Post #2 - Looking Through Another Lens: Growing in Empathy

When we originally planned this blog series, I was going to watch one film a month until I finished the list. As the list includes forty films, that endeavor would have taken nearly three and a half years to complete. Bunching the list into groups of four was a way to speed the series along, but doing so accomplished something else that I did not foresee – it turns each week into a double dialog, me with the films and the films with each other.

This month, we’re watching four films about real people. We could call them “biopics,” but Philomena isn’t the kind of person about whom one would typically make a biopic—she’s not “famous”—and Kill Your Darlings isn’t structured like a typical biopic. The film doesn’t feature the entire lives of Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs and others or even their entire public lives. Rather, it is a genre hodgepodge of coming-of-age, murder mystery, and romantic motifs. Still, it is a “true” story about real people just like the other films we watched this month. J. Edgar and Milk, of course, fit the biopic mold perfectly.

The biopic is a difficult genre to “get right.” There’s something inherently uninteresting about watching a person’s life unfold even when that life is condensed to two hours. There’s often very little natural dramatic tension, and films often have to fall back on something else to maintain narrative tension or interest. In the cases of Philomena and Kill Your Darlings, the films rely on the mysteries of what happened to Philomena Lee’s son and who killed whom and why, respectively. J. Edgar, wisely, relies on the real man’s lifelong ethic of keeping secrets to pressure cook the narrative. I find myself wondering when the man is going to boil over and spill his suppressed homosexuality to someone. Harvey Milk’s personality and the facts of his assassination are well known, so Gus van Sant focuses on Milk’s relationships with the lesser known people who surround him. van Sant’s film is about a movement more than it is about a man. It helps considerably that the characters are sketched so clearly and portrayed so vibrantly by every member of the cast.

All four of these films orbit a central theme – the importance of bringing hidden things out into the open. J. Edgar Hoover spends his entire life closeted, and as he has had his secret used against him, he uses others’ sexual secrets against them. Allen Ginsberg and Lucien Carr are trying to start a literary revolution, but their unacknowledged homosexuality is the inhibition that keeps their howls bottled up inside. Harvey Milk’s campaign for gay rights is dependent on his recruits being willing to show the world that they exist and that they aren’t going to stay hidden and quiet anymore. Philomena Lee, though heterosexual, is a casualty of the same Pharisaic sexual ethic that kept her son publicly closeted his entire life.

“Coming out” is, naturally, a theme of interest for gay persons. For people like me who have never had to take that particular courageous step out of the closet and into the light of day, these films offer an opportunity to empathetically feel the need for that revelation, the terror of it, and the relief afterwards.

I find it helpful to understand that “coming out” in these films isn’t simply a matter of telling the truth, as if gay persons are merely conceding their sexual orientation to people who “already know.” Coming out is more of an apocalypse than a confession. We tend to think of an apocalypse as a destruction of all things, but that’s not the true meaning of the word. The Greek word apocálypsis means “uncovering” something in a way that changes absolutely everything else. That uncovering may involve destruction, but it absolutely involves transformation. In these films, “coming out” is an apocalypse for the characters. It threatens to radically transform everything about their lives. I find that helps me understand their reluctance to make themselves known.

So, in the end, I have great sympathy for Allen Ginsberg (in the film, of course, as in real life Ginsberg was openly gay and stood in opposition to all forms of sexual repression throughout his life), Lucien Carr, and J. Edgar Hoover, men who, because of the time in which they lived and the collateral damage likely to occur if they publicly confirmed their homosexuality, stayed closeted. I wish they lived in the times of Harvey Milk. I wish they could have been inspired by his words and example to welcome the apocalypse of revealing who they really are and trust that the world would be made better for their bravery. And I wish all of them and every gay person on the planet had a mother like Philomena Lee who is wise enough to recognize the ways she too has been oppressed because of her sexuality, who is humble enough to forgive her oppressors, and who is gracious enough to accept her son’s homosexuality without giving it a second thought, because he is and always has been her son.