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Posts Tagged ‘sexuality’

In my line of work, you may occasionally find yourself having to teach opposites, which is not always as straightforward as you might think. The opposite of ‘long’ is easy; it’s ‘short’. The opposite of ‘difficult’ – well, that’s easy, too. But what about ‘light’? Is it ‘dark’ or ‘heavy’? Or is it both? What about ‘strong’?

Long-term readers may recall my occasional amusement at some of the prefatory guidance provided by the British censor on their certifications, and it seems I am not alone in this. ‘Contains strong sex and sexual content’ ran the blurb ahead of Dominic Cooke’s On Chesil Beach, which I saw a matinee showing of at Oxford’s best-mannered cinema. The audience there looked so respectable and well-brought-up I wouldn’t have been at all surprised if some of them had actually read Ian McEwan’s novella, upon which it is based. Nevertheless, someone at the back said, just a bit too loudly, ‘Strong sex? As opposed to what, weak sex?’

Well, many a true word spoken in attempted jest, for weak sex is in a sense what On Chesil Beach is about, not that it initially shows much sign of this. Perhaps this is really the point. The film opens in 1962, with the arrival on the eponymous UNESCO world heritage site of a young couple, Edward (Billy Howle) and Florence (Saoirse Ronan). They are newlyweds, and both clearly nervous, aware of the significance of their first night together as a married couple, and – outwardly at least – keen to discharge their responsibilities to each other.

Through an extended series of flashbacks, the film sketches in their backgrounds and history – Florence is a musician, from quite a posh background: her mother and father are ferociously Tory and perhaps incline somewhat towards a tough parenting style. Edward, a historian, is from a slightly more humble background, his life somewhat defined by the fact his mother has been prone to rather eccentric behaviour since she was hit in the head by a train. They are clearly utterly in love with one another.

However, this being 1962, with the permissive society still to really get going, Edward and Florence really don’t have much idea about what comes next. From the beginning one is instantly struck by the sense that these are two people playing roles, going through the motions simply because they believe it is what expected of them. It is sort of funny, sort of sad; you really do feel for them. But then it becomes simply rather excruciating to watch two people, at considerable length and in considerable detail, fail to have sex, especially because you can tell this is all they really want to do, and this failure is clearly going to have consequences.

On Chesil Beach starts off by looking like the kind of well-heeled period literary adaptation which we produce on a fairly regular basis here in the UK – the cinematography is beautiful, the recreation of Oxford around 1960 is superbly done. This is initially presented as a kind of halcyon era – there is warm beer and cricket matches, people wandering about on Christchurch Meadow, catching steam trains (when not being hit in the head by them), and so on. And there is the kind of very strong cast you would expect for this kind of film. Saoirse Ronan is the big draw, obviously, but she is matched step for step by Billy Howle, and there is an excellent supporting cast – principally, Anne-Marie Duff, Adrian Scarborough, Emily Watson and Samuel West.

It initially seems like this is to be a forensic, not unsympathetic depiction of the mores of the period, which seems like an unimaginably distant and different one: Florence has no idea who Chuck Berry is, but upon hearing one of his songs on the radio decides it sounds ‘merry’. The class tension between Edward and Florence’s parents, in particular, is also sharply drawn. There are moments of comedy as well as drama, with the two subtly shading into one another – West’s performance as Florence’s absurdly driven father would certainly qualify as a brilliant comic miniature, were it not for the fact that there are definite hints of genuine darkness in his history.

And then – well, it is difficult to say much without spoiling what seems to me to be one of the best films of the year so far. Things do not go according to plan, someone quite possibly overreacts, decisions are made that cannot be unmade. There is a sense in which the film is obviously suggesting that this is all the result of the kind of repressed society where young people are forced to educate themselves in matters amatory, but it never feels like it is pointing a finger or apportioning blame. Everyone is shaped by their background, after all, whether they decide to adopt the role expected of them or rebel against it; no-one is really wholly self-made. And yet the film’s sense of sadness is overwhelming as it progresses; what looks like it may simply be another one of those somewhat bleak films about British people being bad in bed ultimately turns into a crushingly tragic story, made all the more so because there is so little to suggest this as the film begins.

This is a product of the BBC’s film division, and many people might say that one of the distinguishing features of a BBC movie is the fact that it seems very much at home on the small screen – that BBC Films productions are frequently just a bit too genteel and not really cinematic enough to fully satisfy. Well, I would say this one is a bit different – most obviously, it has two marvellous performances from Ronan and Howle, both of whom appear to be carved from solid star quality, but Cooke’s direction has a style and ambition about it which is very much at home on the big screen. The creation of a nostalgic picture-postcard world is finely achieved, as is the moment where our departure from it is signalled by the sudden intrusion into the soundtrack of the growling opening riff from T-Rex’s 20th Century Boy, signalling a jump forward in time of many years. There is also something beautifully simple and symbolic about the closing shot of the film, the camera constantly pulling back to keep the two characters involved at the edges of the screen as they move inexorably away from each other.

As I say, On Chesil Beach is hardly a cheery film, but it is one of the highest quality on pretty much every level. I had heard good things about it, but I did not expect it to move me so profoundly in the way it did. Not the kind of entertainment you walk home from whistling, but there’s a reason why people listen to sad songs, too – this is a deeply humane and beautifully-made film, well worth watching.

 

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I must confess that my fondness for the Phoenix, my local art-house cinema, has taken the odd knock over the last few years, mainly because with each new refurbishment (there have been several) it seems to have become more and more bland and corporate and just a little bit less charming. Admittedly, the complete rebuild of the smaller theatre is a vast improvement, but then the big one has also been totally redone and it didn’t really need it. Hey ho; that’s progress, I guess. One reason to still love the place is its habit (on the verge of becoming a tradition) of digging out a classic fantasy or horror movie to inaugurate the start of every Christmas season. Last year it was the wonderfully nasty Blood on Satan’s Claw, and this year it was Neil Jordan’s 1984 film The Company of Wolves, based on a story by Angela Carter.

Looking at this film now inevitably takes one back to a lost age of the British film industry, a time when companies like ITC were cranking out movies like Hawk the Slayer and The Dark Crystal on a fairly regular basis, while the hip young gunslingers at Palace Pictures, who started out by distributing art house movies from abroad, were chancing their arm with projects like Mona Lisa and and Absolute Beginners. The Company of Wolves is an ITC-Palace production, of course.

This is one of those movies which it is rather difficult to give a capsule synopsis for, but let’s have a go anyway. The story opens in what appears to be the real world, with a well-off couple (David Warner and Tusse Silberg) returning home to their rather expansive country home and their two daughters. The elder (Georgia Slowe) is packed off to rouse the younger (Sarah Patterson) from her attic bedroom, but it quickly becomes apparent that there is tension between the sisters. The younger girl continues to sleep, and suddenly the atmosphere darkens, the vista beyond her window becoming that of a dark, fairytale world.

She dreams of her sister becoming lost in the woods, initially encountering giant sized, animated toys, and then – as the forest itself becomes more grotesque and fantastical – a pack of wolves, which pursue and set upon her (this is still a very creepy and effective sequence three decades later). But the dream continues, and makes up the rest of the movie, as she herself appears as a young girl named Rosaleen, along with her parents, and her grandmother (Angela Lansbury, back in the days when she was much less controversial).

What follows is a kind of adult fairytale, very loosely following the plot of Little Red Riding Hood, but with many discursions and embellishments along the way. Quite apart from the main plot (which concerns a wolf menacing the village, and also, not to put too fine a point on it, Rosaleen’s incipient sexual awakening), there are a number of shorter stories woven into the film, usually as tales told by either the grandmother or Rosaleen herself, most of them taking a lupine bent – for example, a young woman marries a ‘travelling man’ (Stephen Rea), who disappears on their wedding night while answering, ha ha, the call of nature (there is a full moon), while a village girl dishonoured by a local aristocrat turns up at his wedding party to exact a startling revenge on the degenerate nobility there. Most of these are not much more than vignettes – one of them, featuring an uncredited Terence Stamp as the Devil, materialising in a white Rolls Royce, is very short indeed – and all of them are rather impressionistic and allusive.

Then again, this is the sort of film where everything seems to allude to something else. There are layers of meaning heaped upon each other as the film goes on, and in a rather ostentatious way. This is not the sort of film where the allusions and symbolism contribute another layer of meaning to the story – this is the sort of film which makes virtually no sense unless you accept that it is intended as a kind of coded parable, to be interpreted as such. At one point Rosaleen, hiding in the forest from an amorous boy, climbs a tree to discover a stork’s nest full of eggs. The eggs all spontaneously hatch out into tiny homunculi. On the face of it this is just weird, but it is clearly a moment of deep importance.

So, to coin a phrase, what is The Company of Wolves really all about? Well, for all that it occasionally resembles a rather superior Hammer horror pastiche, made with 1980s production values, I don’t think I would call this an actual horror movie as such – though, as mentioned, there are plenty of unsettling sequences, gory moments, and bits you wouldn’t necessarily want to show your own granny. It is clearly framed as a combination of fairy story and folktale (hence this revival, as part of a season of films in that kind of vein), and as for its central theme…

Well, to begin with, the stories all have a cautionary bent – not quite Beware of the Dog, but certainly Beware of the Wolf – the wolf in question often having something to do with aggressive male sexuality (I have an essay on the topic of lycanthropy as a metaphor for toxic masculinity in a book coming out next year, but what do you know, The Company of Wolves was there decades ago). All men are beasts, especially ones whose eyebrows meet in the middle (and this film was made years before the Gallagher brothers became famous).  The thing is, though, that as the film progresses, it becomes quite clear that everyone’s a little bit lupine occasionally – it doesn’t shy away from accepting the existence of female desire, nor is it treated as something wrong or shameful.

I suspect that one of the reasons the film remains so oblique and obscure in its meaning is because the structure established at the beginning is never really resolved. Normally, when a film opens in the ‘normal world’ and then moves to a dream reality, the conclusion sees the main character waking up and putting the lessons they have learned from the dream into reality – the classic example being, of course, The Wizard of Oz. This does not happen here: the end of the film sees a pack of wolves breaking through the walls of the dream, into the bedroom where the ‘real’ Rosaleen is still sleeping, but then abruptly concludes on an unresolved note of menace. I was not surprised to hear a group of people a couple of rows behind me discussing the film and admitting that they had no idea what the frame story was supposed to mean.

Nevertheless, this is a handsomely mounted and atmospherically directed film, even if the fairy-tale forest is fairly obviously a soundstage somewhere in Shepperton. There is also an undeniable pleasure in seeing people who are undeniably proper star actors (Lansbury, Warner, Rea) rub shoulders with folk you’d more normally see on the telly – Brian Glover is in it (his second British-made werewolf movie of the decade), so is Graham Crowden, so is Jim Carter (uncredited). Sarah Patterson, on the other hand, is so good in what was her movie debut that it’s genuinely surprising she didn’t go on to have a much bigger career. For what was a fairly low-budget movie even in 1984, it looks rather good, although some of the special effects – I’m thinking here particularly of the flayed werewolf transformation – have not aged particularly well.

I have to say I didn’t enjoy seeing The Company of Wolves again quite as much as I did The Blood on Satan’s Claw last year, but that’s probably because the latter is a (no pun intended) full-blooded supernatural horror movie, while the former uses some of the trappings of the genre to explore its own areas of concern. While the results are thought-provoking, it’s also a film where the narrative is there to service the author’s ideas and message. As a result it’s a film which is clearly at least as interested in making you think as it is in entertaining you – not that there isn’t a lot here to entertain, anyway. If nothing else, it’s a reminder of a time when British films were not afraid to be properly ambitious, experimental and imaginative.

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Yes, I know, regular readers are probably just used to me coming here and writing about films; and yes, I know, I should really be revising for the final exam of my diploma course. As far as the latter goes, thank you for your concern; and as far as the former goes – well, there should end up being a good deal more new non-movie material on here soon, so consider this an attempt to ease you into this gently, because I’ve been moved to write about something different tonight.

Normally I wouldn’t bother, but there are so many angles on this story I feel I’m going to need some space to address them all, to do with social attitudes and the nature of comic-book storytelling and the way they (often clumsily) intersect. As surely everyone is aware at the moment, the issue of sexual orientation is a bit of a live topic in the US currently, most prominently with Mr O coming out in favour of same-sex marriage. I don’t pay much attention to American social politics but it seems to me that Obama’s declaration seems to have raised a standard of sorts, which progressive media types are hustling to gather round.

That this movement had reached the comic book industry was indicated when it was announced that so-incredibly-obscure-he’s-never-been-in-a-movie gay member of the X-Men Northstar was to marry his boyfriend. I’m not really going to talk about this, except to say that if you’re going to use comics characters to comment on serious real-world issues, then a) you might want to think about using characters the average person has actually heard of, b) the whole ‘serious real world issue’ thing is kind of undercut when the character involved has previously come back from the dead at least once, and c) Northstar always seems to me to be an example of the worst kind of token character, required to personify the whole of the gay experience at the expense of depth and credibility (back in the 1980s, when AIDS was widely-perceived as the major gay-related issue, plans were afoot to have Northstar die of the condition – now that same-sex marriage is the hot topic, who else but the same guy should come racing forward at Mach 10 (oh yes, I’ve done my research) to help the publisher generate some topical publicity?).

Anyway, where Marvel lead, DC inevitably follow, and whispers have been doing the rounds for a bit that one of DC’s big-name capes was about to be retconned as secretly gay (I choose to use the word retconned rather than outed to reflect the rather cheap and shallow nature of this exercise in treating characters like playdough, to be mashed about and remoulded on a whim).

I feel obliged to point out, even though it should ideally go without saying, that I am not against diversity amongst superheroes (or indeed any other group of fictional characters), whether we’re talking gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion, or whatever. I think the treatment of sexuality going on here has a lot in common with the handling of race in the 1980s, for reasons I will expand upon in a bit.

No one seriously expected it to be Superman, but there was a surprising, and arguably quite naive, belief in some quarters that it was going to turn out to be Batman. Personally I thought Steel might fit the bill rather well. But no: recently the word came out: DC’s gay superhero was going to be… Green Lantern!

Except it isn’t, quite. Well, it is and it isn’t. DC’s fictional world is not what you’d call metaphysically simple and contains a number of parallel realities. In the main one of these, where Clark Kent is Superman and Bruce Wayne is Batman in the present day (at least I assume they still are, I haven’t checked this week and DC does enjoy fiddling with these things), the Green Lantern is Hal Jordan and still pretty enthusiastically hetero, so far as I can make out. In one of DC’s alternate worlds, the Green Lantern is a guy called Alan Scott, and it’s this version of the character who’s been retconned.

There have been several major Green Lanterns in the character’s 70+ year history, and Alan Scott was the original, created by Bill Finger and Martin Nodell. He’s not an absolute favourite of mine, but he was always a likable, solid character, despite the hoops writers seemed intent on putting him through in the 90s and early 2000s. This is a character with a long and respectable history.

Except… the Alan Scott who’s gay isn’t strictly speaking the same one. The original Alan Scott fought in the second world war, was heroically active for well over half a century due to various kinds of magical intervention, had a wife and a couple of kids who were minor heroes in their own right. The Alan Scott in the news has a sort of vague similarity to this guy in all sorts of ways, but it’s clearly not actually the same character in any meaningful way: he’s a reboot in the same way the version of Captain Kirk in the most recent Star Trek movie, or Professor X in X-Men – First Class, were not the same people as the originals.

So, for ‘one of DC’s big-name characters is going to be revealed as gay’, read ‘an alternate version of one of DC’s big-name characters, who’s actually an essentially brand new reimagining of that character, is gay’. Not quite the bold step it’s being advertised as.

Then again, in terms of DC’s major characters, who were they going to choose? If they’d chosen a really big name character like Batman or Wonder Woman, that would have a serious impact on potential media uses of that character in future – you couldn’t have Batman gay in the comics and straight in the movies without drawing an absolute hurricane of flak from people rightly seeing the character’s sexual orientation in any given medium being dictated by commercial concerns. And, to be perfectly honest – and putting aside issues of continuity with the character’s previous relationships and behaviour – I think it would just be a tacky and insulting thing to do anyway – it would imply that sexuality somehow exists in its own compartment, the contents of which can be swapped out at any time with no impact on the rest of someone’s personality. Batman’s straight! Oh, look – now he’s gay! Don’t worry, it doesn’t make any difference to who he is! What, none whatsoever?

If only life were so simple. Well, it probably is if you’re written with the depth of some comic-book characters, but once again we’re talking about serious real-world issues here which deserve a little more contemplation.

As I said, I’m reminded of how racial equality was handled in comics in the 1980s. The big companies gradually became aware that their non-white readership was not as well-served for characters as it might be, and the result was to – ever so subtly – make some superheroes a bit more black. Dubious as it is to reveal a character has been gay, astounding revelations that a character is not of the ethnic group everyone believed are a complete non-starter, and so the preferred route was to create a new black character and palm an existing superhero role off on them. So, for Marvel, we had James Rhodes’ stint as Iron Man, while for DC it was once again Green Lantern’s role to fill diversity quotas – the existing character of John Stewart had his role in the book considerably bumped up. (There was also a black, female version of Captain Marvel in the Avengers for a bit.)

The 1980s exercise in tokenism seems to me to have primarily been driven by the profit motive, and I wonder if the same is true of its present day equivalent. One might wonder why they’re bothering at all, except perhaps on commendable ideological grounds, or if not that, then why they don’t just create some brand-new gay characters to show their solidarity with the cause. Well, think about it this way – which of the following press releases is going to get the most attention – Green Lantern is Gay or Brandnewcharacterman is Gay?

And the fact remains that the most recently-created comics hero to achieve any kind of traction and recognition-value with the general public as an individual is Wolverine, dating back to late 1974. Most new characters of any kind fail to make much impression even with the comics-buying audience – anyone else remember Xero, Aztek, or the Sovereign Seven? Brand new characters come and go like mayflies: the industry is dependent firstly on big names like Green Lantern, as they’re the only books that consistently sell, and secondly on profile-raising stunts like announcing a venerable and much-loved character is gay, because there is no bad publicity. DC’s support for equality may very well be commendable – but both this and the form it takes are both very firmly motivated by solid commercial reasons.

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