The Garden (1990)

Derek Jarman’s process for creating the look of his 1990 experimental feature The Garden was to put the film through an exhausting gauntlet of format transfers. Shot on super-8, then recorded to video, before finally being printed on 35mm film, the physical shape of The Garden had been put through the ringer to achieve its deliberately scuzzy, highly color-saturated patina. The general effect of the film on the audience is much the same. Non-narrative, mostly dialogue-free, and constantly shifting in both mood & technique, the film feels more like a process meant to break its audience down than it does a piece of creative entertainment. It opens as a vibrant, playful experiment in overlapping visions of homoromantic tableaus & Biblical Christian iconography, but its titular Edenic tone is gradually soured into a somber, morbidly violent affair that loses all of its initial energy to disorganized doom & gloom. It’s exhausting, purposefully so, and it’s easy to leave the film feeling just as worn out as its imagery was by the time it reached its final form.

My assumption is that Jarman intended The Garden’s soul-deep exhaustion to be a kind of diary of his own emotional state in the early 90s. Suffering from a series of AIDS-related health crises at the time of production (a sign of declining health that would eventually end his life just a few years later), Jarman filmed this disjointed series of Biblical tableaus & scenes of homophobic violence around the bleak exteriors of his coastal home in Dungeness, England. Self-described early in the proceedings as a tour though a “wilderness of failure,” the film’s backslide from paradisiac peace into morbid atonement serves as a kind of eulogy to the loss of an entire queer generation to a single virus, one which would eventually claim the filmmaker himself. We open with James Bidgood-esque visions of queer love & harmony (similar to Todd Haynes’s contemporary work in Poison), but the onscreen couple being depicted is eventually arrested, beaten, and shamed into disorder & dissolution. Religious imagery like a lynched Judas dressed as a leather-clad punk shilling credit cards, a young Tilda Swinton appearing as a Madonna figure hounded by paparazzi, and old women playing wine glass tones as the twelve apostles at the Last Supper interrupt this reverie, until it finally sours into an official funeral for the real-life dead in Jarman’s familial circle. The film can be occasionally beautiful, but it’s pretty fucking grim on the whole.

As an aesthetic object, The Garden is wonderfully exciting in its stabs of surreal shot-on-video era imagery. Its experiments in Ken Russellian green screen fuckery in which the entire sky is supplanted with flowers & other poetic, Polaroid-grade images are especially wondrous. The film also clearly has a sense of humor, despite its overall descent into despair, often breaking for absurdist musical numbers – such as a bargain bin music video for the showtune “Think Pink” from Funny Face. I don’t know if it’s the kind of film I’d recommend watching at home, though, where smartphones & other distractions are readily available. Even seeing it digitally restored in a proper theatrical environment (thanks to Zeitgeist’s summer-long queer cinema series Wildfire), I struggled to stay awake for the final 20-minute stretch. Not only is the film deliberately draining its trajectory from Eden to funeral service, it also suffers from the same attention-level difficulty that many feature-length works from directors who mostly work in short films suffer, the same exhaustion that tanks a lot of Guy Maddin’s films. As interesting as each homoerotic image, Biblical tableau, or outbreak of bigoted violence may be in isolation, they never really congeal as a cohesive, unified collection.

Jarman was at least aware of how miserable & patience-testing The Garden would be for his audience. The opening introduction in his woefully sparse narration includes the invitation, “I want to share this emptiness with you.” By the closing sequence wherein Tilda Swinton’s Madonna figure conducts a memorial for the homoromantic Eden lost over the course of the picture (a quiet ceremony involving cheap paper lanterns), I definitely felt that emptiness to some extent. It wasn’t the most pleasant or even the most clearly decipherable feeling to leave a movie theater with, but it was effective nonetheless. If you ever find yourself braving this “wilderness of failure” to “share this emptiness” with Jarman, just go into the journey armed with patience & a willingness to feel hopelessly miserable by the end credits. An experimental art film dispatch from the grimmest days of the AIDS crisis will apparently do that to you.

-Brandon Ledet

Breakfast on Pluto (2005)

I very distinctly remember going to the theater to see Breakfast on Pluto in 2005. I remember enjoying it. I even remember why I sought it out in the first place (the ads reminded me of the glam androgyny of Velvet Goldmine, a movie that meant a lot to me at the time). When I recently ran across a used DVD copy of the film in a thrift store, however, I realized I remembered almost nothing else about it. The cast, the characters, the plot, the setting, the soundtrack – the entire film, really – had all dissipated from my memory like a vapor. I didn’t even know it was directed by Neil Jordan, whose chaotically inconsistent catalog somehow also includes The Company of Wolves, Interview with a Vampire, and this year’s Greta. It all makes sense in retrospect now that I’ve revisited the film, though. Neil Jordan’s involvement tracks as a follow-up on his interest in transgender narratives via The Crying Game (for good and for bad). The Euro-glam 70s setting and gender androgyny that drew me in as a teen is strongly present throughout, even if the movie doesn’t comment on it directly. The story told therein is so vague & exhaustively obedient to the tropes of a lifelong memoir that it’s easy to quickly lose track of the details. And yet, even with its many, many faults only made more glaring in the sober light of a late-2010s revisit, I still left Breakfast on Pluto with an idiotic smile on my face (and its major details again immediately slipping away).

Cillian Murphy stars as a trans woman in this coming of age biopic about a fictional 1970s Irish community in crisis. Murphy’s vocal performance in the role can occasionally be off-putting in its exaggerated lilt; the politics of casting trans and gender-nonconforming characters has changed drastically since the film’s mid-aughts release; and the language around gender identity has evolved since its 1970s setting even more so. All of these modern discomforts are only compounded by the fact that the character was made up entirely by a cisgender author, Patrick McCabe, in the late 90s, leaving very little room for authenticity in its exploration of transgender themes & narratives despite being constructed like a birth-to-death biopic of a real person. Still, despite all these red flags, Breakfast on Pluto is immensely enjoyable to watch for the relative eternity of its 128mn runtime. It often plays like a glammed-up spiritual sequel to the Quentin Crisp biopic The Naked Civil Servant in its story of transgender identity in a time before its proper terms & borders were solidified, but its fictional source material opens it up to even more absurd, outlandish plot developments than that relatively well-behaved work. It’s also packed with always-welcome character actors who had not yet become recognizable faces to wide audiences in 2005: Liam Neeson, Brendan Gleeson, Ruth Negga, Liam “The Onion Knight” Cunningham, and Neil Jordan mascot Stephen Rea. Also, if nothing else, it’s just always wonderful to stare at Cillian Murphy’s gorgeous face for two solid hours.

This fictional trans woman’s coming-of-age story starts with a few scenes of small-town childhood crossdressing so cinematically familiar they were already cliché when they surfaced in Billy Elliott five years prior. Patricia “Kitten” Braden’s life’s story gets incrementally more distinct as she ages into her teenage & young adult years, however, since her unorthodox gender expression becomes more of a source of conflict at home, school, and church as she ages. She eventually announces, “Oh fiddly boogles, what’s the point?” and leaves her small Irish town for the metropolis of London, the city that “swallowed up” her estranged birth-mother – known to the audience as The Phantom Lady. As Kitten chases down this human MacGuffin (surviving mostly on various forms of sex work along the way), her friends back home struggle with the escalating violence of The Troubles – which encroaches closer & closer to her own life in unexpected jolts of gory brutality & rudimentary CGI explosions. With over 30 onscreen chapter titles interjecting every couple scenes, Breakfast on Pluto is a never-ending parade of period-specific details that swirl around Kitten as she searches for a family of her own: glam rock bands, penny arcades, mournful priests, milk deliveries, car bombs, etc. When she does eventually find her family, emerging miraculously unscathed from a chaotically cruel world, it’s both the least expected configuration possible and the most endearingly sweet.

This is essentially a fairy tale, complete with talking CGI birds that flutter around the screen warning you of the fantasy indulgences to come. That genre distinction helped me get over my main problem with the film, which is that it’s gushingly romantic at every turn and yet entirely sexless when it comes to genuine eroticism – as if it were unafraid to actually depict non-straight, non-cis couplings on the screen. Fairy tales (or at least the modern post-Disney variety) are largely sexless affairs, so I’m okay with overlooking that hiccup. Whether or not you’re personally okay with a cisgender male actor playing a fictional trans woman within that glam-70s fairy tale is up to you, and will likely guide your relationship with the film at large (especially when it comes to adjusting to the hushed, delirious whispers of Murphy’s vocal performance). There’s plenty to enjoy in Breakfast on Pluto otherwise, though, and even if you happen to impervious to its other charms it has a way for sprinkling fairy dust over you by the end credits so that you forget most of the movie permanently anyway.

-Brandon Ledet

Rocketman (2019)

I should have known better than to venture out to the theater for the Elton John biopic Rocketman. I was at least smart enough to skip last year’s big-deal musical biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody, even before I knew it had a notorious rapist attached as its official credited director. The uncredited director who was tasked to save that drowning production (when Bryan Singer was rightly booted from it), Dexter Fletcher, promised a little more cohesion & stage-musical fantasy in this follow-up, but everything else about Rocketman looked just as cheesy & false as Rhapsody. If I’m being totally honest, the only real reason I was curious about Rocketman was the news reports after its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, which slated it as the fist-ever major studio Hollywood production to feature onscreen gay sex. I had to see (and support) that decades-late “achievement” for myself, but it put a lot of unfair pressure on the film to, em, perform in that one specific way, setting me up for disappointment before frame one. Very few people are wholly successful in their first full-on gay sex encounter, so I’m not sure why I expected Hollywood to be any different.

Rocketman was only willing to give me wholesome showtunes gay when the material at hand clearly called for drunken, sweaty dive bar gay. The framing device of this post-Walk Hard biopic is an AA meeting where Elton John looks back on his life in sappy, musical flashbacks while gradually stripping off a gorgeous bejeweled-devil stage costume to reveal the vulnerable man underneath. His narration continually reassures the audience that his life was ravaged by sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll, but everything we see onscreen is musical theatre kids playing dress-up in squeaky clean sound stage environments. Taron Egerton does a decent-enough job embodying Elton John both onstage & off, except that his vocal performance is more Broadway musical than coke-addled rock ‘n roll. As I should have expected, the onscreen gay sex early reports promised is similarly neutered. The most intimate, extensive scene of two men bonin’ is accompanied by the least sensual Gospel soundtrack imaginable and quickly averts its eyes just when the room is steaming up. Later, an expressive, Old Hollywood musical staging of a pansexual orgy is intercut with childhood memories & returns to the AA frame story, zapping the moment of any potential titillation. Elton John reports in the picture that he “fucked everything that moved,” “abused every drug there is,” and “enjoyed every minute of it,” but it all amounts to the effect of a “Footage Not Found” title card, a classic case of telling-not-showing.

That’s not to say there’s no fun to be found here. Bryce Dallas Howard is an unexpected hoot in a career-high role as John’s cruel alcoholic-housewife mother, essentially a half-speed Mommie Dearest drag routine sponsored by Quaaludes. There are also a few Baz Luhrmann-esque poetic breaks from reality among the musical numbers, the highlight being a moment of communal levitation at John’s first American concert. Even those moments are hindered by Fletcher making the safest choices possible, though. For instance, when John announces “For my next trick, I’m going to kill myself,” and overdoses at the bottom of a swimming pool, he’s greeted there by a childhood version of himself singing “Rocketman” – not the obvious, more daring choice of “I Think I’m Going to Kill Myself.” Other sordid, sweaty rock ‘n roll numbers like “Dirty Little Girl” & “Sweet Painted Lady” are missing in favor of safe Greatest Hits tracks, which are further softened with musical theatre, Bollywood dance homage, and – I swear to God this is true – second-wave ska. Elton John’s life story is honestly not all that interesting. He’s a blue-collar kid who worked hard to develop his talent, did a few too many drugs when he first got famous, and is now happily married with kids and a swelling bank account. When you remove the sweaty, hedonistic danger of the sex, drugs and rock n’ roll from that template there isn’t much left worth an audience’s time. I didn’t show up to celebrate a millionaire’s (albeit admirable) success in sobriety; I showed up for gay sex & fabulous costumes – of which only the latter satisfies.

-Brandon Ledet

The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2018)

As a shithead atheist teenager, I always made an obnoxious show out of not participating in the Catholic rituals my parents dragged me through. This bratty rebellion reached its pinnacle when I was enrolled in Confirmation classes in high school, which I agreed to complete as a final favor for my family before never stepping foot in a church again (wedding & funerals excepted). I was a total ass in these Confirmation classes, joining forces with the few fellow over-this-bullshit weirdos who had gotten pulled into that orbit to just generally disrupt the process in a way I’m sure annoyed the more earnest participants around us. I recognized a lot of that same dynamic in Desiree Akhavan’s sophomore feature The Miseducation of Cameron Post. It’s just that the film’s gay “conversation” camp (read: emotional torture camp) setting makes for much higher emotional stakes than whether I could shut my bratty suburban mouth during a lecture about the sins of abortion or masturbation. The Miseducation of Cameron Post offers a sympathetic eye to that kind of bratty camaraderie in the face of religious evangelism, using the setting of gay conversion “therapy” (again, torture) to frame that snotty attitude as an essential act of political rebellion. It even goes a step further to offer the same sympathy to the counselors on the other end of the dynamic, lost souls who do not know the extent of the damage they’re causing to the teens in their “care.” If I were a mature, well-rounded adult I would praise the radical empathy of that approach. The truth is, though, that a large part of me is still a shithead teenage atheist who wants to see the piss taken out of those evangelizing counselors. I much prefer the glibber takes on this same material like Saved! & But, I’m a Cheerleader!, because at heart I’m still a combative brat.

Chloë Grace Moretz stars as the titular brat of this particular religious battle, sent to conversion therapy when she’s caught smoking weed & having sex with her closeted girlfriend in the parking lot outside their high school prom. I’ve always had a difficult time taking Moretz seriously as a dramatic actor, but her casting here leans into her strengths as dazed, confused participant in a culture she doesn’t believe in. From her awkward body language when trying to fit in as a straight girl with a boyfriend to her puzzled expression at the sermons of her God’s Promise prison, her visible discomfort fits the character & script here, when it’s often distracting in other projects (this year’s Suspiria, for one). The Christian instructors at God’s Promise are just as confused & uneasy, using “stern love” (abuse) and reinforced gendered roles to attempt guiding hormonally-rattled teens back to a Godly, de-sexed lifestyle. The truth is that they don’t have any more idea what they’re doing there than the kids do, and there’s a humanizing vulnerability in that lack of confidence. They’re essentially attempting to erase identities that haven’t been fully forged yet, as teenage years are a time of transformation & self-discovery. They push our protagonist to admit who she is (gay) and why that’s wrong (it’s not), but she struggles with the exercise because she’s too young to be sure of the answers. For fellow campers who take the Christianity portion of the therapy dead seriously, this forced, unnecessary identity crisis can lead to volatile, life-threatening results. For our more dismissive, out-of-place POV character it’s more a disorienting haze of psychobabble & mixed messages. She holds onto the other non-Christian weirdos in her vicinity (including American Honey’s Sasha Lane) for life support as she resists “the treatment” offered by God’s Promise. The resulting US vs. Them battle of stubborn wills unfolds in a mature, even-handed, tender drama; it’s an admirable search for kindness & understanding when what I really wanted was for the kids to lash out & burn it all down.

There’s a highly-specific version of queerness bucking against religious conservatism in Akhavan’s debut, Appropriate Behavior, that feels like it’s largely missing in this follow-up. The entire film has a kind of sanitized YA sensibility that feels entirely foreign to the NYC hedonism of Akhavan’s particular POV. The times when her wilder, more passionate depictions of queer sexuality do crop up (mostly in the protagonist’s nighttime sex dreams & erotic memories) it feels like an out-of-nowhere intrusion on an otherwise delicately told story. The Miseducation of Cameron Post could have used some of that rebellious hedonism in its daytime drama, whether or not it would have been faithful to its source material novel. The closest we get to an open act of bratty rebellion is in the inclusion of a so-bad-it’s-good Christian workout video titled Blessercize, a real-life found object that offers some much-needed levity to the film’s soundtrack & imagery. Mostly, our bratty non-Christian rebels restrict their resistance to hushed eyerolls, hikes to smoke ditch-weed in the woods, and smuggled copies of The Breeders’ Last Splash on cassette (to be fair, it’s a really good album). There’s a brief moment when they stage a forbidden singalong to 4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Up?,” but the less I say about that tragically corny coup the better (it may be my least favorite scene of the year?). As someone who was lucky enough to escape any indoctrination worse than a few (hundred) Catholic masses and a mind-numbing Confirmation course, it’s not my place to say if anything more than those minor, hushed rebellions would have been appropriate to the story told here. I can only report that I was personally much more pleased by the cathartic, disruptive, over-the-top rebellions of Appropriate Behavior, Saved!, and But, I’m a Cheerleader!. This is a well-staged, well-performed, admirably empathetic drama mired in a subject I love to see treated with a snottier attitude unconcerned with those qualities.

-Brandon Ledet

Dirty Computer: An Emotion Picture (2018)

I had honestly given up on Janelle Monáe’s potential as a popstar a few years back when I first heard her single “Yoga” on the radio. She’s proven to be a talented screen actor since, via roles in Moonlight & Hidden Figures, but there was something dispiriting about “Yoga” that made me lose interest in her music career. It’s not an especially horrendous pop song or anything. I even mildly enjoy it. It was just disappointing to hear a persona once tied up in the weirdo A.I. sci-fi themes of early releases like 2007’s Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase) deliver an anonymous pop song about letting your booty “do that yoga,” an adequate tune that could’ve been sung by anyone. I imagine it was the equivalent of longtime David Bowie fans feeling alienated by the relatively personality-free stylings of the objectively-enjoyable “Let’s Dance” in 1983. Like those disenchanted Bowie devotees before me, I was wrong to lose faith in Monáe so easily. Not only did the sci-fi themes of her early career eventually reemerge in her work, they came back louder, brighter, and more undeniably fun than ever. And as a wonderful bit of lagniappe, they also came back queer as fuck.

Janelle Monáe publicly came out as pansexual in a recent interview with Rolling Stone magazine. This announcement coincided with the release of her latest record, Dirty Computer, and its accompanying visual album, Dirty Computer: An Emotion Picture. A fifty-minute narrative film stringing together an anthology of music videos with a dystopian sci-fi wraparound, the Dirty Computer “emotion picture” delivers on the genre film undertones promised in Monáe’s early pop music career while also advancing the visual album as a medium to a new modern high. We already litigated the value of the long-form music video as cinema here when we covered Girl Walk//All Day as a Movie of the Month selection in the wake of Lemonade’s release in 2016. Dirty Computer easily earns its place among the best examples of that visual album medium by both adapting it to a clearly discernible narrative that unifies its anthology template and by feeling exceptionally personal to the artist behind it. There are seven different directors listed as having collaborated on individual segments of Dirty Computer, but Monáe clearly stands out as the auteur of the project. It’s even billed as “an emotion picture by Janelle Monáe” on the poster. A large part of that auteuism is how the film works as an expression of Monáe’s newly public identity as a queer black woman navigating an increasingly hostile world that targets Others in her position.

Monáe stars as Jane 57821 (not to be confused with THX 1138), a bisexual rebel whose group of friends & lovers have been abducted by a tyrannical future-government for conformity-encouraging brainwashing. In a cruel twist of pure malice, it’s her own previously-brainwashed girlfriend (played by longtime Monáe collaborator and all-around talent Tessa Thompson) who’s tasked with walking her through the mysterious, scientific process that drains her of her vitality & sexuality, essentially leaving her a living robot. This scenario reads like a sci-fi expression of conversion therapy anxiety, to a point where the tyrannical government facility, The House of the New Dawn, is literally draining the gay out of her in tubes of rainbow ooze. The music video tangents featured in the film are presented as memories that the facility is deleting one at a time. Through these stylized flashbacks we see a harsh contrast between the lifeless, oppressed world the government offers and the gorgeous, nonstop party Jane was living with a community of outsiders before they were broken up & captured by police drones. The world’s rebel Others appear to be a Warriors-style collection of varied factions: Bowies, punks, Holy Mountain freaks, Beetlegeese, etc. They party in a swirl of heavy leather, drag makeup, and glittered-up naked flesh that calls into question what’s memory and what’s fantasy. The drone-equipped future-police intrude in each vignette, along with Tessa Thompson’s character (and the couple’s masculine third), to establish a clearly discernible narrative through-line with a Blade Runner/Logan’s Run sci-fi throwback bent.

Like many examples of classic sci-fi, Dirty Computer gets a lot of mileage out of establishing its own futuristic terminology. In the evil future-government’s parlance, social Others are “dirty,” while all people are “computers,” devices that can be “cleaned” and made more useful. Monáe is clearly invested in challenging this kind of constrictive labeling through the film’s conversion therapy metaphor. The music videos read as aggressive challenges to the societal & governmental oppression that she faces as a queer black woman (from the South no less). She sings of being “highly melanated’ and of how “Everything is sex except sex, which is power.” Some tracks include studio collaborations with the since-deceased Prince, which can be heard just as clearly in the synths & guitars as it can be seen in Monáe’s weaponized, politicized expressions of race & sexuality. (At one point she appears in floral vagina pants that would make Georgia O’Keeffe blush; this film is anything but subtle.) I don’t know if I’ve seen or heard such a clear Prince descendant in a major pop star since Beyoncé’s fabulously filthy music video for “Blow.” I was a fool for giving up on Monáe so easily after a brief experience with hearing “Yoga” on the radio. With the recent losses of both Bowie and Prince, her mainstream exposure as a neon-lit queer icon feels like a beacon of hope in the grimmest times Western culture’s seen in decades. The fact that she chose to broadcast that beacon through a long-form, sci-fi themed music video about queer rebels who like to party might just be my favorite thing she’s done in her career to date, even with the awkward “emotion picture” branding.

-Brandon Ledet

A Fantastic Woman (2018)

It was absolutely heartwarming to see A Fantastic Woman, a Chilean drama about a trans woman’s struggle to overcome the death of a long-term boyfriend, win Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Oscars ceremony. It was even more of a godsend for the film’s lead actress, Daniela Vega, to be included in the broadcast as one of the presenters. The moment reminded me of the 2016 Independent Spirit Awards ceremony, where Mya Taylor won Best Supporting Female for her performance in the Sean Baker film Tangerine, the first trans woman to ever win an award on that show (in any category). Obviously, the Oscars have a much wider audience reach than the Independent Spirit Awards, so its boost of A Fantastic Woman‘s & Daniela Vega’s profiles is an even bigger deal. Not only did the nomination help push the film into wider distribution (I’ve been waiting for it to reach New Orleans for months), but its win was a huge victory for promoting media where trans characters are actually portrayed onscreen by trans people, a concept that should not be as novel as it is. When you think about Oscar Bait dramas about trans issues, the characters in peril are always portrayed by cisgender performers: Dallas Buyers Club, Boy’s Don’t Cry, The Danish Girl, etc. Daniela Vega’s platform as the lead of an Oscar Winning™ film about a trans woman’s romantic grief is a welcome corrective to that antiquated tradition. Unfortunately, the film itself is antiquated and phony in its own ways, not quite the transcendently lyrical or matter-of-fact authentic document of real life experience I’d hoped it would be. It’s all too easy to see how Tangerine was the punk rock political disruptor that stole the heart of the Indies, while A Fantastic Woman was more palatable to the stuffier members of the Academy.

Daniela Vega is a wonder to watch as A Fantastic Woman‘s titular lead. She’s introduced as a nightclub singer with a loving, older boyfriend and a side job waiting tables. As is necessary for a drama, this domestic stability does not last long; the boyfriend dies of a brain aneurysm in the middle of the night, a harsh end to a tender birthday celebration. This is where the authenticity of daily life is diluted with the same queer misery porn we’ve been watching onscreen for decades. Marina desires to be included in the burial & mourning of her deceased partner, but his bitterly transphobic family and an equally unjust legal system lock her out of the process. That conflict is totally believable, but the ways their disapproval of her gender expression manifest are unconvincing & relentlessly dour. Marina is misgendered, deadnamed, addressed with slurs, accused of being a sex worker, investigated for crimes she obviously didn’t commit, pressured into invading physical examinations, sexually harassed, and physically bullied. It’s tough to watch, but also frequently phony-feeling, particularly in a scene where she’s assaulted with Scotch tape instead of fists. Surely, a modern society treating Marina as if her very existence were “a perversion” feels authentic, but the way the film expresses transmisogyny through constant, blatant attacks personally aimed at her recalls the way racial discrimination is handled in Oscar Worthy dramas like Crash & Three Billboards outside of Ebbing, Missouri (poorly). It’s so overtly & recognizably evil that it more or less lets the audience off the hook for their own subtler, internalized discrimination, making us feel like better people by comparison to the monsters onscreen. By the time Marina’s singing “(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman” alone to herself on a midday drive, the whole thing feels too embarrassingly on-the-nose to possibly be representative of any real life experience, which wouldn’t be a problem if portraying real life experience weren’t obviously what the film was aiming for.

A Fantastic Woman works best when it breaks itself free from real life representation and enters a more lyrical realm. Waterfall mist, intense nightclub lighting, impossible gusts of wind, and the boggy voids of public saunas transcend any dramatic cliché to reach for something more memorably singular. The film’s use of mirrors is especially fascinating, whether they’re used to obscure, abstract, distort, detail, or amplify Marina’s appearance, both for herself and for the audience. Because we don’t spend much time with the couple before the boyfriend’s death, the daydreams where his visage reappears in physical spaces like Marina’s car & apartment are also essential to understanding her inner life and how devastating the loss is for her. Early on, we watch Marina and the boyfriend go on one perfect, intimate date and indulge in some sensuous lovemaking, but the way he physically haunts her daily thoughts says so much more about what he meant to her and how significant it is that she cannot formally mourn his passing. This line of dramatic conflict is more emotionally effective than most of the transphobic oppression that surrounds it, largely because it’s more specific to the character as an individual person than it is meant to be representative of a larger, daily trans woman experience. It’s also, frankly, just cooler to look at. A Fantastic Woman would have been better served by leaning into the fantasy suggested by its title. Its most breathtaking sequence is a nightclub fantasy that leaves the audience’s heads spinning in synchronized dance, glam makeup, and tinsel pompom blouses fit for Carnival, only to crash us back down to a clichéd shot of Marina crying in the rain. That harsh transition is the film in a nutshell: intoxicatingly lyrical insights into Marina’s inner psyche violently interrupted by unwelcome dwellings in the phony misery of her daily life. The character is underserved by the trials the film drags her through by the hair, but still enough of a wonder to watch that the movie feels worthwhile (largely to the credit of Daniela Vega’s performance).

A Fantastic Woman‘s Oscar win is a positive sign for the future of trans characters actually being portrayed by trans performers, but it’s also a reminder that the stories we’re telling about those characters need an update as well. It’s probably unfair to fault the film for being a part of a long-running tradition of well-respected dramas about the misery of daily queer existence, but there are too many kinds of trans stories that are just not being told onscreen in the meantime. For a start, it would be great if we could see a widely-distributed film with a trans lead that wasn’t about gender identity at all. A Fantastic Woman‘s moments of lyrical escape & romantic grief are a welcome nod in that direction, but too much of the film is familiarly miserable in the drama it pulls from queer societal oppression for it to feel like a unique breakthrough. Some of its visual language makes it a standout in the queer misery genre, but the film’s greatest accomplishment is introducing its audience to Daniela Vega’s immediately apparent talents as an onscreen presence. Let’s just hope that the next lead role she lands is more worthy of her (or, more practically, let’s hope that one will ever exist at all).

-Brandon Ledet

The Big Deal About Call Me by Your Name (2017) is That It Isn’t a Big Deal at All

While I wasn’t quite as knocked on my ass by the Academy Award-nominee Call Me by Your Name as Britnee seemed to be in her review, I do share in her appreciation of its merits as an intoxicating sensory experience. She writes, “I could taste the fresh apricot juice as it was flowing down Oliver’s throat. I could feel the warmth of the sun as it was beaming down on Elio’s face. Even the use of the music in the film was phenomenal.” Like with Luca Guadagnino’s previous directorial effort A Bigger Splash, this is a film that often compensates for its most glaring narrative shortcomings by simply shining as a gorgeous object, a portrait of life “somewhere in Northern Italy” that appeals to all five of the senses. I can’t recall a work of art that’s served as a better advertisement for an Italian life of leisure since the wonderfully-penned Gabrielle Hamilton memoir Blood, Bones, and Butter. I wasn’t 100% convinced by the passion shared between Elio (Timothée Chalamet) & Oliver (Armie Hammer) in this gorgeous backdrop the way Britnee was, but in a way, the soft, casual edge to their summertime romance is a huge part of the film’s appeal. Much like the ease of drinking fresh-squeezed juice, going for a swim on a whim, or plucking a book to read from the endless towers of them stacked about the open-windowed house, the same-sex romantic tryst at the center of Call Me by Your Name is a casual indulgence in an ancient pleasure. The only air of tragedy to their extended hook-up in this sun-drenched Eden is that it’s doomed to be temporary. That casual approach to same-sex romance & sensuality is extremely rare in cinema’s coming of age narratives about queer self-discovery, especially the ones set in the AIDS-paranoid, legally malevolent days of the early 1980s. It’s wonderful to see that the Big Deal about Call Me by Your Name isn’t made to be a big deal at all.

Something that caught my eye in Britnee’s review was that she made a point to note that Elio confesses his desire to (the older, more confident) Oliver “without stating that he is homosexual or bisexual.” This may be a result of the film’s less identity politics-obsessed 1983 setting, but it’s very much important to its overall appeal. I’ve been taken aback by a few critical takes on the film that posit Elio & Oliver as closeted homosexual men, when my experience with their shared arc was explicitly framed as a bisexual awakening. In a typical cinematic version of this story, these two young men would only be flirting & sleeping with women as a cover for their true passion, a dangerous romance that would inevitably end in tragedy (think of titles like Brokeback Mountain or When Boys Cry for context). Here I never question that the leads enjoy sleeping with women any more than I question them enjoying fresh fruit or afternoon swims. Their own connection may be more passionately intense & more of a social taboo (due to their significant age gap just as much as their shared gender), but that feels like it has more to do with their mutual compatibility than any external factors. A more convincing case could be made that Elio’s academic father (the consistently magnificent Michel Stuhlbarg) is a closeted homosexual man, but his hints about his own sexual orientation are left ambiguous at best. The most you can surmise from the fatherly advice carefully doled out throughout the film is that he believes what Elio & Oliver have is a rare, beautiful thing. Again, I don’t buy that the summertime fling the two leads share is as rare or as special as it’s ultimately framed to be, but I do find a lot to admire in this mode of subtle parental encouragement. In a more typical work, Elio’s parents would have found out about their tryst and made a huge dramatic gesture out of shutting it down. Instead, they quietly allow it to blossom & wither in its own time, as if it were the most natural thing in the world (which it kind of is).

The exchange that best solidifies the connection between the ease of Oliver & Elio’s romance and the general idyllic ease of a life on a Northern Italian villa is the one involving The Peach. Between his bored, restless indulgences in reading, drinking, swimming, sleeping, playing music, and having sex (what a life!), Elio often finds himself alone & sexually frustrated in the few private spaces he can find in his parents’ expansive summer home. In the most pivotal of these moments, he finds himself masturbating into a fresh peach, only to awake embarrassed when Oliver discovers him sleeping next to the evidence. To Elio’s horror, Oliver licks & threatens to eat the defiled, oozing peach. It’s a jarring exchange, but one that’s played as casually as the glazed petit four scene in Toni Erdmann, rather than for the shock value humor of similar scenes in Wetlands, Pink Flamingos, or American Pie. Elio is too embarrassed & ashamed to see it, but Oliver’s instinct to Eat The Peach in that scene is a natural extension of the indulgent, leisurely life they’ve been living all summer. Oliver is an overconfident, lumbering bro with a voracious appetite for Experience. The way he downs whole glasses of juice, dances with wild abandon, and smashes into even the daintiest of breakfasts is almost beastly, but it’s an appetite for life that makes the most out of the many sensory pleasures that enrich the Northern Italy countryside. Elio could use some of that unearned confidence himself, which is why it’s wonderful to see him indulge in more pleasures outside the shade of his bedroom as the film progresses. Eating The Peach is such a great summation of the careful, delicate hedonism of the summer the two young men share together over the course of the film. It’s kind of a shame the movie ultimately chickens out on fully depicting it (which I understand was not the case in the André Aciman source material).

Not everything in Call Me by Your Name worked for me. The Oscar-nominated Sufjan Stevens songs were more of a distraction than an enhancement. For all the film’s confident comfort in bisexuality, I found it a little odd that its onscreen nudity was all boobs and no peen. Less superficially, I never fully bought into the once-in-a-lifetime significance of the central romance, nor into Oliver’s transformation from “impolite, arrogant” bro to sensitive soul. Again, though, Guadagnino’s eye for gorgeous, natural imagery and all-encompassing sensory pleasures more than compensate for any narrative missteps (the intensely-lit Psychedelic Furs dance sequence was the most I’ve been excited for his upcoming Suspiria remake to date). Overall, this is a tenderly beautiful & surprisingly humorous delight. Speaking more culturally than personally, I believe the film’s greatest achievement is in not pushing to be more than that. It’s so encouraging to see between films like Call Me by Your Name & Princess Cyd that there are bisexual coming of age stories finally being told onscreen where the awakening & the romance are The Big Deal instead of the sexuality itself. There’s too many kinds of queer stories yet to be told onscreen for every major non-hetero release to be a coming-out misery narrative, as feels like has been the case for decades. Elio & Oliver believe their summertime romance to be a bombshell secret, a fear contextually informed by the film’s early 80s temporal setting, but nearly everyone around them perceives what they’re up to and does nothing to obstruct it with disapproval. The movie is ultimately casual & delicate in its depiction of an extended same sex hook-up, leaving only a young man’s broken heart behind in its inevitable conclusion (a wound that always heals with time, no matter how traumatic it feels in the moment). Elio & Oliver’s brief, passionate fling is presented as just one Northern Italy delight among many, no different than a good book, an afternoon swim, or a freshly squeezed glass of juice. The only way for that messaging to be clearer would be for Oliver to Eat The Peach and shrug at the camera, but I suppose that would have been making a Big Deal out of nothing at all.

-Brandon Ledet

Saving Face (2004)

There’s a distinct style of comedy cinema that’s rooted more in the humor of recognition than it is in the intricate construction of a punchline or bit. It’s a mode of humor that’s more likely to make you say, “That’s so true!” than it is to double you over with laughter. That humorous recognition of truth is usually tied to a highly specific cultural or economic backdrop so that it can hinge its observations on minute details & personal experiences. Sometimes these hyper-specific cultural narratives can break through to a larger audience by tapping into universally relatable truths, as was the case with last year’s Pakistani-American medical dramedy The Big Sick. Sometimes they’re unfairly forgotten or buried by the larger public on the face value of their surface details, as seemed to be the case with black, lesbian political meta-comedy The Watermelon Woman. 2004’s Saving Face appears to fall halfway between those two points. It experienced neither the breakout success of The Big Sick, nor the hellish distribution limbo of The Watermelon Woman. It’s just as culturally & personally specific as either work, though, detailing the sexual & romantic follies of two generations of Chinese-American women living in New York City. Saving Face builds its narrative tension around a mother-daughter relationship as the two women struggle to reconcile their private sexuality with their public personas & the cultural norms within their conservative Chinese-American community. Constantly referencing soap operas for context, it’s a movie that is not at all afraid of grand gestures of drama & sentimentality. Mostly, though, it’s mostly a personal, culturally specific comedy of recognition, where humor is mined more from observations of miniscule, real-life details than it is from over-the-top scenarios or dialogue.

A middle-aged mother strives to improve her adult children’s lives even though her son is a successful businessman and her daughter is a skilled, in-demand surgeon. She intends on making her daughter’s social status more respectable by essentially arranging her marriage to a series of ill-fitting men who frequent their community’s regular soirees. Two crises within these women’s lives flip this power dynamic in time: the daughter is a closeted lesbian who has zero romantic interest in her mother’s proposed beaus and the mother becomes pregnant outside of wedlock, which excommunicates her from their traditionalist, conservative community. Both women struggle with maintaining privacy & social decorum in the tension between their private relationships & their public personas. The daughter falls in love with a dancer who pressures her to find the courage to come out. The mother keeps the identity of her unborn child’s father a secret as she struggles to adjust to a more independent NYC lifestyle. The daughter even reverses their original dynamic by setting her mother up on dates with men whom she has no interest in. The whole thing blows up in soap opera-worthy displays of sentimentality at both a wedding & an airport before sweetly settling on a position of “Fuck ‘em,” with the two women resolving to live as their true selves with confidence instead of fretting over public condemnation. Their self-confidence and their familiar relationship are stronger for the crisis. Their community is also given more of an impetus to catch up with the evolving morals of modern life. The dramatic struggles of Saving Face are mostly intimate & insular before their climactic soap opera blow-ups and the whole move is guided by a subtle, empathetic hand as two-well-defined female characters learn how to become their best possible selves. It’s endearing.

It’s no surprise to learn that writer-director Alice Wu based much of Saving Face off her own personal experiences with coming out as lesbian in her Chinese-American community. This is the kind of delicately comedic, occasionally sentimental work that requires highly specific personal & cultural details at the margins to resonate with an audience. I don’t intend to suggest that it’s entirely stylistically muted either. An occasional eccentric reaction shot or the mother telling her daughter things like, “Had I known you would be so ungrateful, I would have held you in” punches up the comedy beats. Grand romantic gestures at the climax and touches like a tender sex scene set to a Cat Power ballad anchor the dramatic end as well. A scene where the daughter finally verbalizes her hidden sexual orientation to her mother, who was already reluctantly aware of it as a kind of open secret, is especially complex in its dramatic tones (as well as being an incredibly well-handled exchange between actors Joan Chen & Michelle Krusiec). For the most part, though, Saving Face’s dramatic and comedic beats impress in the way they ring true to real life detail & lived experience. It’s a type of comedy that sometimes breaks through to find mass appeal, but is much more significant in the way it offers representation to communities that aren’t used to seeing themselves visible onscreen. I’m sure there’s a Chinese-American lesbian out there in a major US city with an early 00s coming out story very similar to Wu’s, for whom this is the greatest, most relatable film ever made. It’s a kind of personal touch we could stand to champion more prominently as audiences, even if it isn’t nearly as flashy as more traditional, over-the-top comedies.

-Brandon Ledet

The Watermelon Woman (1996)

When you hear that 1996’s The Watermelon Woman was the first feature film directed by a black lesbian, the claim sounds both impossible and impossible to prove. Considering that the recently-restored Daughters of the Dust was the first ever theatrically-released film directed by an African American woman and came only five years earlier, however, it very well may be true. Part of what makes this historical context so fascinating (besides the obvious horror of how recently those milestones arrived) is that The Watermelon Woman is self-aware of the achievement, purposefully crafting a narrative about representation of queer black female perspectives in pop media. A post-modern relic of 1990s Indie Cinema that vaguely estimates an aesthetic of Spike Lee’s Clerks, Cheryl Dunye’s debut feature is both an academic look at cinema’s historic disregard for representing black femininity onscreen and a laidback comedy about a movie nerd navigating modern queer culture while just trying to live by the Gen-X ideal of Not Getting Hassled. It’s not an impeccably crafted work, but it is a surprisingly fun one, considering the importance of its subject & historical context.

Cheryl Dunye stars as (*gasp*) Cheryl, a video store clerk who spends her free time (between shifts & social pressures to pick up women) working on a video project about a forgotten movie star from the Old Hollywood era. Cheryl’s obsession with the unnamed, uncredited actress, who was mostly relegated to playing offensive “mammy” stereotypes in the 1930s, is palpable even before the discovery that the woman was also queer. Cheryl shirks social, professional, and romantic obligations to bury herself in the video project, uncovering as much as she can about someone she knows only as “The Watermelon Woman”. The Watermelon Woman plainly states its themes; it vocalizes protests that black women’s stories are never told, onscreen or off, and it includes a boldly explicit sex scene to push the provocation of its casual, intimate queer identity. It also tempers these academic ambitions with the cool™, laidback shrug of a Gen-X era indie comedy. This is a film that features both a typical bomb-throwing rant from critic Camille Paglia and an extensive sequence of cringe humor mined from godawful karaoke at a supremely awkward lesbian bar. Dunye’s sense of craft is rough around the edges throughout, but she still manages to blend those two tones expertly, both charming & challenging her audience at every possible opportunity.

Digitally restored for its twentieth anniversary after a long period of distribution limbo, The Watermelon Woman has likely never looked better. The contrast between its sharp, vibrantly colorful celluloid photography and the fuzzy grain of its VHS footage is a great match for its high vs. low brow thematic explorations. It’s a multimedia approach that only becomes more powerful once old photographs & doctored ephemera depicting the mythical Watermelon Woman enter the mix. However, budgeted through a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, Dunye’s debut can often feel as if it’s barely held together. Many scenes can be abrupt, blatant and awkwardly placed, but that ramshackle, handmade quality is also a part of the film’s charm and is tied mostly to factors outside Dunye’s control, like budget & experience. I get the sense that she’s not that different from the Cheryl we see onscreen, passionately scraping together a multimedia piece on black queer female representation with limited resources while trying to stay true to her laidback, borderline slacker self. 

The Watermelon Woman is surprisingly fun, understandably uneven 90s Indie Cinema, with invaluable context as a black lesbian milestone. Its humor smartly softens what could be an alienating academic tone, forgiving much of its rough around the edges acting & craft. Its most impressive artistry is in being just as personal as it is culturally substantial, which is a difficult line to walk. I can’t believe we allowed Dunye’s work to lurk in obscurity for so long just as much as I can’t believe we allowed her historical achievement to be delayed until so recently in our pop culture history.

-Brandon Ledet

The Joneses (2017)

The subject/star of the documentary The Joneses, Jheri Jones, is introduced to the audience goofily modeling a one-piece swimsuit at 74 years old while favorably comparing herself to Madonna & Marilyn Monroe. The movie could use more of Jheri’s magic charm from this moment, which recalls the over the top fashion modeling Little Edie delivers in the classic doc Grey Gardens. Unfortunately, we only get it in glimpses as the film (somewhat understandably) focuses on the hardships suffered in her life, particularly in regards to her family. Jheri Jones is a trans woman & mother of four who transitioned late in life in rural Mississippi. Living with two of her sons & supporting her other two children in an almost equal capacity, Jheri bears a lot of weight on her shoulders. She finds tight social & economic restraints on what modern Mississippi living affords her as a working class trans woman with multiple family members struggling with disability. She’s absolutely fabulous as a personality, though, something The Joneses too often loses track of while it searches for the visual & emotional details of her hardships, often to its own detriment.

Because Jheri’s public gender transition is decades behind her, there isn’t much to The Joneses in terms of immediate plot. The film makes unnecessary attempts to build conflict around two central revelations: Jheri revealing her assigned-at-birth gender to her grandchildren and Jheri’s son revealing a secretive personal journey of his own to both his family & himself. The tension built in these conflicts is a distraction from what makes the movie special. The Joneses works better when it functions as a plot-free portrait of an American family living within highly specific circumstances, but universal commonalities. Flipping through The Joneses’ old picture albums or watching Jheri prepare an endless cycle of routine meals for her boys is far more interesting than the dramatic structure the film attempts to apply to their lives. You can feel the camera searching for tension in the family’s Confederate flag & trailer park surroundings, but none of it is ever as exciting as Jheri accidentally burning toast or the intrusion of a previously unseen house pet. The Joneses is at its best when it simply sits back to watch its titular family perform small acts of routine domesticity.

I’m not sure if the ideal version of this documentary would be a more investigative look at what it was like for Jheri to transition as a middle-age woman in modern Mississippi (something that’s only referenced in passing) or if it would be just a solid 90 minutes of her bullshitting & modeling her fashion for the camera. There’s nothing in the film’s domestic conflict that’s half as exciting as Jheri cutting jokes while wearing sunglasses & a fur coat, a testament to how endlessly charming she is as a personality. As such, I don’t think I actually enjoyed the New Orleans Film Fest Screening of the film itself as much as the Q&A with Jheri that followed, which I’m only mentioning here because I typically hate post-screening Q&A’s. I can’t recommend The Joneses as much of a transformative feat in documentary craft; if anything, the filmmaking style often gets in the way of the work’s best asset: its subject. As a work of progressive queer politics, however, it’s often endearing just for its patience in documenting a universally recognizable American family that just happens to have an adorable trans woman at the center of it. There’s a political significance to that kind of documentation the film should have been more comfortable with instead of pushing for immediate dramatic conflict.

-Brandon Ledet