Thursday, 23 July 2009

Mulligans (Canada, 2008)

Director: Chip Hale.

Principal cast: Dan Payne, Charlie David, Thea Gill, Derek Baynham.

Why would anyone choose to live a lie? In great many societies across the globe gay people are effectively coerced into heteronormativity. In reality, succumbing to it is their only chance of survival with their secret emotions and desires usually forever remaining just that – a well-kept secret. But why does it happen in free, liberal societies where, to a great extent, you are supposed to be able to make your own choices? Hasn’t the iron grip of the heteronormative peer pressure become a lot weaker in the so-called enlightened West? Or do gay people here have completely other reasons to commit to a poster image of heterosexual suburban bliss? Whatever the answers to those questions, one thing seems to be a given – sooner or later the facade will collapse and many people will get hurt. Every choice that you make has certain consequences and you don’t always get a second chance. The title of the Canadian director Chip Hale’s debut feature „Mulligans” means exactly that - second chances. It’s a term used in golf which shouldn’t be surprising since the screenplay’s author Charlie David, who also plays one of the main characters, is said to be a keen golfer.

Chase (Charlie David) and Tyler (Derek Baynham) are best friends in college. When the summer break comes, Tyler takes Chase to his parents' summer retreat on the picturesque Vancouver Island. His dad, Nathan (Dan Payne) is a passionate golfer who spends most of his time on a golf course nearby while his domesticated wife, Stacey (Thea Gill) is mostly concerned with the appropriate „summer fun” for their youngest child nicknamed Birdie (and yes, it’s a golf term too). To the outside world Tyler’s family would certainly have looked like a textbook example of a successful traditional family – Nathan’s career is apparently quite rewarding since he can afford to drive around in a Porsche (not to mention this summer residence) and his wife doesn’t have to work, instead being able to concentrate on being a good wife to a caring husband and a good mother to healthy and intelligent children. The beautiful natural settings around them only emphasise the apparent harmony of their happy relationship. But if Chase, whose own father died when he was five and whose mother apparently isn’t really part of his life anymore, had an initial feeling that this was a family he would have loved to have himself, it couldn’t have lasted for too long for there was definitely „something rotten in the Kingdom of Denmark”.

When Tyler arrives on the island, he’s instantly thrown back into his seemingly traditional social circles for the summer with friends throwing wild parties and even what appears to be a steady „summer” girlfriend. Not aware of Chase’s homosexuality, he duly tries to set him up with girls, both at parties and at their house. Chase, who grows weary of pretending, finally decides to come out to Taylor which puts the latter into a certain state of quiet turmoil. Trying to come to terms with such turn of events, he even confesses to his father that „although it doesn’t change anything, it changes everything” and suddenly, small things, like close body contact with Chase while playing basketball, become troublesome and confusing. But as they are both trying to redefine their friendship, another person gets emotionally involved – Nathan, who turns out to be a classical closet case. Struggling with his own sexuality and his budding feelings for Chase, also he is cast into a state of mental turmoil triggered by this sudden confrontation between the life he has lived so far and what could have been.

When most of the family leaves for a weekend at Stacey’s mother’s place, Nathan and Chase stay behind. And it isn’t difficult to figure out that Nathan’s feelings give way to irrational behaviour and the two end up in bed. He is head over heels in love with Chase and can’t keep his hands away from the guy who grows more and more uncomfortable with the situation. Needless to say, they are soon found out by both Stacey and Tyler and the hell breaks loose. While Chase, in all essence, can just walk away, it is, of course, a completely different story for Nathan who has to make some serious choices in his life which will affect not only him but also those around him. Will he get a mulligan in his life? Or does he even really want one?

Nathan is pathalogically scared of making serious choices, especially if it involves something radical. Even when his wife forces him to confess that he is gay, his sheepish reply is still „I think so”. And when they contemplate their future, all he can say is that they shouldn’t rush things and ought to wait with any radical decisions. I guess Nathan’s pathologically indecisive nature is also what got him into this marriage in the first place and it’s definitely what gets some closeted gay people to procrastinate with their lives – „let’s just see how things develop from here”. Of course, not everybody was born strong-headed but if you continue living a lie for too long, you may never recover from it and eventually, it might just be too late to change anything. Desire to fit in and be like „everybody else” is a powerful one but if you aren’t like these fairly elusive „everybody else” sort of people, no amount of "wait-and-see" will ever change that.

The plot of „Mulligans” touches upon a highly relevant topic which hasn’t been discussed all too much in queer-themed cinematography and Charlie David deserves credit for his debut screenplay. However, the script suffers from several flaws. First of all, I find it somehow hard to believe that Chase and Tyler could have been best friends for apparently some time with Tyler being totally clueless about Chase’s sexuality. I’m sure there would have been plenty of opportunities to „test” Chase’s sexuality at college parties which undoubtedly would have been just as unrestrained with moral issues. Tyler’s reaction to Chase’s coming out was fairly believable and very plausible but I still couldn’t help noticing how mostly politically correct he and the rest of his family sounded, also after the revelation. It was also rather remarkable how quickly the storm actually died out and everybody was set on forgiving each other and „go steelers” (a reference you will understand if you watch the film). In the acting department it was often difficult to tell if the characters' overall stiffness should be attributed to the characters themselves or the actors. Well, to be honest, Charlie David, who is mostly known for his roles in Here TV!’s pseudo horror series „Dante’s Cove” which can in fact be better described as gay erotica in Carribean settings as well as a hustler in Casper Andreas’ „A Four Letter Word” (see my earlier review), is more of an onscreen hunk than a Shakespearean actor and I’m sure that Dan Payne’s physical appearance wasn’t completely coincidental either. Nevertheless, the film as a whole is thought-provoking and well-executed which certainly makes it worth your while.

Here you can watch the film's trailer

And here is a song from the film - Turn Around by Ben Sigston

turn around master -

Sunday, 12 July 2009

La León (Argentina, 2007)

Director: Santiago Otheguy.

Principal cast: Jorge Román, Daniel Valenzuela, José Muñoz, Juan Carlos Rivas.

Being gay in a rural area is always more complicated than in any urban milieu. Countryside’s conservativism owes partly to the fact that rural communities are relatively small with everybody seemingly knowing everybody and their entire family histories. Strangers are easily spotted and viewed with suspicion, often directly as a “threat” to the community’s integrity. “Otherness” among own folk is not appeciated either since any form of change is feared to tip the delicate balance between the underlying traditionalist understanding of how things should be and those “dangerously different” ways of the outside world. So why do many gay people who are definitely not included in the traditionalist understanding of the ways of a rural community still choose to stay instead of seeking a more accepting environment?

Well, being gay doesn’t automatically turn you into a cosmopolitan person. Nor does it always mean that a city is where you belong. And just like Ennis in “Brokeback Mountain” couldn’t leave his native redneck-riddled Wyoming simply because his heart belonged there, also Álvaro, the main protagonist of “La León” had chosen to stay on his native island, concealed deeply in the wetlands of the Paraná region in the humid northwest of Argentina.

It is easy to become mesmerised by the hypnotic landscapes of the Paraná Delta where the main river splits into several branches forming a complex labyrinth of subtropical wetlands. It must be this hypnotic effect that makes the inhabitants appear somewhat drowsy and definitely not very talkative. Each word that is uttered seems to come out due to sheer necessity and not for the pleasure of conversing. Forget all about the alleged Latin American temper and fast-paced living! People’s lives here are a far cry from the Brazilian samba – if anything, it’s a tango with some very slow steps. And some kind of bizarre tango of two bulldogs at each other’s throats is exactly how I would describe the growing tensions between Álvaro and Julio, nicknamed El Turu, the self-proclaimed guardian of the island’s traditions and values.

Álvaro is a soft-spoken gay man with big puppy eyes who makes his living harvesting reed and restoring books for a library on the mainland. He spends his free time boating the canal-like branches of the river fishing and occasionaly engaging in sexual encounters with visiting strangers in the woods where his sexual escapades are observed by some migrant labourers from Paraguay, illegally felling trees on a private property. Apparently not particularly judgemental, these misionaros, as El Turu scornfully refers to them, form a special bond with Álvaro. Being an outsider to a certain degree himself, he doesn’t share El Turu’s assessment that these people have come to destroy their community by taking all their work from them and flooding the village with their families. Actually, he couldn’t care less about these allegations. El Turu, on the other hand, whose position in the community apparently comes from being the captain of La León, the only boat connecting the village with the outside world, is full of contempt and hatred towards the migrants. Throughout the entire film, El Turu tries to persuade his fellow villagers “to do something about it”. His bigoted frame of mind comes to the viewers’ attention already in one of the opening scenes when he refuses to believe that a young man from the village committed suicide over some girl, claiming instead that the misionaros are surely behind his death. But the danger from the outside is in his eyes well aided by the danger within, namely Álvaro’s apparent homosexuality. In a community like this one, you are usually left alone if you go about your “non-traditional” sexuality quietly and aren’t caught out but unfortunately, there also always tends to be the odd bigot, the self-proclaimed defender of virtue who will try to catch you out and “teach you a lesson”. However, since the question of homosexuality preoccupies and troubles such people so much, it is also quite legitimate to assume that there is a very good personal reason for that – their own latent queerness. And El Turu is no exception. The two axes of confrontation in the film – the one between El Turu and Álvaro and the other one between El Turu and the misionaros reach a climax when El Turu himself, boiling in his frustration, tips the afore-mentioned balance.

The impressive black and white cinematography of “La León” is somewhat reminiscent of Jim Jarmusch’s “Dead Man” – the panoramic loneliness set against the river calmly flowing by while the minimal dialogue in the film bears resemblance to the moody style of his pal, Aki Kaurismäki. Nevertheless, this feature film debut from the hand of Santiago Otheguy has its own unique signature and I’m certainly looking forward to his future work.

You can watch the film's trailer here (in Spanish with Portuguese subtitles)