*Written as part of the Juxtaposition Blogathon at Pussy Goes Grrr!*
I’m going to be a bit of a maverick here, and compare two movies that I have never seen. Or rather: I am going to give way to a juxtaposition of one aspect of the film industry that was made intriguingly obvious to me at several points over the summer.
Living in Brooklyn, I went to quite a number of screenings at BAM Rose Cinemas; we’re talking Midnight in Paris, Tree of Life, Another Earth, Amigo, John Turturro’s Passione… When you go to a lot of screenings at the same small-ish art-house-ish theatre, you start to see the same trailers over and over again in the hushed dim of the pre-feature cinema. I saw the trailer for The Debt half a dozen times, I’m sure, and the one for Contagion a few times as well. But almost invariably, the previews for two new films, Pariah and Gun Hill Road, played, and almost invariably, they played back-to-back. It would probably require possessing the faculties of a lump of concrete in order to fail to notice the connections between the two — the first time I saw them, I wondered (and still do) whether BAM had programed the trailer order as such on purpose.
If you watch the two above, in the same order that I usually did, and the parallels immediately become obvious: each is a drama set in New York City that centers on the conflicts within an ethnic families where the coming-of-age trajectory of one child is failing to adhere to standards of gender and sexuality within their respective cultural communities. The first time you see them together like that, it’s hard not to think — I just saw two different trailers for essentially the same movie. I’ve done a little extra-textual reading about the films, but for the purposes of this comparison, I want to stick with what we get in the roughly two minutes of each trailer, alone, because in a Surrealistic way, that was the manner in which the sewing machine and umbrella were placed on the operating table before me. Beyond this, the way that movies are presented or marketed, especially ones about similarly highly-charged subject matter, speaks very directly to the politics and discourses surrounding the way we are approaching the media itself and the content of that media.
In Pariah, we see Alike, a high school-aged African American girl living in Brooklyn (surmised from the look of the bus she is riding as the trailer opens, confirmed by the Focus Features website about the film…), a budding poet and a lesbian whose discovery of her sexuality brings her into conflict with her parents. In Gun Hill Road, we see Michael, a high school-aged Latino boy (?) living in the Bronx (Z train! …could technically be Brooklyn, but this is also confirmed online and fits with some of the typical ideas of where certain ethnicities have tended to settle within the Five Boroughs…), a dancer in a club and a trans-(something — we, like Michael’s potential hook-up, miss exactly what he says) whose assertion of his womanhood brings him into conflict with his parents. At core, two films of the Other within the Other, the sexual minority within the racial minority, further facing generational opposition and struggling for what makes one a self.
Beyond these broader thematic similarities, a few other aspects strike me in particular. The structure of each trailer turns on a sort of revelatory early dinner conversation in each family, where one parent asks their child about going to a certain event that is tied through cultural construction to ‘correct’ gender presentation, Alike’s mother nagging her about who she is going with to homecoming and Michael’s father asking him why he doesn’t want to go to a baseball game with him. Both Alike and Michael reject these suggestions with a declaration of their desire not to go, creating within the arc of each trailer a genesis of conflict, or at least the revelation of the already brewing oppositional forces within each film. The choice to represent this in both with a dinner conversation, allows the center of the ethnic family, the domestic space, to be interrupted with each sudden tension over traditional gender-normative activities.
Each trailer is also strung together with shots of transformations in each young person’s appearance — we first see Alike riding a bus, removing a doo-rag and other masculine garments, presumably in preparation to return home, and later her mother laments the fact that Alike never wants to wear what her mother has selected for her, as she stands before her parents in a pink cardigan, looking ready to die and pleading “This isn’t me.” In any number of mirror shots, Michael applies make-up and does his hair, puts on dresses and skirts, as his father asks about sports and whether he likes school, later to be confronted for his failed masculinity.
Each trailer is also structured to lead up to a moment of violence, a miniature climax within the two-minute presentation of the film — in Gun Hill Road, Michael’s father brutally cuts off his son’s gorgeous locks, and in Pariah, a shouting match between Alike’s parents is followed by a cut to her flying out of her home, kicking garbage cans and releasing her anger and frustration.
While the parallels (including the metaphorical loneliness and isolation of late-night NYC public transportation) abound, the distinctions may be most telling — the primary conflict in each film seems to rest between the parent and child of the same (biological) gender, while the other parent, Alike’s father or Michael’s mother, seems more a tenuous but weakened ally to their child, the parent who can escape from taking their child’s gender ‘failure’ as a personal affront to their own self. As Michael’s father tells his friend, it’s not Michael’s life, it’s his — each trailer reveals a strong thematic concern with the relationship between a parent and the child they want to teach to be like them, to craft in their own image. Which makes it all the harder, of course, when these children are coming of age only to find that they cannot craft themselves into the very images that society and their respective parents would have for them.
The absence of specific words about gender and sexuality is itself conspicuous — we never hear the word lesbian, and Michael’s one moment of naming his self as trans must be translated (or only so through a failed translation) by another who doesn’t hear and consequently does not fully repeat the title Michael has given himself. In both trailers, the term “man” is heard, repeatedly (and more so than “woman”) — in Pariah, Alike’s mother screams “Your daughter is turning into a damn man!” at her husband, and in Gun Hill Road, Michael’s father confronts him by saying “Talk to me like a man! I didn’t raise you to be like that”. Are these films primarily concerned with the struggles of their young protagonists, or do they deal more broadly with the anxieties of masculinity in these strongly gendered ethnic communities?
I think this is where the themes and plotlines of the two pieces begin to part ways — while Gun Hill Road (or at least its trailer…) privileges the character of the father, and his relationship with his son and his son’s sexuality and gender identity, Pariah is really about Alike. We see this in something as simple and obvious as who we see first, and whose voice we hear first: Alike appears, and we hear her reading her poetry, and we see and hear Michael’s father speaking to his parole officer before we ever see Michael himself. And the moment of violence that creates each trailer’s climax is similarly acted by these character focal points, Alike and Michael’s father.
So when we begin to tease apart these two seemingly equatable dramas, I think we discover that they are in fact about very different facets of the same complicated world of gender, sexuality, race, and class. Gun Hill Road is clearly a meditation on machismo, but is Pariah about being female (and lesbian), or does it simply echo the concerns about masculinity that exist in the other trailer? Does Alike seem to be a more central and stronger character because she, as a lesbian, is shifting along a spectrum from that which is feminized to that which is masculine (while Michael clearly shifts in the opposite direction)? (I realize that sexual orientation and gender identity are not the same thing, and are distinct facets of an individual, but the film seems to be working within a framework that attaches masculine presentation with at least Alike’s own brand of lesbianism.) That is — even in the consideration of two films that clearly give voice to the stories of young sexual Others in the 21st century, a democratic and socially just and plain-old compelling set of stories, are we not perhaps faced with some proof of this tricky, tricky embedded privileging of that which is male as strong, that which is female as weak?
The answers to these questions will undoubtedly find the seeds of their answers in the ultimate actual viewing of the full films, which I look forward to doing come winter, when Pariah is released (and when I can finally see Gun Hill Road, since Northfield is devoid of independent cinemas) — perhaps even juxtaposed, back to back, just like their trailers.