Rainer Werner Fassbinder was a genius of New German Cinema, making 43 films in his 37 year life. As Charlie Fox writes in This Young Monster (2017), he was a “compulsive”; in his cocaine addiction, he felt an immense energy, experiencing a “shorter lifespan significantly more intensely [and] more imaginatively” within an unstable film industry. Recently, the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation have prepared new restorations, allowing his films to be seen by new audiences thanks to the efforts of the Criterion Collection, Arrow Academy and cinema re-releases. Fassbinder, often starring in his own films, portrays Franz Bieberkopf, carnival act Fox the Speaking Head, symbolically reflecting Fassbinder’s own persona. In its style, Fox and His Friends is undeniably Fassbinder, from his melodrama to the composition of the frame.
Although American cinema struggled to explicitly depict queer identity beyond subtext until the 1960s and 70s, in part through the Hays Code, German cinema tackled issues of homosexuality since its inception. As Robert Beachy describes in Gay Berlin: Birthplace of a Modern Identity (2014), Different from the Others (1919) had been a box office success on its release, before protests by Protestant, Catholic and anti-Semitic groups led to censorship. Beyond the effeminate stereotypes of American cinema, Weimar cinema became caught in a cultural zeitgeist through the aufklärungsfilm genre, invoking queer relationships in films like Sex in Chains and Pandora’s Box (1928), and Mädchen in Uniform (1931), many of whose cast and crew became victims of the Holocaust.
As Beachy argues, Berlin as a city had been central to academic discourse around homosexuality as a distinct identity beyond individual sexual acts, through the work of people like Karl Maria Kertbeny and Magnus Hirschfield, altering understanding of gender identity in the process. By the 1970s, Paragraph 175, a law enabling a culture of blackmail and prostitution within queer subculture only worsened through the Nazi Party, remained in West Germany’s constitution, demarcated difference between queer and straight despite some reforms. Fassbinder creates a portrait of the subculture within this: Franz becomes viewed as a prostitute by Eugen, cruising at public bathrooms, yet Franz rejects this identity. Fassbinder represents the unity of community, gathered together between drag performers, young men, older men and English-speaking American servicemen, in everyone’s own uniqueness.
Fassbinder explored masculinity throughout his work, like Hans’ destructive alcoholism in The Merchant of Four Seasons (1971), caught in an abusive relationship with his wife. Fox and His Friends carries these themes forward. Franz is not a likeable protagonist, becoming a manifestation of Fassbiner’s “uniquely loathsome personal aura”. Forming a bond with Eugen, Franz rapidly elevates their relationship to sex, without time to think. Franz finds himself drawn to Eugen’s father, Wolf, enjoying a degree of privilege as Wolf accepts Franz on instinct, saying that he “like[s] him much better than the last one”, giving Franz an unofficial role as a bookbinder. Franz’s sister Hedwig becomes torn apart by his actions, leaving Franz alone by the end of the film. In one scene, we see her disassociation from the entire subculture, bemoaning the lack of heterosexual men in a party built upon diverging relationships, jealousy and the sexual gaze. All men screw the same men.
Fox and His Friends is filled with full-frontal nudity, yet Fassbinder is clinical, refusing to eroticise the male body, presenting desexualised flaccid genitals in a swimming pool. Yet Fassbinder keeps a continual sense of sexual gaze, as we sense eternal desire and unfulfilment. Going on holiday to Marrakech in Morrocco, Eugen and Franz seek further sexual fulfilment. Franz sets his gaze on a Tunisian migrant worker, portrayed by El Hedi ben Salem, one of Fassbinder’s former lovers, as he and Eugen follow him, inviting him back to their Holiday Inn as they take a taxi. Taking a seat at the hotel restaurant, the pair are caught in a dialogue split by cultural boundaries, trying to take him back to their room. Fassbinder focuses upon eyes and silence, creating an unsettling atmosphere. As they walk to Franz and Eugen’s room, ben Salem’s character is barred, because he is an Arab, experiencing internal discrimination within his own country.
Fassbinder goes beyond the subculture to explore themes of capitalism and class. Society never rejects Franz for his queerness, but for his class position. Franz exists as a social outcast, his carnival show broken up by police leaving him with an identity he cannot adapt to. Franz is a swindler, betting on the lottery every day, racing in Eugen’s car to hand in his lottery ticket at the last possible minute, bartering with the store clerk; stealing money from a local florist. Franz is elevated to high society, receiving a 500,000 marks jackpot, never deserving it. He rebuilds a new life with Eugen, making an apartment for themselves, antique furniture juxtaposed against modern aesthetics. In his new life, he becomes in constant search of new loans to only further is wealth and physical ownership.
Franz’s identity becomes false. Eugen tries to force him to adapt to the conventions of high society. Going to a French restaurant, Eugen must explain the illegible menu to him, ordering the food for him as onlookers judge in disgust. Eugen bemoans Franz’s lack of cutlery, telling him the dessert fork is on “the left of your plate” as he attempts to eat a cake whole. At the table, he performs fairground tricks. He goes to tailors, trying on expensive clothes, using the iconic Fassbinder reflection shot, projecting front and back in dialogue simultaneously. Yet Franz can never escape his iconic, emblazoned denim jacket. Franz and Eugen’s holiday is booked at random, with no preplanning or worldly knowledge, based on brief descriptions from the travel agent. Franz finds a works for Wolf without any skills, mucking up a print run, never realising he wasn’t actually employed.
In the film’s most emotional scenes, Leonard Cohen’s Bird on the Wire becomes Franz’s personal anthem.
Like a bird on the wire
Like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried in my way to be free
Rejected by Eugen, taking control of their flat, Franz undergoes a devolution, ostracised by his own sister. For all he tries, he cannot move beyond his origins. Selling his modern car at a dealer’s, Franz is met by casual anti-Semitism, joking that he isn’t a Jew as he swindles Franz, buying the car for peanuts within a crumbling market.
In the closing scene, Franz becomes a symbol of Fassbinder, a corpse laying in a subway station, overdosing on valium prescribed by his doctor. Franz’s worldly possessions are taken, a group of kids stealing his iconic jacket and his money. As Charlie Fox writes of Fassbinder, “death was waiting for him, smoking a cigarette in the alley.” For all of Fassbiner’s “Dionysiac excess”, Franz and Fassbinder could not escape death.
During the 1980s, George Harrison’s short-lived HandMade Films provided a minor industry for British independent cinema, from comedies like Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979) and Time Bandits (1981) to dramas like The Long Good Friday (1980) and Mona Lisa (1986). Even on its £1 million budget, Withnail struggled to get made. Producer Denis O’Brien lacked confidence, not seeing it as humorous. A few days into production, filming was cancelled; Robinson walked off. Many of scenes were paid for out of the cast and crew’s own pockets, not acquiring permission when the car drives around Finchley.
Akin to directors like Mike Mills, Robinson uses cinema as autobiographical narrative, adapting his experience living in Camden in the mid-to-late 1960s with housemates Vivian MacKerrell, Michael Feast and David Dundas, condensed to the space of two weeks. Working as an actor in the 1960s and 70s on films like Romeo and Juliet (1968) and Private Road (1971), Robinson uses cinema because he has a story to tell. As he relates in The Peculiar Memories Of Bruce Robinson (1999), he seeks primacy of authorial voice, wanting absolute creative control, aghast at changes to Fat Man and Little Boy (1989) and Jennifer 8 (1992). Robinson struggles to even allow actors to improvise, with specificity over performance.
Withnail (Richard E Grant) and I (Paul McGann) are unemployed thespians, caught between drama school and achieving acting dreams at the cusp between the 1960s and 70s and their 20s and 30s. In their rat-infested flat, the pair struggles to get by, between antique furniture and postcards on the mirror, suggesting they’ve travelled at least somewhere. A globe sits alone; a union jack is wrapped around a lampshade; I drinks coffee out of a soup bowl, in absence of a clean mug. Without heating and a broken thermostat, Withnail walks around in underwear, modesty protected only by his coat.
In the bathroom, as I shaves, they eat fish and chips, turning the toilet into a bin. Behind him, a poster of Harold Lloyd in Safety Last! (1923) hangs, bathed in anarchic specks of multi-coloured paint from the childlike door and yellow pipes. The pair are in constant battles with the landlord, dealer Danny (Ralph Brown) keeping the checks for himself. Sam Bain, co-creator of Peep Show (2003-15), took influence from the basic sitcom format, framing a dysfunctional male friendship and their interactions with their drug dealer. Driving to Monty (Richard Griffiths)’s house in a beat down Jaguar with a light torn off, navigating the motorways at night with one working window wiper, I can barely park his car vertically. McGann notes on the commentary on the Anchor Bay DVD he had only known how to drive for 3 weeks; Robinson often doubled for him, reality meeting fiction.
Like with Trainspotting (1996), the viewer finds joy in protagonists navigating their addictions. In the opening, as I lights a kettle on an open flame, we sense paranoia and anxiety in insomniac bloodshot eyes. Withnail and I drink in the middle of the day, buying multiple rounds at once.
Grant, a teetotaller, method acted, throwing up violently on an expensive rug. Robinson writes drunk, taking a couple of glasses of wine before injecting his dialogue with serious energy. Withnail has become one of cinema’s most iconic drunks, drinking lighter fluid in pursuit of more alcohol. Driving down the motorway, shot on the M25 two days before it opened, I awakens in a daze, finding Withnail driving between lanes. In desperation, evading the breathalyser by switching his piss with a child’s “uncontaminated urine”, he pretends not to be drunk, telling the officers he’s “only had a few ales”. Danny, in his radically cool sunglasses, seeks ways to distribute merchandise, stuffing shoe soles and plastic babies. Withnail and I arrive home to find Danny and Presuming Ed (Eddie Tagoe) as squatters, smoking the most powerful weed in the western hemisphere.
As a thespian, Withnail imagines himself the greatest actor who ever lived. In the Penrith cottage, he brandishes sword and cigarette, wanting to be the best Hamlet, one of Robinson’s favourite plays. Atop the mountain, he yells out to the town below him, “I’m gonna be a star!”, an image Robinson attempted to recreate with Grant in the final scene of How to Get Ahead in Advertising (1989). Yet Withnail is selective, refusing to shadow a part in The Seagull (1896), speaking to his agent from a telephone booth with frustration. Uncle Monty asks I if he’s published, keeping a constant diary of events; Robinson wrote the unpublished novel that became Withnail back in 1969. I’s worldview is a literary one, expecting villagers to be drinking cider in the garden like in a H.E. Bates novel, unable to escape books, carrying everything from Journey’s End (1928) to David Copperfield (1850) and Against Nature (1884).
Adopting a performance identity, Grant and McGann touch upon their experience as actors, playing actors, played by characters based on real people who were indeed actors. Withnail and I adopt a dishevelled Camden identity that doesn’t quite fit them; Withnail walks around the mountains, seeking a pseudonym to escape into. In The Mother Black Cap, he creates an Irish accent and fictitious wife when arguing with a patron. Escaping to Penrith, they play roles as journalists as location scouts, unable to understand those around them. Withnail receives a free round, convincing the drunk elderly bartender he served in the forces. In one of the film’s most hilarious scenes, they drunkenly adopt the roles of multi-millionaire entrepreneurs, planning to install a jukebox amid pensioners during afternoon tea, as I scoffs down another scone.
Inspired by a real holiday Robinson went on with Michael Feast, the pastoral landscape becomes actively hostile against them. Withnail and I are fish out of water, yet they were out of water in London. Arriving at the house, I uses a lantern to find his way around. With no heating or food, they acquire logs and a chicken from a farmer, throttling and gutting it for themselves, often left with only a plate of vegetables as they try to find something for their “pot”. Away from their life of drugs, they try and find new ways of living, awoken in the morning by birdsong, putting on a cap and walking stick, using plastic bags as Wellingtons. Monty tries to show the delights of the country as they go on walks, yet I can’t begin to imagine romanticised pastoral life.
Receiving the lead part, I undergoes rites of passage, adopting a new hat and shorter haircut. Withnail is unable to escape squalor, caught between Danny and Presuming Ed as he chants. I avoids the entire culture, refusing a joint or swig of Withnail’s paper bag of wine. Unlike the original ending, where Withnail kills himself with his shotgun, this sequence is far more powerful. Departing in the rain at Regent’s Park, Withnail adopts “the Dane” wholeheartedly, rehearsing his soliloquy as the credits roll amid the wolves. Withnail’s future seems bleak; we know he’s going to die, whilst I has a future. Danny’s drug-blazing skull tattoo might as well be predicting his own demise.
[I] can’t believe Vivian is dead. He got cancer of the throat and they tore his voice out. And the fellow I’d always thought of as being the biggest coward I’d ever met materialized into the bravest bastard I’d ever known.
In the final months of 1969, the film captures a world in upheaval. The soundtrack is littered with music: a King Curtis rendition of Procol Haram’s A Whiter Shade of Pale in the opening, While My Guitar Gently Weeps, and Jimi Hendrix’s Voodoo Child and All Along the Watchtower, the most expensive yet rewarding aspects of the film. As a wrecking ball demolishes a building to All Along the Watchtower, we see the shifting landscape, the city and country remapped in post-war degradation. Robinson places us at the end of what Danny dubs “the greatest decade in the history of mankind”, before the death of Hendrix and Morrison and a new music scene and counterculture.
Robinson also creates political critique, invoking carries classist undertones: Withnail acquired his tailored suit from Saville Row, whilst Monty only accepts Eton as a place of study. As Withnail and I drunkenly threaten a local teashop with corporatisation, he tackles the destructive effects of capitalism and market liberation in the 1980s. Even Danny touches anti-establishment feeling, comparing the effects of drugs to politics. I sits in a café reading a newspaper in paranoia; Robinson attempts to confront tabloid sensationalism, just as with the twisted marketing promises of How to Get Ahead in Advertising, and the televised images of war in his screenplay to The Killing Fields (1984). I stares closely at an article about Dawn Langley Simmons, a trans woman, whilst judging the woman eating an egg sandwich in front of him, as though she could be the same person; he looks over to the person next to him, reading a News of the World article on a “Nude Au Pair’s Secret Life”.
Perhaps the film’s most controversial element is Uncle Monty, played by Griffiths over a decade before Vernon Dursley as pure camp, acquiring a house of extravagance of paintings, busts, a furnished sofa, endless books and a tightly groomed moustache. His cottage is just as extravagant, with paintings of tsars and expensive bedposts. Monty speaks in double entendre, and gets in strops as his cat becomes a nuisance. Monty likes “firm young carrot[s]”, not petunias; he doesn’t like “touch[ing] meat until it’s cooked”. According to McGann on the commentary, Griffiths was concerned about this portrayal because of his gay friends.
Robinson tries to present the vulnerability of being a young actor, inspired by the abusive behaviour directed towards him by Franco Zeffirelli during Romeo and Juliet. Monty maintains his gaze on I, flirting constantly. Preparing luncheon, he hands him a woman’s apron, trying to bend over him. Monty is a rapist, refusing to accept rejection. He asks if I is a “sponge”, a line lifted directly from Zeffirelli. I repeatedly tells Monty he’s “terribly tired”, yet Monty enters his room in the middle of the night unannounced, blackmailing I. Monty adopts his queerness and abuse as costume, applying blue and red eye shadow to his face. He tries to convince I he’s homosexual; Withnail “need never know”, taking off his dressing gown in a sense of entitlement. Monty is self-aware of his abusiveness, saying he must have him “even if it must be burglary.”
What is so uncomfortable about Monty is not that he is a dated and offensive stereotype. It’s because it’s so familiar. Even within queer and safe spaces, abuse still goes on. Rape is a systemic issue, too often justified, defended through personal desire. Monty’s sexuality is complicated against a culture where it’s “society’s crime”, without support structures or open partners, recently decriminalised yet socially taboo. But Monty’s entitlement cannot excuse rape.
Withnail and I are thespians, carrying inherent queerness; I often plays to femininity, drying himself with a pink towel. Yet the film plays gay panic, within culturally internalised homophobia. In the urinals, I reads graffiti saying “fuck arses” amid the “Kilroy was here” carvings in the wall, running from the pub in fear of being raped as a patron calls him a “ponce”. At the cottage at night, they fear the sounds of a village poacher arriving, sharpening his knife; it turns out to be Monty, just as terrifying, wanting to leave the house as quickly as possible. Withnail and I become laced with homoerotic subtext, sharing a bad in fear in underwear, coats laid on the bed to give warmth, evoking a comic convention of Morecambe and Wise. In Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987), a similar scene is played, as Neal fears his hand is resting on a “pillow”.
Withnail and I must perform queerness to avert Monty’s advances, emphasising monogamy and faithfulness, grabbing Withnail by the waist as he takes him upstairs, creating a cover story. Monty treats them as a couple, holding their hands as he calls them “my boys!” Withnail crafts a yarn to Monty that I was a “toilet trader” on Tottenham Court Road. Yet I’s indignation is not at Monty for being a rapist, but at Withnail, for the mere suggestion he “tell him I love you”.
McGann would be cast as the Eighth Doctor, and there’s a sheer joy to what could have been as he interacts with the Shalka Doctor. I manifests enough Doctor-esque qualities it’s easy to see why McGann was cast: his pacifism, telling Withnail not to “point guns at people”, avoidance of drugs, humanity, introspection. Even Withnail and I’s wardrobes carry a Doctor-esque quality, from Withnail’s long coat and scarf to I’s leather jacket. Yet for all of its problematic invoking of queer stereotypes, Withnail & I remains a wonderful, instantly quotable experience, a cult film for all the right reasons.
It’s remarkable one of the most influential films of the past two decades was directed by two trans women, earning $450 million against its $60 million budget. Celebrating the achievement of Patty Jenkins obscures the major financial success of The Matrix, or high profile female directors like Kathryn Bigelow. In a male-dominated industry, Hollywood gave the Wachowski sisters power because they passed as male, but they have struggled with their gender identities since childhood.
Keanu Reeves, embodying queerness in My Own Private Idaho (1991), masculine action hero who gets the girl in Speed (1994), becomes our audience avatar as programmer Neo, because the audience is assumed to be male. But the Wachowski sisters explore queer themes in films like their debut neo-noir Bound (1996), shot on a $6 million budget, or Cloud Atlas (2012), splitting the soul between hundreds of worlds and bodies, although problematic in its gender and racial fluidity; while including trans characters like Nomi in Sense8 (2015-present).
Many trans writers have interpreted The Matrix as a trans narrative. E.A. Lockhart reflects that “life early in transition felt a lot like being Neo”, finding solace knowing the Wachowskis went through a similar process. Marcy Cook argues The Matrix is “Lana’s (and maybe Lilly’s) soul laid bare” as “the most successful transgender-focused movie ever made”, through dualities between the dream world and the real world. For Cook, Neo and Thomas Anderson represent two identities, asserting his identity as Neo “in defiance of death”. As she argues, “trans people are always playing two roles” between societal expectations and relationships between friends, family and coworkers. Cook positions Morpheus as the “transgender elder”, guiding Neo’s fate between the red and blue pill without making the choice for him.
The Matrix is never an explicitly trans narrative; the only time the word ‘trans’ appears is as prefix in computer code. Yet signs are there. The Wachowskis create Cronenbergian body horror as the Bug forcefully probes Neo’s stomach during his interrogation, reflecting a sense of bodily dysphoria. As an emaciated body within a vat, unable to speak, Cook argues Neo represents transitioning through HRT and surgery. Through androgynous characters like Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) and Switch, the Wachowskis challenge expectations around masculinity and femininity. As Neo tells Trinity, “I thought you were a guy!”; she retorts that “most guys do”.
With its challenging of gender expectations, The Matrix is the late 90s. It’s about as 90s as Sandstorm, from black leather jackets to a grunge soundtrack, mixing Marilyn Manson, Prodigy, Rage Against the Machine and Rammstein.
The early 90s, like the 80s, is becoming nostalgic, from clothing to aesthetics, resurrecting Power Rangers (2017) and series like Fuller House (2016-present). Yet, as someone growing up with late 90s and early 00s culture, it’s off limits. The late 90s isn’t cool.
The late 90s represent crossroads between two centuries and millennia. As we look through the TV set in the Construct at the society we are, the destiny of the red and blue pill is ultimately a question of where we have come so far, and where society goes from here. Our crossroads isn’t merely between 1999 and 2000, but 2199. Just as The War of the Worlds (1898) looked towards the growing global conflict of the oncoming century, The Matrix embodies contemporary anxieties. In retrospect, we see the society arising out of this: the post-9/11 world of an altered global outlook with new online fears. Neo jumps between two buildings, falling to the ground perfectly unscathed. A building explodes in a fireball; this isn’t controversial. In the lobby shootout, Neo and Trinity pass through security guards with guns, but remain heroes, not anti-American terrorists.
As Todd McCarthy, David Thompson and John Powers argue on the film’s critic commentary, Neo represents a ‘slacker’ archetype: an ordinary (white) guy, working in an office cubicle for Metacortex, alienated from society, dishevelled and skinny. Neo isn’t so far apart from the disillusionment of Tyler Durden in Fight Club the same year, embodying anti-consumerist disenfranchisement:
You’re not your job. You’re not how much money you have in the bank. You’re not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You’re not your fucking khakis.
As Carrie-Ann Moss describes in an interview in The Matrix Revisited (2001), the film reflects a “sense of wanting to be free, of not wanting to be controlled, to fight the norm, or to fight people telling you how things should be”. The Matrix positions itself as social critique in opposition to the modern world of capitalism, deregulation and population growth. Neo walks through crowds caught in a trance in the final scene, awoken. Agent Smith wants to rebuild the world as a better one, at the peak of civilisation, dismissing the notion of a perfect world, reflecting a search for a new American identity. Trans writers have suggested these anti-establishment feelings also reflect the trans experience: Neo escapes the institutional system of oppression built upon erasure, bathroom bills and medical gatekeeping. In her speech as recipient of the HRC Visibility Award, Lana Wachowski spoke of her experience of institutional control:
In Catholic school the girls wear skirts, the boys play pants. I am told I have to cut my hair. I want to play Four Square with the girls but now I’m one of them — I’m one of the boys. Early on I am told to get in line after a morning bell, girls in one line, boys in another.
Yet 1999 signals another societal shift: the internet. The Matrix is not so much about the internet as we understand it today, but the Internet, capital I. From the opening sequence, juxtaposing the green computer code of the Matrix against the Warner Bros logo, signals we’re in for something radical, looking to the future. In part, it acts as a manifesto in line with other cyber and techno-utopians around this era. In his closing monologue, Neo declares the rise of “a world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries” where “anything is possible”. John Perry Barlow’s 1996 Declaration for the Independence of Cyberspace isn’t so different, declaring “cyberspace does not lie within [governments’] borders”. Theorists like Manuel Castells, in his Information Age trilogy (1996-98), began to grapple with the implications of the internet as a separate realm of existence, whilst films like Ghost in the Shell (1995) and Pi (1998) posed similar questions.
The Matrix’s world is transitional. Its bulky, white shell computer monitors with Matrix code evoke the green monochrome displays of the 80s. Our world is tangible: the cellphones are Nokias, Neo has a landline, the internet isn’t everywhere. On the Nebuchadnezzar, concept designer Geofrey Darrow sought to create a dirty and used world made of detritus, in opposition to the stainless steel worlds of sci-fi: an almost post-internet world. When Neo is silenced by the agents, his gooey mouth sewed shut, relates an era where this was an existential question, where verbal communication was our primary form of contact, without anyone to instant message. For Marcy Cook, this represents a sense of “yelling into the void”, when trans people were “unable to defend” themselves, before the internet allowed for greater trans awareness and the growth of online communities.
We approach the internet through the backend, within infrastructure as we witness the déjà vu of glitches in the Matrix. Neo, as a hacker, has a modern analogue in luminaries like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, or angry trolls on message boards, locked within his messy bedroom. But the internet is evolving into an internet of experiences. From Wi-Fi in cafes to Pokémon Go to transmedia technology, digital augmentation creates an internet not as a separate realm as The Matrix presupposes, but embedded as an extension of our environments and senses. Through VR and 360 videos, the internet opens questions around posthumanism and transhumanism.
In part, The Matrix builds upon existing science fiction tropes. Its post-apocalyptic dystopia is not worlds apart from The Terminator (1984), whilst the journey in the Nebuchadnezzar feels like the Millennium Falcon. Grounding its science fiction in theory, the Wachowskis asked Keanu Reeves to read books, handing him copies of Simulacra and Simulation, Out of Control and Evolutionary Psychology, asking philosophical questions. As Reeves comments in The Matrix Revisited, “[y]ou can get meaning out of anything. You can make that reason whatever you want.” For Baudrillard, reality has become hyperreal, a fairy tale, where simulations of reality – our consumer culture – have become more real than reality itself.
In its science fiction worldbuilding, The Matrix expanded beyond its trilogy into videogames, graphic novels and online content, becoming what Henry Jenkins describes in Convergence Culture (2006) as “entertainment for the age of media convergence”, creating a “horizontally integrated” form of narrative storytelling ensuring “consumer loyalty”. Franchises like Star Wars, through the Lucasfilm Story Group, have become more transmedia than ever, collaborating ideas and connecting elements between Rebels, The Clone Wars, its novels and Rogue One (2016), requiring wider knowledge.
The Matrix goes beyond science fiction, combining an intertextuality of elements from heist films, martial arts, John Woo-esque action, anime, videogames; creating a Moebius-esque vastness of worlds, and FBI-esque agents straight out of the 1960s. The Wachowskis enlisted Yuen Woo-ping, legend of Asian cinema for films like Drunken Master (1978), as stunt coordinator. As Jenkins argues, the Wachowski sisters “positioned themselves as oracles”, offering fans “cryptic comments”, allowing them to deconstruct the film’s allusions for themselves. In the film’s opening tease, we follow Trinity as central protagonist fighting cops, in martial arts formation as ‘the eagle’, running sideways across a wall. As Patrick H Willems deconstructs in his video essay How to Begin a Movie, this scene plays off of noir elements through chiaroscuro, vertical lines and shadows, while utilising superhero powers as she jumps between roofs and through windows.
Yet The Matrix is radical in another area: CGI. The late 90s and early 00s are filled with CGI that look like a bad hangover today, from Naboo in The Phantom Menace (1999) to Garfield in the real world in Garfield (2004), before the photorealism of Grand Moff Tarkin, or CGI existing entirely unnoticed. From its anime-esque bullet time, cellphones falling from hundreds of stories, sentinels, electricity, fire, or morphing in the telephone booth, The Matrix told its story as spectacle, becoming part of its aesthetic through the advancements of digital editing. From liquid mirrors made of mercury, to reflections within warping spoons, The Matrix pushed the envelope, yet still used practical effects to ground itself within reality, like the animatronic baby in one sequence.
The Matrix questions what can be done within the cinematic medium, simultaneously questioning our notions of reality. Delving into dream worlds, The Matrix questions human experience and how we ascribe meaning. As far back as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1978), science fiction attempted to grapple with the construction of our own world. But this is a real field of study. In 2016, tech entrepreneur Elon Musk became viral for suggesting our own existence is a simulation, based on our shift from “pong, two rectangles and a dot” to “photorealistic 3D simulations with millions of people playing simultaneously”.
Subverting the tropes of the cyberpunk movement, The Matrix ascribes our own world as the fake world. Driving through Chinatown, we see the inauthenticity: using Hitchcockian rear-screen projection in the car, the world becomes dreamy, defocused with saturated colours. The Wachowski sisters shift the colour timing of each scene between green and blue, drawing a visual duality between the real world and the matrix.
Neo, like us, has experienced the matrix from birth, seeing it as organic. Reality is a sensory experience. As Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) tells Neo, “real is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain”. Cypher eats a steak, knowing full well the steak is not real. On the Nebuchadnezzar, their goopy food attempts to recreate the taste of chicken. Taste buds can be manipulated. The film’s mantra of “this is a spoon” evokes The Treachery of Images (1929): representation, not reality.
Morpheus questions Neo’s disavowal of fate, fearing “not [being] in control of my life”. Yet we aren’t in control: every time we say the wrong thing, drop a pen, do something on instinct, our minds and bodies betray us. Free will scarcely exists. Or, as Marcy Cook argues, not being in control is the “central theme in becoming transgender”, a remolding of existence whilst “fighting your birth” and societal expectations.
Philosophy, as universal thought, can be found in every text, from choices a character makes to fate and destiny. TheMatrix immerses itself within it, calling upon the thought experiments of Nozick’s experience machine and Plato’s allegory of the cave, given visual representation. Reality is constructed, from societal expectations, to laws of governance, aspirations and dreams, fashions and incomes. Though we debate universal laws, nothing, or very little, is pre-ordained, varying between different cultures. As Edward Soja argues, physical spaces contain a thirdspace – a real-and-imagined space – built upon materiality and semiotics, political discourses and lived dimensions. Nothing is real, beyond reality itself.
At its core, The Matrix is an exploration of identity. Though the film may play a kiss between Neo and Trinity, it is not a love story. We never follow Neo as he attempts to woo her, or becomes caught in an awkward romantic comedy. The narrative arc is internal. Neo may become a modern messiah, with a prophecy and mythos behind him as saviour, yet these are not the abstract struggles of Jesus, they are our own. Neo loses his identity on the Nebuchadnezzar, placed in identical clothing, yet he never had it in the first place.
Nearly twenty years after its release, we might question whether The Matrix still holds its power. Its CGI, soundtrack and radical aesthetic are horrifically outdated, its genre-bending becoming subsumed in wider pop culture, numerous other science fiction franchises taking its place. As the internet is caught in a frenzy over the notion of making a reboot or sequel or spin-off, there are still stories that could be told. Through the John Wick series (2014-present), Keanu Reeves has become a badass and household name once more, teaming up with stunt double-turned-director Chad Stahelski and Fishburne. Yet The Matrix remains a powerful, multi-layered form of filmmaking, and spectacle.
Following the abstract jitterbug sequence, Mulholland Drive begins its narrative in full force with a road at night. Rita (Laura Elena Harring) is driven through in a limousine, involved in a collision. Mulholland Drive becomes a place of encounter, forming duality between the Valley and Hollywood. As Lynch describes in an interview with Filmmaker magazine:
[I]t’s a mysterious road. It’s rural in many places. It’s curvy, it’s two lanes, it feels old. It was built long ago, and it hasn’t changed too much. And at night, you ride on top of the world. In the daytime you ride on top of the world too, but it’s mysterious, and there’s a hair of fear because it goes into remote areas. You feel the history of Hollywood in that road.
Mulholland Drive, like so many others, is a film about Los Angeles, and about Hollywood. Lynch drew major inspiration from Sunset Boulevard (1950), a film “about Hollywood, but not the whole truth of Hollywood”. In more recent films like La La Land and The Neon Demon (2016), we see the more sinister side of LA’s industry, through Mia’s unsuccessful auditions or Jesse confronting the manipulated, commodified female body. LA is a symbol of a lifestyle and industry.
Lynch injects the city with a sinister character. At night, we see its underworld: its homeless, its lights, the underground Club Silencio. Evoking Koyaanisqatsi (1984), Lynch establishes the city in slow-moving aerial shots, seeing the illusion and anachronism of Hollywood. Until the rise of the studio system in the 1910s and 1920s, the centre of the film industry had been France. Like Las Vegas, Hollywood has constructed a mystique of celebrity and hedonism, but it’s all for show. We see the artifice of sets, turning a recording studio into a four-walled backdrop framed by lights and personnel. Betty (Naomi Watts) asks Rita to show her a tour of the real Hollywood. But there is no real Hollywood – expensive condos, stars on the Walk of Fame, the Chinese Theater – simultaneously tourist destination and label for big budget industry and aesthetic.
Lynch has lived in Los Angeles since his five-year process of producing Eraserhead (1977), yet speaking to NYRock, he rejects the notion of being a part of the Hollywood system. Eraserhead was largely made with funding from the AFI, whilst films like Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992), Lost Highway (1997) and Mulholland Drive exist thanks to funding from MK2 and Canal+.
But this has never been a hindrance to Lynch. As we see in The Art Life (2016), Lynch is primarily an artist, feeling a “creative feeling” of “freedom” in LA. Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux), a director experiencing difficulties communicating his vision for The Sylvia North Story (2003), may feel like a Lynch analogue, yet Gordon Cole (as Lynch himself) and Agent Cooper speak to his quirkiness more. Mulholland Drive presents Hollywood as business, with suitcases and backroom deals; Mr. Roque (Michael J. Anderson) watches over as a man in the shadows.
Betty’s actress dream carries artificiality. Arriving at the airport with Irene, moving from Deep River, Ontario, her happiness as Irene enthuses she’ll be watching for her “on the big screen!” carries inauthenticity and naiveté. On the escalator, they pass an idealised painting of the city. In the taxi, Irene and her husband look to each other and smile, laughter given a sinister edge as the camera lingers almost too long.
Auditioning for a role, Betty constructs a persona. Lynch opens on her and Rita rehearsing a script they openly acknowledge as a series of clichés, threatening Rita with a dinner knife. In its intensity, Lynch frames this sequence as though it were a real domestic argument between the two, fooling the audience with the artificiality of cinema. To find reality between actor and character becomes compounded.
Wally’s film is a passion project of the old guard, making his first film in 20 years, rather than celebrating new voices. Betty re-performs her scene, recontextualised from lesbian femininity to male privilege. Woody, performing the role of Chuck, manipulates Betty, using acting as an excuse to gratify his own needs. Betty plays to this, heightening the sexuality whilst delivering words between kisses, eliciting the casting director’s glee. Betty succeeds in Hollywood because she is sexual.
The studio mandates the actress be recast for The Sylvia North Story, judging acting ability through a mere still photograph. As a director, Adam elicits Camilla, turning his star into a wife-to-be, using his directorial power to overstep boundaries to teach her how to kiss an actor on set.
Alongside his explorations of female identity with Dorothy in Blue Velvet(1986) and Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks (1990-91), Lynch uses Mulholland Drive to explore the contradictions of female identity. Identity formation is universal: how we perceive our identity comes from our influences and situation. Betty and Rita carry a duality between two personalities of existence, mirrored by Diane and Camilla later on. Rita is introduced as a blank slate and femme fatale, suffering amnesia following the car crash. Like with Vertigo (1958) and Phoenix (2014), where the male character constructs their idealised woman, Mulholland Drive concerns itself with the oscillation of female form through the figure of Diane Selwyn, actress and waitress.
Lynch’s women are anachronistic, creating a Los Angeles out of time. As Lynch relates to Chris Rodley, LA still carries a sense of “the old golden age”. Like our own lives, the present is “elusive”, with “opportunities to relive the past.” In a noir-ish sensibility, Rita adopts her persona after a poster of Gilda (1946), constructing a red dress out of a pair of towels. In The Shawshank Redemption (1994), Rita Hayworth is a sex symbol and something to live for whilst in prison. Yet Gilda exhibits power over her sexuality, in command of her cigarette.
Inescapable from female identity is female sexuality. In Fire Walk with Me, Lynch creates a tragic portrait of teenage sexual abuse, whilst Blue Velvet tackles male dominance and BDSM, yet falls victim to the male gaze. In her essay Desire, Outcast: Locating Queer Adolescence, Clara Bradbury-Rance compares Mulholland Drive to the psychosexuality of Black Swan (2010), through its “sensationalized episodes of lesbian sex” signifying a “climactic transition point from innocence to experience or from disorientation to identity”. Sexuality, in other words, becomes a plot device to coming of age. Betty and Rita’s sexuality never feels authentic, but performance; fallen into it in a moment of ecstasy, with no chemistry beforehand.
As Diane tearfully masturbates, Lynch tries to create a reality of sexuality. Yet where Lynch presents Diane as scorned lover, caught between the conflict of heterosexual marriage, it will never carry the power of the marital conflict of Carol (2015), written by a lesbian and directed by a gay man, Todd Haynes. Lynch’s lesbian sexuality is rarely titillating, yet feels as much a shallow aesthetic as Park Chan-wook’s idealised, painting-esque scissoring and cunnilingus in The Handmaiden (2016), another exploration of paradoxical mistaken female identities. Yet even Park attempts to question his own gaze.
Starting life as a TV pilot for ABC, in spite of its technical and thematic brilliance, Mulholland Drive still carries traces of the television format, feeling like Twin Peaks transposed to Los Angeles. The film is not so much a reimagining but expansion; most of the footage compiled for the 1999 pilot became the finished film. Though Twin Peaks is celebrated today, with a thriving fan culture and Showtime revival, it became met derisively following the reveal of Laura Palmer’s murderer, dropping from 20 to 5 million viewers. As a 1999 New Yorker article documents, although ABC conceived Mulholland Drive as event television and an antidote to the “plethora of sameness”, Lynch became met with setbacks through every stage of production, befuddling executives with the show’s ambiguities.
Whilst admiring the deep worlds and stories of soap operas, Lynch questioned the passivity of television. Executives questioned the age of his leads, whilst wanting to sanitise it of its language, violence, dog shit and cigarette smoking, at odds with desires for accessibility and commerciality, edited down to what Lynch described as a “sad, bad traffic accident”. The network scored the pilot a 3/10.
Though Twin Peaks’ narrative asides may have been criticised by both cast and viewers in the latter half of Season 2, Mulholland Drive’s side-narratives breathe life as an act of worldbuilding, creating an LA larger than the one we know. As Dan and Herb discuss business in Winkie’s on Sunset Blvd, it not only recalls the Double R Diner of Twin Peaks, but the diner sequence of Pulp Fiction (1994). Adam’s marital conflicts, forced out of his house by his wife as he discovers her with another lover, bathing her jewellery in paint in retaliation, adds little to our understanding of Adam as a character, yet its irreverence builds the film. As Joe and Ed attempt to murder Camilla, shooting a woman in the other room, a janitor, vacuum cleaner and blowing an electrical outlet in the process, the film devolves into a comedy of errors akin to the Coen brothers’ Fargo (1996).
Yet Lynch sees no disconnect between these genres. As he describes to NYRock:
[Y]ou’re laughing in the morning and crying in the afternoon, and there’s a strange event after lunch. It’s just the way [life] is.
But the connections go deeper. The surreality of the cowboy prophesising, asking Adam who drives the buggy, is akin to the Log Lady. Mr. Roque isn’t so far removed from Anderson’s other infamous character, the Man from Another Place. Coco feels like an eccentric recurring character. As Dan reveals the fear of his “half-night” dreams of a man round the back of Winkie’s, it recalls Agent Cooper’s prescience of Laura Palmer’s death in Fire Walk with Me. As H. Perry Horton theorises in Film School Rejects, Club Silencio is the Black Lodge – noting the red curtains and an uncredited Sheryl Lee cameo.
Perhaps the greatest parallel is its lack of narrative finality. The blue key to the box is Lynch’s season hook; like with Laura Palmer, Lynch never knew who the murderer was until well into production. Speaking to Filmmaker, Lynch describes reformatting a close-ended narrative as a “beautiful experience”, as the ideas “came out of a kind of darkness and made themselves known.” Lynch’s infinite loop, playing in two halves and persuading the viewer to watch once more like a Groundhog Day (1993) gone awry, reminds us of another 2001 film, Donnie Darko, where time is manipulated beyond narrative comprehension. Twin Peaks continues to ask questions; when we become immersed in the Black Lodge at the end of Season 2, or the garmonbozia in Fire Walk with Me, Lynch doesn’t give answers, but questions. Lynch offers elusiveness; like life, we have no answers.
As Lynch tells Filmmaker, “a mystery is one of the most beautiful things in the world”; like a Hitchcockian detective story, he appeals to our intuition, as our mind constructs its own version of events, rejecting a singular audience experience. Like the red curtains of the performance stage of Club Silencio, Lynch sees the physical setting of the theater as an experience to immerse oneself in.
Through Club Silencio and Angelo Badalamenti as composer, Lynch reminds us of the power of music. As he describes to Filmmaker, film is music, with its own melodies and harmonies. Rebekah Del Rio’s Spanish-language performance of Crying in Club Silencio’s cabaret show is shattering, as beautiful and as haunting as In Heaven in Eraserhead or Isabella Rossellini and Julee Cruise’s stage performances in Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks. Just like cinema, music is revealed as a facile construction; there is no band. Yet even when the trick is revealed, it loses none of its power. As Adam Nayman describes in Little White Lies, Mulholland Drive “inhabits its chosen medium while reminding us how ephemeral it is in the end”.
With the revival of Twin Peaks, Lynch’s earlier works have a chance to reach new audiences. Mulholland Drive has been highly celebrated as one of the greatest films of the 21st century. These determinations always seem a little too far for me, forgetting far more radical or affecting films. Yet Mulholland Drive remains powerful viewing, an essential part of Lynch’s canon.
Universal seem to be undergoing a horror renaissance, thanks to some surprising hits by Blumhouse – Split, a not terrible M Night Shyamalan film, whilst Get Out, produced on a budget of $5 million and making over $150 million at the box office, has shown issues of race and privilege can be explored to large audiences. Where other studios rely on tentpoles, Universal latches on to other voices, like Andrea Arnold and Jeff Nichols, and, apparently, a French film from a first-time director, shown in Cineworlds across the country. Perhaps the horror film, in light of other international hits like Ringu (1998), is best at crossing cultural boundaries.
Raw is many things – a horror film, cannibalism film, coming of age film. Cinema struggles to depict university experience, presented as continuum, identical to adult life or high school life, rarely occupying a space in-between. In Boyhood (2014), university represents optimism as an endpoint to youth, whilst in Starter for 10 (2006), the conflict of university is reduced to a TV gameshow. Meanwhile, the CW teenager exists as unrealistically hot or unrealistically sexual, having experiences most people in their 20s never have. But university is complex, a period of identity formation and personal growth. Through first year, my entire self changed: changing priorities and interests, new bonds; I came to terms with my asexuality and, unlike Justine’s journey, I stopped eating meat. But I had to go through a lot of shit to get there. Raw reveals university for what it actually is: institutionalised initiations and hazings, used to justify physical harm and sexual assault; freshers pressured with alcohol and sexuality and no choice but to conform, whilst lecturers openly favour certain students whilst disregarding others.
The veterinary school of Raw is a construct: as she tells Little White Lies, Ducournau sought the concrete, brutalist image of the major campuses of American universities than French campuses. The film seeps of style: bloodbaths, paint-drenched sex, parties in abandoned buildings, neon clubbing, an electro soundtrack. Ducournau uses long takes, throwing the audience into a car crash on a road or the campus’ students walking around early in their PJs with little prior context. Yet Raw carries a degree of authenticity: Ducournau is a young, first time director, not someone twice her age looking back nostalgically. Garance Marillier brings youth to Justine: cast into the unknown, about to graduate high school and go to college herself, unable to invoke personal experience.
Ducournau speaks to a specific experience: a female perspective, reclaiming the dudebro masculinity of films like Animal House (1978). For Ducournau, to invoke the female gaze is an “instant reflex”; unlike the rape scenes of Elle, where female sexuality is presented through male perspective. Raw is filled with naked bodies: Justine’s underwear, her naked chest as her body is under attack by a rash, showering, pissing on the roof with Alexia; the casual freedom of clubbing, as bodies become more exposed. But Ducournau refuses to titillate, avoiding the eroticism of Brian De Palma. In one scene, Justine, adorned with dress and lipstick, makes out with her own reflection, as we hear the lyrics:
First seduction lesson:
Be an educated slut
Make fun of boys
Ride ‘em like horses
Find oral sex amusing
Just don’t call it
But when it comes down to it:
Be the best at it!
As Ducournau points out in a Q&A with the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the song is by feminist sisters Orties, taking clichés of rap and “mak[ing] it their own”, treating men the way “men talk about women”. In a broader sense, Raw does the same. Justine undergoes rites of passage, entering the film virginal and innocent, having never eaten flesh, or tasted human flesh; she’s even smoking cigarettes by the end. As Ducournau acknowledges to Little White Lies, “losing your virginity is unfortunately always associated with something very sacred, very important.” Sexuality never becomes romantic, grounded in friendships and needs, animalistic as extension of cannibalistic desire. When Justine is pressured to fuck a stranger during a party, we see her hesitation. Ducournau abstracts this sexuality, bathing both in yellow and green paint as though it were an experimental art piece, yet speaks to the reality of our culture of coercion.
Justine’s cannibalistic relationship with her sister Alexia feels like a trope, evoking the vampiric sisterhood of Byzantium (2013), the lesbianism of Carmilla (1872), or as Ducournau points out in a Q&A, the classical sibling rivalries of Biblical stories and Grecian myths. We don’t learn their relationship immediately: we’re introduced to Justine in the car with her parents, deploying information gradually before learning of Alexia’s cannibalism. Indeed, Alexia wasn’t Justine’s sister within early drafts, yet sisterhood brings an unconditional blood bond beyond expositional friendship conflicts, with a lifelong history to a time before.
Alexia, as older student and sibling, pressures Justine to conform: follow hazing rituals, go clubbing, drink heavily, have sex. Alexia encourages Justine to perform to the male gaze: she can’t just wear jeans and a t-shirt, must wear a dress, bathe herself in make-up, “Brazilian” any sign of vaginal hair. In the process of transformation to cannibalism, Justine asserts her sexual autonomy: it’s her vagina, not to be circumcised, slicing off Alexia’s finger with a pair of scissors in the process.
Justine’s relationship with her roommate Adrien is more complex, complicated by his friendship with Alexia. Adrien introduces himself to Justine with his homosexuality, using university as his sexual liberation after twenty years in the closet; within minutes of his introduction, he’s making out with a dude whilst clubbing. Later, Justine returns home at night, walking in on Adrien receiving oral. But this isn’t treated as a joke; Justine closes the door, as he whimpers on, still tempted to listen in.
Ducournau invokes Adrien as an identifying character that refuses a heteronormative male gaze, disallowing us a proxy for sexual gaze to Justine’s sexuality. As she points out in the Q&A, were Adrien presented as heterosexual, the viewer would perceive a sexual tension within their relationship. Justine and Adrien do have sex, highlighting the complicated nature of their relationship and perceptions around homosexuality: flexible, or as though it doesn’t “count” because he lacks attraction. But needs and desires transcend genders, identities and labels, just as asexuals can have sex without attraction. Adrien jerks off to porn, then makes a mistake to satisfy her needs over his own. Where does friendship begin and sexuality end? Justine becomes enraptured by sex, whilst Adrien repeatedly tells her to stop, explaining his issues to her the next morning in class.
To have sexuality this complicated is refreshing. My sexual identity in first year seems completely apart from my identity now: questioning my homosexuality and attraction to other genders; feeling obligated to have sex, whilst dismissed for not wanting to when everyone around me seemed to be screwing; drunkenly sleeping with people I should never have seen in the first place. Adrien and Justine eventually go back to each other, because sexuality is never simple.
Using cannibalism to explore issues of female identity and sexuality draws parallels to The Neon Demon, where cannibalism acts as metaphor for how ideals of beauty (literally) eats one alive. But cannibalism inescapably ends up asking questions; in The Lost City of Z, cannibalism becomes associated with the primitivism, whilst The Hills Have Eyes(1977) invokes similar imagery. Cannibalism asks questions of where we set our socially accepted rules. If it’s okay to eat chicken eggs, why isn’t it acceptable to eat human uteruses? If animal flesh is okay, why isn’t human? Are we truly ordained by God with dominion? Justine asks similar questions based on her vegetarianism, before the upbringing constructed by her parents unravels. Her conversion is gradual: pressured into eating a raw rabbit kidney during initiation; stealing a burger from the lunch counter; eating shawarma with Adrien, as though it were the postcredits scene to The Avengers (2012).
Raw reveals the horror of life as a veterinary student, and, by extension, ethical questions of animal testing and the meat industry. Is Justine eating a human cadaver in the morgue at a party or finger food as though it were a chicken leg the real horror? Ducournau is confrontational, using long takes to reveal cows and horses treated as objects to be killed and dissected; taxidermied animals displayed in basements; the family dog put down for fear of developing a taste for human flesh.
Justine’s journey is inversion, using conversion to carnivorism as metaphor. The first time my revulsion to meat manifested, I was drunk. Sat in an unreputable fast food place past midnight with raving socialists, some film about communism in an Eastern European country playing in the background on late night television. A visceral moment and memory: eating meat without any semblance of sustenance, for the sake of eating. This was my shawarma scene, though it took me many months to decide completely.
Raw may have its share of horror tropes, like the creepy old guy in hospital the night after Alexia’s accident, yet the greatest horror comes from our own reality. Raw speaks to our realities of sexuality, university life and the animal industry where it exists within the echelons of the greatest of coming-of-age films.
Before documenting contemporary NYC life in his films Love is Strange (2014) and Little Men (2016), Ira Sachs created a portrait of New York City through the lens of the relationship between Erik and Paul, between the years 1998 to 2006. Where Linklater’s Boyhood (2014) documented the shifting stages of the heterosexual American family through the 2000s in the character of Mason, Sachs presents the shifting nature of gay American life.
By the film’s release in late 2012, the state of New York had legalised same sex marriage. Four years later, the Supreme Court ruled same sex marriage legal in all fifty states. Love is Strange was able to present this reality through an elderly couple. Keep the Lights On retraces a different era, the pre-Grindr world of phone sex, infidelity, clubbing and casual hookups; an era where queer representation in the media began to enter the mainstream, in everything from Will and Grace (1998-2006), Queer as Folk (1999-2000), Cruel Intentions (1999)to episodes of The Simpsons like Three Gays of the Condo (2003); as civil partnerships and same sex marriage began to enter the agenda as public perception shifted.
However, the film does not romanticise its era. There is no sense of the optimism and fears of cyberspace; it does not fetishise the World Trade Center (indeed, the city’s skyline is never shown); nor does it position our protagonist’s lives around the aftermath of 9/11. Bush’s name is never mentioned; American Idol doesn’t appear on any television screens. Sachs positions a timeless narrative; the era is only communicated through the film’s title cards, its cellphones and its iMacs. Shot on 16mm, its visual style removes the late 90s and early 00s from its clean, digital HD aesthetic, in favour of physical film that recalls the imperfect images of the underground gay cinema of the 60s-80s, in parallel to Erik exploring an underground gay artist of the mid-20th century in his documentary.
We shift from the lingering late 90s fears of HIV, only a couple of years after the height of the AIDs epidemic, to the modern face of homosexuality. Perhaps there is a sense of the autobiographical: Sachs explores the uncertainty of establishing a career in filmmaking, beginning in the late 90s (when he begun his career in film), parallel to the uncertainties of a relationship.
The relationship between Erik and Paul is never presented as something for the audience to root for; I spent the duration of the film waiting for them to break up for good. The film often incorporates sex scenes, yet they hold a narrative function. Sexuality becomes a form of procrastinating the issues within their relationship, and as a means of escape. The film’s sex scenes are neither PG-13 nor Helix Studios: the film acknowledges that pensises exist, but it also acknowledges that it is painful, and often not pleasurable. Sexuality highlights isolation: when Paul hooks up with a rent boy, as Erik sits in the other room, he decides to enter the other room and hold Paul’s hand. But Paul still lays on the bed, fucked by and making out with the rent boy. In an earlier scene, Paul decides to sleep in a separate bed, as Erik forces them to share a bed.
This is not an idealised gay romance of monogamy, with a sprinkling of formulaic melodrama; it is a realistic one. It takes Erik and Paul nine years to realise that romantic, physical intimacy can transcend sexual intimacy; yet soon after, he encounters Igor in the streets of New York, and they decide on a dinner date. Erik and Paul’s relationship exists as a fluctuating thing, before eventually deciding they need real time apart.
As Erik struggles to find stability within the eternally early stages of his relationship, his friend Claire faces the instabilities of the heterosexual world. On the surface, she faces stability: a house and a partner, as Erik becomes more and more detached from his own flat, instead often being defined by the flats of other men. But she also faces anxiety around the ticking body clock of maternity, pressuring Erik to take on a role as a surrogate father.
Keep the Lights On is not the height of queer cinema. Looking forward, another film around the issues gay men face feel rote, in the face of bi-erasure, trans narrative relegated to cis narratives, and the near non-existence of asexual or non-binary representation. Yet it takes a strong place within the canon of Ira Sachs’ films as a promising work.
C.R.A.Z.Y.‘s DVD cover casts Zac as Ziggy Stardust, yet the film left me with more of a taste to listen to Patsy Cline than David Bowie. As much as it wants to sell itself on its soundtrack, it’s hardly a rock opera with a standout soundtrack.
In a world where Peccadillo Pictures releases a billion trillion queer films, there feels something rote about the film’s narrative. Zac’s father is homophobic, resistant to his son ever being considered a “fag”, obsessed with masculinity and rejecting Zac ever taking on a more motherly role – something he essentially confirms for himself based on small identifiers when he is as young as 7. Later, he kicks Zac out of the house, talking about how disgusting gay sex is, and sends him to a shrink. What’s interesting is a few twists to the cliche: Zac’s mother is defensive, whilst Zac’s father is somewhat nuanced. In one scene, Zac’s parents discuss the possibility their son might be gay, following his sexual encounter with a classmate. Zac’s mother retorts about how she had anal sex many years ago, and not just once. “It’s not the same thing.”
Zac rejects the label, talking to a shrink (who tells him that this was his subliminal way of telling his father that he is gay). But this falls into another cliche trap:
*does something gay*
“I’m not gay”
*compensates by making out with Michelle*
*does something gay*
*compensates by beating up the boy he jerked up with*
*does something gay*
Labelled as a fag, he listens to Bowie, in a scene that seems straight out of Velvet Goldmine (1998). He ends up dating Michelle over several years; a refusal of his gay identity, or an embracement of bisexuality, or rejecting the notion that certain signifiers (even sexual experimentation) denote sexuality.
Yet often it feels like such a generic queer coming of age story, laced with every trope you would expect. There are so many coming out stories out there; I cannot project myself onto Zac with his coming out narrative and crowded household, nor can I project myself onto his nostalgic 1970s influences. I’m left being like “well, his stoner brother has kind of a cute beard”.
Zac is a chameleon of influences, and the mirroring his childhood and his teenagehood and young adulthood quite a lot, most obviously through the unsolved mystery of the father’s broken Patsy Cline record. He listens to records like his father; smokes cigarettes like his brother did when he was a child, adopting a rebellious, masculine image; wears a cross like his mother, not out of faith but out of an anarchistic aesthetic; adopts a haircut like Paul’s because he has a massive crush on him. He practices kung-fu moves like Bruce Lee, and covers his bedroom in posters of Bowie.
But whilst the mirroring of childhood is a strong aspect of the film, the scenes set during his childhood are also the weakest part. Half an hour feels like an eternity, before awkwardly transitioning from his childhood self pissing the bed into a 15 year old Zac. His rejection of Christianity because, contrary to his prayers, he pissed the bed, becomes the formation of his teenage self. This should play as genius comedy, but instead is just incredibly bizarre. Rather than a far less compelling version of Boyhood (2014), the film’s viewpoint should have been teenage Zac, communicating the same information in shorter exposition.
Zac exists within a stylised world, where he can float between the church and a Christmas party in one cut, and dub the choir with Sympathy for the Devil. The stylised world can work, like how Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010) removes us from the laws of physics, but C.R.A.Z.Y. is unable to find a balance between serious drama, lighter scenes and Zac’s sense of himself as a dreamer with all the power in the world. Where CGI smoke rings fly towards the moon, or a playground fight is played in fast motion, the film screams the mid-00s, not the mid-70s.
The film’s oddest aspect is its exploration of faith. An exploration of sexuality juxtaposed against an exploration of faith and spirituality could be a very interesting one, but what is executed here just seems bizarre. Zac is essentially the Chosen One, which seems appropriate, given that Hayden Christensen is Canadian himself. Born on the same day as Jesus, his mother expects him to use his great powers to save the Jedi Order, or rather, heal those in need in times of pain. He walks through the deserts of Tatooine, feeling a bond with his mother through the force.
Zac rejects religion as an atheist, but makes bets with God to see if he can make the crossing when the light is red, and make the snowstorm when he could easily get hypothermia. This ‘Chosen One’ mythos feels so unnatural, though his mother’s sentiment at times does feel natural. He still respects his mother’s faith, going to Mass every Christmas with them, and gifting her a book about Jerusalem. But when he goes to Jerusalem himself, it feels odder. We’re never given a clear reason as to why he makes this journey, besides curiosity and to please his mom. He ends up in the gay scene, meeting a man who simultaneously looks both suspiciously like Jim Morrison and like the Anglicised image of Jesus, speaking in English. Jesus walks alongside Zac, appearing to him in the desert as he treks into the abyss, without water, in a journey that makes little sense.
How this has 100% on Rotten Tomatoes is fucking C.R.A.Z.Y.
Dog Day Afternoon is a masterpiece. As my first Lumet film, is it too early to coin it his magnum opus?
The story of the bank heist has been told a billion times; the premise could be told as a five minute montage. In Snatch (2000), bumbling fools enter a bank, find creative ways out of their situation, and end up in jail anyway. But instead of playing the scenario for comedy, this film creates serious drama and an exploration of psychology and sexuality, with the calculating moves of a police procedural. Sequences run for as long as they need to, teeming with moments of silence, yet simultaneously not running for too long. During the editing process, Lumet told his editors to put material back in the film in order to improve the pacing. There’s a sense of breathing room. Because in reality, these events cannot be tied up in five minutes.
The situation is in flux, with no clear outcome. Is a character going to shoot? Will Sonny’s demands be met? Are the civilians going to be alright? Neither the bank clerk nor the cop nor the driver know if they are going to survive that day.
Is there an authenticity to the film? Whilst based on real life events, much of it was fictionalised (including character names). Wojtowicz refused to meet with the screenwriter, and Sonny was instead constructed from other people’s recollections. Yet the narrative is formed around Sonny as the focal character, where the entire film exists because of the situation he is in. The film presents real life events in close to real time, with a documentary-esque camera. It doesn’t need to purport to be a mockumentary, or use the one-shot real time narrative used recently by films such as Victoria (2015); that would feel too constructed and gimmicky, rather than true to life. Manipulation of space is limited: where we leave one location in physical form, we move to a few blocks away, yet it still has a presence within the TV set in Sonny’s family’s home.
There’s a real sense of chaos. The police, the mob, the hostages and the gunmen interact, yet without a notion of black and white. Al Pacino previously played the other side of the law as a cop in Lumet’s Serpico (1973); here, he embodies the criminal as Sonny. Sonny is not a monster. Misguided and mentally ill, perhaps. Through his negotiations and concessions with the bank manager and the police chief, they are able to find common ground: a wife and two kids. He isn’t overtly villainous, he’s complex; a good, Catholic person, venerated Vietnam vet and a pacifist (he raises a white flag and consistently checks for guns), placed within a bad situation. He can have fun with a blank teller, teaching her how to stand with his gun. In every other situation, Sonny could be the hero. He’s kind – and only reacts with fury when provoked by the mob and by the police acting upon their instincts.
A person in the mob raises his middle finger, and the police immediately jump on him. A couple of scenes later, the police arrest a man who fights with Sonny, alongside a handful of other people in the crowd too – the mob mentality. There’s an irony that the unarmed are seen as more dangerous as the armed. Sonny is treated with sympathy; the crowd are treated with suspicion. But the same is true of the ‘gang’ of Sonny and Sal. Grossly unequal: one with the gun and mentally sound, the other the complete opposite. Yet as soon as Sal shoots, they are seen as equals, despite Sonny only ever firing one bullet and hurting no-one.
Sgt. Moretti remains so composed throughout the film I’m impressed, keeping with Sonny’s increasingly ludicrous demands. Why spend the money on hiring the backup, co-ordinating airplanes and taxis when they could just as easily shoot him and save the state millions of dollars? That’s not to justify it, only to frame it. He and Sonny rely on a balancing act, and both characters remain sympathetic.
Were this story told today, Sonny would have been arrested within a minute, caught by automated locks and CCTV, shot dead on the sidewalk whilst every person in the crowd watches the tragic shooting through their phones, sharing the footage on YouTube, ready to be packaged into CNN and NBC’s news programming.
Since the film’s production, a system of glaringly obvious inequalities within the police that have come to light: Ferguson in 2014, and cases like the Hillsborough disaster and the battle of Orgreave, where police anxiety provokes unwanted arrests of comparatively peaceful crowds, or killing far too many, especially amongst racially profiled and class lines. These interactions between the police and the gathering crowd are becoming increasingly relevant. Similarly, these themes of mass media is something Lumet explores in more depth in Network (1976).
I went into this film knowing that it explores trans issues in some way, but without knowing the details – I assumed Pacino’s character might be female. But what the film actually presents us is actually more perfect.
Sonny’s actions to fund his girlfriend’s gender reassignment surgery are honourable. From trans friends, I know that two of the major issues when it comes to transitioning is a) waiting lists and b) money. Even with the NHS, transitioning isn’t free. Under the commercial, corporatised American system, it’s probably worse. Rather than an act of malice, it is an act of compassion and romance for the woman he loves. Most people probably wouldn’t be willing to rob a bank to fund their loved one’s transition; today, we have Indiegogo and other sites to deal with that. But it’s the same notion of do you allow a person in poverty to steal bread where they are starving?
The films is still problematic, reinforcing the consistent stereotype of ‘LGBT person with a mental illness’. But Sonny is so well realised, and Leon is presented as outside of it, not wanting Sonny to steal the money. She is empowered as a victim and a person in herself.
Leon is consistently misgendered, but never as part of her own identification. Sonny’s mom even uses the right pronouns for her. The cops laugh at her when she tells her story. When talking about her to other characters, they refer to her wrongly. Where the press catch wind of her compelling backstory, the headlines shift from “BANK ROBBERY” to “TWO HOMOSEXUALS IN BANK ROBBERY”. Sal asks Sonny if he can ask the press to change their headline; but he is powerless to do so in the face of a powerful media built upon stereotypes and simplified stories reduced to headlines, iconic images and pull quotes.
Sal doesn’t want to be seen as a homosexual, because he isn’t. Sonny isn’t gay, he’s married to a woman and dating a woman. It’s depressingly still relevant today, if not more relevant. Recently, there have been several instances of trans women in the UK sent to men’s prisons, misgendered by the very institutions that are supposed to protect them. In the US, Kayden Clarke was shot by police, yet major news networks, including reputable sources such as The Independent, misgendered him and focused on narratives outside the trans narrative. When Miley Cyrus came out as pansexual last year, the Daily Mail and The Mirror labelled her as bisexual, silencing her power to self-identify.
As the film progressed, I was pleasantly surprised at the strength and sensitivity of this narrative. 40 years on, The Danish Girl (2015) fails to approach the subject manner in an accurate way, but here is a film that succeeds, yet not acknowledged enough, although not without its own issues. In face of its strengths, there is Sonny’s last will and testament. He says the only woman he will ever love is his wife, and speaks of the love a man will have for another man. This raises some major questions: in the face of his support for Leon, does he view her as male? If he was introduced to her as male, does he still view it as a gay relationship?
The credits reinforce a binary distinction between ‘life as a man’ and ‘life as a woman’, talking about how Leon is now “living as a woman”. It’s a misconception that is incredibly common, and only helps to perpetuate this misconception.
Unfortunately, the film’s producers don’t help at all. The making of was a difficult watch; I cringed in pain than every time I heard the words “sex change” in lieu of “gender reassignment surgery”. Martin Bregman talks of it as a gay love story within the first minute; Sidney Lumet and Al Pacino talk about how playing a gay character could destroy Pacino’s career (Cruising (1980) didn’t do that later on either); Chris Sarandon talks about trying to not make Leon look too gay, and the relationship between a “drag queen and a gay man.” When even the film’s own creative team doesn’t understand what trans means, what hope does the audience have of understanding an issue they may not have previously been exposed to?
I’m not going to attack Lumet as a transphobe. It was brave of him to explore these issues. It was 1975, the same year that the American Psychological Association declassified homosexuality as a mental disorder. Today, most countries class being trans as a mental disorder. Whilst ignorance should not be honoured, “sex change” was the common language; it’s only in the past couple of years myself that I’ve come to understand the correct terminology through actually knowing trans people. But it doesn’t make it any less frustrating to have gender identity and sexual identity once again conflated.
Arguably, the situation has improved, with Caitlyn Jenner making the trans identity more acceptable and mainstreamed, although far from the best spokesperson; yet people like Germaine Greer remain on podiums able to reject another person’s identity. Films like About Ray (2015) continue to present the issue in the wrong light, with a cisgender creative team. Things still need to change.
Back in 2011, I watched an amazing short entitled I Don’t Want to Go Back Alone. What I didn’t know at the time was that it was a ‘proof of concept’ for a feature film. (Many films use this method – including the acclaimed Whiplash recently.) I wasn’t sure about the short being expanded into a feature. The short tells things so succinctly, in a limited space (the school, outside Leonardo’s house and inside his bedroom), with three characters and very little need for much else.
However, the film offers an opportunity to show a wider canvas of the environment Leonardo lives in, including his family, and to go into greater depth with its characters. What only existed as hints in the short or as throwaway lines of dialogue become full-fledged scenes. Many scenes are restaged from a school environment to swimming pools, drunken parties, school camping trips etc. Leonardo sneezing becomes scenes of Leonardo with a cold; Gabriel taking his shirt off becomes a nude shower scene. What was relayed in the short film through exposition (such as the scene of Leonardo introducing himself to the class, conveniently in the last minute) or montages is relayed differently.
Another element that is expanded is Leonardo’s experience as a blind teenager. He gets bullied and mocked by other kids who push him over; his parents worry for his safety. There’s a great sense of what Leonardo doesn’t see, being unaware of the events going on around him, and asking Gabriel to provide verbal audio description during a film. We get to see more of him using his walking stick, but also of him being aware of things going on through his aural senses and touch; he is not entirely blind.
Through this transformation, what was once a quaint and adorable short film about challenging representations (using a blind and queer protagonist) with ~15 year old schoolkids becomes a broader story about the end of adolescence: wanting to move away from parents and travel the world, drinking vodka for the first time, desire to be kissed. The same three actors from the short film return for their roles, but feel somewhat too old when every other teenage actor seems to be a good couple of years younger than them – Fabio Audi was around 26 when the film was in production – far more noticeable than when he was around 21/22 in 2009/10, whilst Ghilherme Lobo and Tess Amorim were around 18. But perhaps this perception comes about from being acquainted to the short film first rather than the other way around.
Thankfully, it’s not an LGBTQIA+ film per se. In the short film, Giovana used the word “gay boyfriend”; here she just says “boyfriend”. Even the bullies who mock Leonardo for whatever reason don’t inherently do it because of his sexuality, but for his blindness. In the special features, Daniel Ribeiro discusses how he decided against including a ‘coming out’ scene between Leonardo and his mother, and instead uses vague, gender neutral terms when addressing the subject of relationships. In doing so, it normalises non-heterosexual identities and goes against the idea of the ‘other’.
One of the strongest elements of the short film was, in its brevity, it focuses all of its attention on the events leading up to Gabriel’s kiss. It becomes an in media res ending in which the viewer is left with no idea of how their relationship progresses from there. Thankfully, this element isn’t scrapped in the feature length version. It spends an hour in the events leading up to the kiss, but the bedroom kiss that closed the short film isn’t touched upon until the final scenes of the film.
Unfortunately, it loses the dramatic irony that so brilliantly closed the short film, with Leonardo unsure of who kissed him because of his blindness. There’s still a sense of that here, but it doesn’t have the same effect as the short film.
If we’re going to go into cliche phrases, in some ways it’s a literal representation of “love is blind”. Other characters ship Gabriel and Leonardo, albeit jokingly; Leonardo worries about Gabriel being interested in another girl. They are blind to what is obvious to their souls and others around them. But it isn’t done in a really obvious way or make a point of it – it’s just there.
It’s not a film about relationships. So much attention is paid in films to the characters getting together in the first half hour, almost as a plot device rather than a deeper exploration, before we go through conflict in the relationship, perhaps a break-up, and they get back together in the final act. Here, there’s no sex scenes, or any intimacy besides intimacy through sight alone; maybe that’s innocent, but it’s also realistic. Because those cliches play over an extended period of time; here, it’s a much shorter period, perhaps a handful of weeks. There is so much anxiety and uncertainties associated that everyone finds with making the (actually pretty big) decision to be in a relationship with someone.
Within two weeks of this film, Gabriel and Leonardo could have broken up. That’s just the territory. But that is not the focus. The focus should not be on overwhelming jealousy and conflict, but on emotion. The pre-relationship period is a story in itself.
After having fallen in love with Philip Glass‘ music with Koyaanisqatsi (1982) and Powaqqatsi (1988) (and, perhaps in part, with 2015’s Fantastic Four), I came across the film’s soundtrack on Spotify. I’m sure I’ve come across the DVD before and found reasons to dismiss it. “Meryl Streep is overrated.” Or: “I don’t like book adaptations.” Or: “Is this really my type of film?”
What I discovered was a masterpiece that deserves a Criterion release, provided licensing the rights can be sorted out. Could I go as far as to call this Stephen Daldry’s neglected magnum opus?
Nicole Kidman portrays Virginia Woolf here, but you wouldn’t know it unless you saw her name emblazoned on the DVD cover and Wiki article; with an English accent rather than an Australian or American accent, it doesn’t scream her. In the DVD special features, it’s mentioned that they even went as far to give her a prosthetic nose.
But Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore do a marvellous job. A large theme here is the idea of imprisonment, between Virginia Woolf’s ‘imprisonment’ by her husband, placing her in the country in order to ‘cure’ her suicidal tendencies; the imprisonment of Laura as a housewife in 1950s LA, feeling torn between her son, her husband her and largely uneventful life, imprisoned within a suburban America that suppresses sexuality; the imprisonment of Richard within a darkened room and within a diseased body; the body, where one is never able to leave to explore from another person’s perspective, and is imprisoned within through no intention to be born and to remain within until death.
The meta aspect of the film, stemming from the literary tradition (with its focus on Virginia Woolf as a writer), probably works better in the book than the film itself. Yet it handles translation to film rather perfectly, intercutting each character’s lives with recurring themes and events gloriously alongside Philip Glass’ music, but still taking the time so we get engaged in each life; sequences go on for 10 or 15 minutes within a particular time period.
There is a wonderful sense of visual artistry and symbolism. We are given a sense of the idea of art and writing as a process in motion. There is the writing process, inspired by real life; the process of reading and being influenced to make decisions based on it (which is true – my life has certainly been influenced by what I’ve read, whether in terms of outlooks or finding a point of connection with friends and boyfriends), and then there is the process of adaptation (the last segment with Clarissa Vaughn becomes almost a modern day version of Mrs Dalloway, which was the starting point for Cunningham’s novel before he decided to shift the focus) and creating comparisons with people you know (Vaughn is nicknamed ‘Dalloway’).
The film presents an engaging portrait on life and the art we make.