Pride Month, "Lightyear," and News from Disney and Netflix
Weekly Reel, June 23
All the topics in this post revolves around Pride Month and Disney, which recently broiled in Florida—an issue so asinine and over-reported that I won’t cover it. Instead, I focus on films about or containing gay, lesbian, and trans characters, which includes a same-sex relationship in Lightyear, that, like the Florida issue, is much ado about nothing.
(Note: I’m pleased to reveal that an article I wrote on Pixar will be published on another film site soon—my first external post—so look forward to that!)
The times they are a-certainly-changin’ regarding the casting of same-sex and queer characters. The most notable shift is from depicting these characters as the butt of lame comedic beats—Gay Perry from Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang cringes to mind. Just two months after Bang’s release, Brokeback Mountain brought a dramatic gay relationship to the Hollywood mainstream in a big way: by queering the masculine ethos of the Western for middle America, coastal media elites, and international aesthetes (it premiered at Biennale and then won four Oscars). The Power of the Dog would later do the same thing but far more subtly and with the powerful direction, writing, and cinematography of female filmmakers.
Not to say that this was the first film to depict a same-sex relationship. Before, the relations were subversive, lurking in the closet nearby. Novelist Gore Vidal was hired to help write the script for Ben-Hur and his contribution was simply giving the main male characters an intimate history that isn’t revealed in flashbacks or explicitly mentioned. It’s there in the looks, the physical actions, the striving of one-upmanship as couples do post-breakup.
After the breaking of the restrictive, puritan sensitivity of the Hays Code in the sixties, non-hetero relations bubbled closer to the surface until the early nineties New Queer Cinema forced the hand of the industry by young, independent, queer filmmakers demanding that their voice be heard. (Shout-out to my former film teacher, Cheryl Dunye, whose film The Watermelon Woman stands as one of the finest examples.) Two crucial factors made this possible: the rise of independent filmmaking after the gloopily stasis eighties films and the descending crest of the AIDS epidemic.
A decade later, we’re watching two cowboys fall in love while herding sheep, and a decade after that we’re watching the story of a Danish woman (not girl) failing to survive one of the first sex reassignment surgeries. Indeed, 2015 was the year that mainstream films, backed by the film industry, began embracing LGBTQ stories in conjunction with sociopolitical shifts. Tangerine, a film about a black, transgender sex worker, premiered at Sundance in January. In June, the Supreme Court struck down same-sex marriage bans. In September, The Danish Girl premiered. Then in October, Barry Jenkins started filming the autobiographical play of Tarell Alvin McCraney, which, like Brokeback Mountain, won the best picture Oscar.
Half a decade later, films explore same-sex relationships in different countries (Call Me by Your Name), different eras (Benedetta), different genres (Flee), and different multiverses (Everything Everywhere All at Once).
By my measure, depictions go one of two ways: side character revelations that aid the main characters (EEAAO, Booksmart, Plan B, Lightyear) or the driving force of the main characters’ intimate dilemmas (Brokeback Mountain, Call Me by Your Name, Flee, Fire Island)—usually in the form of queering previously hetero plots.
In terms of accessibility, most of the films mentioned above are streaming. The three I recommend below are available on Hulu.
Fire Island (pictured above, dir. Andrew Ahn, 2022)
The plot of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was copy-pasted onto New York’s Fire Island, “America’s First Gay and Lesbian Town.” The class and sex-riddled story fits perfectly with the demographic conflicts of a community anchored by sexual orientation, which is too often seen as a monolith, or type, in American media and politics. The main characters are a group of poor Millennials on their yearly excursion to the island. What they don’t know is that this trip will be their last, which is complicated by the intrapersonal dynamics of friends growing up and apart. The island is also given its due, giving the audience a chance to encounter a culture filled with stories completely foreign to them. I enjoyed the film and thought the writing and directing created a non-stuffy Austen world without the plot falling backwards into gaudy (in this case flamboyant) pastiche.
Flee (Jonas Poher Rasmussen, 2021)
Flee made a splash at the previous Oscars for being the first film nominated for Best International, Documentary, and Animated Feature. The filmmaker, Rasmussen, documents the escape of his friend, Amin Nawabi, from Kabul after the Soviets pulled out and before the mujahedeen forces take over. Nawabi would have been drafted to fight if he stayed too long, not to mention unaccepted in a homophobic-to-the-point-of-death society. The animations switch between Rasmussen interviewing Nawabi and flashbacks from Nawabi’s escape routes and harrowing misadventures: first to Russia, then a botched human trafficking trip to Sweden, and finally a semi-successful escape—I don’t want to spoil too much. The filmmaker points out that Nawabi’s life traumatized his perspective on ethnic, national, and sexual identity. The revelations of his life were met with equally technical grace and made for a powerful viewing given the heavy subject matter.
Benedetta (Paul Verhoeven, 2022)
Paul Verhoeven, director of RoboCop, Starship Troopers, Basic Instinct, is at it again. In his latest pyschosexual period piece, he tells the story of Benedetta Carlini, seventeenth century Italian nun, who starts a blasphemous affair with another nun. Like all great historicotragedies, sex and power work together to unravel the leadership and reveal the supposed faith of complacent revelers. And Verhoeven really does goes for it: the sensationalism of the smoothly carved Virgin Mary statue dildo was a more powerful marketing tool via word of mouth than any paid-ads could have bought. Virginie Efira as Benedetta crafts an expert performance by complicating the reverence she has towards God, the convent, and her mistress; each fought over with equal intensity.
Lightyear (Angus MacLane, 2022, USA)
The Toy Story films make up nearly one-fifth of all Pixar features. Its films created IPs too valuable to avoid spinning off or sequelizing, and that’s how we got the gobbledygook of Lightyear. It’s even more disappointing that the animation GOAT made it.
Besides from an entirely lackluster and contrived plot of boring tropes, the low opening weekend box office numbers for the $200 million cartoon and awful critical ratings from both the audience and critics suggests that we’ve seen through the ploy Disney is directing its subsidiary to do: mediocrity sold as toys. It also suggests that it was a giant mistake not putting Turning Red in theaters, the Pixar release from February. Audiences liked it and its scale—giant red pandas battling in an arena—would have proven effective on a theatrical screen as audiences were beginning to return to theaters. Instead, Lightyear’s B-film quality raked its commercialized glaucoma across our eyes. As Shawn Robbins pointed out, “Disney has trained a lot of parents to expect Pixar movies at home. I wonder how much ‘Lightyear’ paid the price for that.”
Let’s start with the basics. Whose idea was it to create a spinoff of a movie in the Toy Story universe that was the inspiration behind the Buzz Lightyear action figure, the one that Andy and all his friends were hyped about? I smell a Lucasfilm executive within the halls of Pixar. No film aimed at first-graders should begin with text on screen explaining the background of the film, which goes back to 1995. Lightyear is not a period piece for adults. Gaggles of children born in 2016 aren’t interested in animation backstory from the previous millennium.
The worst sins of the film are the characters. Pixar is an animation studio known for creating complex, emotionally deep characters that resonate with all ages. Not one of us wouldn’t judge a person, harshly, if they weren’t moved by the opening sequence of Up. Because of the creative bankruptcy of Lightyear, they attempted a repeat (rip-off) of Up’s opening sequence—time passing, love and death. (This is where the controversial same-sex “kiss” occurs, which is really just a peck.) But the sequence doesn’t work because we’re not invested. The relationship is a tertiary concern. Buzz blitzes across spacetime to perfect a formula for hyperspace fuel, which will allow the ship’s crew to escape the hostile planet they crash-landed on. Each time Buzz performs this test, a few years pass (Interstellar anyone?). Therefore, we get the time-traveling sequence of Buzz staying the same age while his best friend, Alisha Hawthorne, grows older, falls in love, has a child, then dies. Up worked because of the stakes involved in the story. The old man spends the movie getting over his deceased wife. In Lightyear, we quickly move past Alisha and spend the film with her granddaughter, Izzy, who has problems of her own to resolve.
But this story is supposedly about Buzz. His one motivation, to get off the planet, doesn’t cut it emotionally (and doesn’t seem a powerful enough character to send the 1995 Toy Story children in a frenzy to buy the figure). While the rest of the workers become content with staying put, Buzz acts against orders for the spirit of Alisha’s sacrifice. I don’t buy it. Also, who thought it was necessary to create a more physically potent, voiced by Captain America, action figure aimed at children?
And don’t get me started on the side characters, who are little more than the greasy, charred remnants one finds under the family oven every five years.
While it would be easy to quip that this is just an innocent children’s film, where the stakes don’t matter and the plot is supposed to be silly, I think we’d be remiss to not expect perfection from the sole animation studio that gives a shit about story and artistic expression. These aren’t the amateurs at DreamWorks or Disney Animation. Let’s not get complacent.
Lightyear is currently in theaters.
Disney CEO Bob Chapek is the China shop bull of media executives. Rather than allow Peter Rice, former executive at Fox who was integrated into Disney after the 2019 merger, to resign (the proper course of action equivalent to a graceful firing), Chapek fired him. This caused a stir among trade professionals, but it’s unclear what effect this will have for Disney. It appears to be just Chapek icing the executive that could have replaced him in the near future because of Chapek’s poor record—especially compared to his predecessor Iger, who had an immaculately clean, nice guy image—in his brief time as CEO. Also, Rice was one of the few executives with a successful record in the film division of the company, which is increasingly dominated by parks/resorts (Chapek) and merchandising executives.
The coming recession will first lead to advertising budget cuts at entertainment companies, which combined with Netflix and Disney’s push into the ad-supported streaming tier will push aside the smaller subscription services—Paramount+ and Peacock should consider merging). Though spiraling from its subscription decline and layoffs, Netflix is still in the black and giving everyone the middle finger.
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