Film Gay Politics Politics Television

Should gay roles be played by gay actors?

Today’s social media controversy comes courtesy of former Doctor Who show-runner Russell T Davies who has gone on record in an interview that he believes gay roles should generally be played by gay actors.

As you might expect, the response to this argument has been both immediate and strong. Some people have argued that it’s against the whole principle of acting to say that people should only play people like themselves (while obviously skipping over the obvious complexities of — or analogies to — a white actor playing a black character or a man playing a woman’s experience). Others have argued that if straight actors can’t play gay, then gay actors should not be able to play straight characters either.

In the middle of a lot of this is the same sort of generalized tedious sentiment we often get in these kinds of discussions – stuff that goes along the lines of, “it’s all political correctness gone mad” – groans about the “woke brigade”.

Now, these positions are infuriating, frustrating and wrong, but for many people why they are wrong is far from obvious. Superficially, they seems simple, commonsensical, self-evidently right. So for that reason I thought I’d go a bit above and beyond the call of duty and write a little piece explaining why subjects like these are more complex and intricate than they might initially appear, and why—in my opinion—even if it may not be desirable long-term, it is far from unreasonable to argue that gay parts should generally be played by gay actors.

I’m going to break this into three separate questions which I think have bearing on who should play which roles:

  1. Is there equality of opportunity for gay and straight actors?
  2. Can (and do) straight actors accurately portray gay people?
  3. If straight actors shouldn’t play gay, does it therefore follow that gay actors should not be able to play straight roles?

I’ll then try and wrap things up with a brief summary (you can skip to that right now if you can’t be bothered to read everything) and a brief articulation of my own opinion.

But if you’re with me for the long read, let’s jump right in…

Question 1: Is there equality of opportunity for gay and straight actors?

No. The truth is that there is not equality of opportunity for gay and straight actors, any more than there has been equality of opportunity for female actors, people of color or any other non-gay member of the LGBT community.

While it has clearly become easier for gay actors to get ahead in Hollywood or in acting generally in recent years, being gay is still often an impediment to a successful acting career at the highest levels.

It is simply true that actors who are out and proud and well known as being gay simply don’t get given straight roles as often—particularly straight leading roles—in movies or TV. Out gay actors who take on these roles are often characterized as ‘not believable’, while a straight actor who plays a gay role (at least over the last thirty years or so) is more often characterized as ‘brave’.

So here is our first argument about why gay roles should generally be played by gay people. There simply aren’t very many LGBT roles on TV or film, gay people are under- and often mis-represented, and (if they’re out) they’re often simply not allowed to play high profile non-gay roles.

Surely then, if gay actors are being purposefully excluded from many prominent straight roles, they should at least be considered preferentially for gay roles?

Question 2: Can (and do) straight actors accurately portray gay people?

Our next argument is based on the assumption that it is necessary, desirable or significant for gay people to be accurately depicted in drama. You can break this assumption into two parts – (a) that it makes for better drama to have more authentic performances, and (b) that it is morally or politically important to portray gay people in an accurate, convincing or (most importantly) non-stereotypical or discriminatory way.

I think that first part is self-evidently true most of the time and barely worth interrogating. The second part depends on whether or not gay or other LGBT people are still disadvantaged in society, experience discrimination or harassment, or are under-represented in drama. All the evidence says that they absolutely are.

Gay men generally earn less than straight men, gay people still often don’t feel comfortable express affection to their partners in public, gay teens are twice as likely to attempt suicide than straight teens, and twice as likely to ‘succeed’ when they try. Gay kids also represent 25-40% of homeless youth across the US and UK, and well over 90+% of gay kids report hearing homophobic abuse in the playground on an almost daily basis.

It seems clear to me—given this situation—that there’s an obvious imperative to try and fix things, or at least to not be complicit with them. And one obvious way to fight misinformation and discrimination against LGBT people is by attempting to represent them properly on TV and film.

This obviously does not mean by any means making every gay character a paragon of virtue. But it does mean representing gay people as they actually are—in all their range, variety and complexity—rather than resorting to stereotype or discriminatory tropes.

Which brings us to our second question – are straight actors capable of doing this?

The short answer here is yes. They absolutely can. And they sometimes do. I can name a number of films and movies where I think straight people have done tremendously good work portraying gay characters.

But as always, the devil is in the details. And the longer answer is that even today, many straight actors do not truly understand the lived experience of gay people and so — rather than depicting rounded characters that reflect real life — they either portray two-dimensional figures without any richness or understanding, or they resort to codes or symbols or stereotypes to communicate ‘gayness’.

The reality is that LGBT people often have some commonalities of experience that are often invisible or simply not understood by straight people. There’s the common experience of growing up around homophobic comments, and then coming to realize that those comments are about you. There’s the common experience of having crushes on people and knowing that you have to be completely secretive about them. There’s the common experience of lying to people around you and misleading people because you’re scared of how they’ll react if they find out the truth. There are the common experiences of coming out to friends, family, colleagues – over and over and over again as you meet new people. The common experience of someone you like making homophobic comments because they just don’t know. The common experience of not knowing how much of yourself you can reveal on the street without fear of attack. There’s the different way you meet people like yourself, the different support infrastructures you fabricate for yourself. The list goes on and on.

Not all LGBT people experience all of these things, and no doubt some experience none of them. But for most LGBT people, their path has been different from most of their straight peers and there will be things that most LGBT people experience that most straight people will not. And these things are a part of the complexity of the character and backgrounds of almost every fictional gay person.

For many straight actors, their experience of gay people will be via two unrepresentative samples, (a) their most confident out gay friends, (b) via previous representations of gay people in movies and TV. Forty years ago those representations were of sad, disillusioned, broken people who had horrible times coming out or were in the process of dying of AIDS, or ultra-camp flamboyant people with limp wrists and catch phrases. Twenty years ago they were more often than not very attractive and well-groomed men who were slightly bitchy best friends to nearby career women. Today they’re a lot better and more nuanced, but they’re still flawed. You only have to look at fantasy fiction to see that there’s still prejudice in movie making. How many daring archaeologists are gay? How many leather coat wearing space cowboys are gay? How many spies? How many secret agents?

So let’s summarize our second argument about why gay roles should generally be played by gay people: while there are a number of examples of particularly good straight actors who have very effectively played gay characters, they are uncommon and massively overwhelmed by bad ones. If you want to fix that misrepresentation (and in turn have a positive effect on the lives of gay people) then one thing you can substantively do is cast gay actors in gay roles.

Which brings us to our final question…

Question 3: Does it therefore follow that gay actors should not be able to play straight roles?

The two previous questions are, I think, fairly self-explanatory. But now we reach one that is a little more complicated to answer. The threads of this answer are already present in the two we’ve already made, but to make them clear and explicit we really need to address the most fundamental mistake people tend to make when they talk about minority groups.

So the commonly expressed position we’re investigating is superficially simple – if straight people should probably not play gay characters, then surely it’s only fair to say gay characters shouldn’t play straight?

But the basis of this position is fundamentally flawed. The argument is that we should treat both groups symmetrically — that the experiences of gay actors and straight actors — more still, gay people and straight people — are fundamentally the same but opposite, effectively equivalent and therefore if we decide on an action for one, it should necessarily apply to the other – ‘what’s good for the goose is good for the gander’.

The problem is this is simply not true. When you’re talking about minority groups in this way, the two sides are almost always not symmetrical. The two sides are in fact very different. And the logical consequence of this difference is that things that might be okay for one group might actually not be okay for another.

The best way for me to explain this is through an example and please bear with me here, because I think it will make things much clearer.

A position based on symmetry might be a bit like this: “It’s wrong to have gay bars if we don’t also have straight bars!”

Now—for the moment—I’m going to ignore the reality of the situation that there are often straight people in gay bars, and that most non-explicitly gay bars are effectively de facto straight bars containing an equally small proportion of gay people. Instead I’m going to take the position at face value – and talk about why explicitly gay bars are a thing and explicitly straight bars are not.

So here’s the first bit of asymmetry in the lives of straight and gay people. A very small proportion of people in the world are LGBT. It is strongly debated what that proportion is, but for the sake of simple maths let’s say one person in fifty is explicitly gay.

Now, one of the most common places to meet someone you end up forming a relationship with is at work. The percentage of people who meet their partners at work varies depending on who you ask, but it’s somewhere around 15-25% of relationships.

So let’s imagine an office containing fifty people with an equal gender split and one in fifty people being gay. That means the company contains 25 men, 25 women.

It follows then that if you were a straight person in that company, you would most likely meet 48 other straight people. And of those straight people, 24 or 25 of those people would be of the opposite sex.

Let’s compare that with the gay person in that company. They will most likely meet no other gay people. Probabilistically, to have a second gay person in the company, it would need to double in size to one hundred employees.

Now you have two gay people in the company, but they are just as likely to be the opposite sex from each other, and therefore incompatible. To be confident that our initial gay employee will likely meet one other gay person of the same sex at work, the company would have to be twice the size again (200 people). That would mean likely four gay people at the company in total.

In comparison, in a company of two hundred people, 196 would likely be straight. And each straight person at the company would meet 98 heterosexual people of the opposite sex.

And we’re still not done! It’s still the general assumption that people you meet are straight, and there are still a number of reasons why gay people might not be out at work. So let’s imagine only 50% of gay people come out. So now we need to double the size of the company again. We’re now in a company of four hundred people, where each straight person is associating with 196 heterosexuals of the opposite sex. The gay employee meanwhile knows one out gay person of their preferred sex.

That’s an example of an asymmetry in action. And it doesn’t just apply to workplaces, it also applies to bars, nightclubs, universities etc. Every environment that is simply representative of the general population will make it dozens to hundreds of times easier for a straight person to meet someone eligible and potentially interested than a gay person.

As a result, gay people create ‘gay clubs’ and ‘gay bars’ to meet other gay people, while straight people already have de facto straight bars all around them at all times and making them explicitly straight simply excludes gay people from 98% of society.

So how does this apply to our final concern – if straight actors shouldn’t play gay roles, does it follow that gay actors should not play straight roles?

Well, let’s look back at our first question – are gay actors given an equal shot at straight roles? The answer was no, there’s an asymmetry there. Out gay actors were less likely to get leading straight roles than straight actors were to get gay roles. Giving gay roles to gay actors starts to fix that problem, but as long as there are disproportionately few gay roles, making things equitable also means letting gay actors play straight roles.

Does the same apply to our second question? Are there asymmetries at play that mean that it’s less problematic for a gay person to play straight than vice versa? I would argue there are at least three worth mentioning:

  • An asymmetry of knowledge
  • An asymmetry of power
  • An asymmetry of number

First up – the asymmetry of knowledge – most straight people do not grow up or live in predominantly gay environments, whereas most gay people do grow up and live in predominantly straight environments. The entire world is a predominantly straight environment that gay people simply have to operate within. For this reason, gay people are much more likely to be comfortable and convincing and accurate playing straight – at least partly because they may have spend good portions of their lives doing precisely that.

Second – the asymmetry of power – unlike gay people, straight people generally do not grow experience prejudice because of their sexuality. This means that accidentally misrepresenting straight people is much less problematic. Instead of furthering or creating a negative view of all straight people, it’s more likely to simply make that character look objectionable or unpleasant.

Third – the asymmetry of number – because there are far more straight characters and straight roles, the negative effect of one misrepresentation of a straight person—among all the thousands committed to film and TV each day—is also much less pronounced or important.

Conclusion: So should gay roles be played by gay actors?

Okay, so let me bring that all together. In short, the argument I’ve made goes like this:

  • The argument is that anyone should be able to play anyone else and that if straight people can’t play gay roles, then gay actors shouldn’t play straight ones. This position sounds intuitive but is in fact wrong;
  • On the whole gay actors have fewer opportunities than straight actors, and if we’re not going to give leading straight roles to gay actors, then the least we can do is give gay roles to gay actors;
  • Straight actors often are more ignorant of the lives of gay people than gay actors are of straight people – and since accurate representation matters, gay actors are better placed to play gay roles;
  • These situations are built on asymmetries of knowledge, power and number between straight and gay people, which mean that straight actors playing gay roles are much less likely to be accurate and much more likely to be damaging than gay actors playing straight roles.

For these reasons, I think it is perfectly reasonable to make the argument that Davies’ arguments are not self-evidently wrong or hypocritical.

But I’d like to go a bit further. As I’ve argued throughout this piece, these positions are fundamentally based on asymmetries between gay and straight people. Some of those asymmetries just won’t go away – it’s very unlikely that we’ll ever see a time where there are as many gay people as straight people in the world.

But some of them can be fixed. We can make the experience of growing up gay or being gay in the world less alarming, dangerous and scary. We can make straight people more aware of the experience of being gay with more accurate representation and education. We can work to help audiences feel more comfortable with gay actors to take on straight leading roles. We can increase the number of LGBT roles in drama so that it’s truly representative. And here is where I think my position diverges a little from at least the summaries of Russell T Davies we’ve seen around in the last day or two.

Because if we do try and fix these things then at least some of these arguments will—over time—lose their potency. We actually can work towards a day where it is at least more okay for any good actor working in good faith to play gay or straight whatever their sexuality. Where we don’t have to think continually about how we make sure that gay people are represented and gay actors have equal opportunities and we genuinely can just give the right roles to the best people. We’re just not there yet. And to get there we probably have to follow a narrower and more complicated path – much like the path that Russell T Davies has mapped out.

In the meantime, we work and we push and we explain, in articles in the Radio Times or in never-ending blog posts, to those few who are willing to listen, always hoping that together we might get a little closer to that day.

Thank you for listening and goodnight xx


There's something (crappy) about Borat…

A few weeks ago Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat film was released to the world and pretty much everyone loved it. Metacritic collated all the reviews and came to the conclusion that the whole enterprise deserved 89/100 and described this as ‘Universal Acclaim’. Here is a sample from some of the reviews:

Washington Post: The result is a perfect combination of slapstick and satire, a Platonic ideal of high-and lowbrow that manages to appeal to our basest common denominators while brilliantly skewering racism, anti-Semitism, sexism and that peculiarly American affliction: we’re-number-one-ism

New York Daily News: Though Borat has been likened to “Jackass,” there’s a huge difference. The “Jackass” movies are about extreme stunts. Borat is about interaction and gullibility, and its success is unique to both Cohen and to this one-time-only movie.

Village Voice: Indeed, the man who invented Borat is a masterful improviser, brilliant comedian, courageous political satirist, and genuinely experimental film artist. Borat makes you laugh but Baron Cohen forces you to think.

So it was with this in mind that I went to see the film with my little brother and all I can say in response is what the hell film were they watching?! There are some very funny bits in it, and some very scary bits as well, but they were heavily overwhelmed by clumsy shit jokes, big testicles and fat naked people running around.

There are at least two things I don’t understand about this film. Firstly, I don’t understand the reviews. I don’t understand how anyone can look at that film in its totality and describe it as a cerebral job of political satire that forces you to think. There are chunks of it that I adored (although even then they were often aimed at pretty easy targets), but most of the movie is twelve-year-old stuff. It’s little bags full of shit, bigger bags of pubic hair and general confusion about how to use lavatories. Make no mistake – much of this film is aimed squarely at humour that ten year olds would be quite comfortable with.

And that brings me to the second thing I don’t understand. Given that there are occasionally such brilliant bits of insight and satire in the film, I cannot understand why they put all this crap in it as well. The only conclusion I’ve managed to reach is that the film-makers lost faith in the more general project, worse still that they lost faith in their audience and did not feel that their satire would stand on its own feet. So they decided to aim for the lowest of common denominators. And I can’t tell whether this is because they’re craven, cowardly and clumsy or simply because they’re not smart enough to aspire towards the really good film that they could have made instead. But either way it pisses me off.

Now I’m not a prudish man. I love the South Park Movie to bits if that counts for anything. But given the hysteria around the film I really thought someone ought to stand up and say that this particular emperor is probably walking around at best half-clad. If you’re as much of a fan of cheap gross-out humour and poo jokes as you are of political satire, then I don’t doubt that you’ll find much to enjoy in Borat. But if your toes curled during Something Without Mary, just stay well away from it. I’m with the reviewer from New York magazineone of the only ones to not respond positively to the picturewhen he says:

I found the Borat feature depressing; and the paroxysms of the audience reinforced the feeling that I was watching a bearbaiting or pigsticking. Baron Cohen is such an inspired comic actor that it’s a little disappointing when he jumps so quickly, so eagerly to offend the people he interviews; it would be more fun, I think, if he gave them some room to maneuver. But then, of course, we wouldn’t squirm or cringe. And then comedy wouldn’t be evolving in the way it is nowto the point that it bleeds into horror.

Film Politics Technology

An Inconvenient Truth…

My politics are pretty well known to people who read this site, I suspect – I’m basically economically centrist, believing in the the necessary efficiencies of a free market curbed from excesses and derailment by regulation at the extremes. I hold a simultaneous belief that vulnerable individuals should be protected from the occasionally inhuman logic of this system through social security and healthcare. I would also argue that this latter support actually helps the functioning of the larger economy by reducing the causes of crime, and maintaining a healthy and educated workforce.

Alongside my economic centrism, I’m basically socially libertarian – quite possibly as a result of being gay and necessarily slightly on the fringes of mainstream acceptability, particularly in some of the more religious parts of the world. I’m a confirmed atheist of long-standing, a rationalist humanist that sees religion as a blot of superstition upon the world, something that confuses and muddies and disguises truths much more than it reveals them. And having spent time working and thinking about ancient cultures and from there moving into the technology industries, I’ve probably gradually moved towards a technologically determinist position on the world – that while changes in technology and changes in politics and belief influence and effect one another, changes in technology are leading that particular dance. If you’re really interested, you can see my positioning on the political compass (and if you want to generate your own, you can do so here).

I say all this to contextualise what I’m to say next – that there is, however, one thing I’ve never really had that much strength of feeling about and that is green politics. It’s probably a clich√©, but at some level I suppose I’ve never really been significantly convinced that the impact that humankind had on the planet was as dramatic as had been claimed. In addition, I’d never really been convinced that any individual could make any kind of realistic difference to the changes that were happening.

It seemed to me that significant change was only likely to happen at the level of hundreds of years and that many of the environmental movement’s particular missions were sort of indulgently anthropocentic. I mean, I care that species go extinct every day. It does matter to me. It’s a terrible thing that humankind has done to that part of the world, but people fight tooth and nail to protect the Panda because they think they’re cute and adorable, because they want to be able to fool themselves that somehow if a few tiny leaves of a once-massive tree remain trapped in some kind of evolutionary terrarium that they’ve somehow saved the world. It’s nature as spectacle, nature as theme-park, where the guilt and prurient interest of humankind has to be assuaged by futile token acts. That’s never appealed to me, because it seems self-deceiving. To an extent I still feel this way.

But on the plane over from the UK on Monday I watched An Inconvenient Truth and I have to confess, it actually feels to me like it’s had a significant personal impact and that it’s genuinely changed my opinions on a whole range of things.

It’s extraordinarily rare for me now to find myself genuinely persuaded by a documentary but Al Gore’s personal walk through the statistics and effects of global warming was convincing, clear and the obvious product of a serious and intelligent man who had read and thought widely on the subject. I found it genuinely interesting, moving and significant – and only slightly polluted by the interweaving of some of the maudlin personal political history of a man who emerges more effectively in action than in narrative and is revealed as a charismatic, intelligent, rational and passionate individual.

I genuinely believe that if you have access to a cinema (I believe it’s just come out in the UK) that you should go and see this film and – if nothing else – let it be a corrective to the other media that we’ve all consumed around this issue. Don’t let it convince you out of hand, but let it stimulate your desire to find out more and to interrogate your own prejudices about the green movement. And in the meantime, as half of America slowly starts to wake up to the realisation that they’ve had the wrong head of state for the last six years, I find myself – like many others in the technology community and beyond – wondering what the world might have looked like now had Al Gore won in the year 2000.

Film Television

Watching the Oscars…

Watching the Oscars in the Manchester Grand Hyatt with assorted fun people is a very different experience from trying to stay awake in the UK as it stretches into the wee hours. It’s actually fun for a start. And Jon Stewart is really funny. So far we’ve had a couple of neat skits, a full on Clooney charismathon (plus Supporting Actor win) and Kong‘s got Best Special Effects. Wallace & Gromit have got best Animated Feature, which doesn’t suck too much. I was a bit disappointed about Jake not getting Best Supporting Actor – apparently the rumours are that Crash is building up a head of steam and may depose Brokeback, and this could be the first sign of that collapse. But I’ve watched enough episodes of the West Wing to know a bit about expectations management, and I’m trying to work out if the Crash rumours are part of a campaign to remind the Academy that Brokeback is not a done-deal. Get the vote out, if you know what I mean…

A little bit later and we’ve had a couple of shorts, a few really creepy adverts, a great Scientology line from Stewart that won’t win him any favours in his later career and ooh… ooh… Jennifer Aniston. Wow. She looked really grouchy. Almost as grouchy as she looked in the pre-Oscar show when you could tell that in the back of her mind she was reciting to herself, “never gonna get an Oscar, never gonna get an Oscar”.

Hm. Rachel Weisz won Best Supporting Actress for the Constant Gardener which is a bit of a funny thing to happen. I mean I watched the film and she was okay in it, but there were a great many times when I couldn’t decide whether the character was just really objectionable or whether it was the actress. Seeing her on stage makes me think it’s more likely that I just don’t like her very much. On the basis of the clip alone, I think I’d have gone for Amy Adams. In other news, what the fuck is up with Narnia?! It was a bloody terrible movie and the effects were a complete rip-off of Lord of the Rings – visually there was no creativity there whatsoever. What is wrong with people that it wins anything!? More troubling even than Narnia was Lauren Bacall, who looked far from well when she came on-stage, and then proceeded to stumble over most of her introduction to her section on Film Noir.

First notable comedy moment – the awesome Best Actress campaign skits, as voiced by Rob Cordry from the Daily Show including those that declared Judy Dench to be a bad Dame and Reese Witherspoon to have a good proper American name. Second notable comedy moment – the unintentional WTF interpretive dance thing with the burned out car and the mist and the racial tensions represented by people moving. really. slowly that accompanied the best song nomination from Crash. Jon Stewart on the latter, “My suggestion if you’re trying to escape from a burning car… Don’t move in slow motion…”

Only an hour and a bit to go and… well… wow, this is long. Every year you forget. So some guys have won sound design for King Kong, Jennifer Garner nearly fell over, there was some stuff that happened. The best song went to a song about a pimp which was interesting. Lots of people died. They used that terrible font from Keynote for the ‘In Memoriam’ slide. Jon Stewart is uniformly a good host so far, mainly because he’s been quite understated. Some highlights – Robert Altman’s honorary Oscar and tremendous speech and Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep’s performative introduction. We’re nearly out of snacks but SMS’s are coming in from various other nerds who are gradually arriving at the hotel, so there’s a concern that we might not have enough to eat. Simon’s sitting in the corner of the room by the loo working on his presentation because he thinks that’s the only place he can get a good wifi signal. Even though I’ve got a perfectly good one and I’m sitting on the comfy comfy bed. Silly boy.

Best Actor has gone to Philip Seymour Hoffman, which is not a shock and probably isn’t even a disappointment given how great an actor he is and what an extraordinary performance he gives in Capote, but godammit Heath Ledger did an astonishing job and it was a destroying film and Brokeback has to win something substantial. It’s hard to begrudge Hoffman though, particularly after his wonderful and affecting speech to his mother. And Ledger reacted really well to the whole thing. But I need some Brokeback action. Crash simply doesn’t deserve the recognition it’s got, and Brokeback is … astonishing.

This is a seriously weird ceremony – Reese Witherspoon’s got Best Actress? Wow, that’s a bit random and unexpected. Most embarrassing moment – her speech, “I’m just trying to matter”?! References to every major relative on the matrilineal line since Eve?! I rather think that one’s going to stick in her memory for the wrong reasons. Twenty pence on that being significantly mocked across the media over the next twenty-four hours…

Crap! We’re up to Best Adapted Screenplay and yes! Brokeback Mountain has won something decent at last! Yes! About bloody time and it’s a bloody great one! I’m pretty delighted about that one, although can I just say at this point that Simon and Yoz are being really annoying and talking to each other too loudly about Django and I might have to kill em! Ack! Now Crash has won Best Original Screenplay. It’s all going to come to the wire on this one. Fingers crossed. Crash sucks!

Ang Lee wins Best Director and that bodes really really really well. Apparently Director and Film tend to go together. I’m so happy about this one. Come on you bastards!


Film Gay Politics

Some thoughts on Brokeback Mountain…

I went to see Brokeback Mountain this evening with a lovely group of people, and I think it made an impact on all of us. It really is what the hype says it is – an intelligent and sensitive film about a love that dominates the lives of two people but is frustrated by circumstance, baggage and by a raft of general human failings (some innate and some imposed). It’s beautiful and it’s melacholic and it feels true.

As a film, it caters to a gay sensibility only in accepting that love between two men is as possible and as real as love between a man and a woman. It’s not a cartoon film, it’s not a polemic. There’s a sense of danger around the relationship, but it’s not a dehumanised threat from outside – straight people aren’t evil, nor is the church or the uneducated or the parents. It’s a much more sophisticated film than that. The leads are not saints – there’s deceit and there’s prostitution and seediness and infidelities. And no character is a cypher – Ennis and Jack are complex, different and conflicted (you’d expect that), but so are their wives and the other women they come into contact with. No one gets a particularly easy time, but each has an opportunity to reveal how the situation they find themselves in has affected them, each has their fragilities exposed, each reveals strengths and insight. The wives are real, and as tragic as the leads. Their children are as plucky and remarkable as their parents. Sometimes more so. It’s a narrative in which every character is treated with respect by the film makers, even if they do not treat each other with respect in the film. As a piece of characterwork, as a piece of craftsmanship and as a piece of art, I genuinely think it’s exceptional.

I find it harder to present a personal perspective on it. One of my favourite reviews of the film by Roger Ebert said:

“the filmmakers have focused so intently and with such feeling on Jack and Ennis that the movie is as observant as work by Bergman. Strange but true: The more specific a film is, the more universal, because the more it understands individual characters, the more it applies to everyone. I can imagine someone weeping at this film, identifying with it, because he always wanted to stay in the Marines, or be an artist or a cabinetmaker.”

I think he’s right, but I think there has to be a special resonance for gay people in watching a film in which same-sex love and its complexities are so well represented. It’s a rare occurence at all, let alone at this quality. I’m sure many people believe that gay people are as equal as everyone else and as free to operate in the world and do as they please as straight couples. But it’s not true – while watching the fear on Heath Ledger’s face about being exposed and revealed, I could see the anxiety on the face of an ex-boyfriend about any display of affection in public. He lived in fear of public hassle or approbrium – a fear that I’d like to say was unjustified, but cannot. My own lack of fear is probably more an artifact of years of anger and frustration than it is because I experience no threat. There’s something here that’s still more resonant today than many people understand.

But of course the other side of the personal experience is about remembering the relationships that got away, about the personal Brokebacks. It’s hard to resist recasting one’s failed romances under the influence of the film. It’s too tempting to find a familiar pattern in these epic narratives that stretch across a life, and to wallow in your own tragic arc. But if there’s one thing that Brokeback illustrates, it’s the danger of embracing neither the inevitable nor the desirable, about the paralysis of fear and of ceasing to fight because it’s the simplest short-term option. In our darkest moments and our most difficult relationships, or when it seems like unrequited or frustrated feelings will drag us down and segregate us off from the rest of humanity, it’s worth remembering this point. Because I for one want to resist the tragic conclusion. I want to fight against it and win. So if you’re feeling Brokeback too deeply – as I think maybe I did tonight – then maybe recognise that the ending was not inevitable, and however beautiful it was, there was still somewhere in all the pain a deeply missed and wonderful opportunity.


Kong! Kong! Kong! Kong!

There’s a moment about a fifth of the way through King Kong (IMDB / Metacritic) when a young character who’s reading a copy of Heart of Darkness suddenly twigs that he’s not reading an adventure story. And then about thirty seconds later, you realise you’re not watching an adventure story either. And then the ground falls out from underneath your feet and the next time you breathe it’s about an hour later and you’re so hooked and consumed by the whole experience that you don’t want the film to ever end. I’ve never seen a movie that so comprehensively crapped on any and all opposition, that so savagely went for your throat and held you by it until you begged for mercy. God knows how it’ll stand up to repeated viewings – it’s not a short film and there are patches where you could find fault – but for the moment I can only say that there’s never been a blockbuster like this, it’s going to clean up everywhere and I’d put money on it putting years on Speilberg. Unbeatable. Amazing. Must see. Wow.


A review of Joss Whedon's "Serenity"…

Last night – eight hours after landing back in the UK – I went to see a very special movie. In fact I went to see a very special preview of a very special movie. I went to see Serenity. And if you like adventure films, character-driven drama, sci-fi or just have any desire to watch something intelligent, exciting and funny, then I thoroughly recommend that you watch it too. It’s as good a film as the Lord of the Rings films at their best. All the recent Star Wars movies put together aren’t fit to clean its boots. I can’t think of a sci-fi film in my recent memory that can touch it, frankly. It’s out in a month. You will go and see this movie

Now I have to be honest with you, I – like many many other people – was a fan before I got in the room – although my love for the show was far from immediate. I’d loved some of Joss Whedon’s earlier stuff on Buffy and Angel – smart shows with vivid characters that burst out of the genre fiction ghetto – but the premise of Firefly hadn’t really immediately grabbed my attention. In the end I won the DVD in some ludicrous competition and after ignoring it for a few weeks, I started to watch the show that had been cancelled before the end even of its first season.

DVD Disc One was pretty good, but it took until the end of the second disc for me to start realising that I was loving every minute of it, and from there I just started devouring episode after episode. And it started getting more and more entertaining until suddenly… Nothing. The end. Cut down in its pride. I bought the DVD for a few friends, and watched them fall in love the same way I had. And then we heard about the film…

So the story goes a bit like this – 20th Century Fox cut the show down before it was finished. No one was watching it. Who can blame them. But the DVD sales – fueled by word of mouth and an almost insane love of the show from its fans – were enormous. Based on this and the strength of the premise and characters, Universal decided to fund a film. This never happens. This is really really strange.

And what’s the film like? It’s big and its funny and it scary and it’s unafraid to talk about big stuff. I do not think that having seen the TV series is necessary to enjoying this film, but I can’t say for certain. The set-up is strong and introduces as many of the large group of character as you could possibly expect. There’s enough here to carry anyone into the universe and to care about what happens to the people in it. It’s an action-adventure but it’s not plotless or trivial, and so it’s possible that fresh audiences dealing with multiple backstories might find it a little confusing the first time through. But even if they are, I think they’ll get enough from it to want to see it again. It is a very. good. film.

And if you have watched the show – you’re in for a treat. There is nothing here for a fan to quibble about, and their added familiarity with the characters and investment in their lives will make the whole experience that much sweeter, more painful and more engaging. I totally agree with Londonist on pretty much all of that stuff. And what happens? I can’t spoil it for people – except to say that the battles are huge, the characters true and you could not expect such a battle to be fought without cost.

And you’ll get your ending if that’s all you want. You’ll be happy. Those fans who felt the show was left to die in its infancy will see it get the send-off it deserves. But I want more. After the screening, Joss Whedon himself and Summer Glau participated in a little Q&A session. Joss is funny in person. He’s personable and pleasant and a bit geeky. He’s put his heart and soul into this movie and it shows. He took a considerable amount of time to answer people’s questions and talked about an enormous range of subjects. He clearly wants to get the fans motivated and out in the world proselytising.

And for once, I don’t begrudge it. For once, I’m not suspicious. I don’t feel manipulated by marketeers. This film is worth celebrating. It’s worth shouting about. It deserves a sequel. If ever a fan favourite deserved to succeed its this one, and it deserves to succeed now, not on DVD in decades to come. So stir up the family, get your friends to watch the series and realise what they’ve been missing, and get yourself down to the cinema with about a dozen other people when this film is released. The word is out. You won’t regret it. This film is shit-hot. And if you don’t believe me, then check out its IMDB Rating of 9.1 from 1358 users. It’s a classic in the making…


On 'Batman Begins' and St. Pancras Station…

Last night – thanks to the intervention of my good friend Katy Lindemann – I was lucky enough to see a media screening of Batman Begins. I used to go to media screenings of things quite a lot when I was writing film reviews for the BBC and working at Time Out, but it’s been a while and I’d forgotten quite how lovely they are. The screens are always a good size, the film is never covered in scratches and you get little nibbly bits beforehand (mmm houmous). But most importantly, the seats are astonishingly comfortable. Sometimes you’re particularly lucky and you get dedicated armchairs to sit in. I wasn’t quite that lucky this time, but they were still more than ample – clearly designed for super-rich, super-powerful and amply-buttocked executives like Harvey Weinstein. I have this image of escalating arms races in screening room technology to persuade ever higher-powered people to think kindly on your production – “And this one is built as a floatation and isolation tank complete with martini tube and foot massager”…

Cough. Well that’s enough about the food and the seats, I suppose. So here’s the surprising bit. The film itself was bloody good fun. It’s a film that plays more to the motivations and personal development of the man who comes to wear the bat suit and it’s all the better for it – this is absolutely not a film made by people who fundamentally believe that comic books are fundamentally laughable. This is a film by people who respect the source material, who are prepared to engage with the fundamentals of the enterprise – strip it all back down to the essence of the story and rebuild again from scratch. This is a Batman movie with genuinely scary bits: a Scarecrow who actually freaks you out, savage fighting in prisons, crazed killers on the streets and a major villain who is so focused and clear that he seems more like a religious fundamentalist than a cape-wearing weirdo. The script and actors really hold up to scrutiny as well: Bale is solid (even if his accent isn’t), Katie Holmes plays a bit of a whiny cow, but at least she’s a tough, smart, idealistic whiny cow (which is a step up from being a generic off the shelf swooning dame, I guess), Gary Oldman’s Gordon is believable and Ra’s Al Ghul pretty much rocks. And in the background, Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman steal every scene they’re in.

The only problem with the whole film for me (other than the microwave whatsit, which I’m pretty sure would cook all the people nearby) is the standard problem with superhero films – Batman still looks pretty dumb in the batsuit. Thankfully they’ve figured out that you keep Batman scary by respecting his methods – it’s designed to be scary in the dark – so (for the most part) that’s where they keep him. And certainly, the minor quibble is far from enough to stop me recommending that you all go and see it immediately.

Oh and there’s something else and it’s pretty damn awesome. Last year I sneaked into the ruins of the great St Pancras train station with a few other Map Club types like Rod, Phil, Webb and Hill. Inside the epic pseudo-gothic structure were some beautifully over-the-top features from its time as a hotel at the beginning of the century. Particularly impressive was the great staircase that runs up the wall on the British Library side of the building, up to a fully restored deep blue-green and gold hall at the top of the building:

Now imagine that space full of conflict and battle, filled with shadows and with the lunatic flurrying of ten thousand bats and SWAT teams and with Batman – arms outstretched – launching himself down from the top floor through the shaft of the staircase to land like a god in the middle of some vision of hell. Imagine that all happening around that ornate gothic staircase. Well, I don’t have to imagine. I’ve seen it! And it’s one hell of a moment, on one hell of a location shoot in the heart of London. Bloody brilliant.

Film Gay Politics

On Alexander and Uncle Tom…

The other day I was watching BBC Breakfast and they got their film critic on to talk about the premiere of Oliver Stone’s new film Alexander. Now Alexander has not got terribly good reviews and they showed a few clips of the director and some of the actors talking about why it’s been such a flop in the States. Oliver Stone’s opinion was that America had trouble with the idea of a general who had a long-standing homosexual relationship. Apparently in some parts of the States they wouldn’t even show it in theatres. As a consequence Stone decided to re-edit the film for the DVD release—presumably to remove some of the gay stuff.
To give you a bit of the context, here are some articles around the film:

Anyway, after seeing the interviews, BBC Breakfast dragged out their critic. And they asked him if it was true that the film was only rejected because of the gay stuff. And the critic said (and I paraphrase), Well, I hope that’s not the case. But in my opinion, if anything the film needed to be more gay—you know—camped up a bit! A bit more glam!
Nnngh! Nngh! Grrr! Nnngh! I mean for Christ’s sake—this is a film about a man who led armies across all of the known world—who pushed his people beyond the limits of that worldand who did it all in his twenties. This was an epic leader! This was one hell of a man! Why is it so extraordinary to want to represent this hero of Macedonia seriously? Some cultures thought he was a monster of enormous proportions. Other cultures idolised him. Classical academics who are not generally prone to hyperbolae referred to him as “undoubtedly the greatest general of his race and probably of antiquity”. This isn’t some made up piece of modern hokum like Gladiator was – nor is it an attempt to represent an ancient literary work and mythological tradition like Troy. Why on earth would you want to ‘camp it up’?
Now, I’ve now gone and seen the film. I was determined to see it and pretty determined to enjoy it and to find value in it. But I can report that it is not a particularly good film. It has really good bits in it if you’re prepared for the crap, but it’s badly structured and clumsy and has obviously been hacked to pieces for time. Whole sections of the life of Alexander are excised or put in briefly as flashbacks, some characters are hammy beyond belief and for some extraordinary reason everyone in Macedonia speaks with an Irish accent. I mean, I could go on all day with the things that are wrong with it.
But there are things that it’s been criticised for unfairly, and—worse—reactions from audiences and critics that demean themselves and our culture. Whenever Alexander was seen to be interested in someone malethis epic leader and warrior became suddenly subject to titters and giggles from the auditorium. Because it’s apparently laughable—embarrassing even—to imagine that a great warrior could have been more interested in men than women. The sincerity of the feeling that Alexander evidences is apparently ludicrous to these people. That’s why they need the film ‘camped up’ a bit—because most of the modern western world appears to be prudish or infantile when it comes to sex and feeling, and completely unprepared to deal with different cultural morays or with the representation of a character who managed to be larger than any of them will ever be, while also fucking men.
Having been in the auditorium with these reactions, I think I can state right-out that there is homophobia in the way this film has been received. I think that’s true. It’s only one reason that the film has failed of course—there are dozens of others—but it’s certainly one of them. And in experiencing people’s reaction to the film, I’m reminded more and more that the successes in gay rights over the last ten years or so have also ushered in an Uncle Tom-ish culture of the desexualised, non-threatening and funny little poof who is apologetically grateful for the positive reaction he can get from straight people by being entertaining. I’m increasingly angry about the way that we’ve petitioned for rights by turning everything about ourselves that could be possibly considered threatening into some kind of joke. Alexander the Great was no man’s bloody pet.
You can find out more about Alexander the Great at these various sites:


Twenty years of Oscar nominees…

Every year I look forward to the Oscar nominations – I like the excitement of finding out who has been put up for the awards. I love the sensation of complete astonishment when great films are ignored and ludicrously over-acted twaddle wins. I love the Oscars because sometimes they’re so very right and I love them more because sometimes they can be so very very wrong.

This year has been the first year when I have looked at the nominations for “Best Picture” and struggled to find a film that I think deserves to be there. But how to account for such a phenomenon? My first assumption was that it must have simply been a terrible year for movies in general. With such a motley selection of candidates available, what hope was there that they’d be able to find – let alone vote for – a truly great film.

But how likely is that to be true? There are any number of alternative possibilities. Firstly that they chose the wrong films, secondly that they chose the right films and that my taste is simply getting worse. And behind this are the larger questions – are the films that get nominated for Oscars today worse than the ones that were nominated ten or twenty years ago? Is there a pattern to the quality of film-making that we can track through the Oscars?

Enter a totally redundant project – the compilation of some figures about how good or bad the Oscar nominees had been over the last twenty years. I would see, or be damned, if there was any discernable pattern. And in seeing this pattern – “A Beautiful Mind”-style luminous in the world – perhaps I would see if my suspicions about this year’s nominees were correct. Or perhaps, “A Beautiful Mind”-style, I would find that I had been living in a world of horrible unreality and an insane lack of judgment.

Over many minutes I decided on a campaign strategy. My comprehensive research (to take place over a boring afternoon before Countdown came on Channel Four) would involve:
1) Going to the IMDB.
2) Finding all the films nominated for “Best Film” over the last twenty years.
3) Adding together all the nominees ‘user-ratings’ for each year.
4) Plotting them on a graph.

Not brain-surgery, I think you’ll agree. And hopelessly unscientific – we have no control group, nothing to compare them to… But interesting nonetheless… What will this reveal about our relationship to Oscar movies or indeed our relationship to the cultural products of other times? I can tell you right now that it will reveal nothing. But it remains fun to speculate about what it might have revealed had it not been such an immediately and obviously flawed experiment. And now the graph….

On the left we have the combined score of all the films released in any given year (the years are plotted on the bottom axis). Since all IMDB user-ratings rate out of 10, the range of potential scores for any given year is 0-50 points.

But what are we to make of these results? It seems that quite contrary to my initial expectations, the films that have gained Oscar Nominations have in general increased in quality over the last twenty years. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that all you can deduce is that people have very short memories and rate contemporary movies more generously than older ones. But that still can’t account for the horrific drops in quality in the mid and late-eightees…