This week’s culture round-up

I didn’t do a round-up last Sunday because I didn’t think I had enough links, so now I probably have too many.

From After Ellen, Whatever happened to the cast of But I’m a Cheerleader? This reminds me, actually, that I haven’t written a post about But I’m Cheeleader for my lesbian movie marathon series yet even though it’s one of my favourites.

Peter Bradshaw writes about Victim, the 1961 film that starred Dirk Bogarde and explored homophobia in a way that was remarkably direct for the time.

How science fiction cover art gots its pulpy sense of wonder. I do love pulpy science fiction cover art.

A post about Sarah Schulman, one of my favourite lesbian writers, and one who I don’t think gets enough critical attention

From Lambada Literary, the 20th anniversary of Jewelle Gomez’s lesbian vampire series, the Gilda stories. I still haven’t read these stories because they’re difficult to get hold of in the UK.

From Bad Reputation, a guest post by author Juliet Mckenna, The Representation of women in Fantasy: What’s the Problem?. It got a bit of a debate going in the comments.

From Geek Sugar, a list of science fiction and fantasy books that have been banned in the last two decades

From, Five classic science fiction films steeped in noir

From The Guardian, an article asking, is there too much CGI in monster movies these days?

Also, from the Guardian, With Conan and The Thing back at the cinema it’s like 1982 all over again. I’m not happy about this latest fad for remaking almost every decent SF and fantasy film from the 1980s.

One for fans of Star Trek: Voyager, a video showing the amusing consequences of the show’s appearance on teen jeopardy

This week’s culture round-up

What, is it Sunday already? How did that happen?

From Den of Geek we have an article about The Space Age in Cinema.  I think the first space-age themed science fiction movie that I remember seeing and being impressed by was Douglas Trumball’s Silent Running.   I re-watched it again recently and was disappointed to find it a pretty silly film.

The 10 Greatest Unintentionally Hilarious Lines in from Science Fiction and Fantasy. I kind of want a  “The neutrinos are mutating!” t-shirt now.

Posters have been released for the remake of Fright Night starring David Tennant.  I love the original Fright Night and I’m not liking the look of this remake.  In fact there may be a whole post about that soon.  Last week I was also disturbed to hear that remakes of Evil Dead, Total Recall and Oldboy are all in the pipeline.  I have a feeling that the first two might go and replace the truly groundbreaking 1980s special effects that featured in the originals with CGI and, perhaps I’m being a bit cumudgeonly, but is there a need for another version of Oldboy?

Meanwhile here’s an upcoming movie that does excite me, David Croenenburg’s A Dangerous Method, which is about the birth of psychoanalysis and stars Viggo Mortensen as Sigmund Freud.

Why do female detectives have such traumatic pasts? asks Jess McCabe in the second of her Murder she Blogged series.

Gender in the film Salt (2010)

I like to spend Friday evenings watching silly films.  A couple of weeks ago we watched Salt, which is a totally preposterous thriller starring Angelina Jolie as a CIA agent who is accused being a Russian double-agent.

It’s not a film I would bother to mention here if it wasn’t for the gender issues it raises.  When it was released there was some talk about how the role of Evelyn Salt was originally intended for a male actor, someone like Tom Cruise.

I would say that casting Jolie as the lead does have the effect of lifting the film out of the level of totally run-of-the-mill because it turns it into a (no doubt unintentional) reflection on the gendered conventions of the thriller.

Salt presents femininity as a performance.  At the beginning of the film, Evelyn is represented as highly feminine (heels, tightly-fitted suit, full face of makeup, beautifully coiffured blonde hair etc), but as the story progresses she is gradually divested of her femininity, ending the film as an androgynous figure who is able to pass for male.  For the lesbian audience, I’d say Salt is worth watching just for the last 20 minutes to see Jolie with cropped hair in men’s clothes.  I don’t usually find her sexually appealing, but my goodness that woman butches up well!

On a more serious note, there’s an anxious question underlying the film’s representation of Salt’s gender, a question concerned with what femininity means in a world in which women have access to power.

Having a woman in the role also allows the film to play around with the apparatus of femininity – for example, the scene in which Salt uses her lacy panties to block a security camera and the one in which she goes into a ladies toilet and gets a menstrual pad, only to apply it to a bullet wound to stop the bleeding.

Also, it was apparent that Salt’s husband, who would have been his wife in the original script, was written as your classic ‘girl in the refrigerator’ – a woman who has something horrible happen to her just to advance the man’s story.  This movie treats us to a ‘boy in the refrigerator’ and the convention is not much less irritating for being gender-flipped.  It still feels like lazy storytelling.

For me, the gender-flipping does fall down a bit because Jolie is so fragile-looking in this film that I found it hard not to laugh when she took out two or three burly CIA agents with a couple of kicks. Mind you, this kind of action scene really isn’t much less ridiculous when it’s a man doing the fighting, it’s just that gendered narrative conventions have accustomed us to accepting the idea that Tom Cruise or Matt Dillon would be able to take out several CIA agents in one kick, when it reality, it isn’t any less preposterous.

So Salt is a film that manages to be both extremely silly and quite thought provoking.

Is it OK not to like A Single Man?


We finally got around to watching A Single Man.  I didn’t really like it.

I’m aware that I may be influenced by my suspicious attitude towards films about queer people which I feel have been made to appeal to predominantly heterosexual audiences, plus I really dislike the hypocrisy underlying the current trend in which we see heterosexual actors using gay characters to prove their acting chops while most gay actors remain unable to come out in Hollywood or risk playing gay roles themselves.

I was also very irritated to read a comment from Firth in an interview in which he said that the film wasn’t really about gay men but, rather, about the universal experience of grief.  That is such utter bull crap when the entire point that this film is making is that the context of a gay person’s grief in the 1960s was totally different to that of a heterosexual person’s grief.  There wouldn’t even be a story here if the characters weren’t gay because, if that was the case, George’s sorrow would have been acknowledged and he would have received sympathy and support.  What’s terrible in the story is not the grief itself, but the total disenfranchisement of George’s suffering and the fact that this occurs only because he and his partner are both men.  So shut up Colin!

However, I do think I am able to get beyond these reservations and appreciate the quality of a film but, while I admired A Single Man for its beautifully artistic direction, I still didn’t like it much, perhaps for the same reason I admired it.  The art seems to overwhelm the feeling.  One of the best scenes is one of the first when George (Colin Firth) gets the phone call that informs him about his partner’s sudden death in a car accident.  It’s a heartbreaking scene, but just as I was about to crumble, George ran over to his friend Charley’s (Julianne Moore) house and the soundtrack was muted, so we watch but not hear his grief.  Perhaps the symbolism is appropriate, if a little obvious – no one can hear his grief — but I found it distancing.  The film seemed to enact its own point here and doubly silence the grief.  There were a couple of other points where the symbolism jerked me out of the narrative – the bit where we see George walking against a crowd, quite literally.

The role demanded that Firth act alone for long sections of the film.  Colin Firth is a very good actor, but I really think he’s best when he’s playing off other people. I don’t think he’s tremendously good at being alone on screen and I didn’t find the scenes in which he wanders around looking bereaved entirely convincing or moving.  The best scenes were the ones in which he was acting with other people.

I don’t like Matthew Goode, the actor who played George’s partner, Jim.  He’s rather a bland, romantic-comedy-kind-of-actor and he’s always playing these smug, super-nice guys who irritate me.  I didn’t find him convincing as a gay man and didn’t believe in their relationship because  I had no real sense of what George had lost or of the life they’d built together.  Really, I think the role needed a stronger actor than Goode who could convey a lot about their relationship in a small amount of screen time.

I hated Julianne Moore in this film and thought her performance was pretty atrocious.  She appeared to be channelling Joanna Lumley’s Patsy from Absolutely Fabulous and I honestly think that Lumley would have brought more nuance and feeling to the role.  Moore here seemed to be Oscar-hunting with a very artificial performance.  It was Julianne Moore in a big wig with that American actress “English accent” playing a role I don’t think she understood – little more than a caricature.  Mind you, I have to admit I haven’t liked Moore for a while.  I thought she was excellent in The Hours, but we re-watched Magnolia the other night and she played that part at exactly the same shrill pitch in every scene.  Compare her with Melora Walters’s incredible performance in that film and Moore comes across hammy and superficial to me.  Anyway, in A Single Man I didn’t believe her relationship with George at all and couldn’t see why George would be friends with her, although Firth was giving it his best shot.

Still, the story seemed to be taking place in a vacuum.  George and Jim didn’t appear to be part of a larger community.  George went to a gay bar, but there was no context.  Why was he there? Why was he in California? It did that thing that films about gay people often do of overlooking the fact that gay people belong to a subculture.  Where were his gay friends?

So I’m not sure if this is just me, but overall I felt a bit manipulated.  It’s lovely to look at and there are some excellent scenes, but it felt like a film in which the director and the actors all had their eyes firmly fixed on the Oscars rather than on creating something authentic.  I think the first part of the much simpler If These Walls could Talk 2 deals with the same issues with much more feeling and achieves a deeper impact.  Hmm although that might be because it’s about lesbians!

But, as I’ve seen a couple of reviewers note elsewhere, what this film should really remind us of is just how little we owe to people like George and Jim – the respectable, wealthy, middle-class gays who stayed in the closet in relative safety – and just how much we do owe to the far less “respectable” gay men and trans women who risked their necks and took on the police in the Stonewall riots.  This film made me even more grateful to them.

I’ve got the Christopher Isherwood novel on which the film was based on my bookshelf, so I’ll be interested to read that now and see how it compares to its adapatation.

Go V’ Ger

The extraordinary Voyager 1 spacecraft is demonstrating its nimbleness more than 30 years after leaving Earth.

I have an attachment to Voyager 1 because it’s awesome, obviously, it was launched the year I was born, and it’s fictional descendent made a good character in the otherwise rather dull first Star Trek movie.

Andy and I are so childish, every time we hear Voyager mentioned, we have to say “V’Ger seeks the creator” in robotic voices … every. time.

“OMG! V’Ger is …. Voyager!”

2010 in Film

The best films I saw this year

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

Brad Pitt as Jesse James in the Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert FordDirector: Andrew Dominik

I wish this film wasn’t overlong and didn’t have such a boring bit in the middle because the beginning, and especially the ending, contain some of the most beautiful scenes I’ve ever seen on film.  It’s an almost-brilliant film about masculinity and relationships between men.  Brad Pitt is looking better and better as he gets older and Casey Affleck is great throughout.  Plus, it has a Nick Cave soundtrack and Nick himself appearing at the end to sing a murder ballad. I may have to buy it on DVD just so I can watch the scenes I like again.

In the Mood for Love (2000)

Maggie Cheung looks out of the window in In the Mood for Love
Director: Kar Wai Wong

The first “wow” film of 2010. A man and woman in Hong Kong form a relationship when they both suspect their spouses of infidelity. This is such a stunning film to watch, it’s almost painful, as it juxtaposes the overcrowded, grimness of the world in which the protagonists live, with the beauty of their relationship; an ultimately enigmatic exploration of friendship, desire and loss.

Doubt (2008)

Meryl Streep as Sister Aloyisius in Doubt Director: John Patrick Shanley

A nun’s attempt to protect children under her care from a priest who she suspects of being a paedophile turns into a gripping analysis of patriarchy, homosocial culture and the price of standing up for what you believe in. This is probably the most overtly feminist film I saw all year.  More here.

Let the Right One In (2008)

Kare Hedebrant and Lina Leandersson
Director: Tomas Alfredson

I quite liked this film when I first watched it, but thought it a little overrated. However, as time has passed I find myself quite haunted by it and thinking scenes over again. I’ll definitely be returning to it for a second watch soon.  A film that poses the question of whether society makes life so unbearable for young people that running away with a vampire may be the better option.

Rebel without a Cause (1955)

James Dean as Jim Stark in Rebel Without A Cause Director: Nicholas Ray

Another tremendous film about masculinity and homosocial culture. Rebel Without a Cause sees a possible way out of the pain in friendship and tenderness, only to have that possibility destroyed by the violence of homophobia and misogyny. It seems as relevant now as ever.  More here.

Moon (2009)

Sam Rockwell in Moon
Director: Duncan Jones

I loved this film which seems to return us to the themes and feel of 70s SF, in this case exploring the relationship between the individual and society, anxieties about artificial intelligence, and the lengths to which we might go to ensure an energy supply. It shows that you don’t need a huge budget and a ton of CGI to make a good piece of science fiction. Some people didn’t like the slow build, but I did.

Thirst (2009)

Kang-ho Song and Ok-bin Kim in Thirst Director: Cahn-wook Park

Another good vampire film that, like Let the Right One In, uses the vampire to ask philosophical questions about the nature of existence.  I felt that this was little overlong and quite misogynist, but it’s also very interesting as it shifts from a film about a Catholic priest who accidentally becomes a vampire, to a film about guilt and the way people treat each other.

Brief Encounter (1945)

Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard in Brief Encounter Director: David Lean

I thought this was going to be a woman’s weepy and found myself watching a gruelling film about frustrated desire which questions the point of living without love.  I also saw a gay allegory in this film in the story of middle-aged, married lovers who can’t be together and this may be why it affected me so much.

The Lives of Others (2006)

Ulrich Muhe in The Lives of Others Director: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

A chilling, but ultimately moving film, about the price of power and the possibility of redemption.

All Over Me (1997)

Alison Folland as teenage lesbian Claude in All Over MeThe best lesbian film I saw this year –  a naturalistic, gritty, serious, and very touching coming of age drama. This one feels authentic.  Longer post here.

Hero (2002)

Maggie Cheung is an assassin in Hero
Director: Yimou Zhang

This has a terrible message at the end, but what a stunning film it is to watch. The cinematography is amazing and I loved the layered story with its twists and turns. I also liked the representation of women, as people who are excellent at what they do.

A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

David Niven crashes into the sea in A Matter of Life and Death
Director: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

I only watched this the other day and had to add it to the list. It’s a surprisingly subversive fantasy from 1946 that questions not only Anglo-American relations, but the point of war itself and the role of the British Empire in causing all the trouble.  It’s also a meditation on survivor guilt and post traumatic stress disorder.  The opening in which a pilot attempts to make a connection with a radio operator during what he believes to be the last moments of his life is still really powerful. The representation of heaven as a gigantic bearoacracy must have been pretty challenging for the time.  The world has changed and you can feel film being pushed forward by this movie.

Worth watching, but …

Dark Victory (1939)
Creepy little melodrama that would have been great if only they hadn’t cast a plank of wood as Betty Davies’s love interest while giving Humphrey Bogart a bit part.

The Wind that Shakes the Barley (2006)
A very good, but unbelievably depressing and bleak film about the origins of the IRA

Set it Off (1996)
A heist movie about four black women who’ve been screwed over too many times in their lives and decide to take something back for themselves.  I liked this a lot and it begins really well, but I think it gets very over-the-top and a bit superficial  towards the end.

Inception (2010)
Very entertaining as long as you don’t think about it too much.

Breakfast on Pluto (2005)
A film about gender and queer experience that just doesn’t quite have the courage of its convictions.  It seems to want to be about a trans woman without saying it’s about a trans woman.

House of Flying Daggers (2004)
Beautiful to look at with good twists, but I found the ending in a CGI snowstorm a bit silly.

And the worst films I watched all year

X-Men Three – The Last Stand (2006)
Quite an entertaining start soon leads into epic race and gender fail.  According to this film women who have power are mad and evil and have to be controlled by men until they get get loose, after which they must be literally penetrated to death by the men who “love” them. Oh, and most of the baddies are people of colour.

Dracula: Prince of Darkness(1966)
In which they cast Christopher Lee as Dracula and don’t allow him to speak. This is a big mistake.

The Wolfman (2010)
Where to begin?! How can three fairly decent actors make such an attrocious film? Benicio Del Toro, Anthony Hopkins and Emily Blunt aren’t even trying here and should be deeply ashamed of themselves.

The Oblong Box (1969)
Race fail, disability fail, nasty salacious bits to try and encourage you to keep watching a film you know you shouldn’t. Ugh!

10,000 BC (2008)
CGI mammoths cannot save this film. Race fail dreck.