Wednesday, 27 July 2016

The Dream Factory

“Me Him Her”

I wrote before that to have a gay best friend is an inordinate privilege not enjoyed by nearly enough people in the world. It is not to be discounted, however, that it is also an ennobling responsibility and that crucial requirements are made of the affection, loyalty, and resourcefulness of those on whom this is bestowed. Best friends bear a significant duty to one another and it is during times of challenges – such as the flurry of crises that break out when one comes face to face with his sexual orientation – that their fellowship is tested and, if it succeeds, fortified.

Dustin Milligan plays Cory, a blithe young drifter in denim shorts and with a week-old beard whom we first meet in the stall of a public bathroom, in the directorial debut of the young Hollywood local Max Landis, cheerily named Me Him Her. Cory is the best friend of Brendan (Luke Bracey), a straight-acting Hollywood superstar who finally (months after leaving college) figures out that he’s gay, and even then it’s only because he’s kissed a boy and liked it. Brendan, duly bewildered at his discovery and thoroughly puzzled as to what to do next, both personally and professionally, enlists his homie’s help and flies him to Los Angeles for support and guidance.

No sooner has Cory landed and piped out his first squeal of excitement, however, than he earns a cautionary behest from Brendan never to let himself wander or cut loose in Los Angeles. “L.A. is like a giant jigsaw puzzle someone forgot to assemble,” Brendan informs him; “the pieces are laid out all over the floor.” To venture into the gaps, he insists, is to place yourself in the way of significant risk. What kind of risk – physical, psychological, financial, existential, sexual – Brendan neglects to say; it seems he isn’t so sure himself. All he can tell us is that “things get weird”.

As it happens, they begin weirdly enough outside of the gaps, as we witness in our introduction to Gabbi (Emily Meade), an alternately blustery and brooding lesbian who is dumped by her live-in girlfriend of two years, Heather (Angela Sarafyan), at the beginning of the film. Gabbi seems just as bewildered as Brendan, though the question of her sexual orientation and identity has already been put to rest. In her misery, she stops for the evening at the gay bar where she meets Cory (who has slyly drawn Brendan there to meet his crush). They have sex – Cory hilariously fails to read any of the signs of Gabbi’s persuasion, like her plaid shirt or her confused remarks about making out with someone with facial hair – and he spends much of the rest of the film chasing after her through Los Angeles, hoping to make good on the humming promises that first night held for him.

L.A., it turns out, is a vast metropolis – a brief glance through Wikipedia may tell you that it covers only half the area of the Tshwane metro, but recall that most things in Africa are outsized – and Cory’s chase through it leaves him disoriented and out of breath more than once. We’re led past an array of sights and famous places, like Santa Monica, Sunset Boulevard, Beverley Hills, and the beach, but are grounded for once in a sense of geography, when Cory wails about how far each of these places is from everything else, and when Brendan stands on top of his car and shouts out the areas’ names while pointing in their direction, or Landis takes an aerial shot of the city and shows it sprawling across the Californian valley. There’s the obligatory shot of the Hollywood sign, but, as we find to be characteristic of Landis and his singular work, it’s seen from a unique angle and its setting imbues the scene with a distinctive mood.

Landis delights in letting us in on the feeling, both freeing and unsettling, of being privileged adolescents set loose on a city as eclectic and freewheeling as Los Angeles. Being an entitled offspring of Hollywood luxuries himself (his father, John Landis, is a famous Hollywood director), he’s evidently acquainted with the thrills as well as the risks and dreads of the many social and sexual options and wide range of experiences available to people such as Cory, Brendan, and Gabbi. In the way he captures his images both in and of Los Angeles, he gives the impression of a steady-handed knowledge of the world as well as a gleeful wonder at the prospect that everything he knows can be true.

And what Landis doesn’t know, he’s willing to investigate and film, and happen upon in the process. By all accounts, Landis is a straight man, and he’s managed to make a life- and gay-affirming movie that simultaneously expands its romcom genre into compassion and opens up to a refreshing breeze of critical thought and personal ideas. Landis restores the word that describes Brendan’s sexual orientation to its original meaning: “happy”. He eschews uncritical heteronormativity while also demonstrating that a gay man who is in love with another gay man and decides to enter into a mutually monogamous, warmly romantic relationship with him is not capitulating to heteronormative ideals or perpetuating a cultural stereotype. It’s demonstrated even more simply and more wholly in the romance between Cory and Gabbi, since he’s a straight man with a credibly tender acceptance of his best friend’s homosexuality and she, to all appearances, is a lesbian with an undeniable attraction to this solitary male. If the individuals are distinctive enough and unafraid enough of their distinction, Landis seems to suggest – and distinctive in a personal way, not in the conventional questions of orientation, gender identity, ethnicity, and persecutions – and their love is sincere enough, then no couple submits to mass media ideals or mindless stereotypes.

The primary success of Me Him Her rests on the performance of Milligan as Cory. This thesis of distinctive individuals is captured exuberantly in Milligan’s high-spirited flourishes of gesture, energies of vocal tone, nuances of expression, and natural oblivious flair for comedy. His mirthful smile shines brightly across the screen, and his wild gesticulations and yelps of excitement in both glee and frustration fizz throughout the film and hang around in echoes even when he isn’t in a scene. It’s unclear to me whether the “Me” of the title is Cory or Brendan while the “Him” is the other, though the central character of the story is apparently meant to be Brendan, but Cory’s good cheer and enchanting physical presence is the syrup that pervades the story and keeps it all sticking together in a warm, sweet mess.

The untidiness I take to be intentional, since Landis recognises with striking clarity the tangle of conflicting thoughts and the precariousness of unstable emotions both in free and privileged youths in contemporary society and in coming to terms with homosexuality for someone whose life in large part is built on the public’s perception of them. Brendan doesn’t fight his natural tendencies so much as he fights their influence on the rest of his life, until the scene, late in the film, where he’s let out of a car boot to scream in his underwear at the Californian desert and he realises that their impact on him is only as significant but also as infinitesimal as he himself determines. What he and the audience eventually find that he fears in coming out publicly is the radical change it will have not on his career or his image, but on his intimate notions of himself and on his own personal identity.

He finds soon enough, however, that he can say the worlds “I am gay” without undergoing a change and without any of his own ideas being disturbed. As he discovers that his homosexuality was a secret only to himself he asks everyone, “You knew I was gay? Why didn’t you tell me?,” reinforcing his yearning to connect and to understand his place both culturally and socially, and to build his identity on the strongest conceptual foundation he can find.

The direction and force of the gusts of thought blowing through this film are certainly encouraging, and I find that Me Him Her measures up and passes the test of aesthetic quality as well, because of its moving dramatisation of its ideas of the world and depiction of personal experiences and insights, as well as because of its idiosyncratic conception of itself as a part of cinematic heritage. It’s set entirely in the centre of American cinema, colloquially known as “the Dream Factory,” and, happily, wrenches the term and the play on it out of the hands of last year’s insipid exercise of indoctrination by Pixar, Inside Out. There, the Dream Factory was a location in Riley’s bland and vapidly conceived mind, where the thinnest and driest of narrative constructs were strewn with utterly random and meaningless elements in a large studio lot, then filmed and transmitted to her mind’s control centre as her nightly dreams. Here, Landis opens his film up to larger psychedelic moments and sequences, where his characters’ troubles of confusion and dissatisfaction suddenly seem trivial and far away. They connect to one another and also to the images of themselves and their world – images created through the lens of subjectivity and stored in their subconscious. The breaking through of these images into their consciousness and to the diegesis of the film shows that Landis recognises the importance of these images and dreams to society and to the individual; one’s seemingly conflicting thoughts and emotions can be reconciled in one’s dreams, and a stronger conception of identity arrived at through dreams as well. Landis realises his ideas of culture, identity, and romance through his revelatory representations in the language of dreams, ie the cinema.


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