Friday, 14 July 2017

What to See This Weekend: Breaking Free

“I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry” (Dennis Dugan, 2007)

Available on iTunes; on Amazon Video; on Microsoft; on DVD.

There is a tendency among nominal liberal and progressive moviegoers to attend the explicit art-house political saga, and evade the ribald comedies obviously aimed at much broader, less discerning sectors of the population. It’s exactly the constituency that the Weinstein Company often depends on, as well as the one that had, until recently, provided the bulk of outside support to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles. The misguided refinement and unconsciousness prejudices of this interest group explain why one sees enthusiastic acclaim go to such disobligingly cautious works as The Imitation Game and Dallas Buyers Club, and little worthy recognition be afforded the sharper, more revealing, more personal, more daring — and, yes, more popular and entertaining — works of Judd Apatow and Eddie Murphy. The predominant disagreeable factor of the bulk of these recent outright liberal movies is that they reflect the views and verities of the liberal media establishment back upon itself with little of the insight or tension that leads to true art; the comforting platitudes and affirmations of these movies are generally yoked to a similarly complacent and unchallenging aesthetic. They expand the echo chamber shared by their well-meaning filmmakers and audiences, and do little to advance the political causes they’ve ostensibly taken up, or to influence the culture into which they’re released.

Into this palliative division of the cinema, the drop of something effervescent like Dennis Dugan’s 2007 bawdy entertainment I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, which this week crossed the 10th anniversary of its theatrical release, is most welcome. No doubt a number of readers groaned at the sight of Adam Sandler in a movie recommendation by this blog, and the rest were disconcerted by the raucous bulk of his frequent comedy partner Kevin James. The film is popular enough to have been seen by most of this blog’s readers already, but those who haven’t, despite what you may have heard or previously experienced by way of Sandler’s Brooklyn-bro vulgarity, are heartily encouraged to indulge its frank sentimentality and ultimate moral message of homophilia, which it couples with a warm and heartfelt tone of sincerity and political activism. It’s not in quite the same aesthetic class as the films of Judd Apatow (though, frankly, few films of this century are) but it brings a forthright approach to satirising and transforming mainstream perceptions of the homosexual community it depicts. In that it delves into the personal lives of its characters and portrays private impulses and desires that don’t conform neatly to a conventional political cause — thus illustrating how politics are necessarily driven by the chaotic, multivalent individual lives they affect — it’s superior to the abovementioned issue-oriented films of overtly liberal politics. What’s more, at the time of its release, it was deliberately aimed at precisely the moviegoing market that generally had little interest in or exposure to LGBTQ causes, and did considerable more work in reaching out to a broader, more intersected group for support and empathy.

The plot, centred on two heterosexual firemen (Adam Sandler and Kevin James), is largely familiar, though in no way overworked or trite. James’s Larry is the widowed father of two children who, through bureaucratic constraints, is forced to marry to secure protection for his children as beneficiaries of his government insurance policies. The only solution he’s comfortable with is entering into a domestic partnership with Sandler’s womanising Chuck, who is his partner at work as well as his best friend. Through a series of mishaps, as well as legal and political necessity, they become public icons in New York’s gay rights movement, thereby bringing much-needed popular attention to the cause, and also allowing their experiences and new comrades to transform their previously constricted perceptions of homosexuals. The film trades on every stereotype possible for laughs, then twists those laughs into satire by ridiculing the stereotypes. By depicting Chuck and Larry’s ridiculous (and, admittedly, common) fear of homosexuality and mining those prejudices for comedy, the film cleverly and refreshingly mocks homophobia. The underlying moral point of the film is heavily hammered and can be rather simplistically summarised — that sexual orientation and identity has absolutely nothing to do with character or moral make-up — but the lesson is drawn with such appealing humanity and good, cleansing humour, and it remains worthy enough a lesson to give so many viewers, that I didn’t mind the bold simplicity of it at all. This is a movie by straight people for straight people, with the primary purpose of illuminating the common, complex, and spirited humanity of the gays. Audiences are shown the experiences of being ostracised and of living a sham life, and, because Sandler and James can be universally relied upon not to be faggots, they can successfully appeal to crowds never to use that word. Ultimately, they give the most encouraging and supportive effort contemporary Hollywood has yet come up with for the fight for gay civil rights.

P.S.: I will not defend the Asian caricature by Rob Schneider, which I found astonishingly insensitive and stunningly unfunny. This contributed nothing to the moral and political cause of the film, and could easily have been removed or replaced.

P.P.S.: Ving Rhames very nearly redeems it by his own flipping of the stereotype of a supermacho black muscleman. His captivating shower-singing and -twerking, and heartfelt sensitivity introduce tender dynamics to a film already rich with humanising themes.

“Transamerica” (Duncan Tucker, 2005)

Available on iTunes; on Amazon Video; on Microsoft; on import DVD.

One of the very first Weinstein Company releases that I derided in my generalisation above was this exceptional comedy about a deeply unhappy and uncomfortable trans woman. Felicity Huffman plays Sabrina, or Bree, in a film that evades gloom and sanctimony, and presents the complicated tangle of identity and relationships that render a trans person’s life just as chaotic and humorously absurd a mess as the rest of our lives. Bree, who was born a guy named Stanley, is about to undergo sexual reassignment surgery in Los Angeles when she learns that Stanley’s single sexual interaction (“the whole thing was so pathetically lesbian”) years ago has produced a son he never knew about. Bree finds this out when the seventeen-year-old, Toby (Kevin Zegers), calls her from a holding cell in New York City looking for his father. Under the imperatives of her therapist and the false purview of a beneficent evangelist (Toby is a gay hustler, caught for shoplifting and possession of drugs), Bree travels to New York to bail him out, and, through unhappy necessity, brings him across the country with her to be back in Los Angeles in time for her surgery, where he dreams of living with his father and working in the movies.

Huffman characterises Bree with supreme empathy and intelligence, playing her pathos for comedy. The humour arises not from a superiority over Bree or pity for her misfortunes, but the sudden and absorbing recognition of her emotions and experiences. Bree demonstrates that, morally, she’s no weaker than any cis viewer, and an audience may face her predicaments with laughter because it’s comfortable laughing at itself as well. Bree’s primness and astute interest and curiosity in various world cultures are not contrived quirks, but intonations of a rounded and full-bodied human. She learns a stark and sudden lesson about her individual shortcomings as well: as much as Bree wants to be a woman, she is neither equipped nor inclined to be a mother. And as she tries to guide Toby to his destination, she finds that she is no surer of her own path through life. Her fumbles illustrate the immense and lifelong effort that must go into the making of oneself and placing oneself into society. Bree’s difficulties are not different in kind or nature from those of anyone else, they only include the extra hurdle that befall trans people. Thus, the writer and director Duncan Tucker postulates, anyone can embrace the identity and circumstances of a trans person, and grasp their journey with empathy.

Transamerica takes a hopeful and glowing view of the country it describes, suggesting that what many bigots and otherwise prejudiced people may lack is not empathy, but mere knowledge and experience. The decent folk who inhabit the land of the free may come to understand and respect a trans person — or, really, any person at all — if they only took time to engage with them. They couldn’t miss the person’s essence and central humanity and need for love and respect. Tucker also equates Bree’s journey to a spiritual quest through the most recognisable spiritual imagery possible in American media: Christian cultural paraphernalia. She poses as a missionary, is accompanied on her road trip by country gospel picking, and is given a peak cap as a gift by the well-meaning Toby with the inscription I’M A PROUD CHRISTIAN. Tucker has little distinctive filming style, and the images of his film are nothing special at all, but his idea of reunifying American religion with acceptance of and guidance for disoriented individuals is bolder than many of the political and social causes taken up by his virtuosic counterparts. His brightest stroke was to hire Dolly Parton to write the song for the film’s closing credits (“Travelin’ thru”), as she lovelily connects heartland faith with drag, and her lyrics can stand as the staff for any wondering soul, inhabiting the body of any gender identity:

I can’t tell you where I’m going, I’m not sure of where I’ve been
But I know I must keep travelin’ till my road comes to an end
I’m out here on my journey, trying to make the most of it
I’m a puzzle, I must figure out where all my pieces fit.

Like a poor, wayfaring stranger that they speak about in song,
I’m just a weary pilgrim trying to find what feels like home
Where that is no one can tell me, am I doomed to ever roam?
I’m just travelin’, travelin’, travelin’, I’m just travelin’ on.

Questions, I have many, answers but a few
We’re here to learn, the spirit burns, to know the greater truth
We’ve all been crucified and they nailed Jesus to the tree
And when I’m born again you’re gonna see a change in me.

God made me for a reason and nothing is in vain
Redemption comes in many shapes with many kinds of pain
Oh, sweet Jesus, if you’re listening, keep me ever close to you
As I’m stumblin’, tumblin’, wonderin’, as I’m travelin’ through.

“Hidden Figures” (Theodore Melfi, 2016)

Available on BoxOffice; on iTunes; on Amazon Video; on Microsoft; on DVD.

The director of Hidden Figures, Theodore Melfi, and his co-writer, Allison Schroeder, are both white, and, in the telling of a true American civil rights story, they’ve wrought a film utterly non-threatening to its white viewers, yet by no means innocuous. Their great respect for the experiences and wisdom of their black characters — led by three real-life figures, Katherine Johnson (beginning the story as Katherine Goble, played by Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) — is unmistakable, and the priority of those experiences and ideas are central to the artistic, political, and social purposes of the filmmakers.

The filmmakers distil the varied and interconnected issues of the civil rights struggle for African Americans in the 1960s into these three women’s plot arcs, as they navigate their careers at NASA, in the Langley Research Centre in Virginia. Katherine faces outright and demeaning discrimination from her colleagues in the Space Task Group of Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), where she is the first female black member; there are unfair and unreasonable hurdles in her workplace that she must constantly overcome, which places her at a daily significant professional disadvantage to the other team members (who, in the film, are all men). Mary possesses the skills and aptitude of a highly capable engineer, but is barred from achieving the qualifications necessary to enter the profession. Dorothy is held down professionally by the obstinacy of a supervisor (Kirsten Dunst) who has little concern for the variously exploited and subdued black employees beneath her.

The sketching in of inequities and indignities at the research centre is briskly and skilfully undertaken. The film was an immense hit when it was in theatrical release here earlier this year, earning approximately R3.5 million in gross ticket sales (the theatre was full on the evening I watched it, and further filled up with cheers and applause at critical moments in the drama), and the fun of its lively play is added to enormously by its quick and breezy intelligence. Monáe adds a delectable sass to her determination and brilliance; Spencer, aside her customary wit, is given a scene of piercing insight, where she faces off Kirsten Dunst in a restroom, though I won’t give away the lines here. Dunst’s character is a particularly canny inclusion in the film, and reflects many contemporary attitudes back at the audience; she claims not to be against civil rights or her black employees in any way, and merely to be acting in accordance with the rules of her place of work and society. But she either hasn’t realised or wilfully ignores the fact that those rules were deliberately set up to work against the black employees of NASA, and against the black citizens of Virginia and the United States.

The most full-blooded and humanly nuanced characterisation is of Katherine, the main focus of the film. Her mathematical accomplishments prove vital to NASA’s effort of sending the first American manned mission into space, and her fight for dignity and opportunity is most central to the plot. The filmmakers also flesh out her life and experiences outside of work — as well as, to lesser extents, those of Dorothy and Mary — with commensurate compassion and earned sentimentality, showing scenes with her children, mother, suitor, church, and community members. The life of a citizen in America — black citizens, in this particular case — is shown to have inextricable connections between their work and their life outside of work; the racially discriminatory systems at NASA are implied to permeate American society, and instances of it are shown at the school Mary hopes to attend and the library Dorothy visits with her children. It’s worth reminding those who endeavoured, at the time of the film’s release in the United States, to “make America great again” that the country’s past achievements, on any level of greatness, were indissolubly linked to the exclusions and indecencies that pervaded American society (and that, I venture to add, have lingered to the present day). Hidden Figures restores the image of dignity and moral strength to the protests of those whom systems malign; the lesson was far too dearly won not to remember.

P.S.: Since I first saw the film, I’ve been wondering whether the name of Kirsten Dunst’s character, Vivian Mitchell, is an allusion to Margaret Mitchell, who wrote the seminal work of American slave-owning nostalgia. I searched, unsuccessfully, to references to the real-life person at NASA. I’d welcome any news or insight in this regard.

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