Tag Archives: queer cinema

on finally seeing pariah

I’ve been looking forward to the film Pariah ever since I first saw the trailer at BAM this summer (and subsequently blogged about its uncannily consistent juxtaposition with the trailer for Gun Hill Road).  I even mentioned this state of heightened anticipation while seated near James Schamus at one of the several formal meals that we enjoyed together while he was at Carleton last term; when he overheard my comment, he interjected with something to the effect of “THIS FILM IS SO GOOD! YOU ARE GOING TO LOVE IT.”  Which, even coming from the guy who runs the company that produced the film (Focus Features), struck me as totally genuine and basically made me even more excited for the release of the film this past December (if that had been possible…).

Adepero Oduye rides the bus in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, as Alike in Pariah.

So: on Friday night, thanks to Carleton’s Metro Arts Access Fund and the efforts of Sarah Berlin (Sarah: you rock.), I was at long last able to see Pariah.  For those of you who don’t frequent Autostraddle (or similarly queer-ish online publications) and have therefore missed the ongoing hype about the film, the basic premise centers on the coming-of-age of Alike, a black lesbian teenager in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, who excels at school and expresses herself through poetry, wants to find a girlfriend ASAP, and isn’t exactly out to her parents.  Familial clashes ensue over time spent with her openly lesbian best friend, Laura, and her mother, played with surprising sobriety by Kim Wayans, decides that forcing her into acquaintance with a colleague’s daughter, Bina, will solve things.  So of course a sleepover with Bina turns out to be Alike’s first romantic counter.

Aasha Davis as Bina and Adepero Oduye as Alike.

Pariah is director Dee Rees’ first feature, an expansion of her earlier short film, and it preserves so much of what won it the Audience Choice Award in 2007 at the San Francisco International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival: the great cinematography, the very Brooklyn feel of the mise-en-scene, the poignancy and rawness of the performances, especially that of star Adepero Oduye, the honesty of the storytelling, undoubtedly the openness and necessity of the story content in this day and age.  But here’s my complaint: somehow, even expanded to 86 minutes, it still feels like a short film — the ending seems too soon, our glimpse into Alike’s coming of age too short, too easy.  Perhaps this is because the temporality of the film is so fluid, that the final scenes and Alike’s preparation to leave for California and college come so quickly, but it feels as if the conflicts that were driving the film remain less than fully examined, or left to remain unresolved.  And while this is frustrating to a viewer who wants more of any good queer cinema we can get, perhaps it also speaks to the lingering unspeakability of these questions of identity.  Even with films like Weekend (dir. Andrew Haigh, streaming on Netflix NOW, run don’t walk to SEE THIS) and Pariah being released in 2011, queer cinema is still finding its voice, just like Alike and her poetry.  But it is finding it, and with that, finding wider audiences — and I firmly believe that we can only expect more truthful, powerful, beautiful work to ‘come out’, as it were, as the decade progresses.  Especially if I have anything to say about it.

four films and a funeral (minus a real funeral)

I’m “home” now (aka back in Olympia, Washington, birthplace of riot grrls and site of one of the most toked-out colleges in the country, the illustrious Evergreen State) — which means a chance to return to the Capitol Theatre, and my beloved Olympia Film Society.  I actually wrote my college application essay about (among other things) the religious quality that this space and its attendance holds for me, the spiritual qualities of sustaining oneself through the evening’s double features on Oldschool Pizza and organic lemon-pepper popcorn.  So coming back is a bit like coming to a personal CAMS-majory Mecca.  And since I’m feeling chagrined about my lapse in posting, I’ll wax quasi-eloquent about what I’ve gotten to see this week.

In the time I’ve been home, I’ve managed to see four films (and may be able to see two more before I jet back to the Midwest…), but this is likely my last visit to Olympia while it is still “home” — hence this post’s title’s invocation of the funerial…  What I saw, in order of viewing (not necessarily in order of enjoyment): Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, The Mill and the Cross, Martha Marcy May Marlene, and Weekend.

Detective Dee is a visualization of everything Kristen Whissel has to say on the new verticality of digital cinema in “Tales of Upward Mobility”, with its towering personification of the threat of modernization, regime change, and power in the hands of woman, and it’s gravity-defying wu xia fight sequences.  A sort of Crouching Tiger meets Sherlock Holmes plus a talking deer and people bursting into flame.  Basically, a 21st century period romp, which I would highly recommend for its indeterable enjoyability.

The Mill and the Cross is a heavy-handed filmic moralization of Pieter Bruegel’s painting The Way to Calvary, a relatively plotless meandering (or trudging, if we feel ourselves as Christ’s companions in the slog towards the end…) through a masterpiece of lighting and cinematography that puts Pictorialism to shame.  Here, with the camera in the hands of director and cinematographer Lech Majewski, the world is literally painted with light, as sequence after slow-moving sequence sends the young film student into a dizzy spin of rapture on the medium’s powers of translation, for the film is literally a series of living oil paintings, with all the richness and inner glow that one might expect.  Only when I resigned myself to being whacked over the head with religiosity for 96 minutes could I fully appreciate the irony of the film’s greatest attributes being its greatest sins, its visual sensuality at odds with its purportedly pious subject material — the painting depicts 16th century religious persecution in Flanders, plus some suffering on the part of Jesus, for good measure.  Thus, the film’s form and content are arguable equatable with sin and virtue themselves, and the film becomes a glorification of the pleasures of visual stimulation — which after an hour and a half is about all one can take.

My parents saw these first two films with me, but they wouldn’t go to Martha Marcy May Marlene, which is truly unfortunate, because although it is, as they objected in advance, quite disturbing, it is precisely that which makes it so good — it is a precision study in disturbance.  The ending is shockingly sudden (especially after 101 minutes, when I mistaktenly expected the film to be exactly two hours long), and in it’s suddenness, eerily ambiguous.  The story unfolds beginning from the young woman (Elizabeth Olson) Martha’s return to her family after two years with a cult in the Catskills, and one is left wondering where such a story could have come from, and where it will go, hacked off at the close as it is.  It is a study in power and life philosophy that makes the “normality” of the life led by Martha’s sister Lucy and her husband Ted match almost shot for shot the daily (and nightly) goings on in Martha’s memories of the cult.  Is a farm in upstate New York where rape and death are made sacred so far afield from the cult of money and possession that Martha accuses Ted of living for, really?  We leave the film feeling morally unleashed, afloat in our own uneasiness, not just with the farm and the charming horror of Patrick (John Hawkes) but also with the kind of society that drives young girls like Martha to feel at home in such a cult.  In film, water is so often (almost tritely) a symbol of female awakening, but as Martha is plunged repeatedly intto these lakes, we do not sense her freedom — rather, as her final swim is steeped so in danger these symbols seem reversed, as if perhaps o capture the totality of Patrick’s awful power over the women in the cult — extending even into the tropes of cinematic feminist ‘rebellion’ (within the patriarchy of course; even his name — Patrick — sounds like patriarch…).  He brings these images back into the fold, as with his women, “just pictures”, as he very creepily sings to Martha (who he has rechristened “Marcy May”) the morning after raping her in a ‘rite of passage’.  So much remains unclear, arcane, locked in Martha’s memory — and when the final shot cuts to black from Martha’s darkening face — at last from the trance of the film itself, as uncertain of what we have just experienced as Martha herself.

Weekend is Andrew Haigh’s new film, introducing Tom Cullen and Chris New as brief and complicated lovers (for, as the title suggests, merely a weekend).  It struck me as one of the most poignant and truthful portrayals of love and sex, period, but as a representation of the complicated state of queer love and sex, and what it means to be queer in the 21st century, it is an apotheosis.  Everyone.  Just see this movie.  Run, don’t walk, to your nearest art-house cinema.  You won’t be disappointed.