The Special Shelf: For a Time of Social Upheaval
Societal upheaval being as it is, there are few options available that can prove a salve to everything that's eating away at whatever your sense of stability requires. Fortunately, art can help, and the following three films all approach the LGBTQIA+ experience from very different ways. Hopefully they may help with wherever your emotions are taking you.
Todd Haynes is one of the greatest directors of the last thirty years, and his adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt is one of the great LGBT films of the past decade. In Carol, Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara are exceptional, delving into what lesbian identity means, how social and class mobility tangles everything in American life, and how the right outfit unlocks both queer semiotics and the limitations of respectable gatekeeping. This is a film about furtive glances, Christmas shopping on multiple levels, and the politics of beige. It’s not ideal if you’re trying to quit smoking, but it’s an exquisite whirl into possibility, and a sumptuous blanket for a violent world. Streaming on Hoopla and Tubi.
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As tense as a suspense thriller, even as it details the mechanics of trying to escape from a society that actively plots their persecution and death, this documentary explores the loose collective of people who help to extract queers in danger from their families, the police, and internet psychos throughout Russia and its adjacent territories.
Chechnya, a breakaway Russian republic, emerges as the focus primarily because of Ramzan Kadryov, a wannabe strongman and Putin acolyte who denies the existence of LGBTQ people in Chechnya and has allowed discrimination, torture, blackmail, and family-wide purges to be waged against them (look up the currently disappeared Zelim Bakaev just for an example of how capriciously queer lives are eliminated). So when this collective succeeds in helping people escape, it is incredibly satisfying.
Some might say that our lives being used like the third act whatsits of Hollywood action/espionage flicks is in poor taste, but director David France (he did the still-amazing How To Survive a Plague back in 2012) is crafting this to make every viewer sit up and take notice, and it works. That said, if you have trauma relating to family betrayals, police violence, or you just don’t want to see violence against us, that’s okay. Just know that this film will make a difference. Streaming on HBO’s various and sundry On Demand options.
Long before the Oscar nomination (for The Hurt Locker), the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the app, the musical endeavors, and the problematic revelations, Jeremy Renner was best known for the delightful National Lampoon’s Senior Trip and for this upsetting, empathetic, and indelible riff on the life of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, part of a trio of gutbucket films about infamous killers (Ed Gein and Ted Bundy being the subjects of the other two) made in the early aughts.
Writer/Director David Jacobsen gets weird with it, taking a bifurcate temporal structure that at times feels like something meant for the stage. But here’s the thing, and why I would include this film in this section: Renner is incredible in this role (he was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for it). To take a signifier of queer evil like Jeffrey Dahmer and to get across genuine emotional complexity is a notable achievement, and it’s why Renner has merited attention in the intervening eighteen years.
I’m of exactly the right age to remember the swath Dahmer cut across the late ‘80s and early ‘90s (I still can’t bring myself to watch Exorcist III), and this film is captivating and icky. Streaming on Tubi.
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