs, including the one the movie is named after. And I doubt Queen would have been as successful in the 1970s and 1980s if Mercury hadn’t changed his name from Farrokh Bulsar, remained in the closet, and hidden his AIDS diagnosis until just before his death in 1991. (This may seem “unapologetic” of him, but I’d argue it isn’t a good thing.)
The new entry for “The Aisle Seat” in Anthropology News is live, huzzah. I decided to tackle Captain Marvel in less than 1000 words. I could’ve done 3000. Anyway, here’s how it starts:
Thirty-four minutes into Captain Marvel, our superhero, played by Oscar-winner Brie Larson, is standing in a Los Angeles parking lot wearing an intergalactic police uniform and reading an unfolded map. A man rolls in on a motorcycle, eyes her up and down, and says, “Nice scuba suit!” She barely gives him a side-eye in response, and miffed, he says, “Lighten up, honey, huh? You gonna smile for me?” She continues to ignore him as he heads in a store. Then she lowers the map and sees his bike, which she promptly steals.
It is possible that I wrote my last review in San Diego LGBT Weekly. Stampp Corbin, who founded the paper in 2010 and who hired me as its film critic in January, 2011, has moved onto other things and as of this writing is looking to sell the paper. But it may not sell, and even if it does, I don’t know if I’ll still be the film critic.
But if it had to end, I’m glad it was Coco. You’d have to stretch to find true queer content (the gay couples folks have noticed are, I’m pretty sure, brothers and a father and son) but Coco is among my favorite animated films ever. Here was my review:
I’ve written before that I cry easily at the movies, and I’ve cried at some terrible ones. I’m still embarrassed that I cried at a screening of the wretched and sappy Jack Frost in 1998. But I’ve never been ashamed that animated Pixar movies have moved me to tears, partly because I’m joined by millions of other weepers, but mostly because the films tend to be so well written that the audience’s emotional responses feel earned rather than manipulated.
While the characters are always archetypes, they are still layered and complex; the plots tend to focus on conflicts most of us experience as young people, but the writers use innovative, often fantastical ways to tell and resolve the stories. The studio’s latest and one of the best is Coco, a film about music, love and death that uses Día de los Muertos to examine the power of memory to define family and identity. It’s stunningly beautiful, very moving and very funny.
Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez) is a Mexican boy who only wants to become a musician. Unfortunately, after his musician great-great-grandfather abandoned his great-great- grandmother Imelda and their daughter Coco, music was not allowed anywhere in the family’s shoe-making business, their sprawling home, or, it seems, even their thoughts. When they discover Miguel playing a guitar in the town plaza, his family, especially his Abuelita (Renée Victor), react as if he’d joined a violent gang – the horror! While initially he is willing to abide by the rules, on the day of Día de los Muertos he determines that his missing great-great-grandfather was none other than his hero Ernesto de la Cruz, barrel-chested 1940s matinee idol and “the greatest musician in the world.”
As people decorate gravestones with marigolds and tasty treats for the only night long-departed spirits are allowed to visit, Miguel breaks into Ernesto’s mausoleum to retrieve the musician’s famous white guitar. And suddenly Miguel and his dog Dante are transported to the exquisitely garish land of the dead, where everyone is a skeleton and they are all flabbergasted that he’s there, alive, and fleshy. He needs the blessing of a family member to get home, but his bony relatives, led by Imelda (Alanna Ubach), won’t send him back unless he promises never to play music again. So, he runs off to find Ernesto with the sad sack Hector (Gael García Bernal), who is fading away as he is being forgotten back in the living world.
Adrian Molina and Matthew Aldrich’s flawless script is both a hero’s journey through the underworld and also a domestic dramedy about the ways tight-knit, multi-generational families try to resolve their oldest, most painful conflicts. And it also a mystery: Why is the film called Coco? They manage to explain the beauty and particulars of Día de los Muertos without being pedantic, and they thread in knowing jokes about Mexican families and culture without being obscure or offensive. Grandmothers wield their shoes like revolvers, the skeleton of Frida Kahlo makes several absurdist cameos, and Ernesto’s films are perfectly silly parodies of Mexican cinema of the 1930s.
The songs, written by Frozen Oscar winners Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, are beautiful hybrids of American pop and traditional Mariachi. I predict “Remember Me” will be omnipresent before winning the Oscar for Best Original Song. It, too, does double duty. First it is a bombastic hit for Ernesto in the 1940s, and then it is sung as a heart-breaking duet. It was during the latter when I cried bittersweet tears.
Coco Directed by Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina
Written by Adrian Molina and Matthew Aldrich
Starring Anthony Gonzalez, Gael García Bernal and Benjamin Bratt
Opening this Friday in San Diego, God’s Own Country has been described as the British Brokeback Mountain, which is both accurate and hyperbolic. Both are about star-crossed lovers who meet while tending to livestock in a sparse landscape, but this time it’s Yorkshire, not Wyoming. Johnny (Josh O’Connor) is the only son of a debilitated farmer (Ian Hart), and his bitterness about being trapped on the farm has led him to alcoholic shenanigans including but not limited to hooking up with strange men in barns. When they hire a migrant farmhand from Romania named Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), Johnny is at first angry at the more competent and controlled interloper. And then they figure out what each other want, and it’s each other, and it’s not easy.
Unlike Brokeback Mountain, which had a deceptively complicated narrative and gut-wrenching emotional realism, God’s Own Country follows a standard romance plot and has more familiar conflicts – albeit with gorgeous and naturalistic imagery and an ending that will satisfy many viewers. While I don’t think the artistry of Brokeback and Ang Lee is surpassed by God’s Own Country, the new film is exquisitely made. Writer and director Francis Lee’s taciturn characters and stark scenes hide powerful symbolism and complicated people, and his actors are roundly stunning. O’Connor’s Johnny is a jerk, but his growth makes him sympathetic, and the performance is gritty, angry and beautiful. Secareanu’s Gheorghe doesn’t have the same kind of arc, but he does for the audience what he does for Johnny: we fall in love with him and his deep, beautiful eyes. The great Gemma Jones plays Johnny’s dutiful, loyal, deeply worried grandmother, and it’s a wise, agonizing performance.
A week later, one of the other great queer-themed films of 2017 opens. BPM (Beats Per Minute) was recently named as France’s official submission for the foreign language Oscar; in June, it won four awards at Cannes. And it’s arguably the greatest film about AIDS made in any language. It follows several members of ACT-UP Paris during the early 1990s, concentrating on the group’s various political conflicts and a relationship between young, furious HIV positive Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) and the handsome activist newcomer Nathan (Arnaud Valois). The film’s focus in the beginning is on ACT-UP meetings, and writer-director Robin Campillo, an ACT-UP Paris veteran, makes them thrilling, frustrating, enraging and awe-inspiring. Over meetings and various actions, Sean and Nathan fall in love, and the film’s superb final act examines Sean’s worsening health and Nathan’s (and other ACT-UP members’) devotion to him.
Even though BPM is arriving 25 years after the height of ACT-UP’s work, its urgency is palpable; despite being firmly ensconced in a particular historical moment, the drama and the emotions do not feel anachronistic. Partly, this is because of how compelling Campillo has directed various key scenes, but it is also because several of the main plot points – pharmaceutical greed, fear of sexuality, bigotry – are still of great concern to all of us. And Campillo does not flinch from the sex, illness, sadness, lust and anger like so many AIDS films before that were made to play well in Peoria. BPM is instructive, enraging, devastating and beautiful. It’s one of the most important films of the year – queer and not – and shouldn’t be missed.
God’s Own Country Written and directed by Francis Lee
Starring Josh O’Connor, Alec Secareanu, and Gemma Jones
Opens Friday, Nov. 10 at Landmark Ken Cinema
BPM (Beats Per Minute) Directed by Robin Campillo
Written by Robin Campillo and Philippe Mangeot
Starring Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, Arnaud Valois, and Adèle Haenel
Opens Friday, Nov. 17 at Landmark Ken Cinema
I can’t remember the first time I saw one of the drawings by Touko Laaksonen, better known as Tom of Finland. It’s as if they were already in my head, iconic of gayness and man-ness, when I came out in 1992. I’d been titillated by some of the drawings of superheroes in the comic books I loved as a teenager, but Tom of Finland’s work was wonderfully, deliciously pornographic to me. His work and that of his imitators did the same for men all over the world, thus its omnipresence. Those barrel chested, bubble butted, leather clad men smoking and showing off gargantuan packages in their jeans were everywhere, from murals in gay bars to illustrations in magazines to magnets on refrigerators. After I read up on him and saw the quite good documentary Daddy and the Muscle Academy, it’s never been clear to me if he was just drawing the uniform, biker, military and leather fetishes of his audience or drawing his own kink fantasies and doing it so well that his audience developed their own. I think it’s a little of both: Tom of Finland helped create the visuals of modern gay desire.
To me this is the most interesting thing about Tom of Finland; it’s pretty much unexplored in the handsome, if slight new eponymous biopic directed by Dome Karukoski. The film does the requisite biographical duties and ties Tom’s artwork to the larger progression of gay visibility and gay rights since World War II.
The film begins with Touko gazing longingly at fellow soldiers in the Finnish army and tracks his mostly secret career as an erotic artist and gay man in 1950s and 1960s Finland and Germany to his fame among gay men particularly in the United States in the 1970s. He died in 1991, after AIDS led him to put condoms and safe sex messages in his art. The film equates, simplistically, the creation and possession of his artwork with homosexuality, as the discoveries of his drawings led to arrests, and he showed them to men as pictorial pickup lines. And the film does so tamely, showing very little during the brief sex scenes and when photographing the actual artwork. If you didn’t know how wonderfully explicit Tom of Finland’s art was, you wouldn’t know after seeing the film.
That said, the film is beautifully shot and impeccably acted, stylistically reminiscent of British historical biopics like Iris or The Imitation Game. Tall and angular Pekka Strang plays Tom/Touko as quietly controlled, with rare outbursts of joy or anger, giving us a perfect picture of the pre-Stonewall closet, when every affect had to be managed to avoid detection. Taisto Oksanen is excellent as Touko’s carefully closeted former army officer and friend, and Lauri Tilkanen is Touko’s beautiful longtime boyfriend, who his sister was in love with first. Jessica Grabowsky is his sister, deeply loving but also deeply in denial about her brother’s homosexuality, his real relationship with his roommate and his art. When she does finally see it, she calls it, more or less, smut. And it was smut, but it was gorgeous, hot, iconic, enormously influential smut.
Tom of Finland Directed by Dome Karukoski
Written by Aleksi Bardy
Starring Pekka Strang, Lauri Tilkanen and Jessica Grabowsky
Opens at Landmark Ken Oct. 27