Post #3 - Looking Through Another Lens: Growing in Empathy

Last month’s entry to this series focused on an aspect of the LGBQT experience the four films helped me understand better (namely, coming out). The entry was as much about the experience as it was about the films themselves. This month’s entry focuses more directly on the films themselves, and, in the cases of two of them, their impact on cinema history. This is important, because it helps understand why these films are important for the LGBQT community.

The one thing all four of these films have in common, other than appearing on this list, is that they are each carried by an extremely compelling performance, three by actors and one by a cinematographer. Colin Firth in A Single Man, Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry, and Rooney Mara in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo are all terrifically good in difficult roles. But they all pale in comparison to Roger Deakins’ cinematography in Skyfall. Even if you can’t stand James Bond, turn that film on, turn off the sound (though it would be a shame to miss Thomas Newman’s great score), and bask in Skyfall’s resplendent imagery. This is light come alive.

Now, I want to begin with A Single Man, because it is the outlier in this group. A Single Man chronicles a day in the life of a bereaved, gay college professor, George, in the 1960s in Los Angeles. On this day, he is contemplating suicide, and he is looking for ways to make this, his proposed final day, meaningful. George is past middle age, so he is both a bridge back to the early twentieth century and what life was like for gay men then, and he is a window into the life of a gay man in a particular place in the era in which the film is set. I was surprised that a gay man would need to remain closeted in academic L.A. in the progressive 60s, but I guess I shouldn’t have been. There are many places where that would seem necessary now.

The other three films I watched this past month belong together. They each circle around the same idea, gendered sexual norms, although they deal with it in different ways.

Boys Don’t Cry is a based-on-a-true story account of Brandon Teena, a male-identifying, biologically female young man who was murdered in 1993 in Nebraska. Swank is utterly convincing as someone who is trying to convince himself and everyone else of something that in every way appears false. Brandon’s story is tragic even without its murderous ending, because transgendered women and men cope with the same disconnect between their emotional, mental, and sexual awareness and their physical reality every day, and they are subject to the same kind of prejudice.

As Gareth Higgins pointed out in an article on 22 Jump Street, transgender prejudice is the only form of sexual prejudice still largely acceptable in contemporary society. That needs to change. People like Brandon need to be supported as they negotiate their gender identity, not ostracized. I don’t mean to get preachy, as the purpose of this series is to grow in empathy, not to proselytize. However, sympathetic portrayals of transgendered characters are so rare, Boys Don’t Cry compels me to respond differently. (And after all, empathy divorced from action is simply pity.)

Boys Don’t Cry also provides a solid, real-world foundation for what makes the gay aspects of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Skyfall, presumably, worthy of inclusion of the list of the “Top 40 Gay Films of the 1970s on…”

Skyfall is a James Bond movie, and James Bond has been the paragon of masculinity for the past sixty years. In every Bond film, James Bond does two things: 1) saves the world and 2) has sex with whatever woman he wants. Women beg to crawl under the covers with him. Often, sex with a woman is his reward for saving the world.

In the first two entries in this reestablished Bond series—Casino Royal and Quantum of Solace—Bond undergoes a transformation. In those films, Bond learns to truly care for women, both his lover and his boss. He begins to understand Britain’s uneasy place in a fully globalized world and the responsibility the once great empire has to help the developing world along even if it hurts their bottom line in the short term. Briefly, Bond seemed to be maturing into an enlightened man.

Skyfall mostly undoes that good work. Bond is a chauvinist once again in both the socio- and gender-politic sense of the word. The franchise is back to believing Britain is at the center of the world, as glorious as she ever was, the beleaguered yet stalwart apex of civilization. Bond is back to using and discarding women as if they mean nothing. When a one-night stand (who looks suspiciously like his deceased lover) is shot like a clay pigeon, Bond despondently quips over the spilt scotch that was sitting on top of her now drooping head, disregarding her entirely. (Never mind that she was also, essentially, a sex slave.) Skyfall is, in many ways, a giant step backwards for the series.

However, it also features one of the most surprising moments in any Bond film, and it is that moment that gets it a spot on this list, I imagine. This remarkable moment happens when James Bond, the paragon of virile, heterosexual masculinity, insinuates a history of sexual experimentation with men as well as with women. “There’s a first time for everything,” the villain Silva declares, sexually threatening Bond. “What makes you think it’s my first time?” Bond retorts, deflecting the attack and expanding his character’s sexuality all at once.

No, Skyfall isn’t suggesting that James Bond is gay, but it is suggesting that Bond’s sexuality may extend beyond heterosexual norms. That one line redefines James Bond, the Heterosexual Ideal, as the sexual ideal, no prefix needed. James Bond likes sex, and he isn’t bound by convention any longer.

And this is a good place to bring in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, because the Bond mystique carries over into this film as well, since once you’ve been Bond, you’re always Bond, and especially when you’re seeking out secrets in snowy European locales. The queer character in this film though is Lisbeth Salander, the punky private investigator with a sexual penchant for both men and women and a proclivity to violence.

The entire story centers on the ways women are dominated by men, sexually and otherwise. The women in the story who are able to escape these abusive relationships do so by various means. Most of them assert their autonomy by running away or achieving financial independence. Lisbeth achieves hers via other means.

Most pertinent to our discussion though, she assumes the traditional masculine role in her sexual encounters with Mikael, the reporter played by James Bond himself, Daniel Craig. She initiates and conducts their sexual encounters, and, most tellingly, they finish when she climaxes, not when he does. She is in control. Not only is the hero of this story bisexual. She is more traditionally masculine than the paragon of Western masculinity, all the while reasserting and bolstering her and other women’s inherent worth as women.

Now, Lisbeth Salander and James Bond are not transgendered like Brandon Teena, and they certainly aren’t closeted like George, but they do represent a different kind of culture than the one that was normal for Brandon and for men and women like George. Brandon and George represent reality then. Lisbeth and Skyfall’s Bond represent progress now. I can understand why each of these characters and films is important to LGBQT persons.

Next month, I’ll be watching Making Love, Transamerica, Love! Valor! Compassion!, and GBF. I haven’t seen any of these films, so I’m excited.