Tuesday, January 18, 2011
If Only the Kids Were All Right!
Happy new year to my blog readers! I hope that 2011 is full of joy and plain sailing. While I've been on my 'blog break' I've been thinking about the blog and struggling a bit with the fact that, although I find writing about my psyche issues incredibly therapeutic and don't want to stop doing it, it also increases my tendency to self-obsession. Living alone is part of the problem. I get sick of myself sometimes!
Meanwhile, as we move further into 2011, the world seems pottier than ever, with climate-related tragedies increasingly rife (not the least in my state - a quarter of Victoria at one point affected by floods), the GFC still spreading its slow-acting poison, and politicians dumber by the minute. Blogging about political and social issues, rather than getting them out of my system, just increases the amount of steam pouring out of my ears, and I don't want to sound like a rancorous grump (although I am). So I've had a bit of a break to get some perspective and try to make myself understand that I cannot control the world or change it singlehandedly.
I recently saw a movie that has galvanised me into returning to blogland - The Kids Are All Right, the first mainstream US feature film with lesbian mothers as the main characters. A few nights later the classic Brokeback Mountain was on the tele. The full moon was rising, and finally my blog drought was broken - it was time to make some notes about the differences between these two very different fil-ums. So here goes! Unfortunately I've had to include multiple spoilers to make my points.
Released in 2010, The Kids Are All Right is the story of Jules (Julianne Moore) and Nic (Annette Bening), a lesbian couple living in sunny California with their two children, Laser (Josh Hutcherson) and Joni (Mia Wasikowska), conceived by an anonymous donor. Nic wears the pants in the family; she's a busy obstetrician while the unconfident Jules plays homemaker and is hesitantly planning to start a garden landscaping business. The couple are worried about 14-year-old Laser's friendship with Clay, a troublemaker.
Laser and Joni secretly arrange to meet up with their donor dad, Paul (Mark Ruffalo); he turns out to be a hip free spirit who owns an organic food restaurant. Paul enters into the life of the family and sets everything topsy-turvy. When he takes on Jules for a garden landscaping project, they end up having an affair.
Reviewers have raved about the film with some exceptions, and it's been compared, not completely unfavourably, to a sit com. This response is not so surprising; on a surface level The Kids Are All Right is very watchable, the plot chugs along steadily, and there are some amusing moments. Audiences warmed to it; Wikipedia reports that the film was 'released to near universal acclaim' and that it had grossed $29 million by 20 December 2010, in its first five months of release - not bad for a film dealing with a topic that in the US at least is still controversial. The film won a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy, and Annette Bening won a Golden Globe for Best Actress - Musical or Comedy. The opinion below is definitely a minority one, but there has been serious criticism about the way the film handles lesbian motherhood, particularly by lesbian bloggers.
Lesbian desire is something that mainstream films have struggled to represent. Perhaps this is because the structural relation of males and females in traditional misogynistic culture is that men desire, while women are the objects of desire. Where there is no male in a relationship, desire per se is problematic on a structural rather than a plot level.
In straining to represent lesbian desire, a desire that, initially at least, is unmediated by a man, The Kids Are All Right is conceptually confusing: to depict a progressive, twenty-first century relationship it turns to a retro concept of the family, in which one partner is masculine, desiring and active, and the other is feminine, passive and desired. The film deploys both an old-fashioned nuclear family model and a 1950s-style lesbian variant of the heterosexual structure whereby the femme and the butch played out traditional male and female roles. Thus Nic brings home the bacon and has a short, dykey haircut; Jules is conventionally beautiful, long-haired and lacking in confidence.
More disturbingly, Nic is a control freak; in one or two scenes her preternaturally calm dictatorialism borders on the emotionally abusive. It's this aspect of the film that is most disturbing and retrogressive, and that reveals its inability to imagine fully a lesbian desire that is not pathological. I'd go so far as to say that there's something monstrous about Bening's character that the breezy tone of the film cannot contain. She's possessive as well as being pathologically controlling and bordering on the alcoholic (her possessiveness encompasses her children as well as her partner). Only Moore's character is human and likeable, and in the film's schema she is the loved one, the desired woman.
In fact, with her heightened, melodramatic reactions, killer stare and chillingly careful diction, Bening's character brought to mind the eponymous film Monster, a biographical thriller about real-life lesbian serial killer Aileen Wuornos and her lover Tyria Moore. Starring the normally glamourous Charlize Theron as the ungainly Wuornos, the film strained to represent the lesbian relationship sympathetically but all too often ended up depicting a woman driven to murder purely by obsessive lesbian love (the theatrical release poster indicates the film's pathologisation of lesbian desire).
The breezy style of The Kids Are All Right sits extremely oddly with its own underlying pathology. When Nic discovers that Jules has been having an affair with Paul, at a family dinner at Paul's place, she returns to the table, stunned. The banter continues to swirl around her but so traumatised is she that she can't hear it. In seeming sympathy with her, the film momentarily mutes the sound as the camera zooms in on her silently horrified face. But in the one moment when we are supposed to identify and sympathise with her more than ever before, she has never appeared more dangerous and unstable, more extreme. It's as if she has no perception of herself outside her status as head of a family over whom she must maintain control, or perish. I wouldn't have been surprised had she rushed to the knife drawer, grabbed an ice pick and jammed it into Ruffalo's eye.
What's frustrating about this on a social level is that lesbian relationships, though of course hardly immune to dysfunction, are less likely to have one partner more dominant than are heterosexual relationships. Given the paucity of representations of these relationships, wouldn't it have been fairer to show one that was more typical? In fact, Nic's controlling behaviour embodies the worst of both male and female stereotypes, suggesting that having two mums must be psychoanalytically nightmarish; at one point she reminds Joni to send thank-you notes for presents she's received, advising her that it's better to send them before she will be forced to start her letters with an apology.
This inability to conceive of lesbian desire seeps into something as basic as the sex. At no point does the film show the two women properly 'getting it on' apart from kisses: twice when they start to get sexual there are interruptions, and their first attempt, aided by gay male porn, seems halfhearted and lacklustre (this wasn't the fault of the gay male porn; it actually created one of the funnier moments in the film, apart from smacking a bit of self-consciously enlightened social commentary).
In contrast, the sex scenes between Jules and Paul are full of energy, not to mention sexual subversion, as if the film were saying 'phew - now we can actually show how it's really done'. Confusingly, there are two conflicting lesbian stereotypes at play here: the 1970s myth that lesbians just need a good f--k; and the porn-related male fantasy of the sexually adventurous, dominant lesbian.
But of course the affair is possible and necessary because the Moore character is the woman in the lesbian relationship. That's why she can have sex with a man, and why she appears to be having a much better time with him than with her partner: real women, you see, need men. Jules actually exclaims something like 'oh baby' when she rips Ruffalo's underwear off and views his member, as if she's just been dying for a bit of 'real' action.
Part of the problem is the quality of the acting. It's mainly good, but Bening is just too good. For most of the film her character is so off the wall that what functionality and harmony there is in the family at the beginning of the film strains credibility. (Ruffalo should stop being typecast as a rebel; his performance was a bit predictable at times, as if he's a bit bored himself with the rebel persona.)
There's also a disturbing scene in which Jules summarily fires Luis, the Latino gardener she has hired for the gardening project, simply because he's happened to be around while she's been having it off with Paul. She's breathtakingly rude to him in a way that is supposed to be funny yet is merely offensive and appears to be racist.
There has been much discussion around whether this scene, including Luis's obsequious reaction to his firing, is racial stereotyping or a sophisticated attempt by director Lisa Cholodenko to show the supposedly progressive Jules's hypocrisy, and Luis's reaction as a calculated response to a racist environment in which he has little power. There is an attempt to satirise liberal hypocrisy going on here, but it's stifled by the sit com tone. Ultimately the film doesn't give a stuff about Luis's fate; after a rudimentary confession to Nic about her undeserved rudeness to Luis, the film appears to 'forgive' Jules as the necessary cost of milking a few extra laughs.
The other obvious point is that the film's take on the intervention of Paul makes some unpleasantly stereotypical assumptions about lesbian-headed families. It seems that Laser has no male role models in his life, and that's why he's acting out. After forming a friendship with his dad he's able to see what a tosser his friend Clay is, and give him up. Similarly, having Paul in her life gives Joni the confidence she needs to make a move on a male friend she's long been interested in. (That this is unsuccessful is unimportant - the point is she's been willing to try, and in so doing, dare to move into adulthood.) Yet, in the absence of a male co-parent or involved biological father, most lesbian parents, I imagine, would make efforts to include male role models in their children's lives.
In fact, the film's extreme conservatism is the basis for its hackneyed plot line: stranger intervenes in family, brings about important changes, then leaves. Paul is ultimately cast out; 'go and find your own family', Nic admonishes him at the end, and the audience is unequivocally supposed to be on her side at this point. No doubt Cholodenko was trying to be ironic here; the lesbian family as foundational, the heterosexual man as outsider. I don't know any lesbian mothers, but I imagine they would be more tolerant, more open to outsiders than this - does mainstream acceptance require that they fit a conservative template?
Let's contrast this film with the sublime Brokeback Mountain, starring Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal as the star-crossed gay lovers Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist, whose affair while sheep herding in the Wyoming mountains becomes a lifelong love story that must be hidden from their families and is ultimately tragic.
This film just seems more perfect every time I watch it. When I first saw it I thought that, typical of director Ang Lee's style, the film was too clean. But I realise now that Lee's fastidiousness is born out of a huge well of respect and even love for his characters. Every last detail's been taken care of: Ennis's daughter looks like a combination of Ledger and Michelle Williams, his real and screen ex-wife; the actor who plays Ennis as a child in a brief flashback could be Heath Ledger's son; and even Jack Twist's parents are visually believable as his progenitors.
This isn't to say that the verisimilitude is anything but conventional. The film is a lush and tragic love story that from the word go has been marketed as classic Hollywood, the theatrical poster even modelling that of the mega-hit Titanic. The film unashamedly cossets the audience and blankets them in its loveliness, allowing viewers to project their own desires, dreams and losses onto the characters, regardless of sexual proclivity.
Instead of building pseudo-conflict by showing the characters being rude to each other - a trait not confined to The Kids Are All Right but increasingly evident in a particular style of US mainstream movie (Juno, Knocked Up) - Lee shows us, from the opening shots, the innate differences that will lead to conflict further on.
In the opening scene, Jack and Ennis, planning to commence a seasonal sheep herding job, wait outside a sheep owner's office in a dusty flybitten outpost in the American West. Ennis's hands are buried in his pockets, his shoulders hunched, his head bowed. Jack waits against his black ute in a casual stance; as he studies Ennis, confused by by his reticence, he unobtrusively slings out a hip then flings the opposite arm out and rests it on the tray of his ute.
Already we are being told subliminally that Jack 'knows' himself, and that, while he's hardly out, he has come to terms with his desires. His body language makes a stark contrast to the suit of armour that is Ennis's body. Jake Gyllenhaal is just stunning as Jack, and it's sad to see his talent now being squandered in mainstream rom coms; when the by-now secret lovers part after the seasonable job is over, the slightest raising of Gyllenhall's brow as he asks Ennis if they can meet again the following year is enough to convey a poignant mixture of emotional vulnerability and forlorn hope.
While there are emotional outbursts in the film, for much of the time the underlying emotions are conveyed by glances and body language; this both respects the audience's interpretative abilities and evokes the silence surrounding the issue of gayness in the period in which the film is set. And given its level of high melodrama and the sophistication of modern audiences, it's an achievement in itself that Brokeback Mountain never descends into bathos (perhaps the only thing I'd tone down is the force with which Jack and Ennis grapple with each other after their first reunion; the line 'I wish I knew how to quit you' has been fondly lampooned, but this merely indicates the film's ubiquity).
I don't want to go into a discussion about whether or not the characters are gay - clearly they are, and Brokeback Mountain is always a political film, pleading for acceptance and recognition of gay desire and gay relationships by relaying the central love story through an epic form. The fact that both Jack and Ennis have unhappy ends has caused consternation for some gays, who rightfully plead for an occasional happy ending for same-sex lovers. But I'd change hardly a frame of this lovingly crafted film.