A World Built on Top of Ours: Finding Queerness in Midnight Special

I recently had the chance to watch Midnight Special, which applies an indie film filter to the “child with mysterious powers” spec-fic staple. That’s more dismissive of the movie than I mean to be, but effective shorthand, since I’m less interested in the overt text of the piece than I am with what I find around its edges and in the spaces between it.

So we’re all up to speed, the short version of the plot goes like this: Roy (Michael Shannon) is attempting to get his son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) out of the reach of the cult which raised them both — and which has currently built a religion around Alton’s otherworldly abilities. To do this, he enlists the aid of his childhood friend — and Texas state trooper — Lucas (Joel Edgerton) and eventually Alton’s mother, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), moving cross country at night (and blacking out windows during the day) to avoid overloading Alton’s light-sensitive powers.

Before we go much further: I’m not convinced this is a film trying to interrogate its source materials so much as present them with a different aesthetic. However, because that aesthetic involves saying half of what you need to say, of meaningful stares and thoughtful silences, it nevertheless feeds directly into my Subtext Engine.

The obvious queer angle I could take would be turning Alton’s super powers into a metaphor for queerness, but Alton seems a clear stand in for a different Other. And an important one, though I’m reticent to delve too deeply, as there are folks far better equipped to comment on how well or poorly the film does it. Nevertheless, Alton’s abilities had a much more obvious resonance for me: he suffers intense sensory issues, issues which his caregivers argue repeatedly about how to manage, and (possibly most importantly), Alton doesn’t “get better” until he’s allowed to be involved himself, until someone listens to him about what he needs. It sounds almost beat for beat like the struggle people on the autism spectrum face daily.

Rather than in Alton and his powers, then, I found queerness in the more mundane elements at play. Namely, in Roy and Lucas. In point of fact, for much of the opening of the film, I kept trying to parse whether or not Roy and Lucas were a couple. It wasn’t until the mid-film appearance of Sarah, when Lucas finally drops exposition about how he joined this little caper, that I was certain they weren’t. And even then, well, intended or not, the film is riddled with elements that still play queer to me.

Lucas, we learn in the aforementioned infodump, was a close childhood friend of Roy’s. They were “real close for a long time. Until his parents moved him out to The Ranch.” The Ranch being the film’s name for the cult compound Roy et al are currently fleeing. Word choice is important, here: it isn’t that Roy’s family moved out there and he had to go with them, they moved Roy out there. It plays like nothing so much as a conversion therapy narrative.

Lucas makes it clear the two have had little or no contact since the move, but years later, when the life of his child is on the line, Roy goes first to Lucas. He doesn’t call, doesn’t test the waters to see how much or little he might be able to trust Lucas. He just shows up on his doorstep. And here’s the thing: Lucas isn’t the only person Roy can go to. The pair make multiple stops on their journey, getting help from at least one other former cult member besides Sarah. Roy had options. What he chose, though, was Lucas. There’s an intimate trust there which is profound given the stakes, and whatever past these two had with each other was enough to tell Roy he could count on Lucas to be worth that trust.

Then, too, there’s those meaningful, silent looks that this kind of film is known for: where a character looks at an object or a tableau and we’re meant to read what they’re thinking from the way they consider it. Lucas has more than one of those, several of them at the sight of Roy and Sarah and Alton altogether. He even expresses his regret at one point, telling Sarah that the three of them “would have made a nice family” if there had “been a way out of this.” It isn’t much of a stretch to attach a second meaning to what roadblock “this” represents.

And when it comes to the way out, when the film reaches its climax and the group has to separate to get Alton where he’s going, Lucas — who has always been the muscle, the one with the gun, the defense training, the physical endurance to shrug off shotgun impacts — stays with Roy, not Alton, for a final, rousing chase. Not to drive the car, mind you. Roy’s doing that. Not to shoot at the military; Alton’s made clear that the military has orders only to fire if fired upon. Nevertheless, he’s at Roy’s side.

He’s there to see Alton’s “world built on top of ours” with Roy, and when it’s all said and done and he’s under interrogation by the government, who are none to happy with his responses, he has only one story to tell “because it’s the truth.”

This is obviously a lot of me building a secondary story out of spaces and looks and inference. Sure, great, you might think, we can add it to a Buzzfeed list of wacky fan theories next to the secret origin of Jesse from Toy Story. But certainly there are numerous films where no one has to lay out arguments for a queer presence. Surely we’ve moved past the point where we have to decode film to find its underlying queerness, where writers sneak in subtext by lying to the male lead about intent and writing around it.

Except sometimes maybe we still do. Because there are still young people who grow up in small or large towns, whose communities don’t like talking about this kind of thing. Young people who, if they get too close, if they insist on telling a story because it’s the truth no matter how uncomfortable it makes the establishment, wind up shipped off for re-programming. People who have to live their lives at night, who have to worry about what they say and who they say it to because doing the wrong thing in the harsh light of day still risks destroying everything. Maybe people from states that continue to actively debate their rights.

Maybe for those people, we still need to build a world on top of the one that everyone else sees. A world with people like them. Because, as Alton says, “They watch us. They’ve been watching us for a very long time.”

I Think She’d Be Marvelous

So apparently casting for the upcoming Captain Marvel movie is ramping up. I see the usual suspects suggesting the usual suspects for the title role. And I don’t know that anyone I’m hearing named is a bad choice, mind you, but when I sat down to think about what might make a good Captain Marvel, I came up with someone else.

I’m all in on Kerry Washington for the cinematic Captain Marvel.

I’ll stop right here and clarify that no, I’m not talking about making this film about Monica Rambeau. I’d be thrilled to see that character on screen, too, but that would involve a wholesale concept shift. I suspect the MCU gurus chose their Captain Marvel for her kree / alien / cosmic ties as they expand into outer space for their Infinity War mega-event. Trying to change the course of that monster seems so entirely outside the realm of possibility that I’m not sure it would be worth the effort.

So, yeah, I’m doing my back flips and megaphone cheers for Kerry Washington as Carol Danvers.

Since I can already hear the um actuallys starting with their But Carol Danvers is.., I’ll just stop right there and finish that sentence for you.

Carol Danvers is a woman filled with inner strength and determination.

Carol Danvers is a woman willing to fight against overwhelming odds to do what she thinks is right.

Carol Danvers is a woman whose military background suggests she’s used the previous qualities to push her way up the ranks in one of the ultimate Boys’ Clubs around.

Carol Danvers is a woman with a past of mistakes and tragedy, who’s been beaten by fate and circumstance time and again, gaining power, losing power, but who, at the end of the day, has come out triumphant and ready to keep fighting.

Um, yeah, so what I’m seeing here is someone who feels like she has a lot in common with Washington’s Oliva Pope on Scandal. Sure, her fights there aren’t nearly as physically violent as the kind Captain Marvel is likely to entail, but that’s what stunt doubles and special effects are for.

And while Washington herself hasn’t always been the punching character, her recent turn in Django Unchained, and previous roles in the first two Fantastic Four films, certainly suggest she’s not opposed to being part of a film built around things going ‘splody.

Said role in the FF films also happens to mean Washington’s already dealt with anti-diversity nerdrage and came out on top. I’ve no idea if she wants to wade into the morass again, mind you, but if she did, she at least wouldn’t be coming into the whole thing unawares.

So, yeah, if we’re fancasting that MCU flick? I’m on the Kerry Washington for Carol Danvers train. THAT would be some Marvelous casting, if you ask me.

If You Can’t Tell People of Color From Dogs and Martians, I Can’t Help You

I did a bit of spitting and stuttering about this interview of The Coen Brothers by Jen Yamato on social media, but the more I stewed, the more I had to rant about, so I thought I’d take it to the lengthier venue of the blog.

Ignore the title of over at The Daily Beast. This is only tangentially about The Oscars. It’s far more substantively about the Coens who, after saying diversity is important, spin on their heels and dig in when questions of diversity are leveled at them (specifically, their newest film). The most egregious response comes from Joel Coen, when asked about criticism of a lack of non-white characters in Hail, Caesar!:

You don’t sit down and write a story and say, ‘I’m going to write a story that involves four black people, three Jews, and a dog,’—right? That’s not how stories get written. If you don’t understand that, you don’t understand anything about how stories get written and you don’t realize that the question you’re asking is idiotic.

I suppose I should at least be impressed by how very many ways Coen is fundamentally wrongheaded in such a short space. I mean, efficiency of language is something.

Still:

Let’s get some of the most hateful bits out of the way right here. A white, straight man is sitting around telling his Asian-American female interviewer that she’s an idiot for questioning his choices as a creator. This is such prototypical whitemansplaining that we might as well just stop using other examples. Joel Coen wins the crown.

I’ll give him some mild kudos for thinking to include “three Jews” in his hypothetical list that Writers Don’t Make. In the end, though, whether he’s throwing an ostensibly self-deprecating bone at himself or not, he still just implied that switching out white people for ethnic minorities if there isn’t A Big Reason for it is as asinine as replacing people with dogs. Aside from the fact that you’re only half a step removed from making “mongrel” comments, there, someone who claims to know “how stories get written” should probably know the difference between people and dogs. (special exceptions for writers of werewolf and anthropomorphic fiction notwithstanding). If you don’t, I’m pretty sure no one asking you questions is the one who’s an idiot.

More specific to the film in question, though, it sounds like Hail, Caesar! is exactly the kind of story which did start with a list of character concepts: The Marquee Actor, The Water Movie Starlet, The Hollywood Fixer. It’s a “day in the life” movie, after all, predicated on the notion that there are a lot of stories to tell about different Hollywood types. That kind of story by its very nature involves sitting down and thinking about which iconic character types you want to explore, what unique elements you want to bring to them (because if this is the same story we’ve already heard, why do we give a fuck?), then finding a way to weave them together.

Which is to say, if you’re already sitting down and saying we want a story with a big name star and someone from those Busby Berkely water musicals and a fresh-eyed kid and a grizzled veteran, you’re doing exactly the thing you’re pretending is idiotic: making a character list  with types of people in the real world.

Meaning that in the actual examining, it’s not idiotic at all. It’s how you craft characters. You sit down and think about who the people in your world are. Where they’re from. What they do. You give them lives and backgrounds. Different lives and backgrounds. If you didn’t, you’d have a story filled with a dozen of the same person. Which, short of that bit in Being John Malkovich, is a boring, horrible idea.

Pretending that taking a few moments in your character-building to consider the ethnic or sexual or gender or disability backgrounds of your characters as you strive for a vital, varied world that engages your audience is — at the insanely least — disingenuous.

And on the subject of four of one, three of another, etc., it’s long past time we stop pretending there’s a quota going on here. Seriously. There’s a request for storytellers to be more thoughtful about the world around them. That’s actually pretty much your job. It doesn’t help that this all comes with the infuriating implication that a movie full of white people is one where race happened naturally. Never considering if there was maybe too much White Default going on in the story is, actually, a choice.

If someone asks you “why is this movie so white?” and you have an answer which suggests it was for reasons other than being too lazy to conceive of any other configuration, fine. Whether or not it resonates, at least it means you thought about it. But when someone asks you “why is this movie so white?” and you just get dismissive and defensive, that tells me you never thought about it before.

In the end, I’m utterly exhausted by the authorial defense which insists that taking five minutes of story planning to consider that people other than the White (mostly male) Default exist in the world is some kind of egregious impediment to creativity or artistic integrity or storytelling or whatever-the-hell other stand in for The Muse happens to be word of the day.

People of all stripes exist in the real world. If you’re a storyteller, you’re building a world, too, and it is nothing short of lazy if you do not — in the course of that worldbuilding — consider the place of diverse individuals within it.

Just Love Me (but Not On the Lips)

I’m still ambivalent about a The Last 5 Years1 film, largely because its concept has always seemed so tied to live theatre. Mind you, I don’t mind adaptation. It happens all the time. Filmmakers adjust stories to better fit the new medium and I totally think they should.

That said, the central conceit of The Last 5 Years–that Cathy is moving backwards through the relationship as Jamie moves forward–feels both essential to the material and all wrong for film. In all honestly, while there are a lot of songs I love in the show, I think the reason you sit through those songs all at once is the time juggling. It’s a device that engages your mind in a different way than a linear narrative, and by around the midway point, starts encouraging you to try fitting songs back together internally. The intellectual exercise of figuring out who is when keeps your brain working to put together what is, on its face, a fairly standard relationship narrative.

And, in a theatrical setting, no one really balks at just having two people performing a series of musical monologues. We’re used to folks getting up on a stage and doing just that. It’s the buy in. We don’t need anything cinematic. And, again, that intimacy seems kind of crucial to what this particular story is trying to accomplish. As, effectively, an elaborate he said / she said story, forcing the audience to lock in on whomever is currently doing the saying is important. It’s not a tug of war if you aren’t being yanked from deep within one person’s perspective to deep within another’s. Film tends to want to be far more immersive with its environments, and rightly so.

So, yeah. Given that the two things that I think make The Last 5 Years, you know, The Last 5 Years are both elements which I think don’t work especially well in cinema, I’ve been apprehensively curious about how things are going to work in this new film.

The first clip from the film feels a bit like my concerns are at least reasonably valid2:

So, in an effort to help things move, to give the world of the film that immersive environmental element I was talking about above, we have our lead characters in a car. We get wind, we get scenery, we get all that wild, fun energy of being out on the road with the person who gets you going, which of course leads to pulling off said road in order to get going with said person.

But because Cathy has to keep singing the whole time, the scene plays really awkwardly for me. There’s no real musical break to let Anna Kendrick fully connect with Jeremy Jordan. She manages to sneak in one, very quick kiss, but the rest of the scene, which is attempting to build to some spontaneous roadside nookie, keeps fighting with the need for Kendrick to keep singing. I count three or four different spots where it’s clear that the actors’ instincts (which I think are spot on) are to be kissing, but: Must. Keep. Singing.

So instead we have Jordan going to town while Kendrick sings about how into it all she is without being able to actually be into it. It’s kind of a perfect example of the tension between the needs of the filmmakers and the needs of the show they’re adapting.

Maybe this is just a particularly off example of the rest of the film released because “look, we made it full of sexy stuff!” or something. Still, it’s not doing much to reduce my ambivalence.

1. I thought for half a second about going back and forth between 5 and Five in the titles to distinguish film from stage show, but it just became confusing, not least of all because, while MTI lists the title with Five-the-word, the poster just about everyone associates with the show uses 5-the-number, and I’m done with the headache, so this is what you get.

2. The original clip is actually from Entertainment Weekly, but after much screaming and gnashing of teeth, I cannot get that into WordPress. Thus the YouTube.