FLIP THE F***ING TABLE
Last week, I had a few hours to kill, so I settled in on my couch for MY POLICEMAN, the new Harry Styles-led, period gay love story that just hit Amazon Prime. POLICEMAN got generally ho-hum reviews coming out of the Venice Film Festival earlier this fall, hot on the heels of another Styles movie, DON’T WORRY DARLING, where alleged behind-the-scenes shenanigans sucked up more attention than the content of director Olivia Wilde’s sophomore effort. Since I loved DON’T WORRY DARLING (no joke, that movie is spectacular) and Styles’ performance in it, I was inclined to give POLICEMAN the benefit of the doubt, despite festival viewers’ overwhelming opinion that its story was “old-fashioned.”
As the movie progressed, though, I understood what they meant. MY POLICEMAN would seem to possess all the elements for a swoony tearjerker: a celebrated theatre director at the helm, an Oscar-nominated screenwriter, talented actors, lush production values, gorgeous locations, a tragic love triangle, and, it must be noted, two genuinely erotic sex scenes. So why is MY POLICEMAN so crashingly dull? True, the easy-on-the-eyes leads exhibit no particular chemistry, and the transparently novel-adapted script relays “incident” without much soul. And yet, for me, the real reason why MY POLICEMAN doesn’t achieve its apparent goals is that the film has nothing new to say. Gay romances ANOTHER COUNTRY, MAURICE, BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, and CALL ME BY YOUR NAME covered this “forbidden love” territory years, if not decades, ago, and by the time one of our heroes found himself in prison, putting up no fight as his homophobic cellmate beats him senseless, I lost any remaining patience. “Old-fashioned” indeed.
This is where my frustration with the current state of LGBTQ-themed films – and filmmakers – reaches critical mass. Millions of dollars were spent on MY POLICEMAN, and for what purpose? As well-intentioned (and I cringe just typing that condescending phrase) as it is, this dour movie was never going to set box offices on fire. Judging from the reviews, it won’t be remembered fondly come year-end awards season. And it will not, I predict, get rediscovered years hence as an unappreciated-in-its-time masterwork. There will be no re-evaluation here; the film will simply fade from memory as if it never existed at all. And the reason is because MY POLICEMAN simply repeats what other movies already did, with no new perspectives, insights, or groundbreaking visual presentation. To be blunt, there is no time or space for any serious dramas these days that don’t break the mold.
I’m not here – nor do I have any inclination – to bemoan the current state of cinema. American auteurs as disparate at Scorsese and Tarantino, as well as contemporary film critics like IndieWire’s David Ehrlich (my personal fave) and The New York Times’ Manhola Dargis have already done so much more eloquently and passionately than I ever could. Superhero franchises, familiar IP, and rebooted nostalgia “product” are what they are. They pay the bills. But nobody talks about them beyond their box-office performance. No one is moved to discuss their merits as works of art or thoughtful studies of the human condition. They’re not intended as “cinema;” they’re meant to make money. Nobody expected the Backstreet Boys to be the Beatles.
The tension that exists around Hollywood these days is whether serious, intelligent films can exist alongside such empty-calorie extravaganzas in the marketplace. Every Monday morning, the trades breathlessly catalog example after example that proves adult audiences aren’t going to theaters. SHE SAID bombed. BROS tanked. In or out of a pandemic, no festival-approved arthouse movie seems able to crack $10 million stateside. (Lady Gaga deserves industry-wide praise for single-handedly turning HOUSE OF GUCCI into the only adult-targeted drama that could be considered a theatrical hit in recent memory, and her Joan Crawford-by-way-of-Sophia Loren performance really did get screwed out of an appropriately appreciative Oscar nomination.)
So what? Paradigms shift. Tastes change. What was popular twenty or thirty years ago isn’t popular today. None of these cycles are new, and the major studios have always operated from a fear-based business model. Does that mean serious filmmakers should stop making serious films? Or, more to the point, should independent financiers stop funding movies about important subject matter simply because those movies aren’t what mass audiences are seeking at this current moment in time?
Hindsight here is helpful.
On paper, 2016’s MOONLIGHT sounds like a total dud, commercially speaking. Here we have a thoughtful, somber drama with no stars, made by a director with only one other barely-released feature under his belt, about a gay, black, celibate man and his journey to self-acceptance. There are no shootouts, no sex scenes, no sweeping emotional climaxes (although the tracking shot that ends with a bully getting a chair smashed over his head did provide one hell of a cathartic release for this viewer). If you’d told the Hollywood gatekeepers that this movie was going to end up winning Best Picture at the Academy Awards and lodging itself as a mainstay in Top 5 of the Decade lists, they would’ve laughed you out of the room.
In description, 2001’s MULHOLLAND DR sounds like an all-out disaster, a feature-length production cobbled together from a failed television pilot, with a lesbian relationship at its center, no stars (again), and a pretzel-logic plot that means whatever each individual viewer decides it means. The flick barely made $5 million at the U.S. box office. And today, it is widely regarded as one of the greatest films ever made, by both American and international film critics. Then-unknown lead Naomi Watts went on to major stardom and two subsequent Oscar nominations. Not a bad legacy for a movie that could be considered a flop by any commercial estimation.
WEEKEND, the minimalist gay love story from British writer-director Andrew Haigh, made even less of a box-office impression during its limited 2011 theatrical run. I know very few gay men who have even seen it. And yet, on the revolutionary strength of its naturalistic, grounded depiction of gay characters, WEEKEND ended up as a selection for the Criterion Collection, alongside films by Godard, Welles, Kurosawa and Altman. Haigh was given an HBO budget to expand his vision into the series LOOKING. His next film, 45 YEARS, starred British new wave legends Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay, with Rampling getting her first Oscar nomination.
There are many more examples like the ones above; these are just three I find particularly inspirational to me as an artist. Does their inability to set cash registers ringing upon their initial release mean the people who financed them should have passed in favor of a quick-buck, instantly forgettable genre movie? The common thread between these three very different films, aside from their ultimate staying power, is that they all showed us something we’d never seen before; they generated new conversation. To this day, I have never seen the inner lives of Black men treated with such sensitivity and honor (you’d need to look at Toni Morrison’s SONG OF SOLOMON to even find it in book form) as in MOONLIGHT. There is no other movie about romantic relationships between gay men like WEEKEND, in which we are treated as ordinary, everyday human beings (imagine that!). And there is no other movie, period, like MULHOLLAND DR, the closest to a filmed dream we’re likely to see.
At the moment, the theatrical world is dismissive, if not downright hostile, to movies for intelligent grownups. Where does that leave artists who connect with the goals of the French New Wave, or gritty late 60’s/early 70’s American films, or 90’s independent film from all over the world? For this filmmaker, the answer is easy. Rather than bitch and moan about the current environment, we can use it as motivation to streamline and regroup our efforts. Streaming platforms are a boon in this capacity. Whether you personally enjoyed them or not, the fact that movies like THE POWER OF THE DOG, DON’T LOOK UP, BLONDE, and THE GOOD NURSE ever occupied the most-watched spot on Netflix, much less for weeks at a time, gives me hope that people indeed want to see serious movies about serious things. (Can you imagine any other way a tough-as-nails, revisionist, queer western like DOG would be the number one most-watched anything?) Those movies all gave us something new and different, fresh perspectives, unique voices. If you want to make an impression, and you don’t have $200 million at your disposal for an inconsequential, star-fueled action programmer like THE GRAY MAN or RED NOTICE (“The Gray and Red what?” Exactly.), then we need to be writing, directing and producing smaller-budgeted movies with characters, plots and points of view that no one’s ever seen before. There’s way too much “content” out there. If we want to remain relevant, then the days of repeating what came before are done. For independent filmmakers, there’s no time – or money – for that. Don’t run from the challenge – lean into it. Flip the fucking table over. We don’t need less intelligence, or less creativity, or less originality. We need more.
In 1989, a little movie showed up at the Sundance Film Festival from a 26 year-old writer-director, about four ordinary people working through their emotional bullshit. The characters did a LOT of talking. The movie “starred” one male actor too idiosyncratic to have yet broken out of asshole supporting roles. Another had done a ton of theatre and zero hit movies. Its lead female was better known as a model who humiliatingly got her voice dubbed over by another actress in her studio film debut. The fourth member of the ensemble was a complete unknown making her first feature. Their film’s first screening was in a tiny room, sparsely attended. Two distributor reps walked out after 20 minutes. This little movie with lots of talking and no bankable names ended up winning the festival Jury Prize that year. At Cannes, this same little movie only got accepted after another movie dropped out of official competition. The little movie then won the Palme d’Or, and the idiosyncratic male, who had already hopped a plane home, wasn’t on hand to accept his Best Actor prize. And this little movie, that nobody believed in when it first arrived on the scene, ended up igniting the independent film movement that dominated the industry for the next decade. The movie, called SEX, LIES AND VIDEOTAPE, was like nothing else released at that time, and was a breath of fresh air after the high-concept, disposable Hollywood output of the 80’s. It launched several careers -- from writer/director Steven Soderbergh, to actors James Spader and Andie MacDowell, to composer Cliff Martinez -- into the stratosphere. Its legacy was felt long after the initial grosses were counted; box office performance is the least interesting point of conversation about a film this quietly radical and transformative.
There are plenty of other movies – Dee Rees’ PARIAH, Andrea Arnold’s FISH TANK, Spike Lee’s BAMBOOZLED, anything by Celine Sciamma – that have inspired me as an artist over the last several decades that either weren’t out-of-the-box commercial hits, or whose reputations needed time to grow. Should those films not have been made because they weren’t instant short-term successes or “safe” commercial bets? Movies that change how we see and feel about the world are a long game; their influence is best appreciated in hindsight, and I, for one, am grateful that their brave producers felt their subject matter meaningful enough to justify their existence.
In a sterile industry of algorithms, short attention spans, and limited imagination that seems hell-bent on only offering us copies of something we’ve already seen, what can we create as artists that no one’s ever seen before? Rather than tearing down the current state of cinema, what new legacies can we build? How can we flip the table?