Tag Archives: LFF 2017

LFF 2017: All Summer Long

Beach Rats literally flashes to life. The flash of a camera phone taking selfies at various angles that are trying to be provocative. Trying to look a certain way, project a certain image. They’re trying. Frankie, the film’s adolescent protagonist, on the cusp of a summer of love and hate, is trying, too. He’s trying to work himself out.

Frankie is torn between two things. What he wants, and what he thinks he should want. What he wants, is to go online and cruise older men. To begin with, this seems to be for nothing more than validation, to look and be looked at, to want and be wanted. He insists he doesn’t meet up with the men from the site he frequents. What he thinks he wants is just what his friends (who he insists are “not his friends”) want: to hang out, do drugs, and sleep with pretty girls. Frankie does all of these things, but they don’t seem to bring him any kind of happiness or fulfilment. If anything, they just serve to highlight the lack that he’s dealing with, the lack that comes from not going after what it is he really wants.

When Frankie meets up with people, it begins the same way as his online interactions do. He looks and is looked at. He wants and his wanted. These meetings all lead to sexual acts of one kind or another; some by the beach, some in hotel rooms, but wherever he goes, he doesn’t go there alone. They’re not shown as being terrifying or titillating, they’re simply shown. They just are what they are. Beach Rats exists at a kind of distance from its subject. Not an unfeeling distance, but a Larry Clark kind of distance; like a voyeur, always worried that if they’re caught too loudly, they’ll be caught in the act. In sex, as with the light of Frankie’s phone camera, bodies are shown in fragments; hands grab and touch, but any kind of wholeness is avoided.

Throughout all of his interactions, with friends, family, or lovers, Frankie is afraid. Afraid of being too much, of not being enough, of being outed, of being inadequate. Beach Rats has fear beating through its heart. Every breath that Frankie takes in the company of the men he sleeps with is imbued with fear. The interaction he has with his girlfriend when she says “when two guys make out, it’s just gay,” is fearful. The simple fact that Frankie doesn’t know what he is, and doesn’t understand what he wants, is full of fear. On a primal level, the unknown is sheer terror, and that’s what Frankie contends with throughout Beach Rats. He flinches away from intimacy after sex; not wanting to be too much, or maybe not wanting to be too “gay.” Sexuality isn’t really brought up much in dialogue, other than Frankie saying he “doesn’t think of himself as gay.” But Beach Rats is about fear, not sexuality or coming. The closet exists, of course, and Frankie is obviously in it, but coming out of it isn’t treated as being all that important. Instead, coming to terms is. Coming to terms with what you want, who you are, with the small degree of safety that can come from knowing, a moment of intimacy on a hotel room bed. Frankie doesn’t live in the closet, he lives in fear. He waits for the truth to set him free, and it doesn’t as his summer ends the way it began, with fireworks on the boardwalk. The truth will set him free, later, just not before its finished with him.

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LFF 2017: Being Alive

There seems to be a visual contradiction running through Call Me By Your Name. It’s a film about intimacy, and sexuality. Yet it keeps some things at a distance. It favours long takes and images of stunning scenery to close-ups of faces in anguish or ecstasy. But that doesn’t make it cold, or unfeeling. If anything, it’s exactly the opposite, and the slight distance that the camera keeps is the only way to stop Call Me By Your Name from being utterly overpowering.

Call Me By Your Name is, simply put, full of things. This is true on a lot of the levels the film operates on. It’s full of longing glances and stolen moments, full of sculpture and literature and art, full of nature and food and music. But nothing feels like it’s there just to be there. Everything there feels alive. Call Me By Your Name isn’t just full of things, its full of life, it shows a world that’s lived in. Even discussions about etymology manage to relate to the world of the film. It might be a bit on the nose, with reference to things being “precocious” just as the camera presents us with a shot of Elio, who even gets described as precocious in a plot summary on IMDB. But the film never tries to be subtle, not really. It zooms in on the first moment of intimate contact between Elio and Oliver, a shot that, by now, seems all too familiar.

It makes sense for Call Me By Your Name to be unsubtle though. After all, there’s something about it that threatens to overpower. We see the way these characters live and feel through the things and people that they surround themselves with. Art of all kinds, from pop music to classical piano, is treated with paramount importance. As a way of seeing someone, a way of understanding them. There’s a scene where Elio plays the piano for Oliver, a version of something he played minutes earlier on an acoustic guitar. He plays variations on it, and one of them is tinged with rock and roll. As Elio plays it, we see him swept up in the feeling of the music, face contorting like Mick Jagger or Jim Morrison. There’s a similar moment, much later in the film, when Oliver is looking at slides of sculptures with Elio’s father. Oliver is being told about the way the sculptures curve, their ambiguity, and the way they “almost dare you to desire them.” Then Elio walks in, desiring Oliver as he desires the sculptures, which are really a way of desiring Elio.

The life of Call Me By Your Name isn’t all academic and artistic though. It exists on a physical level as well as an intellectual one. Elio watches Oliver dancing to a pop song, watches the way his body moves, the way he kisses the girl opposite him. The music is imbued with desire, like the sculptures or the piano music. Desire is at the heart of Call Me By Your Name, it pulses through the films veins. Everything in the film is felt by someone, every piece of art, every thump of a volleyball; every kiss, all of it is felt. There is a whole world of things in Call Me By Your Name, things that bring us closer to the characters than a camera ever could, closer than the longest close-up of Elio staring at Oliver ever could. The rapture we see Elio feel when he plays piano is more than enough, like the uninhibited way that Oliver dances. In spite of the physical distance the camera keeps us at, the lived-in quality of Call Me By Your Name gives us something much richer, something much more than physical closeness: intimacy.

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LFF 2017: Gemini as a Hollywood thriller

In aesthetic and execution, and possibly intent, Gemini feels very Hollywood. Capital “H” Hollywood, but beyond just its setting. Yes, Gemini is set in the film world, around actresses, screenwriters, the paparazzi, and the (in)famous tell-all interview, but it isn’t only that that makes the film Hollywood. The capital “H” shouldn’t be one of place, but of emphasis, drawing your attention to all of the things about Hollywood as a place, and the people in it, to try and turn Gemini into more than the sum of its parts, into something about Hollywood, and not just set in it.

There’s some David Lynch light that seeps through into Gemini. Like with Mulholland Drive, and Inland Empire, where Hollywood dreams turn into nightmares, Aaron Katz’s neo-noir features murder, mystery, and a woman in trouble. There’s even a shot that feels like it was ripped straight out of Blue Velvet, when Lola Kirke’s Jill spies on a conversation through the door of the wardrobe she’s hiding in. Gemini isn’t as surreal or nightmarish as anything that Lynch has set in the city of angels, but there’s a certain shared sensibility here, a desire to look underneath the surface, to stare beyond something and into the darkness, and wonder what, if anything, is staring back at you.

On the surface, Gemini seems a little shallow. All neon lights and motorbikes, trading in stock images: sleazy paparazzi photographers, the dogged and determined detective, and, of course, the woman in trouble. These are all puzzle pieces that everyone is familiar with. They feature in most films about Hollywood, most murder mysteries, or both. But they’re used in ways that betray their surface simplicity. These predictable images lead to predictable plot beats, but Gemini slowly gets you to look closer. To look at just how Hollywood everything is.

There’s a scene where a screenwriter talks to Jill about the murder of Heather Anderson, Hollywood starlet, and Jill’s best friend/boss. He talks Jill through what would happen “if I were writing the screenplay.” He goes through a list of suspects, even crossing someone off the list because “all signs point to him. So it can’t be him.” This scene is the closest that Gemini comes to broadcasting its intentions. By setting itself among actresses and screenwriters, Gemini deliberately makes us think about the way these stories are told. Not the way that they are in the real world, but the way that they’re told in movies. Movies like Gemini.

At no point does Gemini explicitly say that it’s being self-aware, that it’s using the Hollywood setting and archetypes to say something about the story. That’s where the real mystery of Gemini lies; not in the murder, but in the (un)reality of a story like that, being told in a place like this. The characters talk like characters. In a voicemail left for Jill, the detective, played by John Cho, says “I think that you’re not telling me the whole truth.” I struggle to think that any real-world detective would say something like that. But in Hollywood, coming from the mouth of a character, I’ve heard it before, and it makes perfect sense. It’s unreal. That’s the point. John Cho’s detective even mentions, in an early scene with Jill, the idea of “one small detail” that allows everything to make sense. That makes Gemini the second Hollywood satire I’ve seen in as many days – the other being BoJack Horseman – that mentions, and then uses, that storytelling idea.

One of Gemini’s greatest strengths is that it doesn’t explicitly signpost what it is being self-aware about, or when it’s being done. It expects the audience to pick up on it, to notice when the known becomes the unknown. This deliberate evasiveness can lead to some frustrating moments and dead ends. The hotel scene that borrows from Blue Velvet, from example, is tense in the moment, but none of that tension carries over once the scene is over. Instead, it shows us that the screenwriter was right, that the guy in the hotel room couldn’t be the killer, because all the signs pointed to him. Like so many effective mysteries, all of the pieces fall together at the end, and with hindsight, one can’t help but wonder how they didn’t work it out themselves. Gemini is a slow burn, that takes a familiar LA drive on an unfamiliar route, and along the way it does something that feels more and more rare in cinema; it trusts the audience to notice things, it trusts their intelligence, and rewards them for the time they spent watching those familiar images on a familiar screen.

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