Pictured here is my amazing cousin Martine, as featured in a lengthy New York Magazine profile. Ironically, though she shares my suspicion of DNA bonds, she’s a new millennium incarnation of our outlaw grandmother Masha Rubenfire. A Polish Jewish immigrant who ran a successful Salem, Mass, brothel, Rubenfire made it all happen when her schnorrer husband ditched her with two small kids and no language skills. Martine–who looks more like Rubenfire than anyone else in our family does–has constructed a gender reality, a financial reality, a relationship reality, a technological reality, and a spiritual reality not only for herself but for others, including me. Say what we will but the blood is fierce in our line. Rubenfire helps from beyond the grave.
Happily, Weekend, a Brit-born film billed as a “(sort of) love story between two guys over a cold weekend in October,” proves a very significant exception. In fact, it may be the only real romance I’ve seen on a big screen in years. Certainly it’s the only good one.
British in the very best sense of the word, Weekend is a film that neither showboats nor panders, so you must be fully receptive to register its particular brand of gently paced, adamantly phrased acuity. When I first saw it back in June, I missed some of its potency since I was accompanied by a person whom I’d just begun dating. This is highly ill-advised for a movie critic, at least this one, for we were so agog that the movie mostly served as a smart, sexy echo of what was transpiring between us. But when I saw it again last week in the cold light of day — four months into my romance (a do-or-die relationship checkpoint) and at the extremely sobering hour of 10:40 A.M. — the heft of this film’s subtle wisdom finally landed.
It begins as Russell, a 20-something lifeguard with sweet, darting eyes and the particular stoop of a tall man angling for invisibility, prepares for a night out. As he scrubs himself in the bath and smokes a bowl, he wears the blank expression of someone well acquainted with if not resigned to his solitude. This solitude carries into the next scene, in which he too-politely fields questions at a house party comprised of straight couples, though he clearly knows everyone there quite well. It’s only when he ducks out to a gay club that he begins to animate, catapulting himself onto the dance floor with a determination that betrays the degree to which he’s had to steel himself to even enter the arena. He locks eyes with a cute, shorter boy who quickly rebuffs him, then reverts to a shy deference when a less appealing bloke comes onto him like gangbusters. Talk about method cinema: just when Russell’s polite quiet grows intolerable, we cut to him solemnly bringing two cups of morning coffee back to his bed where the cute boy from the night before is already sitting up, nervy and bemused. “You brushed your teeth!” he says. “Now my mouth still tastes of cock and bum while yours tastes of mint.” Russell’s relieved bemusement is ours as well.
Thus sets the dance. Where Russell is nice, Glen, as the cute boy is called, is bold. He even whips out a tape recorder and interviews Russell about the events of last night, including their initial disconnect and the ugliness of the guy who subsequently pounced. (“A troll!” Glen crows.) With a new crinkle to his eyes, Russell takes it all in stride, at least until Glen wonders aloud why Russell wouldn’t let him fuck him, who stiffly answers, “I’d thought we’d had a lovely time and I’m sorry I didn’t make the grade.” His hurt is overt.
It is in this moment that the two encounter their first opportunity to earn each other’s trust, and they handle it well — as does the film itself. For Russell’s unadulterated response cuts through Glen’s flippancy, who, despite his edgy wit, displays the rare grace necessary to be visibly humbled by another person’s emotional honesty. Russell takes note, but before we’re subjected to any remonstrations or mea culpas they may exchange, the scene shifts to the boys exchanging numbers in the hallway, neighbors passing by with a studied casualness. It’s an admirable, and characteristic, restraint on the part of writer/director Andrew Haigh suggesting that we witnesses to burgeoning romance should always be left on its margins so that we may explore our own projections. How wonderfully un-modern.
As the two spend more time together that afternoon, they subtly power-play as any two new lovers who are not immediately assuming prescribed roles do. Glen pokes at Russell’s apparent lack of ambition or sophistication with a barrage of questions about his experience with travel and art. With a surprising wiliness, Russell in turn dares Glen to ride “bucky” — to perch on the handlebars as Russell bikes them over the bridge — neatly exposing Glen’s physical timidity with an image lifted from the French New Wave. The two also begin to expose (not just disclose) themselves, a necessary and terrifying step in any real intimacy. Glen unmasks his earnestness by confiding that his art project, in which he is taping post-mortem interviews with all his tricks, is to demystify without profaning “what men do with each other in bed.”
“Of course,” he adds. “Gays will only see it because it’s about sex, and straights won’t bother.”
A little later, when Russell reveals that he grew up in foster care and does not even know his parents, Glen’s response is once again extemporaneously, jarringly honest: he grows intensely aroused, which in turn gets Russell off, no doubt wickedly sick of people’s frightened, demure pity. It’s an encounter in which their wildly divergent natures serve them.
The push-and-pull of early romance being what it is, then, it is at that moment that Glen informs Russell that the next day he will be leaving the country for two years.
Later that night, Glen and Russell duck out of Glen’s own going-away party and indulge in a coke-fueled debate about the worthiness of gay marriage. An eternally vigilant yap dog, Glen approaches the issue from both ends at once, lambasting U.K. gays for not campaigning more strenuously for marriage rights while at the same time wondering why anyone would campaign for access to that claustrophobic heterosexual institution. Russell, as usual, takes a simpler tack. Recognizing that he’s still not comfortably open about his sexuality, he marvels over the bravery required for two men to stand up in front of the world and declare their love.
It devolves from there and suddenly Russell, weepy and strung out, is calling Glen out for distancing from his emotions. He’s right. Glen’s response to betrayal, whether it’s a cheating boyfriend or gay bashing, is to abstract his pain into a political or intellectual theory — a common reaction in smart, stylish people who can whistle in the dark so cleverly that no one calls them on their bullshit. Russell, on the other hand, despite the fact that he seems more timorous, demonstrates the temerity to approach his pain head-on. He’s self-possessed enough to admit when he is upset, courageous enough to admit when he is scared. This capacity to keep it simple and true emerged earlier, when Glen’s friend slanders him to Russell, who is repelled by the lack of loyalty. Despite a background that could so easily inspire the mindset of “orphans can’t be choosy,” Russell expects friends to stick by him. Instead of settling for crumbs, he’s transformed the emotional deprivation of his childhood into a yearning for connections that aren’t just filling space, and developed the muscle to withstand the emptiness until he finds them. It’s a higher form of bravery, one rarely, if ever, celebrated onscreen or, really, in our culture. It’s the equivalent of lauding the emotional independence of an unaffiliated woman rather than dismissing her as a fucked-up cat lady.
“I know you want a relationship,” Russell now cries, to which Glen shakes his head adamantly, “I don’t want a boyfriend right now.” Overwrought, Russell retires to the bathroom to collect himself. After a second, Glen turns on the saddest, sweetest music he can find.
That’s when the purest moment of onscreen romance all year takes place, for true romance always requires hurtling past your comfort zone in the spirit of great faith. In Russell’s case, his moment of bravery is to reenter that room despite the rejection he feels; Glen’s is to tolerate the discomfort of a naked display rather than fleeing it.
There, framed by a window, they commence a kiss more tender than hungry. It’s one lit square in a dark industrial building, yellow hope drifting out into the sorrow of an urban night sky, and the contrast offers a resounding beauty even more effective in a film composed of mostly inconspicuous cinematography, the visual equivalent of that Sherwood Anderson line, “I have come to this lonely place and here is this other.”
There’s more, of course — with a film like this, there’s always more, both within and without its unique city limits. But I’ll leave you to excavate that while a part of me lingers, hankie clenched, in the rich, rewarding darkness of the IFC Theater that day. Grateful for the confirmation that my lover and I were not crazy to continue on our own uncharted path despite our radically different natures. Grateful for the reminder that ambiguity — for, not surprisingly, this is the final note of this film — is the most we can expect from any romance that we improvise rather than inherit, embrace rather than enforce. Grateful to surrender to a movie so worth its while.
Q. If a blogger falls in the woods after not posting for months on end, is anyone left to read about it?
A. You tell me.
Except: I didn’t fall in the woods. I fell into Alice’s looking glass, more like, sometime around when I saw John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus. I dug its oldschool-NYC patriotism, though the movie itself proved surprisingly forgettable — proven scientifically by the fact that now, six months later, all I can summon is an autofellatio sequence (not hot, as it turns out) and Daniela Sea brandishing a feather (ibid, naturally). But the real problem materialized afterward, when I rolled out of the critics’ screening and fell in step with a colleague whom I knew only vaguely. Enough to know that he was very nice and equally discerning, in other words.
Typically, none of us really talk about the films too much when we emerge from screenings; for me it comes down to not wanting to shoot my load prematurely and, though others’ reasons might be articulated with less of a potty mouth, I suspect they’d amount to pretty much the same thing. So the critic, who’s almost exactly my age, and I talked about Other Stuff instead. He told me about the new condo he and his wife had just moved into, and about the baby they were expecting in a few months. Then he turned to me and asked brightly how things were with me.
I couldn’t settle on how to respond with the same level of personal detail without, well, shooting my load. There were facts that I wasn’t ready to throw out in the hopper yet. I didn’t know what to make of them yet myself, let alone how to present them. Those facts comprised every corner of my personal life and in the face of all his age-appropriate stolidness, I felt shamefaced about how upended I still was. I’m not suggesting his life, or he, was square. He’s not. Just decided. Whereas I was decidedly not.
So, the critic moved on gallantly. “Well, what’d you think of the movie?” he finally asked.
A movie in which the characters turned their sexualities inside out and then on their heads. One that resonated so much with the life I had been leading in the last four months that I doubted my ability to perceive it objectively. (Apparently I’ve since gained that confidence.) “Well.” I stopped and then started again.
And that’s about when I fell into the rabbit hole.
The fabric of my life has radically changed or, rather, it’s been torn up and I’m still sorting out how to repair it. Barely any relationships in my life have been spared serious reevaluation and so much of the way that I have identified myself — and kept my wolves at bay — is either no longer applicable or no longer fit for public consumption.
Some of the questions that have me snagged: How to write when the drama of your real life eclipses that which you’re reviewing. How to keep working when just keeping afloat feels like terribly hard work. How to obey instincts rather than reflexes. How to respond to the mildest of social prompts without frothing at the mouth like a crazy person. These are the queries of a teenager rather than an adult. I have struggled with all of them the last eight months anyway.
But the other day I fell upon this quote and it hit me like a Bob Dylan hurricane:
”I didn’t understand then that it was very important for me to work, whatever happened in my life.” Marianne Faithfull
I’m still struggling with these existential navelpickers, but I think I’ve got them sufficiently back in my, uh, pants so that I may rejoin this cultural conversation — issuing these reactions that feel like my truest actions — and write here again. At the end of the day, I just miss it so much. I dearly regret having let Dreamgirls (loved), Princesas(lerved), and the timedumpers that were last winter’s missives from Tres Amigos as well as a host of other film travesties and triumphs go undocumented.
Just two more things:
1. I may have responded viscerally to Cameron Mitchell’s headspin of a genderquake of a wtf movie but I still can’t quite dub it a great film. He doesn’t relish the medium of film specifically enough; it seems irrelevant to him as it does to that other indie-renaissance poster child, natty little Miranda July. The filmmakers whom I most admire must most admire film. And on that, Marty, I still love you. I thought The Depahted your finest comedy.
2. No matter what, I am and always will be first and foremost a Broad.
Come back soon, loyal reader.