Transparent, Season One

I hate the act of watching television: the weekly schedule, the commercials, the hassle of figuring out what’s on, the crappy episodes that fill space and the cliffhangers that try to bring you back once you’re done. It all annoys and frustrates me, and as a result, for long stretches of my adult life I’ve had no television. And when I have had one, I haven’t subscribed to anything beyond basic cable, because cable just makes everything worse by orders of magnitude.

(As an aside, once when I was young—maybe nine or ten—I did something (I don’t remember what) and my father sent me to my room as punishment. Whatever I did must have upset my mom pretty badly though because she intervened and said, “No. He’s going to sit here and watch television with the rest of us.” So for the next half-hour I sat crying on the couch in front of the TV. Lesson learned.)

DVD box sets and now the combination of Netflix, iTunes and Apple TV changed all of this because now I can watch television series without having to watch television. This has been a revelation. Yes, managing multiple subscriptions is a hassle—and I came to Transparent late because I wasn’t subscribed to Amazon Prime—but  it’s worth the trouble.

In general, the shows that appeal to me the most generally reach for a novelistic scale. (And in those cases where a series doesn’t seem to be reaching for it, if I like it, it’s usually because I see an unintentional reach emerging across the episodes.) Concretely this scale usually manifests as seasons of ten or twelve episodes, each of which is roughly fifty minutes long. These episodes develop a complex, multi-threaded narrative which, thanks largely to the recent successes of HBO, seems to have become something like the standard for “quality” television.

Jill Soloway moves this notion of “quality” in a very different direction. Like I Love Dick, the first season of Transparent is built of brief episodes of only thirty minutes each. Each operates something like an overtly incomplete collection of scenes. These scenes develop a story, but they also make visible gaps in the narrative that are filled in only by implication and supposition. Imagined in terms of painting, the series is a careful combination of positive and negative space.

I have two lingering thoughts about the first season.

First, I can’t help seeing Soloway as the true dauphin of 90s New Queer Cinema, a movement of real aesthetic power that I worry will slip away into the past and be lost. Soloway clearly works within its aesthetic. Her concrete treatment of media, her use of found images, her reliance on technique from underground film, and her self-consciousness and deep political commitment are all direct links to that earlier historical moment. Yet importantly, she fuses this heritage with comedic and melodramatic story forms that make her work attractive and accessible in a way so little of the New Queer Cinema was.

Second, there are no gay male characters in this season. Gay men appear—partying unseen but loudly next door early on for example—but they do not matter. Given the self-awareness and political commitments of this very queer series, I don’t think their absence is an oversight. Quite to the contrary, I read it as a kind of calling out: gay men’s lives have been improved immensely by the efforts of legions of queer people, but as the political needle has moved toward accepting the idea that white, affluent, stylish men might be allowed to love each other, the political fire seems to have died out in many of these white guy’s bellies. The fight for all queer people’s rights continues, but, as this series points out, these gay men aren’t around. I think this is a purposeful and powerful gesture.

Mala Noche and Festival Films

Mala NocheWhen I was in film school (studies not production!), I was curious about “the festival film,” which to me manifested as a particular style of image and story. In classes, we discussed the festival circuit as an alternative, international distribution venue for non-commercial or international film and were very excited by all the resistant political implications we spun out of this possibility.  These festivals were where artists working outside the system showed films that mattered and that made a difference. Even if I didn’t very much enjoy attending festival screenings, the queer cinema that I was drawn to often bore the festival style and moved through this circuit.

Watching Mala Noche and Seashore recently, I had a very different thought. These are new filmmakers’ films, young filmmakers’ films, and their mannered style and small, familiar plots suggest a young artist’s reach toward technical fluency and reflect the limited means available to the unproven in an expensive medium. They are, in other words, late-stage apprentice work. This description won’t apply universally, but it captures something true about a subset that I’m drawn to.

Thinking in this way, I see better how Van Sant’s Mala Noche stands out from the crowd: it operates within the same technical and financial constraints but offers up an extensive and varied physical world where a story plays out that is neither familiar nor easy and which does not recount an individual’s coming of age or coming out. The result is a film that is pro- and e- vocative.

Set beside Van Sant’s film, a movie like Seashore, which is a rather straightforward coming out story focused on two very young men, feels quite literally like a ritual, with all the aesthetic and emotional implications that might conjure.

The Living End

The Living EndA key movie of the New Queer Cinema that, somehow, I’d never seen. And it’s quite good, especially now that the passage of time has left its “cool” to operate so clearly as a sign rather than as a pathetic appeal.

If the film were a wine, we’d probably say something like, “Time has softened the tannins allowing the structure to come forward.”