Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore

Refusing Universal Narratives: Andrew Haigh's Weekend

Filed By Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore | December 15, 2011 11:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Marriage Equality
Tags: Andrew Haigh, assimilation, coming out of the closet, Derek Jarman, gay dating, gay marriage, homophobic behavior, Nottingham, so much love to give, Todd Haynes, VHS

This movie made me ask: have I ever seen a movie representing contemporary gay male casual sex/dating culture that felt realistic? weekend-movie.jpegThat I could relate to? And, I'm not sure. I don't even know if that was something I was looking for, but then I saw Weekend, and I started to wonder. So I went back to watch it again.

I'm not saying that this movie is necessarily groundbreaking or earth-shattering, just that it feels authentic in its intimacy, in its gaps, in the way it depicts those gestures towards and away from self-expression that we all make when we meet someone new and we don't know whether it will lead anywhere but we do know there's that jittery nervousness in between or even during those moments of connection. So then we wonder, keep wondering, wonder about this wondering.

Russell meets Glen late at night at a gay bar ("Love love so much love to give" is blasting as he enters). First he looks nervously around, but soon enough he's so drunk he can hardly do more than close his eyes and shake his body on the dance floor - you know those moments, right? You've gotten past the alienation and into liquored-up imagination, maybe now you can approach that guy who makes you feel like you're going to die if you don't say something. Searching for that connection you crave and sometimes you don't know why, but still you crave.

Russell follows Glen into the bathroom, tries to get his attention at one of those group urinals all bar-crawling faggots must learn to love or else, where we linger, mirror above the trough. Commode, maybe you're supposed to say. (But wait, after my third viewing I notice that isn't a commode at all, just three urinals close together, no mirror so how are we supposed to get a look at his... eyes?) But anyway, there's another guy between them - Glen heads away and Russell turns his whole body to see if he can catch his attention, but no luck. Heart falling inside stomach. And so, then he finds himself making out with the guy who's left, trying to find him attractive but it's not exactly working. Oh, how many times has that happened to me? And, how many times have I seen it reflected in film? I mean, never?

Or, rarely enough that I can't remember. It's a simple scene, but one so rarely portrayed in the endless slew of gay coming-out/coming-of-age dramas (snore), or gay tragedies where the hero dies or goes back into the closet at the end (old-school), or love/lust stories so hackneyed you might as well rub jello all over your face and call it mascara. And, now we have blockbuster gay movies made by straight people, and indie versions of the same schlock made by gay people, for straight people. (Gay for pay or pay for gay, you decide!) Oh, and don't forget those hour-long product placement exercises known as "reality shows." Every time I want to see a legitimate representation of gay culture, I just turn on The A-List Dallas!

But, wait, there is at least one other category of gay narrative cinema- the one that usually affects me - those movies so gorgeous and stylized in their depictions of desire that longing becomes the way you fall through the ceiling - like Todd Haynes's Poison (made almost 2 decades before he got awards for remaking that, um, scintillating Mildred Pierce), or Derek Jarman's Edward II. (Yes, sometimes I think the art was better in the early-'90s, I'll admit it). So, yes, it's those high-lo art heartbreakers that I usually seek out (and, of course, an endless range of documentaries) - which makes it even more surprising that a movie so mundane like Weekend, bordering on mainstream in its middle-of-the-road attractive characters and it's packaged indie aesthetic - that a movie this simple in its goals could still get me excited in a way that sent me back for more. I wanted to make sure that I wasn't just starved for any representation of gayness, stuck here in the Santa Fe of the imagination. I mean, in the Santa Fe without imagination. Help - can someone give me a ride? Anywhere!

But wait, time for scene two: the morning after. It turns out that Russell and Glen did hook up - Russell's in the kitchen in his white briefs and black T-shirt, making instant coffee to bring into the bedroom. Russell is nervous, Glen enjoys provoking him - wants him to talk about last night's sex for the benefit of a tape recorder art project. "I saw you in the club and I thought you were out of my league, but I liked your T-shirt," Russell starts.

And here we see the development of the two characters - Russell, out to his straight friends but still afraid of expressing affection or a gay identity in public; Glen, who revels in talking about sex and obsesses about making art to push private desires into public discourse. "You didn't want me to fuck you, because it would make you feel too... gay?" Glen accuses Russell. And then, when he hears a homophobe yelling QUEER outside, he leans out the window and yells "I'm going to come down there and rape your holes."

Russell is nervous the homophobes will throw bricks through his windows. "You're 14 flights up," Glen reminds him. After programming each other's numbers into their phones in the hallway, Russell struggles to say goodbye when his straight neighbors enter the hallway, expressing their own affection. Glen shakes his hand - "You really do have a lovely home," he deadpans.

Russell is a lifeguard at the municipal pool, and Glen works at an art gallery. If in some ways their connection is about difference, it's also about sameness - both model the facial hair trendy in gay settings and casual attire that telegraphs an awareness of current trends without calling masculinity into question. ("Not too camp," a phrase Russell uses several times in the film, broadcasting his insecurity in a way immediately familiar to anyone who's spent time in masculinity-obsessed gay cultures).

This movie portrays more or less mainstream (indiestream, I would say) gay characters in their 30s or so (age is never mentioned), who are, in spite or perhaps because of subcultural affiliation, not particularly class-striving. Glen makes fun of Russell's thrift store decor, but he's also impressed by it. Perhaps he does show a bit of discomfort when he tells Russell, "There's nothing wrong with being a lifeguard," even though Russell hasn't indicated any shame about his job.

And sure, Glen is modeling the 1970s gay clone plaid shirt de rigeur in London gay fashion (this movie takes place in the midsize working-class English town of Nottingham). And, just in case you don't notice the fashion intent, Glen sports a t-shirt underneath the plaid that features an image from 1950s gay physique photography, with "PROVINCETOWN" spelled out above. Still, there isn't the usual spread of brand names and moneyed braggadocio so typical in most media representations of what it means to be gay. Yes, Russell does take out a new pair of Nikes before going out to meet Glen, but otherwise it's mostly Russell's apartment we see - meticulously decorated in thrift store finery for sure, but nonetheless a subsidized council flat.

The editing is crisp and generally tight around the conversations that form the core of the film, occasionally pulling back to remind us of the distance from which we are gazing. These wide-frame moments reveal loneliness and connection at once: a virtually-still life where Russell stands under the DEEP END sign at the pool; an illuminated gas station where he and Glen wait for the bus later on; and, most effectively, in a scene towards the end of the film, where we see the pair illuminated in the 14th floor window from outside - the building takes up half the frame, the other half the foggy nighttime cityscape.

But first, Glen picks up Russell from work - "Did you ever save anyone's life," he asks snidely, handing him an energy drink. Yeah, Russell says, unfazed. But then it's Russell's turn to throw Glen off-guard - Glen, a smoker, is out of breath after climbing a flight of stairs that leads to a highway overpass on the way to Russell's apartment; Russell asks him if he wants to ride on the back of his bike, pretends he's going to leave him otherwise and so Glen jumps on. "Do you feel safe?" Russell asks. "No," Glen yells back, but soon he's holding out his arms in the air and yelling like a little boy; it's the first moment of unbridled intimacy in the movie.

Back in the apartment of desire, Russell wants to know about Glen's tape recording project, how is it art and not just people talking dirty? Glen wants to know what's dirty about someone's sex life, opens up into a tirade about straight privilege that's definitely convincing for his character, the type of gay guy who becomes more impassioned with every rant. He's not entirely eloquent, but that makes the monologue all the more believable. And then, the anticipated conversation about coming out - Glen says he came out to his parents on Mother's Day when he was 16, told them "nature or nurture, either way it's your own fault." A brilliant retort that Russell is suitably impressed by, but slightly hard to imagine for a 16-year-old to come up with - more convincing as an anecdote Glen uses to broadcast invulnerability.

It's pretty impressive that this movie, which consists mostly of dialogue, manages to stay so true to the characters - sure, there are moments that feel a bit too overwrought - like when Russell tells Glen that he never knew his parents because he grew up in foster care, yet it's Glen's character that this serves to illuminate - "that's interesting," he reveals, his eyes excited. And, once suitably stoned and slap-happy, "Is it really wrong that I find the whole orphan thing really sexy?" It's the exact type of thing that a gay guy like Glen would say - snide and falsely revealing. Yet somehow it leads to the two of them making out, panting, that openness of sex in their eyes, come all over Russell's chest.

It shouldn't be unusual to see the immediacy of gay desire, the evidence on the chest, but it is. Which brings us back to Glen's comments about structural homophobia, not the phrase he uses but here it feels quite important - because, another of the things that this film does quite well is to show the way that homophobia undergirds everything - from thugs in the park yelling QUEER to Russell's discomfort talking about his own sex life. Glen rails against the straitjacket of straight control over self-expression, over gay dreams, but it's more than that - it's the landscape we all learn to live with, sometimes don't even notice, internalize.

Then there's the awkwardness of saying goodbye for a second time - Glen exits the door, but knocks again just moments later. "I'm going away tomorrow," he says. To Portland, Oregon, it turns out - for a two-year program called Contemporary Perspectives on Modern Art in the 21st Century. Here it's worth mentioning that Glen fetishizes "America" as a land where gay people actually fight for what they want, and yet, if this movie were made in the US it would certainly have been doomed to an NC-17 rating for its frank depiction of gay sexuality (Todd Haynes received the first NC-17 rating for Poison, in 1991).

Russell is trying to act like Glen's departure doesn't phase him - and, why should it? They've just met, after all. Glen "doesn't do boyfriends." Glen bows his head nervously while inviting Russell to his going-away party. It's these awkward moments that make the movie so true to life and its difficulties large and small, those lapses in communication that sometimes mean as much as the communication, the pounding of everything inside.

And so, soon enough, we're at Glen's going-away party, which takes place at a straight bar downtown, somewhere he finds campy because it's unfamiliar, whereas Russell finds it uncomfortable because it's familiar. Glen tells loud sex stories to his friends, and gets in an argument about straight privilege with a straight guy who asks him to keep the volume down. Glen asks Russell if he wants to kiss him, but Russell doesn't want to do it in a straight bar so Glen pulls him outside. They're on the tram, and then at a carnival - Glen says his friends make him feel like there's "a noose around my neck." "You don't mean that," Russell counters. "Yes I do," Glen responds.

Then they're talking about childhood again, Glen says when he was 15 his friend caught him watching A Room with a View with the VCR paused during a scene where everyone goes skinny-dipping. He wanted to catch a hint of Rupert Graves' cock vibrating with the paused VHS tape. "In that moment I could see myself through his eyes," Glen adds, "and it didn't matter." If they thought he was a dirty faggot, then he would be a dirty faggot. Afterwards, this former friend told the whole school, and that was the end of all Glen's other friendships too.

Sometimes Glen's monologues feel a too stagy, Russell's doe-eyed openness a bit contrived, but isn't it always a bit stagy or contrived when you meet someone new? The way these intimate conversations happen in both the public and private domains - that's what this movie captures so well.

And drugs, don't forget the drugs! The movie opens with Russell smoking pot, continues with his straight best friend handing him a shot for one hand and a beer for the other -- alcohol literally lubricates every interaction, so it's no surprise that when Glen and Russell end up back at Russell's apartment they are giggling maniacally and snorting lines of coke. Here what is refreshing is that the movie contains absolutely no shred of a moralistic stance - drugs are just there, everyone does them, and rarely thinks about it. Sure, maybe they contribute to the intensity of the emotions, but the characters are unaware.

I'll admit I'm somewhat obsessed with figuring out how old Glen and Russell are supposed to be. From the opening scene, I assume they are somewhere in their 30s - the way their faces change so dramatically in age depending on the lighting. A Room with a View is an exact reference from my preteen years, so I guess that they are about my age, but then sometimes they say things that make it seem like they are supposed to be younger, like when Glen describes his art project and Russell asks: "is that what you want to be, an artist?" Not that it matters exactly - 20s or 30s, somewhere in that realm. (Besides, my friend Andee in London tells me that scene in A Room with a View is iconic.)

But back to the coke party - it turns out that Russell has his own sex diary, privately logged on his computer; he reads some of the entries to Glen, and then Glen takes over just as he reaches an entry that turns out to be about the ex-boyfriend who cheated on him. It's the second dramatic moment in the film that feels a bit false, but still it leads to a conversation about gay marriage and assimilation, straight privilege and the tragedy of gay pretensions to normalcy. But Russell wants to know: what if it's about love? Marriage, that is. Glen is on a coked-out rant - "We have a chance to grow our own shit." Russell interrupts him: you want everyone to think for themselves, but then you don't want anyone to disagree with you. Another monologue about love, what if it's about love? Russell gets quite animated about this. Glen is unconvinced, yet suddenly silent in that way that happens when you're talking to someone new and you realize the conversation has reached a dead-end. That happened with my last boyfriend a lot. Russell asks: do you want another line?

Another line - of course! Then it's Russell's turn to confront Glen - in spite of Glen's rhetoric, Russell thinks he wants a boyfriend. They go back and forth for a while; it gets emotional - Russell ends up in the bathroom staring into the mirror in the way that always happens when you do too much of something - drugs, in this case, or arguing. Reemerges with a joint, and as the two stand by the window a sudden musical dirge comes on, piano and wailing as the two start to caress, making out tenderly and yes, that's when we see the pair illuminated in the building from outside, all the other lights off - stunning because it's also so simple. I think of my last apartment, with a view kind of like this one. I think of some guy I met 12 years ago in New York and we did a bunch of coke, ended up in his apartment a few times, he was an asshole really but still there was that intimacy that happens when you're with someone for 12 or 24 hours in a row. I think about how I've left this world of bar pickups, and whether I want it back.

But back to the sex, somehow neither over-determined or underrepresented. Yes, the scene is carefully cropped to avoid revealing too much (for the British censors, I guess), but still we get to see those suddenly wild facial expressions of desire made real, Russell's nervousness when Glen starts to fuck him, and then his moans when he's ready to come just a few thrusts later. I know I keep saying this, but I'm still marveling at these moments that feels so authentic yet so rarely delivered, the sex that does mark a crescendo, but then ends so fast. That's why I'm hooked.

Later, the curtains frame a purple-pink sunrise, smokestack in the distance - another one of those atmospheric still shots that I love and I could use more but it's not exactly that type of movie. But still, it's those soft hues that frame the intimacy of the next scene, that hazy feeling of morning-after-drugs loneliness that feels like intimacy. Russell says that he's fine as long as he's in his apartment, he's not ashamed of being gay, he doesn't want to be straight, but then every time he goes outside and he struggles with indigestion. I'm a grown man, he says, why can't I just get over it like you?

Something changes here; we can see it in Glen's breath - that's how intimate the acting is. Glen says how about if I pretend to be your dad and you can come out to me? Russell isn't sure about this game, but he has that half-asleep look of childlike vulnerability in his face and so he tries it. Glen responds as the father: "I couldn't be more proud of you, than if you were the first man on the moon." It's a silly moment, but it opens up the possibilities of intimacy between the two - Glen makes instant coffee in the morning, and we've come full circle.

But I need to come back to the way the film talks about homophobia. It's not just the guys yelling QUEER at the park, or beating up Glen's ex-boyfriend one night when he went cruising. It's not just the way gay people imitate straights, try not to talk too loudly or express themselves in ways that might appear too flamboyant - "too camp," as Russell would say. It's also when Russell spends time with his best friend and the rest of their circle of straight friend, leaves the drunken house-party at the beginning of the movie because he says he has to get up early for work, and then heads right to the gay bar. He doesn't think that his straight friends would really understand, so it's touching at the end when his best friend urges him to leave his daughter's birthday party (Russell is her godfather) to go see Glen one last time at the train station.

Yes, at the train station, the way so many movies end. Russell is struggling to articulate the intimacy he feels and Glen doesn't want him to, we can't hear what they're saying over the noise of the train until Russell says. "I just want you to know that..." And, Glen starts crying: "I don't know what the fuck I'm doing." A typical feeling after a weekend of drugs and sex, but then it's also true that he's leaving for the US with a little backpack and one rolling suitcase, no intention of coming back. (Todd Haynes lives in Portland, now that I think about it.) Russell holds Glen as he cries, kisses him as someone whistles mockingly from the distance. Ignore them, Glen says, and we see Russell's eyes look over with so much vulnerability. The train leaves, and it's Russell's turn to cry.

This isn't a film that eviscerates the gay narrative of growing up, coming out, coming into privilege; in fact, it situates itself from a questioning place within it. The word "queer" is never uttered except by the homophobes, and perhaps that's something that makes me uncomfortable about praising it too much - I don't generally think there's any hope within gay culture, with its status-crazed obsessions and drive toward normalcy at any cost. Still this movie enters my heart. While the movie is very current in its aesthetic and conversations, its preoccupations - disclosure versus secrecy; freedom versus silence - almost seem dated. And yet, secrecy and silence have returned as hallmarks of the gay experience, shinier now but no more honest; perhaps that's what makes this movie feels so important.

Reviewers are calling this a love story, but that actually takes away the power and possibility of the film. To call it a love story is to make it conform to a heterosexual narrative. It's not a love story at all - it's about a hookup, and the possibilities that might or might not be possible. It's about what happens anyway, the openness that sometimes we can feel in our hearts. It's not just love that we learn from, not just love that makes us grow. By refusing narratives of the "universal" (which always means playing to the imagined center), we can start to hope for so much more.

(Crossposted from NOBODY PASSES, darling)


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