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The Bear Necessities: An Interview with Alonso Duralde, Part Two

“I think it’s very easy for us to look down on James Whale from our 21st-century perches.”

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The Bear Necessities: An Interview with Alonso Duralde, Part Two

In Part 1 of our interview with Alonso Duralde, arts and entertainment editor for The Advocate and author of 101 Must-See Movies for Gay Men, Alonso analyzed the gay subtext of Carrie, conceded that he might consider jumping the fence for Gina Gershon and said Brokeback Mountain had the potential to be the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of homophobia. In Part 2, he praises The Apple, defends Kevin Smith and Chasing Amy, and explains why Top Gun isn’t in his book.

Purely on a synopsis level, I’d imagine there was no way you could have excluded Gods and Monsters. But that movie was troublesome for some viewers, particularly young gay men who came of age in the era of AIDS activism. I personally know two gay film critics who despised that film because to them, James Whale represented sort of a worst-case-scenario gay artist, the broken down old queen lusting after the hunky young straight handyman. For all the film’s intelligence and period sophistication, doesn’t Whale’s character seem like a gay white equivalent of Hoke in Driving Miss Daisy? By which I mean, a representative of a particular type of man who irrefutably existed, and continues to exist, but who makes the supposedly “enlightened” world more uncomfortable by the year?

I think it’s very easy for us to look down on James Whale from our 21st-century perches, but the fact is that he represents the way a lot of people lived at one point. And I think it’s reductive to say that the movie is just about a pathetic old queen who lusts after a hunky straight guy. While the friendship between the two is certainly initiated over Whale’s attraction to the younger man, I think through the film we see something deep and genuine form between them. And the film wisely plays a trick on us when we think that Whale is trying to put the moves on Clay, when in reality he’s trying to goad the young, strong man into killing him. Whale was a great filmmaker, and his friendship helps Clay (note the symbolism in the name) become a true, mature man in the same way that Frankenstein creates his monster in Whale’s immortal film. If every gay character had to pass by contemporary standards, there’d be no room for The Boys in the Band, much less for Franklin Pangborn, and that’s just too hideous even to consider.

For me, the most out-of-left-field pick you made is the 1975 Maysles brothers film Grey Gardens. Why this documentary?

A number of reasons. First off, I just think there’s something about dotty old women that a lot of gay men just find entertaining and enjoyable. And then I think Little Edie is both a great character and a screen icon—she’s like something out of Chekhov, a woman with big dreams gone unfulfilled, stuck in this crumbling house with her ancient mother, slowly but surely losing her grip. And yet, no matter what’s happened to her life, she manages to always project a real sense of style and élan. And I think there’s something very queer in the idea of being as stylish as possible no matter how terrible things are around you.

As you know, Kevin Smith credits me with inspiring him to write Chasing Amy, because I panned his previous film Mallrats and said he needed to stop it with the cool jerk characters and admit that he’s a romantic. Depending on your feelings towards Smith, that’s either the best possible byproduct of criticism or an assurance that I’m going to hell when I die. A lot of this blog’s readers would say the latter, and in fact I was shocked to discover that you love and defend that movie. Some smart people thought it was not only a bad film, but not too astute about straight men, gay men, lesbians or anything else. What do you see in Chasing Amy that other critics do not?

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I first saw the film at Sundance in 1997, and it gave me almost unprecedented chills of recognition about the way gay men and straight men relate to each other, particularly the relationship between Ben Affleck’s Holden character and Dwight Ewell’s Hooper X. It just reminded me of the way that, say, you and I would talk to each other. Most people have objections to the whole lesbian-falls-for-a-straight-guy storyline, but I think as time passes, people are becoming more and more open to the idea that sexuality exists on a continuum and isn’t always necessarily fixed. I believe in the idea that sometimes you fall in love with one person in particular, regardless of gender, and so I just buy the love story in Chasing Amy. And since I buy it, I’m able to enjoy Smith’s gift for dialogue and the wonderful performances of his talented cast. But I get that some people can’t get past the film’s basic premise, so obviously the whole film’s going to be a wash for them.

But speaking of Smith’s romantic side, I can’t recommend strongly enough that you make your way to Red Bank, NJ, the next time Smith has a Vulgarthon, because you must see the director’s cut of Jersey Girl. I was left completely cold by the release version of that movie, but Smith’s original edit left me in tears. And it won’t be put out on DVD for another decade or so, so I’m begging you, go see it. You’ll be amazed.

Wow. That’s such a surprising recommendation that I might have to take it. But in the meantime, could you sing the praises of The Apple, a film with which you seem to have a deep and frankly scary connection?

Ah, The Apple. Here’s the thing: I grew up reading the old (Michael & Harry) Medved bad movie books, I went out to see The Lonely Lady and Glitter in the theater, and I’ve seen every post–local TV episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Basically, I thought I was up-to-date on the great cinematic disasters. So imagine my thrill when, out of the blue, I got to see The Apple for the first time. Where, I wondered, has this crazy 1980 disco-musical-biblical-allegory been all my life? What can you say about a movie that features a series of staggeringly awful musical numbers, each worse than the last, with German backup dancers and some of the faggiest supporting characters ever filmed? About a movie that features male AND female cameltoe? You just have to see it for yourself.

Last question: Why did you not include Top Gun? It’s either the gayest straight film of all time or the reverse.

I certainly thought about it. But as you may know, I can’t stand Quentin Tarantino, and I couldn’t have talked about Top Gun without quoting the speech QT makes about it in Sleep With Me, although Roger Avary is rumored to have actually written it.

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So the film’s inarguable merits as a candidate for inclusion were outweighed by the prospect of having to type the words “Quentin Tarantino.”

Pretty much, plus the fact that I didn’t really feel like sitting through Top Gun again. Quentin does get a mention in the book when I slag him for stealing his whole “glowing briefcase” thing in Pulp Fiction from Patricia Rozema’s I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing. But then, what in his movies isn’t stolen from something else?

If you want to ask Alonso a question, argue with him or make a recommendation, post a comment on the board below, or shoot him an email at 101GayMovies@AdvocateBooks.Com.

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Watch: Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, Starring Honor Swinton Byrne and Tilda Swinton, Gets First Trailer

Joanna Hogg has been flying under the radar for some time, but that’s poised to change in a big way.

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A24
Photo: A24

British film director and screenwriter Joanna Hogg, whose impeccably crafted 2013 film Exhibition we praised on these pages for its “disarming mixture of the remarkable and the banal,” has been flying under the radar for the better part of her career. But that’s poised to change in a big way with the release of her latest film, The Souvenir, which won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Prior to the film’s world premiere at the festival, A24 and Curzon Artificial Eye acquired its U.S. and U.K. distribution rights, respectively. Below is the official description of the film:

A shy but ambitious film student (Honor Swinton Byrne) begins to find her voice as an artist while navigating a turbulent courtship with a charismatic but untrustworthy man (Tom Burke). She defies her protective mother (Tilda Swinton) and concerned friends as she slips deeper and deeper into an intense, emotionally fraught relationship that comes dangerously close to destroying her dreams.

And below is the film’s first trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t9Al2nC0vzY

A24 will release The Souvenir on May 17.

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Sound Mixing

For appealing to voters’ nostalgia for drunken karaoke nights of yore, one film has the upper hand here.

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20th Century Fox
Photo: 20th Century Fox

Given what Eric wrote about the sound editing category yesterday, it now behooves me to not beat around the bush here. Also, it’s my birthday, and there are better things for me to do today than count all the ways that Eric and I talk ourselves out of correct guesses in the two sound categories, as well as step on each other’s toes throughout the entirety of our Oscar-prediction cycle. In short, it’s very noisy. Which is how Oscar likes it when it comes to sound, though maybe not as much the case with sound mixing, where the spoils quite often go to best picture nominees that also happen to be musicals (Les Misérables) or musical-adjacent (Whiplash). Only two films fit that bill this year, and since 2019 is already making a concerted effort to top 2018 as the worst year ever, there’s no reason to believe that the scarcely fat-bottomed mixing of Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody will take this in a walk, for appealing to voters’ nostalgia for drunken karaoke nights of yore.

Will Win: Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody

Could Win: A Star Is Born

Should Win: First Man

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Review: That Was Something Lays Bare the Ephemeral Desires of a Lost Youth

By the end, the lesson we’ve learned is that the stories we tell ourselves about the past have always been revised from a previous draft.

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That Was Something

Film and theater critic Dan Callahan’s witty debut novel, That Was Something, chronicles the young adulthood of Bobby Quinn, a gay Midwestern transplant who’s just moved from Chicago to Manhattan to attend New York University. Retrospectively, it examines his obsession with the two leading players in the story of his early days in the city in the late 1990s: the enigmatic Ben Morrissey, an irresistible fellow student destined for fame in the art world, and the mysterious Monika Lilac, a dramatic and performative slightly older cinephile whose devotion to silent films is emblematic of her entire character. “I was looking for the keys to the kingdom, and I found them or thought I did in Manhattan screening rooms, in the half-light and the welcoming dark,” Bobby declares to the reader in the novel’s opening, and so begins a provocative—and conspicuously wine-drenched—narrative that serves both as a paean to a bygone era and an emphatic testimony about how we never really leave behind the people, experiences, and places that shape us into who we are in the present.

For a fleeting period of time, the lives of these three characters become intertwined and united by their shared passion for the cinema—and for each other. While Ben and Monika enter into a tumultuous romance, Bobby watches from the sidelines as he privately explores his own sexuality, mostly in dalliances with anonymous older men who he meets at bars in Chelsea, having learned to offer himself up “as a kind of virgin sacrifice.” Throughout, Callahan’s frank descriptions of Bobby’s early sexual experiences are a welcome departure from metaphor, while still seeming almost mythical in the way that Bobby recalls them, just like how all of the liminal moments in our lives—the moments in which we cross a threshold and permanently abandon whoever we had been before—seem to mark our personal histories almost like the transitions between the disparate chapters of a novel.

Bobby has been deeply in love with Ben ever since the two met for the first time in a common area of their shared dormitory at NYU, and Ben keeps Bobby only barely at arm’s length—sexually and otherwise—throughout the dazzling weeks, months, and even years of their relationship as young men. He constantly reminds Bobby that they would probably be lovers if only Ben were gay, which is obviously music to Bobby’s ears, fueling many of his private fantasies. And Bobby is also the prized subject of Ben’s budding photography career, often photographed in the nude, and both the photographs themselves and the act of bringing them into the world blur lines of sexuality and masculinity as the friendship between the two young men deepens and becomes increasingly complex.

Callahan cocoons his characters in what feels like a time capsule, capturing them at their most beautiful and glamorous and then presenting them to us as if on a stage—or on a screen, which the characters in the novel would agree is even more intimate, even more akin to a grab at immortality. Other characters drift in and out of the central narrative in the same way that one-night stands and people we’ve met only at dimly lit parties can sometimes seem blurry and indistinct when we try to recollect them later, but the love story that Bobby is most interested in sharing with the reader is that of a queer young man’s obsession with his larger than life friends during a time when everything for him was larger than life.

Callahan’s previous book, The Art of American Screen Acting: 1912-1960, demonstrates the author’s talent for dissecting the subtlety and nuance of the many nonverbal ways in which the icons of the screen communicate with one another, and here too in That Was Something is close attention paid to the power of performance. The novel is also a story about falling in love with a city, even in retrospect—and even after the version of the city that you originally knew is gone forever. And in the familiar yet always poignant way in which the sights and sounds of a lost New York typically wriggle their way into a novel like this one, the city is at first a backdrop before it inevitably becomes a character.

Monika Lilac hosts a silent film-themed party at her house during which the guests have been cleverly instructed to pantomime their communication to one another rather than speak out loud, and to write out any absolutely necessary dialogue on handmade title cards. At the end of the party, the various revelers—wearing only their underwear, at Monika’s command—all together “streamed out into the night and ran like crazy” through New York City streets while being pummeled from above by heavy rain, not caring at all who was watching. And Bobby, from the vantage point of years in the future, recalls:

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In any other place, we might have been harassed, arrested, or the object of wide-eyed stares. Not in Manhattan. And that has its flip side, too. Because Manhattan will let you do whatever you like, at any time of the day or night, but it won’t ever pay attention to you. You can be world famous, and Manhattan still basically doesn’t care, most of the time. And if you aren’t world famous, Manhattan regards you at several ice-slicked levels below indifference. And sometimes, on less wonderful days and nights, some attention might be welcome.

In a blurb on the novel’s back cover, Wayne Koestenbaum describes That Was Something as “The Great Gatsby on poppers,” and there’s definitely something of Nick Carraway in the voice of Bobby Quinn as he looks back at his disappearing New York and the people who populated it, the ghost of a city that disappeared forever the moment he looked away. Callahan’s novel enters the canon of the queer roman a clef—as well as the literary New York novel—by mixing vibrantly realized memories of a fleeting youth, ruminations on the origins of desire, and a deeply felt nostalgia for the way things once were into a cocktail that tastes exactly like growing up and growing older in the same city in which you were once young. And the hangover after a night spent knocking them back in the dim light of a Manhattan dive, as anyone who still occasionally haunts the haunts of his youth can tell you, is always brutal.

Bobby is now many years older as he narrates That Was Something, his desires tempered or at least contained by realistic expectations of how and in what ways they might be satisfied, and his relationships with Ben (now famous) and Monika (now vanished) are either nonexistent or else greatly demoted from the centrality that they had once firmly occupied in the narrative of his life. But there’s still urgency in what Bobby is telling the reader. In the novel’s brilliant final pages, we come to realize that the act of looking back at our younger selves is both masturbatory and transitory, mostly an exercise in framing. Bobby has been explaining how age has made him wistful about his moment in the sun, but then he’s suddenly remembering a fantasy that he once enacted alone one afternoon in his dorm room, back when he was still a virgin—and back when all of his fantasies were about Ben Morrissey:

I entered another place with my mind. It felt like what stepping into the past would feel like now, maybe. It was forbidden, and I was getting away with it. … Looked at from the outside and with unsympathetic eyes, it would be pitiful and grotesque, maybe even laughable. So why am I still so certain that something else occurred?

The lesson we’ve learned by the end of That Was Something is that the stories we tell ourselves about the past have always been revised from a previous draft. Just think of all that film that ends up on the cutting room floor during the editing process, to be forgotten and swept away with the garbage after the best take has been safely delivered. Only with the benefit of hindsight can we wipe away the shame and growing pains of early stabs at love and failed expressions of desire and instead render the past beautifully, artfully, just as the cinematic film frame limits our perspective so that all we can see is what the director has meticulously manufactured specifically for us. The equipment that made the image possible in the first place has been painstakingly concealed, so that all we notice—all we remember—is whatever ends up remaining beneath the carefully arranged spotlight.

Sometimes a great novel, like a great film, can at once transform and transport us, offering a glimpse into a lost world made all the more beautiful by the distance it asks us to travel into our hearts and minds. At the end of one of the last film screenings that Bobby attends in the company of Monika Lilac, she says wistfully to him, “You know, you’re downhearted, and you think, ‘What’s the use?’ and then you see a film like that and it speaks to you and suddenly you’re back in business again!” And the film they’ve been watching, she has just whispered to Bobby as the credits rolled in the emptying theater, was the story of her life.

Dan Callahan’s That Was Something is now available from Squares & Rebels.

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