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Queer and Haunted

By Andreas

[This post is part of the Queer Film Blogathon over at Garbo Laughs. Thanks to Caroline for hosting it!]

As I’ve said time and again, Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963) is one of the greatest horror films of all time. Between its chiaroscuro cinematography, biting dialogue, and Julie Harris’s indelible performance as the neurotic Nell, it’s the haunted house movie. It’s the one to beat. It makes The Amityville Horror look like shit. It makes Poltergeist look like The Amityville Horror.

It’s also highly invested in queer themes, as exemplified by Theo (Claire Bloom), Nell’s aggressive lesbian roommate. Although the cast is rounded out by two men, it’s clearly Nell and Theo’s relationship that dominates the film. It’s a fascinating, fluctuating relationship characterized by seduction, rejection, mind games, and innuendo. Sexual hang-ups clash with troubled pasts and paranormal phenomena as The Haunting rages on.

It’s a remarkably dense film, in both its visuals and its writing, so I’ll unpack just a few salient textual details about Nell’s sexuality. First off, I’m intrigued by Nell’s initial appearance in the film, via her name on a blackboard:

This is Dr. Markway (Richard Johnson), preparing his list of potential test subjects. Each one, as he explains to Hill House’s elderly owner, has been “involved, one way or another, with the abnormal.” (“Abnormal,” like much of The Haunting’s language, is left tantalizingly ambiguous.) Most of them get a last name; Theo gets a question mark. In The Haunting, names are filled with power and meaning. So why is Theo’s incomplete?

I see it as an incredibly subtle hint that Theo will be somehow different. Which is to say: she has psychic powers, she’s bitterly sarcastic, and she’s queer. Like the sexually confused and mother-haunted Nell, she’s just as abnormal as any of Hill House’s ghosts.

As you can see, The Haunting hardly takes a progressive view of Theo’s sexuality. She’s implicitly equated with the supernatural evil that infests the house. As Nell screams at her, “You’re a monster, Theo! You’re the monster of Hill House!” (Nell later adds that Theo is one of “nature’s mistakes,” evoking some common homophobic myths.) The Haunting certainly incorporates the prejudices of the era in which it was made.

At the same time, though, the film never invites us to hate or dismiss Theo. She’s its most vital, compelling presence, and she gets many of the best lines. Unlike the whiny, self-pitying Nell, she’s confident, bitchy, and unafraid to speak her mind. When the film ends, she’s the only one who understands what Nell really wanted. (“Maybe not ‘poor Eleanor’…”)

The Haunting may not cast Theo’s sexuality in a positive light, but at least it weaves her queer desire into its checkered matrix of symbols, genre tropes, and mirror images. It’s not just a rare pre-Stonewall representation of an onscreen lesbian; in The Haunting, queer desire helps structure the film itself.

[For more queer cinema, read our takes on The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Pedro Almodóvar, Swoon, I Love You, Philip Morris, The Ghost Ship, and more…]

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Oscar Grouching ’10: The Kids Are All Right

Yeah, folks, it’s Oscar season. Not duck season, not wabbit season, but Oscar season. It’s that time of year when my love/hate relationship with the mainstream film industry rears its ugly head, and I have weird internal conversations that go like this: “But the Oscars are so meaningless! It’s all industry politics!” “Well, yeah, but industry politics still means something. And the right movies get awarded, sometimes. You liked No Country for Old Men, right?” “That’s not the point! It’s all masturbatory self-congratulation. It’s a fluke if awards go to quality films, and they don’t even recognize the Honorary Award winners during the ceremony.” “But they have montages, and banter, and pretty dresses…”

This conversation goes on for a while, and it never gets resolved. I end up regarding the Oscars like any other highly flawed but still significant method of judging films: with a grain of salt. Or should I say a pillar of salt. (A whole salt mine?) In short, I treat it like the dog-and-pony-and-James-Franco show it so clearly is. The ceremony is really an accurate if broad mediation of Hollywood culture, after all. It’s shallow, glamorous, expensive, ratings-obsessed, but all in all fairly entertaining. Beyond that, the awards represent a loose consensus. All the acting, writing, director, and picture nominees are contained within a pool of just 16 films and these, for better or worse, are what the American film community recognizes as 2010’s best. Take from that what you will.

Having said my piece, I now jump into my abbreviated, last-minute Oscar nominee coverage. Between now and Sunday, I’ll rush to discuss as many of this year’s Big Ten as I have time for. (Click here to read my thoughts from last year.) So let’s begin! Last summer I was delighted that my local multiplex was offering up Lisa Cholodenko’s Sundance favorite The Kids Are All Right. It’s such a summery movie, too, full of warm California locations and fertile greenery. “Fertility” is a major watchword in this movie, too, since it’s all premised on two births via artificial insemination that led over time to the growth of a beautiful, functional family… even if it does have a few issues to work out.

Mia Wasikowski is Joni, one of these two kids, and she’s more than all right. She’s only a few months older than me (I feel like I say that all the time now about burgeoning movie stars!) and she looks very delicate and pale, which makes her Biff Loman-style disillusionment toward the film’s end even more heartbreaking. Joni is cerebral and well-behaved, but wants to start asserting her independence now that she’s college-bound. Her half-brother Laser can be something of an asshole, but he’s got a good heart. He doesn’t want to tear his family apartment; he’s just curious about how it got started.

It’s perfectly understandable—just as it is when their brittle, authoritative mom Nic bristles at sperm donor Paul’s intrusion into their family unit. Annette Bening’s Nic may overreact to minor incidents and overdo it on the red wine, but she still feels so cool. She’s outspoken, she’s competent, and she’s passionate (about her work, her family, Joni Mitchell). She might not be that tactful, but neither is she a bitch. She feels like someone it would be fun to sit down to dinner with. For that matter, so does Julianne Moore as Nic’s wife Jules. Even if she’s a little flaky and flighty at times, she’s still fucking Julianne Moore.

Mark Ruffalo as Paul completes the triangle. He’s not a bad guy, although he does become a homewrecker, The Kids Are All Right‘s equivalent of the classical Hollywood melodrama’s “other woman.” I already wrote a piece over at The Film Experience about Paul’s introduction through a David Bowie-scored sex scene, and I’m still impressed by Ruffalo’s (deservingly Oscar-nominated) performance and how well it slides into the textures of the overall film. Out of all this year’s Best Picture nominees, The Kids Are All Right is one of only two that you could really call “sexy.” In scene after scene, Ruffalo’s nonchalant but intense sexuality is almost palpable through the screen.

This is what I really love about The Kids Are All Right: how the performances and writing collide to forge deep, powerful characterizations. It’s a consistently funny movie, but it’s also extremely moving, because it makes you invest so heavily in this family and the love it’s grounded in. Nic and Jules may not be perfect wives, but they don’t have to be. They visibly love each other, and so to see all the damage that Jules’s affair has wrought on their relationship is devastating. These two mothers and two kids are just so right for each other that it’d be a cinematic injustice to wrench them apart. In scope and style, it’s a small, light movie, but at its core is the highest of all stakes: two people are in love, and that love is threatened.

Granted, it’s not exactly visually stunning. It’s modest and attractive, privileging the performers within each frame. It also has some uncomfortable implications, both in Jules’s never-addressed, subtly racist treatment of Luis, the Mexican gardener she employs, and in her willingness to sleep with Paul at the first available moment, which some critics have seen as endorsing the old “deep down all lesbians really want a man” fallacy. I confess the film has some issues to work out, and it occasionally compromises its own progressive virtues, but I think that’s too simplistic a reading of her behavior. “Human sexuality,” as she tells her son, “is complicated.”

This is the film’s approach, to not just human sexuality but also marriage (which Jules says is “fucking hard”), parenting, working, socializing, saying hello, and saying goodbye. It’s a very humanistic film, assuming good intentions in all of its characters and not judging them too harshly when (inevitably) they fuck up. It’s also flawlessly calibrated to adjust my emotions like a faucet, and I do not begrudge it that.

Within deceptively unimposing, even generic packaging, The Kids Are All Right conceals five great performances that work together like the gears in a watch, bound together by the strength of the warm, witty screenplay. Family can be painful, as we’ll see with many of this year’s Best Picture nominees. At least this time, the ordeal ends with our two torn-apart lovers holding hands once again.

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Why I Love Julianne Moore

It’s just an unavoidable fact about me: I love Julianne Moore. Love, love, love, in all the ways that a cinephile can love a movie star. (Except for the creepy, obsessive, and bad ones. Not those.) She’s just one of my favorite living actresses. Why is that? you may ask. Well, hypothetical reader, you are right to ask. Because I’ve prepared an itemized list of reasons for you. First of all: she’s a redhead. (Ashley is also a redhead. This is not a coincidence.) Second and mostly of all: she’s an incredible actress.

[Image via three frames]

Moore gives such intense, nuanced performances – in so many movies, she’s the one who sticks with you. Her actions and delivery burrow under your skin and stay inside you, surfacing in your mind when you least expect it. Just look at her in Safe (1995), one of her many collaborations with director Todd Haynes. She’s Carol, a superficial California wife and mother, obsessing over the color of her new couch and whether or not it matches the rest of her interior decoration. Then, one day, her body starts fighting her. Amidst spontaneous asphyxiation (see above), nose bleeds, coughing, and more, she’s jerked out of her once-comfortable life.

Safe is a brilliant mix of caustic satire, AIDS metaphor, melodrama, and horror. It’s got a great supporting cast, including Xander Berkeley (he of Candyman) who, in one haunting scene, has totally unemotional sex with Carol at the end of a long day. But at its core is Julianne Fucking Moore and her tender, pathetic vulnerability. She’s like a struggling animal, unsure of what her body’s doing to her, eager to just get on with her life and resume her former complacency. You know the old chestnut “you have to be smart to play dumb”? Julianne Moore is smart. She was also a crucial part of Haynes’ postmodern genre revisionism in Far from Heaven (2002), and to a lesser degree in his Bob Dylan super-biography I’m Not There (2007).

Or look at her in Magnolia (1999), where she’s acting in the service of a very different kind postmodern playfulness – that of director Paul Thomas Anderson. (She also played the aptronymous Amber Waves in his porn epic Boogie Nights [1997].) In one of Magnolia‘s many storylines, she’s Linda, the drug-addicted wife of a dying TV producer played by Jason Robards, and calling her “a wreck” is a massive understatement. She ‘s wracked with guilt and quasi-suicidal desperation, and she inflicts her emotional histrionics on everyone around her – from a nurse (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to her husband’s lawyer (Nashville‘s Michael Murphy).

Like Safe‘s Carol, Linda is extremely vulnerable, but she’s also defensive. She may be plagued with self-loathing, but she doesn’t put with shit from anyone else. In a film packed with great, hot-to-the-touch performances – like a bathetic William H. Macy – Moore is a stand-out because, despite being a complete psychological mess, she retains an intimidating quality of refinement. Even when the screenplay gets a little too cutesy or pat, Moore’s performance sprawls, sneers, sobs, and threatens to collapse. In the most grandiose moments, she still feels naturalistic; this makes her the perfect cornerstone for PTA’s ensembles.

No matter what the quality or genre of the film, she brings that je ne sais Moore, that unquantifiable essence. I haven’t seen some of her more mainstream roles, like Hannibal or Next, but I’m sure they’re all the richer for her presence. And take an already rich film, like Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006), pictured above, or the Coen Bros.’ wacky neo-noir The Big Lebowski (1998), where she plays the title character’s daughter, a sperm-hunting artist.

In both of those films, she’s a minor character who’s romantically linked to the protagonist. But she doesn’t feel minor; instead, she seems to exist on a higher, more mysterious plane than Clive Owen’s bureaucratic everyman or Jeff Bridges’ stoner private eye. As she is in real life, her characters in those films, Julian and Maude, are politically engaged. They’re fully aware of what’s going on, and they can manipulate their situations to get what they want. Thanks largely to Moore’s acting, they’re not plot devices, but rather self-motivated women. So Julianne Moore’s versatile, too: she functions equally well in lead and character parts.

All of this leads me to Moore’s most recent role: as a laid-back lesbian wife and mother whose family is unpredictably changing in Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right (2010). I seriously enjoyed this movie; it literally made me laugh and cry, sometimes in rapid succession. I was so deeply invested in the characters’ relationships, and it’s because the main cast – Moore, Mark Ruffalo, and especially Annette Bening – make their shared histories, as well as the repercussions of their tenuous biological links, believable.

It’s not a big or sensational movie. Nobody’s going to die or get arrested. The worst that can happen is a series of broken hearts, which in this case is really the scariest threat of all. The film’s screenplay also deals with difficult, controversial questions of sexual fluidity. It may not always be quite successful or accurate, but Moore’s performance as Jules personalizes these issues, as they have direct consequences on the dynamics of her marriage.

In an early scene, teenage son Laser asks his moms why they watch “gay man porn.” Jules hazards an explanation: “Well, sweetie, human sexuality is complicated. And sometimes, people’s desires can be… counterintuitive…” Without being too edgy or too bland, The Kids Are All Right takes on the human drama that results from those counterintuitive complications – and by extension, the confusing and inexplicable behavior that defines families. It’s a powerful, poignant movie. And, if the stars are right, maybe Julianne Moore will win that Best Actress Oscar she so deserves. Either way, I’m grateful to her for years of beautiful acting.

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Mississippi Hetero-Prom Bullshit

So, I’ve been stranded up here in suburbia lately, with my only Internet access coming in bite-size chunks at the public library. That said, I’m going to take the scant time I have to write a little. Ashley’s been working on a post about the history of Disney princesses in relation to feminism, and I would like to eventually comment on similar topics, as prompted by The Princess and the Frog. In the meantime, however, I want to address an ongoing controversy involving institutionalized homophobia. It’s the Fulton, MS Prom Discrimination.

The situation, which can be understood from glancing over a few news sources, is relatively straightforward. Constance McMillen, an 18-year-old student at Itawamba Agricultural High School, asked if she could attend the prom with her girlfriend, and wear a tuxedo. School officials told her no. Then they cancelled the prom itself, claiming that they were “taking into consideration the education, safety and well being of [their] students.” Students become upset with McMillen, although supposedly she wasn’t the reason for the cancellation, controversy flared nationally, and the ACLU sued the school district.

The results? The judge found the school district wrong, but felt it would also be wrong to forcibly reinstate the prom on April 2, because apparently it would “only confuse and confound the community on the issue.” Fulton sounds like a community that’s pretty easy to confuse and confound. Since the news broke of the school district’s bullshit decision, however, McMillen has become a rallying point for the rights of LGBT teens. A Facebook page called “Let Constance Take Her Girlfriend to Prom!” has hundreds of thousands of fans, and Dan Savage recently advocated donating to her cause. So, awesome! A lot of cool people are very much behind this brave young woman.

I think the above paragraphs should give you pretty much the objective background necessary to form an opinion and, if desired, show your support. And now I must subjectively say: Fulton, Mississippi, what the hell? Both my father and girlfriend went to school dances with same-sex dates, just because they wanted to, and neither was held to some nonsensical, arbitrary school policy. I don’t want to invoke my Yankee bias against the intolerance of the Deep South, but I see few other answers here.

The ACLU has also helpfully turned up a flyer handed out to Itawamba High students, informing them that their “guests… must be of the opposite sex.” You may notice that these aren’t “dates,” but “guests,” and it looks like as long as the two of you make a nice hetero couple, your “guest” can be just about anyone of any age. Why, exactly, was this rule in place? According to McMillen, the principal’s excuse involved same-sex students not in relationships trying to buy the cheaper tickets for couples instead of two more expensive individual tickets. Uh-huh.

So basically, in their effort to force students to pay through the nose for prom tickets, the school was willing to dismiss the existence of homosexuality. Ahh, what a pastoral dream world those Mississippian school administrators must be living in. Where women wear dresses, men wear tuxedos, and the two go together like peanut butter and jelly. (And you’re also forbidden from mixing peanut butter with peanut butter?) Here’s a little video where you can hear from Constance herself on the matter.

The matter of the tuxedo is similarly baffling. It reminds me of a story from last October where Ceara Sturgis, a 17-year-old lesbian student in Jackson, MS, was banned from wearing a tuxedo in her yearbook photo. As in McMillen’s case, it was chalked up to the ominous but inevitable “school policy.” I.e., it’s always been this way and that’s how we likes it. Granted, I don’t know why these girls want to wear tuxedos; in my thankfully limited experience, they’re uncomfortable as hell, and I’d rather wear a dress in an instant.

But then again, that’s why I’m me and they’re them, isn’t it? Because I’d prefer a dress and they’d prefer those stiff, black-and-white iron maidens we call tuxedos. And I’d also guess that just because they’re in Mississippi and surrounded by heterosexuals (and bigots), that doesn’t mean said identity rubs off on them. So thankfully the tide is turning and such outdated school policies are starting to change. As the Facebook page I linked to above mentions, a recent attempt by a Georgia high schooler to take his boyfriend to prom was successful, and McMillen’s trials may well have been a factor.

This piece of Internet access is rapidly coming to an end what with the library closing, so I’ll conclude hastily. The school district’s actions in this case is just self-evidently ridiculous. It reminds me of last Christmas, when Ashley’s hometown of Chambersburg made national news for its decisions about the displays in the town square: If the atheist veterans are going to get one, then no displays for anyone! Apparently the school administrators of Fulton have a similarly childish approach, and it’s kind of blown up in their face. I say good luck to Constance McMillen and the ACLU with their struggle to get this all sorted out in the name of equal rights, and fuck you to oppressive, illogical school policies everywhere. Now, take everything I said and apply it to gay marriage, too.

(PS: regarding the tuxedos, it’s not like they were planning to go naked or topless or wear bikinis or anything. They were going to be very heavily clothed, just in clothes that weren’t strictly gender normative! Any school that has a problem with that deserves to have its idiotic intolerance plastered all over the national media.)

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What would bigots do if they knew…?

So, I haven’t written in a while (sadly), but that’s what this is for. Yesterday, while researching the great Belgian surrealist René Magritte, I happened to find this fascinating blog called Sexuality & Love in the Arts, topics to which Pussy Goes Grrr is certainly no stranger. And I ended up reading their article on Alan Turing, the brilliant British cryptographer, mathematician, and pioneering computer scientist who was legally persecuted (after helping win WWII) until he committed suicide. Why, you may ask, would a great genius like Turing be chemically castrated, tormented, and hounded? Because of what the authorities called “gross indecency”… he was a homosexual.

Long-suffering genius Alan Turing

So, reading about Gordon Brown’s recent apology for Turing’s rather shabby treatment by the government, I was reminded of an idea I had the other day. Because, okay, homophobia is alive and well and living in America, as evidenced by this video of Carrie Prejean, the ditzy beauty queen whose po’ widdle ego was demolished by contest judge Perez Hilton after she said “You know what, in my country, in my family, I think I believe that marriage should be between a man and a woman, no offense to anybody out there…” and some other similarly halting statements. And now apparently she’s a horribly persecuted, God-loving inspiration to us all who’ll get her rewards in heaven!! at least according to her.

And so, between that and reading about Turing, I thought about this: lots & lots of people (hell, even the majority of California voters) don’t want gay people marrying each other. And they’d also prefer if they’d take their homosexual selves, get back in the closet, and let the children go on thinking heterosexual is the only kind of desire. (Honestly, people act like attraction to the same sex is automatically graphically sexual, while attraction to the opposite sex is, by default, clean and pure. ‘Cause men never lust after women, right? And so exposing kids to the notion of gayness is sucking away their innocence. But that’s another blog.) So it got me to thinking, people are OK with letting queer artists provide them with great entertainment and profundity, but if they have to know that Rock Hudson’s sleeping with men on his off-days, they’d rather he was prosecuted for it? Because let’s face it: queerness and art have gone together pretty well for, oh, all of human history. And I wanted to take a look at some examples. Hence, this is the “what would gay-hating bigots do if they knew…” list.

First, a few caveats: I’m going by a pretty loose definition of queer here. If I’ve been witness to some form of evidence that a historical figure was queer, I’ll include them for argument’s sake, but by no means is this academically rigorous. It’s a thought experiment. Also, there’s going to be a lot more gay men on this list than lesbians because, well, men are better-represented historically in everything than women. When you narrow it down to women attracted to other women, the representation gets even tinier. That said, here’s my list! What would gay-hating bigots do if they knew a gay person was crucial in creating:

Western philosophy, Hellenistic civilization, the Sistine Chapel, the Mona Lisa, My Ántonia, Leaves of Grass, A Shropshire Lad, The Importance of Being Earnest, much of literary modernism (Stein, Woolf, and H.D. for starters), Remembrance of Things Past, Valentino, The Battleship Potemkin, Bride of Frankenstein, Blithe Spirit, Gaslight, computers (going liberally with Turing), Jean Cocteau himself, Night of the Hunter, Screaming Popes, Beat poetry, pop art and the phrase “15 minutes of fame,” Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood, The Leopard, American absurdist theater, if…, Harold and Maude, Cabaret, Berlin Alexanderplatz, and then starting in the ’70s-’80s, too many advancements in the arts and elsewhere to name as the LGBT community became more legal, visible, and able to express themselves – I’ll just toss out Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home as one particularly sublime example.

Now, I grant there are a lot of flaws with this list and its reasoning, and I admit that most of the examples come from film, because queer filmmakers are one of my great areas of interest. But I was mainly trying to make a point: if intolerant people think they can dismiss all gay men & women as being icky, unnatural, somehow poisonous, undeserving of rights or public exposure, or evil/impure on some basic level, maybe they should look around their culture and realize that often what they consider wholesome, unobjectionable art (like one case in point I discovered tonight) is actually made by (gasp!) the very “perverts” and “deviants” they’re dead-set against. I think homophobia requires much of the same solipsistic blocking out of the real world as racism – “No, no, no, I’m not listening; you will not be a counterexample to my passed-down belief that all gays/blacks/etc. are unworthy degenerates…”

Gustave Courbet's The Sleepers, 1866

They’re often similarly ignorant of the fact that homoeroticism turns up all over place – for an obvious example, in The Picture of Dorian Gray – because, oh, it’s a pretty common, basic element of human sexuality and hell, I’d even say a universal part of the human experience (I mean, honestly, who hasn’t had at least a fleeting, vaguely homoerotic thought or two in their whole life?). These people act like by constructing thick moral walls we can erase all the “evil” in the world and create a cuddly, gay-free cultural womb. The fact is, queerness has factored somehow into some of the greatest artistic accomplishments in history, in one form or another. And you know what? If Charles Laughton, John Gielgud, Noël Coward, Oscar Wilde, and all the rest are wrong, I don’t want to be right.

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