Monday, December 26, 2011

Weekend, or How I really don't care for this indie gay "romance"

I usually try and keep a clear-head when I watch and critique films, but Weekend (Dir. Andrew Haigh, 2011) so clearly needs an audience that is invested in these characters and their situation (the cinematography and camera work privileges these lived-in, almost voyeuristic feelings in the audience: what are we, if not overhearing - and watching - the intimate moments of these two blokes?) that at some point I gave up. I was indifferent and while I keep trying to articulate why, the answer keeps eluding me and finds me either making claims about films that I rarely make: "I didn't identify with so-and-so!"/"I didn't buy it!" and which I don't think are useful or helpful in trying to get someone else to understand how you feel or responded to a specific film.

There's much to admire here. Haigh is clearly gifted director, who gets honest and affecting performances from his leads, but this was a weekend I wanted no part of by the time the credits rolled. As I'm still trying to wrap my head around my reaction (and because I ended up being asked to stop arguing my case last night during christmas dinner with a friend's friend who loved it - as have many people I respect and whose views I've read attentively with interest) I decided to put the feelings down on 'paper.' I started this blog as a way to a) free-write as much as I could as I started graduate school and b) nurture an interest which I initially thought would be much further away from my academic interests (ie. films) but as the dissertation began requiring more and more time, A Blog Next Door has become a quiet little corner. Every once in a while I come out of hiding (though I do spout off a lot on twitter!) and that's usually when I feel I need to vent, or work through something (a post on Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close may be in the works, but more on that later).

The film opens with a mundane scene. Glen (Tom Cullen) is getting ready. He bathes. He gets dressed. He ponders whether to break in his new Nike sneakers. Chooses not to. He takes a hit from his pipe. The day (and film) begins. What follows - a weekend in the life of two men as they share a sexual, emotional and intimate relationship. The conceit is a powerful one: by hewing to a mere weekend (which the plot easily and helpfully accounts for), Haigh is able to deliver a two-sided character study that allows him to open up questions about intimacy, relationships and sexuality that depend but (the film thinks) transcends the (homo)sexuality of its protagonists. Haigh's direction - and one can see this from this very first scene - aims for a lived-in naturalism: the stage (or screen, I guess) is set for a bare-bones, raw, 'authentic' exploration of the slice of life of these two characters as they (drunkenly) meet and spend precious hours with one another talking up their approach to love, life and sex (another structural and clever touch is the twinned desire of both these characters to chronicle their sexual exploits).

I've heard and read a lot of what people find fascinating, touching and altogether poignant about the film. It has been praised as a thoughtful exploration of modern relationships, of offering a lived-in characterization of two men whose sexuality is an aspect but not an identity (inasmuch as the film presents them, something which I welcomed), and while I understand and respect where those feelings are coming from, Weekend left me cold. I didn't care about this 'hook-up' or the way the film tried to frame it at once as unique but also pedestrian. I didn't much care about these characters which, though carefully fleshed out through gestures and self-reflecting anecdotes (also welcome, as I tend to hate needless expository 'backstory'), never ceased to be two talking heads for conversations that try to escape the settings and trappings of the 'gay scene' but can never quite go beyond them.

But if I had to air my one grievance with the film it'd be this: is it not troubling to anyone else that for a movie that values intimacy at both a formal and thematic level, this movie only features sex scenes where both men are either intoxicated, tweaked out or high? Arguments can be made that the film is less interested in the sex part of the equation; it is after all a 'romance', or so I am led to believe though it is hard to pinpoint what love or feelings or intimacy mean to these characters who so clearly are presented as at once lonely and isolated from those around them yet functionally social enough to meet available men at bars. The more I watched the film, the more I realized that this was a story I felt indifferent towards. At some point I decided that I didn't care about these characters despite the film's attempts at earnestly humanizing them and presenting them as the other's only 'true' (or intimate) connection in the film.

There are other, more personal things I didn't quite care for in the film: the (over)use of drugs, the needless philosophizing that aims to pit these characters as emblematic of... something in modern romance, the seeming inability of the characters to live in a contemporary setting (most egregious is the lack of cell phones or laptops as means to stay in touch, but I take the point that the film is more interested in the 'weekend' than in the prospect of a long-distance relationship: it needs to romanticize the 'now' by at once ignoring but also depending on Russel's departure). In essence, I found the film's goal a disingenuous one. This is a film that presents itself as a deconstruction of a regular hook up, framing itself as a look into the intimate connection between its leads, but ultimately that intimacy felt endlessly fabricated and mediated (by drugs, by the narrativized hookup-in-hindsight conceit, by alcohol...) and thus never gave their relationship any of the grandiose and romantic feelings the ending wanted me to experience. I'd say I'm due for a re-watch but, I don't think I can stomach it.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Hit Me With Your Best Shot, or How trust Nat & Belle to wake me from my slumber

Over at The Film Experience, Nat has been hosting a weekly blogathon of sorts under the title 'Hit Me With Your Best Shot' wherein bloggers are invited to join in on a conversation about a given movie and choose their 'favorite shot' from said movie. Needless to say, it always yields interesting conversations. While I've let other films I would have loved to chat about pass (including Memento & Heavenly Creatures most recently), I knew I couldn't pass up piping in for the Beauty and the Beast evening.

This is one of the very first movies I was fixated on (I have it loaded on my iPhone for whenever I'm bored: read, whenever I'm waiting for transit, a doctor and/or my Starbucks coffee). It's a film I know by heart and thus any type of critical distance I would ever want to have from it is impossible. It's no surprise I've talked about it before (here and here - and oh! even my last post included a Gaston shot that could have easily made it as my Best Shot) and could go on talking about it forever, but for today, let's just focus on images (gorgeous, gorgeous images!)

One of the things I love most about Beauty and the Beast is its beautiful character animation. This is not surprising when you realize some of Disney's best animators were working on the main three characters. If nothing else, I want to spotlight the work of animators as a way to argue: look! you can make emotive characters out of thin air with no help from cutting edge motion capture technology. *Ed Note: no, there's nothing wrong with motion capture technology, but there's something endlessly fascinating to me about performances that come from mere paper and a pencil (and voicework!)

This is also another way of saying I'm going to cheat and give you 6 runner-up 'character animation' shots and then give you my fave shot:

Animator: Glen Keane
Glen gave us Ariel and would later give us Aladdin, Tarzan and Rapunzel

One of the challenges of a character like Beast is that he needs to at once look terrifying but at the same time elicit some sympathy/love from Belle/the audience. His entrance does great work for the first but I'm more interest in pivot moments like Beast and Belle's across-locked-doors conversation: Beast gives "grinding his teeth" a new name as he tries to 'woo' Belle out of her room with passive aggressive pleasantries.

Yet, his beastly exterior begins to crumble as 'something there' begins to emerge, showing us a softer side (even the birds wanna play with him!) [Ed Note: this if my mom's favorite moment in the film, I can't count the number of times she referred to it while I was growing up!]

Animator: Andreas Deja
Andreas gave us Triton and would later give us Jafar, Scar, Hercules and Lilo

One of the joys of watching Gaston on screen is seeing him try to grasp simple concepts ("how can you reeeead, there are no pictures?") and grapple with harder ones ("Did you honestly think she loved you when she could have someone like me?"). The following comes right after Belle begins to advocate for Beast as a gentle creature. His amazement slowly grows to disgust in a matter of frames:

Few animated films have such an unabashedly vain and cruel villains (it's telling that most of the humor comes not from himself but from around him: "What's wrong with her? She's crazy! He's gorgeous!" whereas Ursula, Jafar and Scar have deliciously comedic roles) and this is particularly striking in his last battle with beast where his egomaniacal delusions get the best of him:

Animator: James Baxter
James would later give us Rafiki & Quasimodo

Ariel may have her voice, Rapunzel may have her hair, Jasmine may have her palace and Aurora may have her beauty sleep (and her ever-color-changing dress!) but Belle... Belle has her gorgeous eyes and her curiosity, the latter getting her in more trouble than she bargains for in the scene where she explores the 'West Wing' (not the Sorkin show, sadly) and finds Beast's portrait:

Keane nails Beast's rakish (read: beastly) good looks and charms despite his outer exterior while Deja milks Gaston's physique for all it's worth but my props always have to go to Baxter who makes Belle one of the most facially expressive characters in the Disney canon (it helps to Paige O'Hara's voice to work off of), especially in small moments where we see her self-doubt afflicting her as she finds herself attracted to a Beast:

But my all time favorite shot/sequence in the film comes right after Gaston has (unsuccessfully) proposed to Belle and she gets to sing her 'I Want' song (y'know, like Ariel's Part of Your World, Hercules's Going the Distance, etc.) in a beautifully lit 'hills-are-alive'-esque background where we see her yearning for so much more than this provincial life.
I want adventure in the great wide somewhere
I want it more than I can tell
And for once it might be grand
To have someone understand
I want so much more than they've got planned