Post #5 - Looking Through Another Lens: Growing in Empathy

Unlike in previous months where the four films slated all circle around a central theme, this month the four films couldn’t be more different. They differ in purpose, production value, language, prestige, and quality. So, rather than try to synthesize them, I’m going to take each film one by one this month.

Philadelphia

When you tell people you’re going to be watching a lot of gay films, one of the first films they ask if you’ll be watching is Philadelphia, Jonathan Demme’s 1994 Oscar winning film about an attorney who sues his former employer after he is fired because he is gay. The Oscars went to Tom Hanks for his portrayal of Andrew Beckett and to Bruce Springsteen for his song, “Streets of Philadelphia.” The film is surely on this list because it was one of the first “mainstream” Hollywood films to deal explicitly with AIDS, homosexuality, and homophobia. While I can’t imagine Hollywood making a film that didn’t treat gay people compassionately in 1993, homosexuality is indeed treated compassionately within the film. That it took Hollywood so long to produce and honor a film like this is reprehensible.

Assuming that positive depictions of homosexuality in film was rare in 1993, it makes sense that this is the film that would break new ground. While Philadelphia does feature positive gay characters and while it does denigrate homophobia, it actually sidesteps the morality of homosexuality by focusing instead on the law. Denzel Washington’s “Joe Miller” is homophobic. While he does grow to respect Andrew, I don’t get the feeling that he has changed his mind on the overall morality of homosexuality. He just recognizes that gay people deserve the same rights as everyone else. Sexual orientation shouldn’t determine how someone is treated under the law.

This is a clever move by the filmmakers. Philadelphia isn’t about morality. It’s about civic equality. Notice also that the only form of physical affection we see between two gay men is limited to a slight kiss. This squeamishness doesn’t actually serve the film, but it does (or did) make it more palatable to its primary audience – people who had never seen homosexuality on screen before in a prestige Hollywood picture.

Edge of Seventeen

If Philadelphia is squeamish when it comes to depicting physical affection between gay people, Edge of Seventeen is the opposite. The film is a coming-of-age story about a closeted teenager, “Eric,” in mid-1980s Ohio. Over the course of the film, he struggles to accept his sexuality and experiments sexually with both men and women as he figures it out. Edge of Seventeen is one of the more unaffected films I’ve watched in this series. Eric and his friends and family feel as real as the kids on Freaks and Geeks, and almost every moment of his narrative is believable. Even I found it encouraging to see a gay coming-of-age story handled with this much courage and sincerity. These aren’t caricatures. They’re people. More films that feature gay characters should learn from Edge of Seventeen.

I must say though, the very end of this film bothered me considerably. Eric comes out to both his best friend (a girl who is in love with him) and his mom. Neither take it well, which is understandable in both cases. In the case of his best friend, he came out to her, then later tells her he’s changed his mind, has sex with her, and then tells her he really is gay and isn’t attracted to her.  Eric is confused and figuring things out and so I sympathize with his instability. Their friendship, however, is still sundered as the film ends. His relationship with his mother is similarly broken as the film ends as she has not yet been able to come to grips with his sexuality.

I don’t need a film to necessarily have a resolution, much less a “happy” ending, but what I can’t stand is a film that is both unresolved and happy. Edge of Seventeen attempts this. It ends with Eric at the gay bar with his new “family” of gay friends not concerned at all about his best friend and mother. Yes, the film is about Eric coming out and being okay with it, and a film doesn’t have to contain the complete maturation of its protagonist, but I would have like to see some awareness in the film that there is work yet to be done in Eric’s relational life. If we deem to love others and not just ourselves then our sexuality, like all other aspects of our identity, is subject to others. That doesn’t mean we have to be whomever others want us to be—quite the contrary, it’s in their interest for us to be truthful about who we are with them—but it does mean we have to be considerate of them. Edge of Seventeen, in the end, isn’t considerate of anyone but Eric.

The Kids Are All Right

I don’t have a lot to say about this film. It is interesting, I suppose, that this is a story that could only be told about a lesbian couple, because in no other configuration of genders could you have the same sperm donor for two children with different mothers. (In many films, the genders of the characters could be, conceivably switched if there were no other cultural forces at play.) I didn’t like this film very much, honestly. It was all a little too convenient for me.

Of note is the presence of Julianne Moore in this film. This makes her third appearance in a film on this list. She was also in The Hours and A Single Man. This is also the second time she has played a character whose sexual identity isn’t rigid. Moore herself is married to a man (director Bert Freundlich) and she seems to care about positively portraying homosexuality on film. Accordingly, Moore was given a GLAAD Excellence in Media award in 2004, and I found this quote from her:

“I always hate to be divisive about gender or sexuality or race or anything like that. I feel like sometimes, even with the best of intentions, when we put ourselves into boxes, it ends up being a less universal thing. But I will say that I've always worked with filmmakers who are interested in very human not so much plot driven stories, more kind of character and emotionally driven. A lot of gay filmmakers fall into that category.”

The Wedding Banquet

On first glance, The Wedding Banquet appears to be a contrived film. A gay Taiwanese landlord living in New York City marries one of his tenants in an attempt to get her a green card and satisfy his parents’ desire that he settle down. They don’t know he’s gay. When they show up for the wedding, he is forced to continue the charade much longer than he anticipated, and complications ensue. That plot artifice is certainly there, and movie-typical hijinks occur as the man, his lover, and his faux bride attempt to pull the wool over the parents’ eyes.

However, The Wedding Banquet also ended up being one of the most humane and rich films I’ve watched for this series. Director Ang Lee (from whom we’ll hear later when we get to the famous Brokeback Mountain) imbues this film with remarkable nuance. All these characters become real people, and by the end, when a final reveal surprises everyone, I cared about every one of them deeply. The Wedding Banquet is both fun and profound. Lee is a master of crafting emotionally and thematically rich, populist entertainment.

The Wedding Banquet takes everyone’s point-of-view seriously, whether they are okay with the son’s homosexuality or not. The film doesn’t condone homophobia, but it does realize that the man’s parents might be uncomfortable with his sexuality for reasons beyond morality. (They want a grandchild. Otherwise, their family ends with him.) The son has to learn to understand them, just as they have to learn to understand him. The Wedding Banquet posits a world where families in disagreement might still love and support one another. That’s a holistic imagined world, and one I’d like to see realized more often.