Wednesday, July 14, 2010

We Are Family?

Two different pictures, one strident message. I’ve watched, in the past few days, two summer movies that could not be more disparate in origin and form that sadly categorized a contemporary ethos of moral conservativism and family values. I sat dumbfounded but affirmed before Sex and the City 2, after the cloud of bile and hatred had more or less rendered the thing a quivering Carrie-on, beaten like a schoolchild who well deserved it. After a watch, I’d lend a blow too. Stirred in my critical rage, I related to friends repeatedly in the following days the sort of moral aggrandizing that Carrie and co. now parlayed. While most reviews tended to favor economic aspects which ridicule and goad our current impoverished climate, it was the very sex from which the film takes its title from (or perhaps I should say once took, it now seems more burdened by its moniker than defined). The matrimonial arrangements that began working into the show mid-life have changed its attitude to one of chaste judgements and privileged American condescension. When, in this sequel, one of the two gay characters divulges his extra-marital arrangements on the eve of his Connecticut wedding, “I get to cheat” is received with alarming abjection in the eyes of our “girls.” It’s no shock that Charlotte York is appalled. That’s been the long-riding humor of her character: her culpability. But Carrie too, the character who, on first introduction, was keen to have sex like a man, peers out at the flamboyant pederast, hand over mouth, with a jarring disbelief. Then Charlotte names the words that linger on America’s lips, “but this is marriage!”

Then Saturday I was shocked to discover reverberations of this mores in the swimmingly reviewed (and eagerly anticipated on my end) new offering from Lisa Cholodenko, The Kids Are All Right. A fabulously written, superbly acted, subtly executed picture that dissolves into a message of wholesome values, that render the "progressive" image of lesbian parenthood that purports to be the film’s primary subject all-but coincidental. This message is about family. The nuclear family. And all else is, quite literally, shut out in the cold. My shock arrives from these vehicles status as seemingly leftist (perhaps even progressive?) entertainment. A picture about lesbian moms who aren’t losing, beating or molesting their children can still only come from one camp, right? And yet the message hardening these summer affairs seems more at home in right-wing rings. The Are Kids All Right is a disheartening picture because of the finality of its claims. There is no space for alternative familial structures (or lifestyles) despite the whole lesbian mom scheme that would suggest a film about progressive community construction or open minded childrearing. Cause, Annette Benning, with her close cropped hair, money-earning-ness, alcoholic, domineering ways is offered in place of a father figure. Nic, the character, is a lesbian, but the role is the same. Plain and simple. Which leaves Julianne Moore’s Jules to be the free spirit, the housewife who secretly smokes cigarettes and dabbles in whimsical business deals with daddy’s money but ultimately can’t put her finger on anything long enough without fingering it then traipsing away. Both films confine their protagonists to heterosexist conscriptions of monogamy and guilt and structure their infidelities as earth shattering events, moral trespasses that threaten the sturdy and conventional lives they blissfully lead.

There’s a (smart) laugh a minute to be had in the film, until you see where it's headed. As with Cholodenko’s other films, there’s an amiable brew of messy issues and emotions that are - at least – dealt with. Which is more than one can say about most other contemporary films. I’m just so disappointed in where we end up. I was complaining in the previous post about straight white people writing about “alternative communities” but shit, apparently they need to because the “alternative communities” seem to be peddling values so steeped in tradition. It comes as no shock with Sex and the City 2. For so long that show has been about gay men writing for a large constituency of middle-to-upper-class straight white women. Which is to say, they write fantasy. Or, more particularly, the structure is a platform for a kind of masochism where the gay writers, directors, and aesthetes generate a world in which they would prefer to function as something other than themselves, a world which, very frequently, excises, derides or finds punch-lines in gay men such as themselves. Lindy West, in her hilarious and oft-quoted Stranger review describes the film as "essentially a home video of gay men playing with giant Barbie dolls."

But the problem with The Kids Are All Right runs deeper. It scares me more. Cholodenko's film doesn't need the placating formula of commercial consumer fantasy that SATC2 does (though it's kinda there in these expansive modernist and craftsman houses owned by even the slacker contingency). It's an independent film. It premiered at Sundance and will likely make under 10 million dollars in its theatrical run. It's a purpose film, adult cinema - the sort that used to be made in droves but is now reserved for "important" or daring voices. But there's a tremulous pitch to Cholodenko's "daring" tone. "[H]ad it been made in 1970," writes J. Hoberman in the Voice "it might have been an Echo Park Teorema, with everyone winding up in bed together." Instead, distributor Fine Line Features has launched an e-campaign that insists the benefits of bringing your children to The Kids. The cynic in me wants for the exploit of families in this campaign. Child ticket prices added onto the parents', like those pesky 3-D surcharges that exponenitally swell current Blockbuster fare. But what's worse is that, after watching this film, the campaign seems right at home. That you can bring your kids to The Kids so that they see just what lesbians are really like. They'll be assured to see that the Moms can do just as well as Mommie and Daddy. They'll see that they have the exact same longings, the exact some ups and the exact same downs. They'll see that lesbian identity, when layered upon the family unit is eclipsed by the roles there required. They'll likely think, "gee, they're just like us!"


Anonymous brian said...

Have you seen this? Read the "summary" pdf... It is a total and necessary indictment of the root causes in contemporary cultural conservatism. Namely, how institutions (such as art schools, museums, and popular critics) have destroyed the possibility of an art that speaks truth to power. I can't wait to read the book! I have a feeling it is going to raise hackles among the art 'elite'.

3:09 PM  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

interesting piece but i think attacking "Kids" for the end point conservatism of the traditional family structure (i.e. the sperm donor isn "an interloper") is to deny stories any rights to their specificity. Would it have made any emotional sense for him to be welcomed into the family (admittedly a more progressive film) when his character is written (and performed) so exquisitely as to be an accidentally careless wedge? That the film has such sympathy for him despite his failings -- and that the women do decide to welcome him into the family before things fall apart -- is to me very human and more progressive than you're giving the film credit for being. he's not a "villain" (which is how lesser films would paint him). He's just an interloper.

also why describe the gays of Sex & the City as "pederasts"? They're 40something year old men getting married to each other. They're not having sex with teenagers!

10:50 AM  
Blogger wasitworthit said...

Hi Nathaniel! Nice to see you on here again. I do hear what you're saying, but there's a powerful message to endings. Endings offer the final summary and point of the preceding time. The ending, in this case, wrote off that character, in my view. He became so very flat and pathetic (as in, a flat figure of pathos) standing outside, pouty-lipped. With no place in this structure. In a melodramatic read, where characters become archetypes, his figure becomes very moot within the cinematic structure.

There was also no question given to the nuances of Jules' infidelity whereas the masculine Nic is totally justified in her masculinist, face it, abusive behavior since her wife was "clearly in the wrong." She gets off scott free since all of the the relationship structures were codified heterosexual and based there upon those values.

And the pederast line is evocative of the look they shoot him, not my attitude toward homos (hopefully, obviously). I thought that the film has such a monstrous view of homosexuals, who function as nothing but punchlines in the film.

1:24 PM  

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