How are gay relationships usually portrayed in movies? Kristen Cochrane explores this in her review of Te Prometo Anarquía, a sexy new film about skateboarder partners-in-crime that normalizes gay intimacy. The film had its North American premiere at the Toronto Film Festival this past weekend.
There’s no easy way to say it—I’m sick of seeing queer people die on screen.
We know about the indescribably tragic death of Matthew Sheppard in 1998, who was brutally beaten and left to die. We know about outed teenagers who have taken their own lives because of stigmatized sexualities. We also know about the trans women who die, and whose deaths are often ignored by the police because of transmisogyny.
It’s refreshing, then, to see films where a character’s sexuality is not what drives the plot. In Julio Hernández Cordón’s latest film, Te Prometo Anarquía (I Promise You Anarchy), the two protagonists Miguel and Johnny are lovers, but this is not the film’s raison d’être. This probably explained the several walkouts it received at the Toronto International Film Festival during its press and industry screening that I attended this past weekend. Even in 2015, people are still uncomfortable with queer people.
Admittedly, the film’s normalization of gay intimacy (shocking!) so early in the film may have raised eyebrows. Films with a plot that is centred on the non-normative sexuality of characters often wait until the opening sequences have finished to delve into their sexually-driven struggles. This is how most commercially successful films do it, at least. In one of the most famous examples, Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (2005), the audience is not explicitly nor immediately aware that this is a gay film. We only knew that it had a storyline with queer people because it had so much buzz and press about being a “gay cowboy film.” It’s the same in the Academy Award nominated Argentinian film XXY (2007), where it’s not revealed that the lead character Alex (played by the incredible Inés Efron) is intersex until the middle of the film.
Te prometo anarquía’s opening shots provide a different take on representing non-heterosexual intimacy on screen, a significant contrast to these aforementioned cinematic strategies. We are promptly shown a three-person tableau of semi-nude bodies: Johnny has his head on his girlfriend’s stomach, while Miguel is lying on his back, perpendicular to Johnny. He then gently and erotically puts his hand under Johnny’s underwear. It doesn’t feel salacious, and it doesn’t feel unsolicited. Johnny says that they can’t make love while Adri is there, and I use this archaic term of “lovemaking” because this is what the film shows—heavy breathing, close-ups on Miguel and Johnny’s faces rather than bodies. The difference lies in their intimacy as a secondary narrative device, as opposed to famous films like Blue is the Warmest Colour, where the relationship between Adèle and Emma is what drives the plot.
Another important aesthetic device in Hernández Cordon’s third feature film is the way the film is shot. For those with an overpriced film degree, it’s obvious that the film is part of the Social Realism genre. Strangely, reality television that shows everyday people doing mundane things is part of the Social Realist tradition. This genre has a strong presence in Britain which started early on when film was still new, with the John Grierson (the guy who coined the term “documentary”!) and his contemporaries. This was big (and is still culturally significant) because we often privilege the elites of a given society, from politicians to the rich, even though they only make up a fraction of the population. There are lots of noticeable features of Social Realist works, like urban grittiness, people doing normal things, which Te prometo anarquía does consistently, especially in its repeated presentation of Miguel, Johnny, and his group of friends riding the subway. The subway’s consistent appearance is almost trope-like, reminiscent of the Gatsby-esque green light or the suitcase in Pulp Fiction.
What you don’t see in a lot of Social Realist films, fortunately, are the annoying social clichés that you don’t actually see in real life. Girls kissing each other on the head (Ana and her friends in 50 Shades of Grey immediately comes to mind), couples saying how much they love each other in really weird, creepy ways that are also disingenuous (Billy Crystal’s character in When Harry Met Sally), the list goes on. In an interview with Variety, Te prometo anarquía director Hernández Cordon wanted to avoid these embarrassing platitudes:
“The idea is to make a male love story, in which emotions are contained, and the silence and actions have much more impact,” Hernández Cordón explains. “I want to focus on people who engage in criminal activities whilst avoiding clichés, my criminals will not appear to be criminals despite their dirty appearance. They are common guys who are passionate about an extreme sport and what they want is to live in the present, as often happens with people who engage in crime.”
It could be deemed problematic that the fact that Miguel and Johnny were engaging in crime and also happened to be gay. Counter to this, however, the film’s dialogue addressed stereotypes, but also gestured to social theories that suggest male “homosociality,” like groups of straight frat bros, could be using these avenues to safely explore their own sexuality, including homosexuality. Revered New Queer Cinema filmmaker Gregg Araki has explored this, particularly in Kaboom (2010), where Smith (Thomas Dekker) watches his shirtless roommate wrestle with his male friend as they call each other “fag.” Te prometo anarquía’s Miguel and Johnny jokingly call each other “puto,” which was translated as “sissy,” “fag,” and “faggot” in the subtitles. This use of the term was a re-appropriation for Miguel and Johnny, who semantically reclaim the problematic term, which is often used by straight men in Mexico. Óscar David López, the brilliant VICE columnist who writes about queer issues in Mexico, has written about the use of the word “puto.” For López, the use of the word illustrates a homoerotic and homophobic paradox, where Mexican men will joke that they aren’t gay, but would happily have certain sexual relations with the athlete of their choice. These kinds of jokes are not exclusive to Mexico, obviously. I have often heard young men pathologize gay relationships or gay sex, and then follow it with their insistence that they’re not homophobic. This is not unique to Mexico, and different places just have other words to describe this exact same phenomenon. What this film does, then, is highlight the intersectional use of a word that causes so much pain, simultaneously showing how groups resist harmful rhetoric.
Besides harmful rhetoric, unique physical harm exists as a possibility when you aren’t a white, heterosexual, cisgender person because of racialized violence, queerphobic violence, and transphobic violence. Of course, white, hetero, cis people can be mugged, attacked, or sexually assaulted, but there is a further hatred for people who don’t fit this profile. But as I mentioned before, we know about these things, especially if we embody one or more of these identities. This is why it’s important to show people who have non-heterosexual relationships on screen, whether it’s in movies, on TV, or in porn. And these depictions should strive to be unproblematic, like porn that doesn’t debase people by using derogatory slurs (e.g. in porn featuring transgender people or people of colour where such slurs are avoided). In a similar vein, it has been argued that films like Brokeback Mountain are inherently homophobic. Why? Because the character who shows his sexual orientation more explicitly (Jake Gyllenhaal’s character Jack Twist) is the one who gets brutally killed. And even though it’s a true story, Hilary Swank’s character in Boys Don’t Cry (1999) is also raped and murdered. The important role that films like Te prometo anarquía play then becomes evident. In other words, we aren’t just seeing our identities and our friends’ identities erased, murdered, and forgotten in contemporary culture when we have films that show us and our allies the stories about the everyday.
Kristen Cochrane is a writer and academic in Ontario, Canada, who’s researching some very interesting things, like queer Latin American cinema, and the fetishization of the female tennis body. Read her previous essay for Slutever, “A Brief Hitory of Period Art.” HERE :)