Who is you, man?
Yeah, n****. You.
The question lingers in the air like the ribbon of smoke that’s unfurled from Kevin’s mouth after a puff from a cigarette. It carries a whiff of both genuine curiosity and the subtle nod that it’s almost rhetorical. Last year, Wesley Morris proposed that 2015 was the year we obsessed over identity, which is not incorrect. But what of this year, when the challenges marginalize communities face grow more visible in the public eye? Even the most loved and adored icons, as they’re so often called, were in some ways center points for discussions of identity – Prince, Bowie, Kiarostami, etc. In essence, haven’t we always been fascinated with not only who we are, but the politicizing of that question, so frequently without a clear answer?
The films, the art, of 2016 seems like a continuation of a narrative of trying to untangle the web of elements, complications, consequences, and feelings to not uncomplicated for the sake of reduction, but to better appreciate the complexities of others, and the complexities of ourselves. These narratives, the ones with artists that assert that they deserve to be heard as much as those that have dominated storytelling, have gained attention, and hopefully patient ears.
You don’t have to know the answer to the question, as in Moonlight, a film connected to the elements not to give an explanation, but to watch the making of a person. In three parts, there are a collision of similar and different components, ones that craft Little, Chiron, and Black into who they are. The demands of masculinity orbit around the earthiness of Jenkins’s Miami world, and Chiron is, in several ways, made up of the earth. Atoms, angry and aching atoms, together.
Culture, and the mashing of it, create a frenzied self, as in Park Shan-wook’s The Handmaiden, a brilliant game and an even more sensitive love story, where the disparate facets of colonialism – Japan, Korea, and Victorian England – blast themselves together to engender a desire for desire, for want, and for liberation. And of the in between for Asian Americans, there is the haunting sense of being lost in Andrew Anh’s Spa Night, where bathhouses are home to ghosts that can unlock hidden desires, but reveal hidden insecurities about masculinity.
But what of the looming threats in these films? Surely it’s works like Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, where every man is possibly a predator; 10 Cloverfield Lane, where the sins of the father do not absolve them of their supposed “righteousness”; and The Purge: Election Year, where the iconography of oppression becomes a far too familiar language. Even in Ang Lee’s somewhat maligned and rather misunderstood Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, there are scars left by the intangible oppression wrought by patriarchy. In 4K 3D at 120 frames per second, the tears that fall slowly down the title character’s face have an abyss of sadness and internal conflict in them, aware of their own complicity in all of it.
What are we to do but to continue to search, not only for ourselves, but for others? We have to keep looking, as in Search Party and The Outs. The ambivalence that runs so vascularly in those works is rawness and vulnerability, the kind that’s squeezed out of a lot of mainstream work.
Also, isn’t collective identity is as important, no? Following the breaking news of the Pulse shooting in Orlando, it was necessary to be yanked out of the little academic bubble I often inhabit. Which makes the art feel more real, the films about searching for belonging in a culture that at once preaches such sentiment and yet whose results are questionable, unequal, maybe sometimes unjust.
There’s the young boy Ricky Baker wondering what stability looks like in Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Dory reconciling with mental illness and her place in a family in Finding Dory, and a young boy who has only storytelling to situate himself into the world at large in Kubo and the Two Strings, even in the wake of grief, like in The Meddler.
The stories we tell and try to tell can sometimes be yanked from the storytellers (in Do Not Resist and 13th), but we take it back. We have to. James Baldwin once opined, “All artists, if they are to survive, are forced, at last, to tell the whole story, to vomit the anguish up.” In this context, everyone can be an artist, and everyone should tell that story. Louder, angrier, with more fury and passion. He, aided by Raoul Peck, does this in I Am Not Your Negro. Kelly Reichardt’s ensemble of Certain Women challenge narratives by just speaking up. Lady Susan (Kate Beckinsale) decides to reinvent the game for her own advantage in Love and Friendship.
But cleanliness is hardly a prerequisite. It’s a mess trying to figure out what’s going on, particularly in a rapidly changing and fraught sociopolitical climate. The dirtiness of Goat, The Legend of Tarzan, Christine, and Krisha hardly offer anything close to immaculateness. But that negotiation – tender, rough, violent, sad, blasphemous, explosive – is entrancing nonetheless.
And sometimes it is stupid. In whatever journey one takes trying to sift through messy details, disenfranchisement, screams, yells, hurdles, dirt and grime, there is, at least for me, another desire: to share warmth. To wake up next to someone and know that we have a secret language no one else can understand. Where glances and a soft brush on the arm are sonnets and novels. Maybe it’s a little obsessive, like in Years and Years’ “Worship”.Certainly, there’s reason to question this intense want, but it’s there all the same, socialization or otherwise, and in Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Lobster, it reaches past absurd and right back around to achingly romantic.
And finally, you have your idol, the roar of confidence in what they want to say and how they say it. Beyoncé’s Lemonade. She speaks for herself.
I remember I cried twice when I first tried to figure out the subway system. Going in the wrong direction wore a metaphorical weight to it that, even at 18, I recognizes ridiculously on the nose. But I knew I wanted be in the throes of the confusion of it all. It’s a romantic perspective, but I don’t regret it. After years of moving about, displaced for so long, I… I keep telling my close friends about when I lived in Connecticut, finishing up school (in my way), how I had my things “unpacked”, but suitcase still visible with clothing and whatnot remaining. I hoped night after night that I’d be able to get up and leave. There’s too much emotional baggage in Connecticut not for me to shit talk it every time I have a conversation with someone. Even spending a summer in Provincetown isn’t enough just quite. My childhood was not particularly bad, but there’s too much there. I hope to gain enough emotional distance from it to be just mildly disdainful of it. But now I’m here, my things are unpacked (I’m still looking for a writing desk), and I feel like I’m home. Even getting over dumb personal obstacles, I feel like this is where I’ve needed to be for years. Were it not for people like Phuong, Joe, Annette, Nick, Amber, Teo, Karen, Emma, Derek, Rick, Dave, Ashton, and others, I don’t know how I would have gotten through this year. It’s been a transformative one, where I feel more aware of myself, in a good way; I can explore the angles and depths of my identity, of my sexuality, of my politics, of my queerness. I can recognize feeling what it’s like to be invalidated and validated, hurt and empowered, unseen and seen by a white gaze, like Mitski’s “Your Best American Girl”. I can choose not to need that gaze. I have close friends whom I can confide in. I know I’ve always liked writing, but now I feel as if I know what I want to write.
I feel like Frances at the end, up on her feet, still not a real human being exactly, but making her way, liking things that look like mistakes. We don’t know who we are, and that’s fine.
16. Krisha / Christine // Directed by Trey Eward Shults/Antonio Campos
15. Love and Friendship // Directed by Whit Stillman
14. Finding Dory / The Meddler // Directed by Andrew Stanton/Lorene Scafariaa
13. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk // Directed by Ang Lee
11. The Purge: Election Year // Directed by Joe DeManoco
10. I Am Not Your Negro / 13th / Do Not Resist // Directed by Raoul Peck/Ava DuVernay/Craig Atkinson
9. Certain Women // Directed by Kelly Reichardt
7. The Legend of Tarzan // Directed by David Yates
6. Spa Night / “I Wanna Boi” // Directed/Performed by Andrew Anh/PWR BTTM
5. Kubo and the Two Strings / Hunt for the Wilderpeople // Directed by Travis Knight/Taika Waititi
4. 10 Cloverfield Lane // Directed by Dan Trachtenberg
3. The Handmaiden / “Worship” // Directed/Performed by Park Chan-wook/Years and Years
2. Elle // Directed by Paul Verhoeven