The Mask You Live In (Jennifer Siebel Newsom, 2015)

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The Mask You Live In is a solid and vital, if unadventurous, documentary on the crossover between gender performativity and toxic masculinity and the societal feedback loop that cultivates it / which it cultivates. Its primary tool is an impressively varied set of talking heads and interviewees, the former including neuroscientists, behaviourists, sociologists, sports coaches, social workers and psychiatrists; the latter including reception-age children, high-school kids and young male felons with life sentences. Mask‘s strong point is looking at current affairs and developing recent discussions on pop culture – for example video games – and contextualising the young men – young boys, even – and their engagement with misogynist and hyper-masculine representations of violence as the only means of conflict resolution and rage as the only emotion – if any – worthy of expression to a degree which Anita Sarkeesian has somewhat often fallen short.

It’s a trippy and affective experience, watching such a film as a young woman, raised in childhood to be someone’s son and, perhaps it was as someone with such a relatively unique perspective that I noticed the morals of the film being disappointingly simple – essentially a “don’t do that.” It was a little jarring that it focused so often on language relating to queerphobia and misogyny, but didn’t bother too much to pursue the narratives of queer young men. It was a little tiring to see such an un-nuanced attitude of suspicion and blame towards sex work, including but not limited to pornography, to the extent that there were points at which it did become difficult to see too much distance between Mask and any other special news report. Much like a special news report, Mask mixes agenda with information in a way that, whilst not teaching me very much I didn’t already know, it did have me jotting down the names of some of the consulted experts to find out about any related TED talks etc – without a doubt the most impressive of these is Ashanti Branch.

Problems aside, The Mask You Live In‘s heart is indubitably in the right place and it comes away with considerably more wins than losses. We must just look at this film as the beginning of a much longer conversation.

 

***1/2

Pariah (Dee Rees, 2011)

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Every time the LGBT+ film festivals come around, I tend to give something of a groan. Sure, there’s the occasional Tangerine, the occasional Tropical Malady, but the grand majority are always mumblecore-esque coming-of-age romantic drama snoozefests. So, I hadn’t really be in much of a hurry to check out Pariah – a coming-of-age (semi)-romantic drama – any time soon.

Pariah‘s story assuredly does not take us anywhere new: the same largely-uninitiated protagonist finding her feet, the same outgoing best friend who’s more interwoven with the community but is on a lower rung of society, the same repressive, shouty mother, the same kid sister, the same creative outlet, the same supportive teacher etc. However, adherence to generic conventions only limits a film’s originality on the level of narrative; Pariah still manages to win on all other counts. Indeed, I would have described any other film with so much that we have seen so many times before as cliché; thus Pariah existing in my mind as simply “a bit tropey” is, frankly, a feat in and of itself.

Pariah‘s highest achievement is assuredly its deft creation of a believable universe, using Brooklyn’s geography as a referential chart for the emotional topography, traversed by so many characters that, even when some of the younger stars’ acting is a little – and, I do stress, a little – patchy in places, all the other formal elements of Pariah align to bolster the actors into a compelling and distinctly real performance. That said, on a wider level, I can’t help but feel somewhat irked by the film’s promotion of an already very much extant suspicion of bisexual/non-monosexual queer orientation.

Pariah is by no stretch of the imagination a game-changer, but its mixture of attractive cinematography, uniformly impressive performances, great soundtrack and, yes, elevation of a young Black queer experience helps it play the game awfully well.

 

****

Dear White People (Justin Simien, 2014)

 

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Dear White People is a genuinely funny, brilliantly acted and assuredly relevant dramedy that follows student politics in the lead-up to an altercation between students of colour and the attendees of a blackface-themed Halloween party on campus.

Whilst Dear White People cannot be said completely to shy away from the label of “issues-related” or “social problem film,” its fictional Ivy League backdrop and all-round exceptional performances allow for its collective-protagonist-driven roaming narrative and crescendo of property damage (the physical violence against white people in the scene in question is as absent as systematic violence towards Black people is present) to act as a witty parallel to Do the Right Thing, rather than simply trying to “update” it. Justin Simien has gone on record as not wanting to be called “the next Spike Lee,” and nor should he. But he has also name-checked Do the Right Thing and it would be dishonest to act as though I hadn’t noticed similarities.

The well expressed (if – at moments – a little stagey) socio-political discourse to one side, Dear White People‘s strength – its vividly multi-dimensional narrative, carried by 4 stellar leads and a fabulous host of supporting cast, acts paradoxically as its weakness. The desire to see so many characters have a legitimate story – as Sam (Tessa Thompson) herself says, with development and a background other than their race – in a 108 minute film does somewhat result in none of the characters quite fully having that.

Troy (Brandon Bell) is given the most background (due to the presence of his father, also the Dean of Students, played by the ever wonderful Dennis Haysbert) but, whilst a fine character, is arguably the least interesting/evocative of sympathy, on account of his seemingly greater degree of fiscal and class privilege. His conflicts are by far the most addressed, in my opinion at the risk of the film’s pacing. However, it’s not simply that I feel there are scenes that should have made it to the cutting room floor; rather, I feel certain there are scenes lying on the cutting room floor that could do with re-entry.

The film’s rhythm does leave a little to be desired – whilst we enjoy the company of all the film’s characters, their motivations for suddenly dropping and/or picking up (for want of a better term) “the cause” are left consistently partially obscured. I want to know more about Lionel (Tyler James Williams)’s inner tensions between his Blackness and his queerness that seems to keep him away from the BSU. I want to hear more about Sam’s book, her radio show, her films, her family, her relationship with Troy. I want to see more Coco (Teyonah Parris) in the film just generally – she has nowhere near a big enough role, and the film could have easily done with some tightening up to fit her in. I should add, it’s not just an overabundance of Troy that needs tightening up – there are several filler scenes of Lionel just kinda hanging out that could easily have been done away with in favour of more story and character development. Plus, there was this reality TV plotline that added so little, I’m honestly not sure why it existed, beyond showing off the fabulous Malcolm Barrett?

Still, Dear White People has left me panting for more of a good thing and that is not the same as it being an unsatisfying watch. It is funny, it is righteous, it is angry, it is well-written and deals with serious topics of history, identity, and society, balancing just the right levels of irreverence and clarity to make Dear White People a sophisticated yet unpretentious, didactic yet un-preachy, exceedingly worthy campus social satire.

***1/2

Mistress America (Noah Baumbach, 2015)

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Fair warning: this review contains information related to the third act. I’d say “plot spoilers,” but there’s no plot and, honey, this film was spoiled a long time before I got to it, so it really doesn’t matter.

Seriously, I hate the fact that I walked into the theatre, expecting some guffaws of hilarity at a film’s apocalyptic awfulness, and instead spent 95% of the running length, stoney-faced with a slight elevation in one eyebrow at the entire situation in which we found ourselves.

Mistress America follows the no-lesbo friend crush held by Tracy, who I’m expected to believe is seven years younger than me for Brooke (because of course she’s called fucking Brooke), who I’m expected to believe is five years older than me, as they kinda do nothing and Tracy writes a slightly hurtful short story about it, entitled “Mistress America, or: the Unbearably Obvious Chekhov’s Gun That You Just Know is Going to be Discovered and Read by Brooke Somewhere Near the End and it’s Going to Cause Friction, Like in Every Other Film Ever.” Brooke discovers and reads the story somewhere near the end and it causes friction, like in every other film ever. There’s even a lawyer who threatens to draw up a lawsuit to ban Tracy from publishing the thing. So the fact that, in the very next scene, we see that the story got published in her university’s literary journal, so we wasted a an entire reveal as it resulted in approximately zero repercussions, acts as a perfect analogy for how this film, under a thin veil of hipster abstraction, is actually blithely marching us all straight to the deepest darkest pit of nihilistic oblivion. It’s like some sort of twisted existential Pied Piper / Mephistopheles composite in a beret, clutching a pumpkin spice latte.

Remember Tumblr before it became political? When it was pretty much just a website in which there were all these blogs that seemed to be run by an infinite number of girls who somehow made a comfortable living, wandering around Williamsburg in obscenely expensive clothes and oversized sunglasses, with a Nikon F series round their necks? Not only is this entire film a creepy love letter to them all, but LITERALLY describes them as a “beacon of hope.”

So, ideologically, Mistress America is pretty much the Birth of a Nation for neoliberal cupcake fascism. Fair enough. But is it any good? here’s where it gets annoying: the secondary characters and even the protagonists every now and again drop a joke that is actually funny. That one about “autodidact” being a word Brooke taught herself? That was kind of ok for a second. The fact that there are a couple of those brief funnies, in conjunction with how the entire film is edited to look like an overly baggy montage that shows the development from point A to point A again, left me feeling like I had just watched an 84-minute-long trailer for a slightly better film. One that might have made a bit more sense, one that might have had character development, or at least addressed Tracy’s small scale kleptomania that comes up twice and is then promptly forgotten about. Maybe a film where a person of colour was allowed to speak in more multi-syllables. Maybe a film where a white person was allowed to speak in fewer. But probably not.

Pros: “Dream Baby Dream” by Suicide is on the soundtrack.

*1/2

Boyhood (Richard Linklater, 2014)

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(Originally posted in now-defunct student e-zine FourFrame under the title “Boyhood: The Reservoir Dogs of Coming-of-Age Films”)

 

Of all Richard Linklater’s qualities, his humanity seems the most boundless. His tireless devotion to the quirks, foibles and saving graces of all people knows no limits. It is this honesty which makes every film of his seem so, for want of a better word, real. However, the “real” has one false step in that it borders on being overly idealistic. I watch his films not quite as myself, but as the self I hope to be, one that is kinder, more patient and more interested in those around me. Whether he’s dealing with a couple snatching moments in Europe, a washed-up musician finding new inspiration or a real-life murderer mortician, Linklater allows the characters to lead the narrative at their own pace, growing, or not, as the case may be. Dealing with Italian Neo-Realism of the post-war period, Amédée Ayfre addressed what he perceived as the genre’s disproportionate interest in the filter of human experience over verisimilitude. Ayfre proposed an alternative term “phenomenological realism” – though the rotoscoped psychedelia of A Scanner Darkly and Waking Life evidence diversions from the “realism,” Ayfre’s term describes Boyhood perfectly.

It would be impossible to discuss Boyhood without mentioning its unique production: 39-day shoot, spanning 12 solid years. It is important to note that the time-jumps, when they happen, very rarely take the form of conventional filmic ellipsis; rather they often seem to be phenomenologically relevant narrative devices regarding Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane)’s experience. In interviews, Linklater has implied that Boyhood is more akin to present day Mason Jr.’s memory of past events in his life, than a Bildungsroman simply evolving before us, temporal gaps and all. As such, some years drag whilst others fly by, as is often the case with our own memories of adolescence. The transition through ages is, therefore, not entirely seamless but it is all the more logical for it.

Above all, the incredible, historical feat of this film’s production in no way distracts the viewer from the incredible, historical feat that is the quiet yet utterly profound dignity this film allows the most dysfunctional of families, and especially their children. Just as Béla Tarr devotes up to seven hours at a time to his Hungarian farmers, thieves and reprobates, Linklater employs expertly the requisite directorial humility to celebrate children’s oft-denied agency.

Certainly there are perhaps a few moments in which Mason Jr. and his sister fall intoJuno-isms (slightly unrealistic levels of communicative precociousness). Although given that these moments most often happen around their perpetual man-child biological father (played by Linklater regular, Ethan Hawke), I feel inclined to accept these as further phenomenological distortions. These misrepresentations of reality reflect the shared wavelength between children growing up a bit too fast, and an adult growing up not nearly fast enough.

In many ways, Boyhood is the Reservoir Dogs of coming-of-age films. Just as Tarantino’s debut was able to make a defining bank robber film without ever showing us the bank robbery, Linklater devotes the grand majority of Boyhood’s 166 minute running-time to what one might consider the conjunctions of adolescence, rather than the main events. Patricia Arquette’s maternal character Olivia lists such events near the end of the film (“the time I taught you to ride a bike, the time we thought you might be dyslexic…”) and yet Mason Jr.’s nonplussed reaction seems only to reinforce the idea that human narrative is not conventional narrative. Boyhood‘s strength lies in its devotion to the former.

Many of the big events that shape us are things that happen to others and in turn affect us indirectly: births, deaths, marriages, divorces. Indeed, even during the abusive-relationship arc, we see consequences of actions far more than we see actions themselves. Though the title is Boyhood, as it is seen entirely from Mason Jr.’s perspective, it is a film about a family and the people around it, too. Anything else would be too solipsistic. However, we still experience along with Mason Jr. the perceived insularity of adolescence – at points, other characters seem to rush in and rush out like inversely secondary characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. The length of the film as well as the deceptive speed with which Mason Jr. does, in fact, seem to grow up means that many characters and events – both the hilarious and traumatic – are surprisingly easily forgotten, but then so easily remembered.Boyhood is only partially defined by what we do not see, however: what we do holds an emotional verisimilitude I have rarely seen before. I was filled with rage and sympathy as Mason Jr.’s hair is coercively cut. My heart beat so hard and fast during the entire arc regarding Olivia’s abusive, alcoholic second husband, I didn’t know if I’d be able to sit through it. I recognised the bemused boredom in constant lectures of responsibility from any passing adult, and the joy of human connections made.

Linklater’s remarkable sense of balance saves Boyhood from over-sentimentality and manages to avoid the classically hokey “it’s the little things that count” revelation. Instead the narrative’s existential nature allows this to be made obvious enough. When, in the final scene, Mason Jr. and Nicole (who may or may not be the girl who passed him a supportive note several years prior) do acknowledge that we do not seize moments as much as “moments seize us” and that “the moment is always right now,” they do so self-consciously high on peyote. They laugh gently at themselves for vocalising what is perhaps a truth only cliché in its universality. Perhaps for the very first time, I was pleased to hear this revelation once again. Firstly, because this film was one of the few works I have ever seen be as emotionally real from the beginning to the end that I felt it had earned its final line. secondly, because of this, its revelation was expressed more articulately than I think I’d ever heard it before.

Due to the nature of my own adolescence, coming-of-age films tend to be brutal experiences for me. I feel no shame or regret in saying, a week later, I am still getting over Boyhood. I am not only glad, but also grateful that this project came to realisation. I thoroughly recommend it to any and all.

*****