Mar 042019

A heist goes bad in the middle of a contested municipal election and all the thieves are killed. The ringleader’s wife discovers the money involved belonged to one of the candidates when he comes to threaten her with the standard, “Get me my money back in a month or else.” Using a notebook her husband left behind, she teams up with the other widows to steal the money they need to get back on their feet. What follows involves twists and turns: this is after all a heist film. But in the end, the widows get the money, and the bad guys get what’s coming to them.

What stands out about the film is that it is a woman’s heist film that shows actual women pulling off the heist. They are not women doing action-star drag. Neither are they playing (romance) comedy wrapped up in a heist narrative. Instead, the film asks, what would a burglary involving all the familiar generic obstacles and stakes but planned and executed by these women look like? How would they do it? What would they bring to the table to make it possible? How would the thing itself—the sneaking, the dealing with alarms, the flight and the chase—play out? It’s interesting to watch and opens up new aspects of the genre. I like this a lot.

What I like less—and this is hard for me to admit—is watching Viola Davis’s performance. She’s always created emotional depth and vibrancy in her characters and then presented these through a quiet, stoic exterior that reads as strength, goodness or nobility. Here though, her character has such a hard and abrasive exterior—at times her character seems purposefully mean-spirited—that it feels less like a layer complicating an emotional life than like a wall is separating me from it completely. Maybe I’m overreacting from seeing her play beside a post-Taken Liam Neeson or maybe it’s because of memories of How to Get Away with Murder, a show I tried to watch but could not and which reminds me of her character here. Whatever the case, my experience of her performance of this character was at odds with what I felt the film was pushing me to feel vis-à-vis the “good guy-tough guy” role she was playing within the narrative. Tough resonated. Good, not so much.

Feb 132016

Numbers CoverI ordered City of Night and this book was delivered instead. In it, a young man comes back to LA after a three year hiatus from hustling, hoping to prove to himself that the gay life he lived in that city was a fluke. Or at least that’s what he tells himself he’s doing. It’s clear when his initial attempt to have “recuperative” straight sex goes horribly wrong — the woman’s child interrupts in a way that suggests the protagonist is being hustled — that he’s deceiving himself.

The rest of the novel follows this man as he cruises the woods of a secluded park, obsessively counting sexual encounters according to a set of rules he establishes early on. His goal? Sex with thirty-three men before he leaves to go back home in ten days. If he succeeds, he tells himself, it will free him from his sexual past leaving him to spend the rest of his life a healthy straight Texan. This is folly, and the novel closes with him returning to the park for his thirty-fourth encounter, then his thirty-fifth and so on.

The tone of this return, and the tone of the novel as a whole, are not however easily discerned. On the one hand the novelist clearly aims for the succes de scandale. The protagonist accepts and relishes the degeneracy his sex with men, and his rules ensure that nothing else can emerge. The narration doubles this judgement in its discursive passages and in the ostensibly documentary exposure of baldly pornographic sex scenes. Even the publishing apparatus of the book plays the game: the author insists in the preface that his mother held the sheets of paper for him as he drafted, a declaration that compounds the gay sex of the narrative with the straight incest of the composition.  The pleasure here — for the protagonist, the novelist, and the reader — is the giddy, excessive pleasure of broken taboo.

Yet there is little actual pleasure in this book. Quite to the contrary, the obsessive counting, the desperate belief that this ritual will liberate the protagonist from a desire he finds unspeakable, and the book’s insistence on its autobiographical authority together suggest genuine suffering. In this case, the debasement may be less a stunt than an image of the terrible consequences of an internalized, repressive conception of same-sex desire. The most obvious expression of this suffering is the protagonist’s rules. They have as their stated goal his release from a gay past, yet, their actual effect is very different: they enable him to act out his desire by having more and more sex with men, yet at the same time, they permit him to define that sex as something other than gay sex and himself as someone other than a gay man. In other words, they encourage him in a profound and destructive delusion.

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the group of sympathetic, older gay men who offer him an alternative to the woods. They have created a world for themselves and a non (less?) repressive identity and they are ready to socialize the protagonist into their group as a friend. The protagonist, however, actively sabotages this opportunity, betraying these men each time he meets them, and then returning to the woods. With each return he presses further against the limits established by his rules, straining the delusion they maintain. Whenever he breaks them — and he does more and more as the novel progresses — he revises them, each time in more complex, more detailed ways, always recuperating his transgressions as steps along the path toward eventual liberation. The effort involved leaves him frenetic, bored and, by the final pages, fully trapped by desires he prevents himself from understanding.

So I leave this novel perplexed: how much of what I’m reading is a tragic portrait and how much of it is sexual sensationalism and exploitation? I resist thinking it’s doing both: Numbers is too unironic and it clearly isn’t attempting the poetic abjection of Our Lady of the Flowers (although I bet Rechy read that book). Yet despite my resistance, the book clearly isn’t artless; or at least, it’s artlessness suggests — in the way Kerouac often does — a stylistic choice. So I find it difficult to situate myself or to decide how to take what I’ve read. This in itself is an interesting effect.

Final thought on Shame

This book reminded me of Steve McQueen’s Shame. The obvious link is the compulsive sex that damages relationships, but the more significant echo is in the way public, exterior spaces are made (when used in a particular way) anonymous and private. This public anonymity organizes conceptions of time and desire in Maurice. In Michael Warner’s The Trouble with Normal, it is taken as characteristic of non-marital queer cultures.

This has, in turn, left me wondering to what extent the gay sex in the final scenes of Shame isn’t a discovery of the fundamental queerness of this non-normative straight man’s streetwalking and web browsing.  And if that is the case, to what extent is the disavowal of that sex — by the character and by the film — a retreat from the queer conception of a privacy found in public spaces, a privacy at odds with the very different privacy defined and offered by domestic interiors.

Mar 092014

Steve McQueen‘s latest is the best movie I’ve seen in a long time. Beautifully photographed and constructed. I especially like how shots were established as static photographs that movement and action seeped into. A technique that emphasized the visual beauty of the film while thematizing the way life went on and around the horrors of slavery without reacting to it.

Two examples: the barred window to Solomon’s cell seen from outside, but when he eventually walks up to the bars, the camera looks up and away to the city lights in the distance; and the long shot of Solomon, near-hanged and on tip-toe, as after a few moments, other slaves slowly walk into or through the background to do their daily chores.

I gave Shame a hard time for it’s ending, but both it and this film operate on the (very blurred) boundary line between art and popular art. Very few of the other films right now seem to aim for anything but the popular.

And on a selfish note, this film is a great resource for when I’m teaching slave narratives in my lit course this Fall.

Dec 312011

ShameShame by Steve McQueen

A disturbing movie for unexpected reasons.

First off, it’s not shocking, which says something about how pornographic images of sex (as opposed to other kinds of images) have saturated our culture, public spaces, private imaginaries. The desire to show all is matched today it seems by a sense of having seen all.

The movie is most interesting for how it imagines a private space in the city. The city in this story is merely the backdrop for an intensely private drama and the occasion for beautiful photography. The landscape is window dressing (literally in the many scenes where characters are seen in front of or through window glass). And other characters simply don’t exist as anything other than place holders. The protagonist is alone and to the extent he feels shame at any particular moment, the feeling emerges from his brief recognition of his loss of contact with others. When others break contact with him–in a bar, in a restaurant, at work, in an apartment–and look away, then he has failed and shame is what he feels.

If the pornographic desire to show all can become a vehicle for carving out a private space for individual experience and then remind us that this private experience can support our need for emotional connection with others  (which is what I think this movie suggests), then feeling shame may be the most positive emotional experience available to us today. And if that is the case, then all that queer work on abjection and identity construction in marginal communities might become a major tool for understanding dominant cultures in the age of Facebook. Holy shit, right?

ps–my main annoyance with the film was that (and maybe this relates to my last point?) “rock bottom” is signalled in the movie by two queer encounters. One anonymous in a gay bar, the other bought with two women. Why is such a “risky”, “taboo-breaking” film about sex so boring in its sense of the bounds of what shameful sex is? Apparently treating women like meat might be bad, especially if it goes too far or happens too often, but anything not one man, one woman is really really bad bad bad right from the very start. …Stupid stupid stupid.