Friday, 14 October 2016

The limits of subtext

I've been trying to broaden my movie-viewing experiences recently, but I'm still not averse to a good old-fashioned blockbuster. That's what I figured I was getting when I bought a ticket to The Magnificent Seven last week, and for the most part, my expectations were met: yes, the script was a Frankenstein's monster of multiple rewrites, yes the explosions were many and joyful, yes Chris Pratt was doing his standard Chris Pratt schtick ("hi, I'm Chris Pratt, and I'll be your off-brand Han Solo for the evening.") But amidst all the standard cliches, something caught my eye and held my attention even after the credits had rolled: was the film implying a romantic relationship between Goodnight (Ethan Hawke) and Billy (Lee Byung-hun?) According to at least one person on Twitter who worked on the film, that's exactly what the implication was- and it was toned down significantly from the first draft of the script:

Now, rewrites are standard practice for any creative product- it's a chance to smooth out bugs, plug in plotholes, and deepen the characters and themes. But in this case, I'm at a bit of a loss as to what was gained in translation. The final draft of  the script- the one that ended up in the movie- has Goodnight explaining their relationship by saying "I keep him employed, he keeps me on the level," and later insisting, "where I go, Billy goes." A relatively small difference- but vastly significant in what it implies. "Comfort" is something provided by a loved one; "on the level" is a business term. The rest of their relationship- what caught my attention when I watched the film- takes place in quiet moments in the background, little glimpses of what might be happening when the camera cuts away. Easy to notice, if you're looking for it; easy to miss if you aren't.

Ethan Hawke and Lee Byung-hun in The Magnificent Seven
The Magnificent Seven is far from the only film to employ this sort of peri-textual approach when it comes to queer relationships. Last year's Mad Max:Fury Road featured a cast of five "wives" fleeing their warlord "husband," and many viewers noticed that two of the wives- played by Abbey Lee and Courtney Eaton- were awfully cuddly with each other, even for sister-wives. I'm willing to give Mad Max slightly more leeway in this regard, because the movie relied heavily on visual storytelling over dialogue- literally showing rather than telling. But at the same time, a male and female character (played by Riley Keough and Nicholas Hoult) were permitted to carry out an explicitly romantic relationship; no one watching the film would come away denying that the two were attracted to each other. So why the discrepancy?

Left to right: Abbey Lee, Courtney Eaton, and Zoe Kravitz in
Mad Max.
The short version seems to be "because studio interference." The looming spectre of "the studio" is far from unknown to filmmakers wishing to include LGBT characters; studio heads fearing reduced ticket sales have dictated the erasure of LGBT people since Hollywood began. The 1995 documentary The Celluloid Closet (a must-watch for anyone interested in the history of queerness in cinema) details the timeline of gay, bisexual, and transgender characters on the big screen: first there were the coded "sissies," then the restrictive violence of the Hayes Code (which forbade "any inference of sex perversion" and warned against "sympathy for criminals") the punishing Puritanism of films like Cruising, and finally the softened, palatable gayness of films like Philadelphia and Fried Green Tomatoes: the gayness is there (explicitly named in Philadelphia, hinted at in Fried Green Tomatoes) but affection between the couples is kept to a clinical minimum, so as to avoid discomfiting homophobic audience members. Antonio Banderas and Tom Hanks- for all that they play a committed couple in Philadelphia- never kiss onscreen. Mary Stuart Masterton and Mary-Louise Parker, despite playing characters who were explicitly identified as lesbians in the source material, are relegated to "friends" in Fried Green Tomatoes. The movies I just mentioned were released in 1993 and 1991 respectively, but it seems we've made very little progress in the ensuing twenty-five years.

This squeamishness even affects the marketing of explicitly gay cinema: this year's Moonlight, a gay coming-of-age story about a young black man, shows no same-sex kisses in the trailer. Similarily, last year's Carol was promoted with trailers so devoid of romance that audiences could be forgiven for not realizing what the movie was about until an hour into their screening.

Still, at least Moonlight and Carol allowed their gay characters to exist: "mainstream" blockbusters (i.e. films that are not explicitly about the gay experience) still seem to balk at the possibility. Another release from this year, Ghostbusters, featured Kate McKinnon (who is gay herself) as Holtzmann, a character many audience members interpreted as a lesbian. When asked, director Paul Feig replied with a nod, clarifying “when you’re dealing with the studios ...” Likewise, the relationship between Sulu and his husband in Star Trek Beyond was limited to a friendly pat on the back, and the gay couple in Independence Day: Resurgence only got to hold hands. (Although given that Roland Emmerich also managed to make a bizarrely heterosexual movie about Stonewall, perhaps that last example shouldn't surprise anyone.)

Perhaps it would be easy to shrug all this off: after all, we've come a long way from the arid landscape of the 1930s, right? At least gay movies are getting made, and movies outside the "gay cinema" ghetto are at least hinting that their characters might not be entirely heterosexual. But the trouble with this is that gay characters are being left to languish in movies that only the dedicated film fanatic will seek out. (For example, when Carol was released, I had to drive to a theatre an hour away to see it; it wasn't playing any closer.) And in the meantime, heterosexual viewers are offered a comfortable way out: if they don't want to see these characters as gay, they don't have to. If they want to avoid the implication that one can be a gay sharpshooter, or a gay post-apocalyptic action hero, or a gay Ghostbuster- that gayness does not limit someone to endless navel-gazing about their identity, that a gay person can engage in all sorts of adventures before returning home to their partner at the end of the day- they are entirely free to do so. I'm not content with that. I don't like trickle-down representation. Gay people deserve to be in mainstream releases just as much as they deserve to be in artsy independent films, and as long as that doesn't happen, it's just another roadblock on the path to actual equality.

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