Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)

I should admit upfront that I was hesitant to give this movie a fair chance. I missed Can You Ever Forgive Me? in its initial run because I was unsure that it was anything more than Oscar Bait. An Oscar Season actor’s showcase for a once-goofy-now-serious comedian in a tonally muted biopic will never be the kind of thing I rush out to see. The talent on-hand in this particular case was too substantial to fully ignore, however, as the comedian in question is the consistently compelling Melissa McCarthy and the director behind her Marielle Heller, whose previous feature The Diary of a Teenage Girl might just be one of the best dramas of the decade. I don’t believe my initial misgivings about Can You Ever Forgive Me? were entirely inaccurate. The film’s subdued real-life subject, its predilection for montage & voiceover narration, and its relentless mood-setting jazzy score all feel like they belong to the exact kind of well-behaved, awards-seeking picture that I actively avoid. I also only got a second chance to see it in a proper theater because of those awards; after being nominated for two acting-category Oscars (and a third for Best Screenplay) it returned for a second theatrical run in New Orleans to profit off the buzz. Make no mistake: Can You Ever Forgive Me? carries the exact look, feel, and prestige you’d expect from an Oscar Season biopic featuring a comic performer acting against type. What’s wonderful, then, is how Heller & McCarthy (along with fellow subversives Richard E. Grant & Nicole Holofcener) use that structure to deliver something much more tonally & thematically challenging than it initially appears.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is dressed up like a prestige biopic, but only in the way that a mean drunk can temporarily disguise themselves as a functional, friendly human being in short social bursts before their true colors start to show. McCarthy stars as Lee Israel, a once-successful literary biographer who turns to a life of petty crime once she finds herself near-homeless, unable to successfully pitch any new projects to her publisher. Her particular talent of getting into the heads (and voices) of her literary biography subjects comes in handy when she begins to forge personal letters in their name to sell to collectors – faking correspondence with important historical artists like Dorothy Parker, Fanny Brice, and Noel Coward for minor sums of cash. The payoffs are relatively small for a grift that lands her under investigation by the FBI, but Israel seemingly has no other means to survive, as she lives precariously without a social safety net. In a lesser film, that sense of isolation & financial doom would be blamed on some social ill or systemic pitfall that failed her. Here, it’s because Lee Israel is an asshole. Can You Ever Forgive Me? is most impressive as a balancing act of admiring & sympathizing with a character while not letting them off the hook for being a drunk & an obstinate dick. Lee Israel and her only partner in crime (a fellow poverty-line drunkard played by Richard E. Grant) live by a strict “Fuck ‘em” policy when dealing with the rest of the world, an attitude that isolates them in ways that are both dangerous to their well-being & difficult for wide-audience sensibilities. It also makes for a much more relatable, satisfying picture than what was sold in its earliest ads.

The secret success of Can You Ever Forgive Me? is that it passes itself off as a well-behaved biopic, but it’s not a biopic at all. While the film does follow a somewhat notable historical figure around a long-gone 1990s NYC, it’s less a biography of Israel’s life than it is a dual character study of two very particular, very difficult people. Crude, drunk, queer, mean, proudly unemployable, and living in squalor, Israel and her sole co-conspirator have a hostile relationship with their fellow New Yorkers (and the universe at large). McCarthy plays Israel with aggressive skepticism & a permanent scowl, deathly afraid of showing a single glimpse of emotional vulnerability or sincerity. For his part, Grant goes full Quentin Crisp as her cohort, ruthlessly squeezing every cheap hedonistic thrill out of life as he can, treating his limited time on Earth as a frivolous lark. Even if you don’t see you own personal flaws & hurt reflected in these characters, it’s easy to recognize them as kindred spirits; the shithole world we live in doesn’t deserve any more sympathy or respect than they’re already giving it. Marielle Heller’s greatest achievement in this film is in inhabiting Israel’s voice & POV, the same way the infamous forger inhabited the voices of the literary figures whose graves she robbed. No matter how prickly or destructive Israel can be in the film, we never lose sight of the fact that the world let her down first, that life is a bum deal that doesn’t deserve a single ounce of effort whether or not she’s willing to give it. Whether she’s furiously railing against the fragile egos & unearned confidence of straight white men or enjoying a brief glimmer of peace in an upscale drag bar, we feel her anger, her pain, and her displacement in a world that does not want her. You cannot fake that kind of authenticity in spiritual kinship, even if Heller, McCarthy, and Holofcener are speaking for Israel, even if the vessel that contains her forged voice carries the inauthenticity of an Awards Season melodrama.

-Brandon Ledet

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The Misandrists (2018)

Queer punk prankster Bruce LaBruce’s latest work is a little too cheeky & misshapen to stand out as my favorite movie of the year but it is the most John Watersiest film I’ve seen all year, which, close enough. Although he has been making films long enough to have been lumped in with the New Queer Cinema movement of the early 90s (a descriptor he rejects in favor of association with the “queercore” punk scene), LaBruce still traffics in transgressive, microbudget outsider art that recalls John Waters’s trashy protopunk beginnings in the early 1970s. The Misandrists has clear thematic & aesthetic vision and a distinct political voice, but its commanding ethos is still aggressively amateur & D.I.Y. Its burn-it-all-down gender & sexual politics are sincerely revolutionary but are also filtered through a thick layer of over-the-top-camp. You might be justified in assuming The Misandrists was a film school debut from a young, angry upstart with a still-fresh appetite for shock humor & pornography, but it’s got the clear vision & tonal control of an artist who’s been honing their craft for decades – like John Waters at his best.

Set “somewhere in Ger(wo)many” in an alternate timeline 1999 (near the release of Waters’s similarly militant Cecil B. Demented) The Misandrists establishes a femmetopia comprised of man-hating revolutionaries who train to violently overthrow the Patriarchy. The women’s testosterone-free environment is disrupted by three types of intruders before their pornography-funded political revolution is fully launched: a male anti-capitalist revolutionary harbored under the noses of their leadership, pig cops searching for that persona non grata, and the trans & non-binary comrades already in their midst despite their cis-femmes-only recruitment policy. There are abundant red flags early in the film that suggest it subscribes to grotesque TERF ideology, but that outdated lack of intersectionality & inclusivity becomes its exact political target if you allow it time to get there. It affords characters air time to voice repugnant trans-exclusionary ideals, but when one of its most disruptive outsiders declares “It’s time to reconcile your revolutionary beliefs with your sexual politics,” the sentiment rings genuine in a way few of its radical extremist bon mots do.

For the stretch of The Misandrists that does voice rad-fem, TERFy ideology, it does so only to indulge in over-the-top, tongue-in-cheek exaggerations of what feminism looks like in an exploitation cinema context. The femme “comrades” of the film form a “separatist commune” disguised as a convent of nuns-in-training. They’re actually training as “an army of lovers” looking to establish a self-sustaining lesbian society free of men, whom they consider “repulsive,” “despicable,” “contaminating,” and “the cops of the world.” Their political ideology playfully crosses the line into religious dogma, as they form a new femme version of Christianity around “The Mother, The Daughter, and The Holy Cunt.” Terms like “(wo)manual,” “herstory,” and “womansplain” roll off the tongue as if they were commonly spoken phrases instead of humorous perversions of idioms. As the title suggests, The Misandrists presents an exaggerated version of what shithead men imagine when they hear the word “feminism”: militant man-haters & lesbians gearing up to steal power from all men everywhere in a violent overthrow. When depicted so crassly & without nuance, that imaginary version of feminism is a hilarious, over-the-top cartoon. It’s also, unsurprisingly, badass.

What’s most distinctive about The Misandrists is how LaBruce finds ways to express his true, genuine ideology through pornography while still allowing rad-fem caricatures to voice the politics he’s openly mocking. Two femme comrades watch masc gay porn for “research,” voicing violent disgust for the very sexual acts LaBruce is infamous for including in his art. The film itself often crosses the line from militant feminism-spoofing exploitation cinema into full-on lesbian porno, leering at girls making out while a tender pop song dryly intones “Down, down, down with the Patriarchy.” A transgressive, queer filmmaker, LaBruce goes out of his way to make sure this display is not straight-guy masturbation fodder. He not only plays extensive clips of hardcore gay pornography in an early scene, he also includes graphic footage of a real-life gender reassignment surgery and disrupts the straight eroticism of the lesbian sex scenes with perverse kinky defilements of food (including the filthiest use of eggs that I’ve ever seen in any film, including Tampopo). When a character proclaims, “Pornography is an act of insurrection against the dominating order,” it feels like one of the few moments when LaBruce is expressing a genuine political thought, as opposed to an over-the-top cartoon caricature of feminism. Of course he believes pornography could be a useful tool for funding a queer revolution – he’s already been using it that way for decades.

If you’re looking for a shocking, over-the-top slice of campy schlock, 2018 isn’t likely to offer a much more perfect specimen than The Misandrists. That might be the only way in which the film is “perfect,” as it deliberately traffics in imperfections & insincerities to prove a larger political point and to stay true to LaBruce’s D.I.Y. queercore sensibilities. Every year I ask myself which calendar release I would most want to watch with John Waters, The Pope of Filth, and I imagine this sarcastic, pornographic, politically angry act of feminist camp would tickle him like no other 2018 release I’ve seen.

-Brandon Ledet

The Wild Boys (2018)

The long-vintage buzzword “genderfuck” might be an outdated term that’s since been replaced by descriptors like “genderfluid” & “non-binary,” but I can’t think of a better way to describe the nightmare fantasy piece The Wild Boys. If any movie was ever genderfucked, it’s this one. In a way, the outdated status of the term (combined with its confrontational vulgarity) only makes it more of a perfect fit. The Wild Boys feels like an adaptation of erotica written on an intense mushroom trip 100 years ago. All of its psychedelic beauty & nightmarish sexual id is filtered through an early 20th Century adventurers’ lens, feeling simultaneously archaic & progressive in its depictions & subversions of gender & sexuality. It looks like Guy Maddin directing an ancient pervert’s wet dream, both beautifully & brutally old-fashioned in its newfangled deconstruction of gender. As an art film oddity & a transgressive object, The Wild Boys lives up to the “wild” descriptor in its title in every conceivable way, delivering everything you could want from a perplexing “What the fuck?” cinematic sideshow. More importantly, though, the film is thoroughly, deliberately genderfucked – a freshly radical act of nouveau sexual politics represented through the tones & tools of the ancient past.

In The Wild Boys, adult femme actors play unruly young boys who are punished for their hedonistic crimes in a magical realist fashion that violates their gender & sexuality. Untamable rapist hooligans who act like the Muppet Babies equivalent of the masked ruffians of A Clockwork Orange, the boys find themselves in legal trouble when their depravity results in the death of a drama teacher after an especially lewd rehearsal of Macbeth. They’re punished with the same boot camp treatment unruly teens are subjected to on shows like Maury – shipped off for behavioral rehab with a mysterious, authoritative sea captain who claims he can reform the worst boys you can throw at him. The captain takes them on a journey that’s part Edgar Rice Burroughs colonialist fantasy & part William S. Burroughs genderfucked eroticism. They reach a giant oyster-shaped island overgrown with perverse sexual delights: phallic tree flowers that spurt delicious milky liquids, vaginal shrubbery that sexually clasps around human lovers like penis fly traps, testicle-shaped fruits that transform the bodies of those who consume them. It’s in that fruity transformation where the nature of their punishment and the point of the women-cast-as-boys conceit starts to make sense – as much as anything in this deliberately obscured art house fantasy ever could.

The Wild Boys is more of a sensory indulgence than a logical narrative. Silent Era cinematic textures & stark washes of purple lighting recall the intensely artificial, tenderly pornographic tableaus of James Bidgood’s art photography. It’s the same kind of intimate, gay, surreal imagery that obsessed Todd Haynes in early New Queer Cinema features like Poison. Boys’ drunken playfighting devolves into operatically beautiful orgies among a continuous drizzle of soft pillow-feathers. Out-of-proportion rear projection backdrops fill the screen with old-fashioned romanticism. As erotic & alluring as the film’s sexuality can be, however, The Wild Boys is also a work of intense supernatural menace. Gigantic tattooed dicks, dogs with glowing human faces, and an all-powerful demonic glitter-skull named TREVOR overpower the setting’s more paradisiac delights. The boys are forced to ask tough questions like “How much hairy testicle fruit can you possibly eat?” and “What will you do with your dick once it falls off?” Sex alternates between violence & sensual pleasure in an uncomfortable, artificial sensibility more befitting of delirious erotica than anything resembling real life. The resulting effect falls somewhere between Guy Maddin & Bruce LaBruce – a decidedly not-for-everyone-but-definitely-for-someone combination if there ever was one.

If recommending The Wild Boys in the 90s I might have told you to go get genderfucked. If recommending it 100 years ago I might have told you to save it for a stag party where you trusted no one would call the cops. The film’s sexuality, gender, and violence are of both those eras and, paradoxically, very much of the zeitgeist now. I guess that’s the quality that prompts people to call a work of art “timeless”, but I can’t refer to this movie as anything but hopelessly, beautifully fucked.

-Brandon Ledet