23
Feb
16

Carol, Tangerine and queer cinema

Carol is a visually sumptuous film that captures the New York of the fifties. It’s on the verge of ‘something coming’, but still steeped in the fifties formality. Todd Haynes’ direction isn’t heavy handed, he gives the actors room to fill moments, the dialogue is sparse but so much is clearly said.

 

I like the film for many reasons the sheer beauty of it, the fact that it’s an unapologetic queer story, and that it isn’t trying to do too much. We follow the characters as each makes major changes in their lives; in the end the world is full of possibilities.

 

When I look at Carol I see a film intrinsically different from Brokeback Mountain. There was nothing new in Brokeback, the acting was beautiful the cinematography breath taking, but in the end Hollywood sings the same old tune, two men fall in love, act on it, so of course one of them has to die. There was nothing ground-breaking other than it came from a big studio and big names worked on it.

 

Carol, based on a book by a queer woman and directed by a queer man, unashamedly tells the story of two women and has a feeling of self-ownership and hope.

Unlike so much coming out the big studios these days Carol is a thinking person’s film, it’s not a big story, but it is an important one. The director was in charge and was given room to work; the result is a film that will last much longer than most of what’s running out there.

 

Tangerine

This is a list of firsts, filmed by Sean S Baker on an IPhone 5 it is the first “fictional” movie filmed in the US where we have trans actors playing trans people. This may not be pleasant to watch, but is a real situation for female to male transsexuals out there living on the street or just getting by. It doesn’t judge. It puts you in an unknown world that we would usually avoid at all costs. It isn’t for everyone, but there is a wonderful raw quality to the work. The acting isn’t groundbreaking but in most cases honest, the world they occupy is limited and has its borders, as well as being broken. The sound track is pulled together by a quilt of indie musicians, some only 17.

 

It will be interesting to see what he makes next.

 

With trans folk being in the media so much right now with Orange is the New Black, The Danish Girl, About Ray, and Transparent, we have many depictions some honest, some romanticized, some missing the mark. With all of this comes a constantly repeating question: who should play these roles?

 

As a queer artist I am torn on the question of whether queer actors should be first in line for the roles. On the rare occasion we see queer people playing queer characters on screen we see a depth that is sometimes missing from other performances. Am I reading too much into this? Quite possibly it’s hard to judge. Looking at Ben Whishaw, for instance, in London Spy there is a visceral connection to the understanding of the relationship.

 

With trans roles I want to see a trans performer bring something only they can viscerally know to the work. An example of this is the French film Wild Side. The film cast Stephanie Michelini as the lead portraying a trans women living in Paris. There is something mesmerizing about her performance in the quiet looks and silent moments, her sense of exhaustion and her non-apologetic decision to live her life as she does. Filmed in 2004 you see immediately how far we have to go to catch up with this kind of filmmaking. Living as a queer man, just like living as a queer woman or trans has its own history and has informed us in ways straight people do not experience.

 

On the other hand, as a theatre maker I want to see the character not the performer. It shouldn’t matter who the actor is sexually “in real life”, it is the actor’s portrayal of the given role that is important. This is the current argument amongst artists in the field today. We are all human, we all experience joy and sorrow, we should be able to portray any character without the actor’s personal orientation being brought into question.

 

In a perfect world that is true, I have no doubt that the straight and non-trans actors working in these roles are striving to be as authentic as they can be.

 

We don’t live or work in a perfect world. Hollywood and American media especially have no idea how to break out of stereotypes and poor writing choices, not only with queer characters but with pretty much any minority character depicted on small and big screen. What’s even more disturbing is that they don’t see there is a problem. One has only to look at the merchandizing for the Star Wars film to see that they are clearly out of touch with the public of 2016.

 

We still hear the argument that those who are out will never get work. We see less of this in the music industry. At present more and more recording artists are coming out, and making videos that depict their sexuality without apology. As musicians they are their work so a sense of authenticity and acknowledgement of who they are can only help as they create their own brand.

 

For actors, and especially, let’s be clear, male actors, the fear that being out is a career killer is still quite real. In other parts of the world this is not necessarily an issue, they do the work and get on with it. I don’t want an actor to sacrifice their career just to be out, but I would love to see more queer actors demanding a more adult approach to the work and how we are portrayed.

 

It is here the American movie industry is years behind Europe and the independent scene not only on what is produced and who portrays whom, but how the films are viewed. I will acknowledge that HBO and Showtime have made great strides in this area.

 

Do I think it is different for women than it is for men? Yes I do. We have a different view of women’s sexuality as a culture. Women have been objectified and marginalized within the arts world as well as all walks of life. How a woman looks and dresses, does she wear make-up, all the mundane sexist crap that women deal with daily. This is changing, but very, very slowly. A woman’s sexuality isn’t seen as her own, it is about the straight male gaze and she has little agency. A man’s expression of his orientation reflects directly on how he is viewed as a man. People see queerness as a feminized weakness, he is somehow soft. These are not manly qualities in the western cultural view. This too is being challenged and rightly so.

 

All of this is going on within the discussion of who gets to play gay on screen. So the conversation isn’t an easy one or one that has a clear answer. As a director I want an actor who is right for the role. If it’s a queer role I will do my best to cast a queer actor because there is less to translate. Do I think straight cannot play queer? Not at all. Desire, passion, and love do not know boundaries in the real world. Would I want to see an actor labeled and unemployed because the powers that be don’t think the audience will buy a queer man playing straight? It’s been happening for a long time you just didn’t know about it.

 

At the end of the day for me no matter who the actor is, did they treat the subject with respect and integrity? Is it a three dimensional character or a flat one-dimensional stereotype?

 

These are the battles still being fought.

 

 

 

 

 

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