Monday, December 31, 2007

Once: More with Feeling

Once is a lovely independent film (mentioned in several Best Films of 2007 lists) that tells a simple, affecting story of two people who find each other through music, love each other and what they express, and mutually, wordlessly agree to follow the path their lives have already established (see Their choices take them away from each other, yet leave them with the poignant, wistful residue of their musical intimacy and affection.

Named only “Guy” and “Girl,” as though they’re an archetypal heterosexual couple playing out a tale that’s both mythic and utterly, appealingly ordinary, the couple is played by non-actors in simple and appealing performances. Both performers—Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, who were friends before filming began—are actually musicians, an appropriate casting choice, since music is what unites them and drives the film.

Writer/director John Carney is also a musician, whose understanding of how music moves people suffuses his unobtrusive filmmaking. Shot with mostly hand-held, low tech cameras in natural light situations, Carney paints the movie with an atmospheric earnestness that enhances the casual pleasure of the couple’s relationship.

Once feels like a casual documentary recording of a few weeks in the life of an Irish street musician and the young Czech immigrant to Dublin who’s attracted to his music when she hears him playing on a deserted street in a commercial area at night. During the day, the guy panders to the crowd he hopes will fill his open guitar case, but at night, he takes advantage of the flattering acoustics of his chosen alley (between a Laura Ashley store and another boutique) to howl his own music, filled with the heartache and ambivalence of his girlfriend’s recent sexual betrayal.

Girl is attracted by something she mutual hears in his lyrics, something primal, unguarded, and familiar in his tone, in the way he closes his eyes when he sings, and later, in the way his battered guitar seems an extension of himself, whether slung from a strap around his neck or carried like a talisman in a nylon case on his back.

To support his music habit, Guy works in his father’s vacuum cleaner repair shop, a fortuitous coincidence that Girl exploits by asking if he can fix her broken machine. The visually charming first few scenes follow the couple through Dublin streets as she pulls the canister cleaner along by its hose.

Carney establishes the cozy, quotidian domesticity of the girl’s life, which she shares in a small, cramped apartment with her two-year-old daughter and her widowed mother, who barely speaks English, but sews continually and cooks heartily.

The girl and her mother share their television—which she proudly tells Guy is the only set in their apartment building—with various young men who cram together on their couch to watch soccer and soap operas. Carney films these scenes, too, like home movies with non-actors, which gives them a guileless, irresistibly sweetness.

Guy and Girl’s mutual loneliness and their love for music draw them together. She drags him to a music store where the generous proprietor lets her play the piano when the shop isn’t crowded. Though they barely know each other, and though her English is accented with her Eastern European origins, they speak the common music of language. He talks her through his song’s chord changes and transitions, which she absorbs without a question, and they play a lovely duet, their voices blending beautifully. Their mutual respect and understanding, as well as the pure joy of making music together, shade their expressions.

Early on in the film, Guy makes a casual sexual pass, inviting Girl to spend the night with him. She’s offended for reasons that become clear only when she reveals that she’s married to a man who stayed behind in the Czech Republic. She feels emotionally as well as geographically far from her husband, and intimates that he doesn’t understand her music or her needs.

Guy, too, struggles with his feelings for his absent lover; she’s moved to London after betraying him with another man. All of his songs seem written for her, and all of Girl’s songs seem addressed to her husband. Yet in their partners’ absence, the couple’s music seems more and more to speak to one another, as their intimacy and affection grows.

The two settle into a warm friendship that begins to more gradually take on erotic overtones. He takes her to a dinner party where a motley assembly of people eat and drink and finally set aside their plates and pull out instruments, crowding around the makeshift kitchen table to strum guitars, bow violins, pick at basses, and sing to music that expresses something communal and personal yet public and urgent for them all.

Although Guy is older, Girl is savvier, and her street smarts and precociousness clearly helps her and her family survive a working class existence with few creature comforts. When Guy decides to make a demo CD, Girl negotiates the studio rental at a bargain price. To secure financing, they visit a loan officer, watching carefully as he listens to their rehearsal tape. The interview ends when the officer borrows Guy’s ubiquitous guitar and serenades them with his own music. In this utopian world, everyone is sympathetic to artists; everyone, in fact, is an artist, committed to supporting one another and their dreams.

Guy invites three fellow street musicians to join him and the girl as his band for his studio session, communicating with them in the same musician-speak that’s the film’s lingua franca. The five hole up in the rented recording studio with a reluctant hired engineer, whose initial sneer turns to more than grudging respect once he hears them play. A montage demonstrates that once again, music connects them all in a proto-familial group of support and affection.

The girl’s mother and daughter join them, bringing food and companionship during a break; they play together easily, with dedication and commitment, each one a part of the transformative whole. At the end of the rigorous few days, they pile into a car to hear how the CD sounds outside the studio, and wind up playing Frisbee at the beach, chasing each other as the music they’ve just created together provides the warm background.

Once is filled with subsidiary characters, a large cast of non-actors who comfortably, unobtrusively, convincingly fill out the frame. The guy’s father is a singular, supportive presence; the two of them work together in the vacuum repair shop like surgeons in an operating room, the son handing the father his tools with the long familiarity of an assistant who can predict the older man’s needs.

Each of the film’s characters is named for who or what they are and nothing else. In addition to “Guy” and “Girl,” the others are “guys on the stoop,” “guys watching television,” “mother,” “daughter,” and “old woman on the bus,” ordinary people graced here by sharing the music being made around them.

Once is a generous, humanist film, in which art lets people forge a connection, however brief and tenuous, that enhances their lives. Music makes them generous and kind with one another and lets them feel their lives in all their poignant pain and happiness. Singing and playing together becomes a model for a collective, utopian “as if.”

The film dignifies the ordinary without romanticizing it. What could be sentimental and sappy culminates instead as moving and persuasive, a slice of lives that remind us of how good our own can be when we listen for the lyrics and let ourselves be transported by the melody.

Happily singing to the soundtrack,
The Feminist Spectator

Friday, December 14, 2007

Jodie Foster Comes Out

The lesbian blogs and web sites are buzzing today with news of Jodie Foster’s long awaited, much desired coming out. On the occasion of a women’s power meeting in LA (the 16th annual Women in Entertainment Power 100 breakfast), Foster received the Sherry Lansing Leadership Award and, for the first time, referred to her partner, Cydney Bernard, thanking “my beautiful Cydney who sticks with me through all the rotten and the bliss” (see

The web site “After Ellen” (named in reference to Ellen Degeneres’ coming out) reports that people in the audience were visibly moved by Foster’s declaration. Ironically, Queen Latifah and John Travolta, both of whom are also rumored to be queer, keynoted the breakfast.

I found myself also moved by Foster’s gesture, and have spent some time after first reading about her speech trying to tease out why it’s politically and emotionally important to me to be able to claim Foster as a lesbian. I’ve long relished the rumors about her sexuality. The first I can remember hearing was that she and Kelly McGillis were involved in some sort of same-sex love triangle on the set of The Accused (1988), the film for which Foster went on to win an Academy Award for playing the working class victim of a brutal, public bar rape. McGillis played her lawyer, whose emotional response moves from indifferent judgment to empathy and respect as the story plays out.

After that, the rumors circulating (at least the ones that caught my ear) were less specific but always enticing, as we presumed that Foster’s sexuality was an open secret waiting to be told. She gave birth to two children, father undeclared; she never appeared publicly with a man at her side; she socialized with Mariska Hargitay of Law and Order: SUV (also rumored to be a lesbian, or perhaps that’s just my own wishful thinking); she looks at once butch and femme, tough and powerful, and supremely in control.

When we learned of Foster’s announcement yesterday, I asked my partner if she thinks younger lesbians and younger queer women will be as moved as we were by this public knowledge. I wondered whether the more (grudgingly) acceptable and public face of lgbtq culture means that these gestures of mainstream acknowledgement don’t matter as much as they did before Ellen, before gay characters dotted the landscape of network TV, before The L Word and Queer as Folk graced the premium channels, before Logo and Here gave those of us with good cable selections our own queer channels to watch, before Glenn Close played retired lesbian Army Colonel Margaret Cammermeyer in a made-for-TV movie.

Does Foster’s sudden willingness to stand publicly behind her private identity register as palpably for people who grew up with Out Magazine, or with Bitch, Bust, Curve, and On Our Backs, publications that play (or played) to a generation of women, lesbians, and queers with an already critical but committed relationship to popular culture, publications that regularly comment on queer sexuality not as aberrant, but as an acceptable part of the public landscape?

Does it matter to a generation for whom the political conversation about gay and lesbian lives plays out around our right to serve in the military (for those of us who want it) and our right to marry (for those of us who find matrimony a necessary benchmark of equality)?

Or does a public statement like Foster’s matter more for those of us who remember searching the public landscape and finding only veiled references to “deviant” sexuality, for those of us old enough to recall our own mortification and shame at how easily politicians could refer to the evil influence of “queers” (before that word was reclaimed with pride)?

Does it make a bigger impression on those of us who remember driving to marginal neighborhoods to find unmarked doors behind which stood the temporary, moveable feast of lesbian bars and nightclubs, places found only through word-of-mouth, doors that required screwing up your courage before you raised your hand to knock, peepholes that required a stalwart stillness as the eye peering out sized up your authenticity and decided whether or not to let you inside?

That appraising gaze implied that something could be seen about us that certified our lesbianism, whether it was the indifferent, perhaps masculine way we stood as we were scrutinized, or the clothes we wore, pointedly chosen to reject dominant culture’s assignment of femininity. We performed for that eye something resistant, something performative; that is, something that as we did it, made us who we were to those who could read the signs of our difference.

Isn’t that what we’ve been projecting onto Foster for the many years before this moment? Weren’t we studying how she stood, how she walked (in the dramatically high heels of the Hollywood glitterati, in the shimmering gowns of the red carpet in front of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion), how something wonderfully tough and unyielding and non-compliant (that is, something butch) graced her beautiful performance of femininity?

Didn’t we scrutinize all her film roles for surreptitious signs of her lesbianism? Didn’t we note how toughly she played her characters, how she chose roles in which she was a strong, significantly single mother (with no reference whatsoever to the absence of a male mate) battling invading malignancies to keep her child safe (see Panic Room, 2002, and Flightplan, 2005)? Didn’t we notice that her recent roles were getting tougher and smarter and somehow more wry, while retaining that aloof, single and singular allure (see Inside Man, 2006)? Didn’t it seem that her beautiful smirk hinted at secrets we thought we knew?

I’m not fetishizing a difficult past, but I do wonder if the experience of being what Sarah Schulman so rightly called the last painfully instructed generation (I’m paraphrasing her here, but see her important collection, My American History [1994]) means that Foster’s announcement sounds different to ears that from long habit continue cautiously to hope and yearn for statements like hers?

I still can’t believe that I can see casual same-sex PDA (public displays of affection, of course) on network television. I remember so keenly what it felt like to watch That Certain Summer (1972), the first made-for-television movie about gay relationships, in the same “family” room as my parents, holding my breath as I tried to hide my obvious empathy, my obvious likeness, as I suffered the antipathy they muttered as they watched.

When a friend forwarded news of Foster’s announcement, I emailed it on to family and friends, needing to share with them this “evidence.” I told them that I was moved by Foster’s acknowledgement. But I wonder if I wasn’t also sharing the news to reaffirm for my wondering self that a life like mine is touched, by virtue of our sexual practices and our choices of who and how to love, by a life like Foster’s. Thirty years after I came out, I’m still trying to find approving cultural mirrors.

Foster’s now public partnership is protected by the blanket of wealth. My own partnership might resist official sanction, since we don’t want to be married or to stage a ritual of commitment, but it, too, is secured by the privilege of a bourgeois lifestyle, in which neither the plumber nor the pest control man blink an eye at our obviously shared “master” bedroom. In such a forgiving personal and (in Austin) social climate, why does it still matter to me that Foster’s come out?

Perhaps because my life bears indelible marks of my own painfully carried history, I know that lots of people without my access to money, to community, to self respect, to an analysis of our subjectivity, to theory, or to practice could use the example of Jodie Foster to shore up their own courage and pride.

Shortly after I first came out in 1978, I made what only in retrospect looks like a decision. I would always be out, even though as anyone who’s queer knows, coming out is an infinitely repeated process, instigated every time you fill out a form that asks about marital status, every time you see a new doctor, every time someone presumes your heterosexuality. I’ve committed my energy to that always repeated performance, because I remember viscerally how much it mattered to me to see other people be open about their sexual identities.

I’m assailed by fatigue, doubt, and the frisson of potential danger every time I publicly identify myself as lesbian or queer, but I do it because it still matters. A celebrity only has to come out once; after that, everyone “knows” (although who “everyone” is and what they think they know is anyone’s guess; perhaps that’s a subject for another post).

But nonetheless, I think that’s why I’m moved that someone as visible and culturally powerful as Jodie Foster is now willing to make that gesture. We need people like her on our team, because they make it just a little easier for people who aren’t free to do the same.

Maybe Queen Latifah and John Travolta will be next.

Happy that we are indeed everywhere,
The Feminist Spectator