Post #1 - Looking Through Another Lens: Growing in Empathy

This post is the first installment of  Elijah Davidson's #DIALOGUE series for Level Ground. Join him as he reviews Hollywood Museum's "Top 40 Gay Films from 1970 on..."

About the project, Elijah says:

"My goal is to achieve a measure of understanding. I want to empathize with these films and with the people to whom they are important. I invite you to join me. There are forty films on this list, so this is going to take a while, but I think it’s worth it. In the end, I hope we’ll be better able to talk with one another whatever it is we each believe, and to hold each other close no matter what else we hold dear."

A quick glance over the list of films I’ll be watching during the project reveals two things. First, most of these films are pretty mainstream. That’s one of the things that drew me to this project. I thought it would be enlightening to watch films I know already with “new eyes.” I’m eager to see things I’ve never seen before and to understand how someone could respond to them in a different way.

Second, there are a good number of LGBQT films on the list as well, and as i have not seen those films, I’m eager to experience them. The difficult part is that some of those films are going to be harder to locate. Even in this world of “infinite content” and greater accessibility to films than ever before, there are still films that are difficult to see, and as the market for some of these film is relatively small, some of these films are going to be among that difficult-to-see group.

Such was the case with the first film on this list. I’m working from the bottom of the list, at 40, to the number one film. (I assume this list is in order of popularity, quality, or something.) Ross MacGibbon’s filmed version of Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake proved impossible for me to find. I consulted my local library system’s catalog, visited the few remaining area rental stores (we have some great ones in San Diego), checked all the streaming websites, ventured down the YouTubes, and even tried to purchase the film somehow. I could not locate the film anywhere. Films only aren’t distributed when there isn’t much of a market for them, so Swan Lake’s inaccessibility speaks to the overall marginalization of the gay community, I think.

I will share with you what I was able to learn about the film though. Matthew Bourne’s choreography for Swan Lake shifts the ballet into the world of modern dance. Ross MacGibbon’s film was shot and screened in 3D, and the production features male dancers in both the prince and princess roles. Modern dance and cutting edge cinematic technology form the context in which a classic love story is recast with gay men. Swan Lake makes homosexual love classical and modern all at once. Even without seeing the film, I can understand how it would be important to gay audiences. I really hope I can track this down one day. I love Tchaikovsky, and would relish seeing his music set to new steps. (I’m actually listening to his mentor, Anton Rubinstein, as I type this.)

The next film on the list is Bridegroom, a 2013 documentary about two young lovers, the tragedy that separated them, the ways one of the men’s family tried to cover up his homosexuality after his death, and how they tried to keep the other man from participating in any of the bereavement ceremonies. This feature (available on Netflix Instant) was inspired by a viral YouTube video the surviving partner produced shortly after his lover’s death. You can watch it here.

The feature is a pretty standard documentary – lots of talking heads interspersed with archival footage. Bridegroom is an advocacy documentary as well, so it doesn’t present both sides of the story. It was made to contend for the rights of homosexual lovers in similar cases. The relationships of both young men with their families as presented in the film are complicated though, and in either of them, I imagine many gay people resonate with their stories. I wish the film hadn’t made the deceased young man’s family out to be total villains, but I also understand the need to do so to make the point the film wants to make. Loss of any kind, but particularly such tragic loss, is difficult to process under any circumstances, and everyone should be given room to process it as they need to process it.

As I was bothered by the way the deceased young man’s family was presented in Bridegroom, I was also bothered by the conceit of Dallas Buyers Club, the multiple Oscar-winning, 2013, based-on-a-true-story film about a homophobic Texan in the 1970s who contracts AIDS and goes on a crusade to get the drugs he and others need. If this wasn’t a true story, it would be a case of “let’s give a red state bigot AIDS so he can learn to appreciate the plight of gay people.” That would be insulting and reductive for all involved, both gay and straight, conservative and liberal, healthy and ill alike. However, Dallas Buyers Club is based on a true story, so it inure’s itself to some of those critiques.

Still, I’m watching these films to understand what people different from me value in them, and I can easily understand the appeal for gay peoples in seeing someone as hateful as Ron Woodruf learn to appreciate and love someone like Rayon and the other LGBQT persons for whom he begins to contend. In some ways, Dallas Buyers Club is the perfect film for my blog project, because it is about someone from my culture—I’m from the Dallas area—who learns to see things from the gay perspective. Now, I’ve never been as homophobic as Ron, so the lengths I’ve had to go to to grow in empathy in this area aren’t as dramatic, but I see the appeal of this film. May we all learn to better care about and for each other, and may AIDS one day be eradicated for all.

The final film I watched this past month was The Hours, the 2002 film adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel from 1998. The film tells three somewhat interwoven stories that all center around Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs Dalloway. In many ways, it is the best film I watched this time around. I enjoyed all the visual cues that tied the three timelines together, and I loved Philip Glasses score which did more to emphasize the overlaps in the story than anything else happening within the frame.

One of my professors in a sexual ethics class once told us that we ought to think of sexuality as more of a spectrum that we all move along throughout life more than as a set of binaries into which we are born and are stuck. I love that idea, because it frees us from the “nature versus nurture” arguments that assail dialog about sexuality. The spectrum understanding of sexuality says that we’re all “born this way,” but “this way” is simply a sexuality that morphs and matures as we age.

The Hours certainly fits into that “spectrum” understanding of human sexuality. All of the characters seem to be “between states,” expressing both homosexual and heterosexual filiation at different points in their lives and indeed, at different points in the single day that they each live during the course of the film. No one is absolute, and this ambiguity is at the core of much of their psychological and emotional distress.

Fluidity in any circumstance can be difficult to handle, but this seems especially true of our sexuality. Sexuality seems so innate, so deeply rooted in our persons, that any hint of ambiguity in it can feel like we’re disintegrating from within. Our sexuality is also connected to so many of our external relationships. If we waver in that aspect of our identity, we threaten those relationships, or so it seems. The three women at the heart of this film deal with these ambiguities in different ways. Only one seems to make real peace with the ambiguity, but given the cultural circumstances of the other two, they do all they can to find some freedom. I’ve rarely seen human sexuality and the ways it complicates and enriches life portrayed on screen with such craft. I heartily recommend it, no matter where you are on the sexuality spectrum.

I’d love to hear what you thought of any of the films I reviewed this month, and if you happen to have a copy of Swan Lake, might I borrow it? Next month, I’ll be reviewing Kill Your Darlings, Philomena (a film I love), J. Edgar, and Milk.