What I Learned Watching The AFI 100 And Other Movies

One of my life’s projects is to watch all the movies on the AFI Top 100 movies list. I’ve seen almost all of them, with a handful of exceptions (MASH, Duck Soup, American Graffiti, The African Queen, and Sophie’s Choice), and now I’m also trying to make my way through Oscar winners and other notable films.
 
What’s surprised me the most is how much I’ve learned from these movies. I don’t mean things like, hey, this Alfred Hitchcock guy is a pretty good director! Or this Jimmy Stewart fella seems to be in literally every single notable movie before 1965. It’s shown me what issues people at the time were grappling with. The things that people worried about. And most of all, what values they prioritized and prized.
 
“On The Town” (1949) is a great example of this.
 
Watching it, I learned two things — first, that post-war America was really optimistic and energetic and seemed to be brimming with potential. I knew this was the case, but it’s different knowing a fact and actually experiencing what that really means. It was truly a thrill watching Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra learn that “the Bronx is up and the Battery is down!” as they traveled around NYC on location in 1949. Watching this movie, I understood why some people are so nostalgic for an America of the late 40’s and 50’s. I got a visceral sense of why they thought America was great then, and appreciate why they want a return to those values. The possibilities for greatness and happiness seemed endless. Who wouldn’t want that?
 
Which leads me to the second thing I learned. There are cracks in that vision, and they’re not small. It’s not hard to figure out who, exactly, this new world was made for. You had to be a straight, white male to feel on top of the world — literally, as shown by scenes on the top of a skyscraper that overlooked Manhattan. You had to conform to a certain, narrow range of masculine behavior — note how many ensemble musicals came out in those decades. No room for individualism or virtuosity.
 
The women of “On The Town,” even though they had a certain amount of strength and agency, still existed to serve the men’s desires — see how Betty Garrett and Ann Miller’s characters kept manipulating their men to hook up with them, or how they kept trying to help Gene Kelly successfully romance Vera-Ellen.
 
If you were a person of color? Pfft. The best thing you got from “On The Town” was that uncomfortably racist song-and-dance number set in the anthropology museum.
 
It’s really fascinating watching movies evolve as newer archetypes are created and how our values have changed. In “The Broadway Melody,” the 1929 winner for Best Picture, you can see actual jazz-age flappers! But you also see that for a budding female star on stage, her ultimate success wasn’t stardom, but *leaving* the stage to get married and settled in the suburbs. Contrast that with, say, “Tootsie,” and its own ideas of what a successful star ‘woman’ looks like, and you can see how much has changed, and has still yet to change. Is Dustin Hoffman *really* the best voice for women? Especially given what we now know about him slapping Meryl Streep in “Kramer vs. Kramer”?
 
Or compare the roles of black actors/actresses in movies like “Casablanca” or “Gone With The Wind” to “In The Heat Of The Night.” When Sidney Poitier slaps a racist in the face in that movie, it feels like a literal break from the past.
 
Another Sidney Poitier movie, “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner,” featured a moment that I hadn’t known about, that took me by surprise and utterly floored me. It was one of the first films to show interracial relationships in a positive light — a white woman falls madly in love with a black man (Poitier) in Hawaii, and when her father asks Poitier what life will be like for their children, he says that his girlfriend believes that every single one of them will “be president of the United States and they’ll all have colorful administrations.”
 
I watched that movie while Barack Obama, a biracial man born in Hawaii, was still president, but before Donald Trump was sworn in. I had to pause the movie for a long time.
 
And today we have Wonder Woman and Black Panther headlining superhero movies, wildly successful ones. But that wasn’t remotely even the case back then. “Black Panther” made $1.3 billion dollars; “Cabin in the Sky,” a 1943 all-black musical featuring heavyweights like Ethel Waters, Lena Horne, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington, was banned from being screened in many southern cities. A crowd gathered in one location in Tennessee to protest the movie and threatened to “pull the switch” — the movie was cut off after 30 minutes.
 
This is what people mean when they say representation matters. This is why it’s important to tell all stories, not just stories for a white, heterosexual male audience. Because if they don’t, then progress will never be made, and things will never change for the better. If you’re a white, straight male and you wonder why people keep making such a big deal about the fact that there’s a woman main character in Star Wars, or an all-woman remake of Ghostbusters, don’t. Instead be thankful that you already have a male Star Wars lead, or an all-male Ghostbusters, and that you don’t need to demand Hollywood to show more of your stories.
 
Here, this is where Hollywood has been — and still is — shamefully behind the times when it comes to LGBTQ+ people.
 
In movies, LGBTQ+ people were coded for the longest time, and had to meet tragic ends. Even a recent critical darling like “Brokeback Mountain” featured the sad, conflicted gay who meets a sticky end.
 
Sure, we now have movies like “Moonlight” and “Call Me By Your Name” and even “Love, Simon” showing different approaches to storytelling, but it wasn’t Hollywood that paved the way for this. It was a TV show starring a lesbian named Ellen DeGeneres.
 
And Hollywood is still dragging its feet. It’s extremely likely that the upcoming Queen biopic might show a decidedly not-gay Freddie Mercury. Straightwashing still exists.
 
And I’m still waiting for that fabulously gay mainstream superhero character. Bobby Drake, aka Iceman, of the X-Men, is gay in the comics. When will we see him come out in the films?
 
JK Rowling has come out and said that Dumbledore is gay, but in the upcoming “Fantastic Beasts” movie that features Dumbledore and, literally, the man he was in love with, that gay relationship isn’t likely to be shown, either. If a Dumbledore is gay in a forest, but nobody is around to see it, is he really gay?
 
Still, there are many, many gorgeous, magnificent movies, movies that feel timeless, movies that can make you laugh and cry. Compare movies within a certain genre, too. There’s a certain thrill and melancholy in watching a silent great like Charlie Chaplin do the dinner roll dance in “The Gold Rush,” and compare it to the raw physicality of someone like Buster Keaton in “The General.” See how musicals take on very serious subjects (racism, discrimination, nationalism) with very different results — a colorful, stylized, thrilling “West Side Story” versus a darker, smokier “Cabaret,” which only uses bright colors in one single haunting, unforgettable sequence (“Tomorrow Belongs To Me“). Compare and contrast John Wayne’s mean, racist, cynical Western “The Searchers” to Gary Cooper’s pointed anti-McCarthyism in “High Noon.” Take in the scope of epics like “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Doctor Zhivago,” or “The Bridge on the River Kwai” and wonder how a single director managed to accomplish all three.
 
When we talk about American culture, it’s our movies that define us, our movies that show us who we really are. We’re watching ourselves when we watch them.

Are There LGBT Characters In: The Gentleman’s Guide To Vice And Virtue by Mackenzi Lee (rapid review)

Title: The Gentleman’s Guide To Vice And Virtue

Author: Mackenzi Lee

Rating: 4/5

Are there LGBT characters? There are more people on the spectrum than are off it. The main character is bisexual, in love with his best friend, Percy. His younger sister is strongly hinted to be asexual. So, uh, yeah. There are a lot of LGBT characters!

Brief summary / book review: This book is absolutely ludicrous, and I mean that in the best way possible. It’s a YA novel, so the emotional complexity may not be that high, but the emotional intensity absolutely is. The plotting is madcap, and the reading is blazingly fast. If you’re looking for something sober and serious, then keep looking.

But if you want to have a blast following characters who romp around 1700’s Europe, filled with excitement, adventure, humor, and some sexy times, well, have I got the book for you.

The main character is Henry “Monty” Montague, the aforementioned bisexual who is in love with his best friend, Percy. He and Percy are off to go on the Grand Tour, which was a bit of an educational rite of passage for the upper-class in England where they got to visit various cultural sites in France, Italy, and elsewhere, and study art, architecture, language, life, and more. They were expected to get their carousing and partying out of their system, and upon return, become enlightened, educated, sophisticated young men of proper standing.

Monty’s standing is anything but proper, and he is hoping to use this last trip to make a move on his best friend. Unfortunately for him, his sister and a chaperone are also along for the ride; and to make matters worse, he has a disastrous encounter with a VIP in the Palace of Versailles in France, thus setting off the main events of the book.

The thing that stood out to me about this book was how it covered the concept of privilege. Monty, being a young white person of some nobility, has not had to experience the world the way, say, a half-black bastard (Percy) or a woman (his sister, Felicity) would. Lee never lectures about this, and when Monty has to confront these realities, it happens organically and naturally. And Monty himself has his own burdens to bear.

All in all, a fun, fast-paced, delightfully gay book.

About the ‘Are There LGBT Characters’ series of posts: Being a gay reader, I am interested in LGBT books, but I haven’t always seen reviews clearly note if there are LGBT characters and how significant they are. These mini reviews are my way of addressing this problem.

Are There LGBT Characters In: The Sarantine Mosaic by Guy Gavriel Kay (rapid review)

Title: Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors

Author: Guy Gavriel Kay

Rating: 4/5 for StS, and 5/5 for LoE

Are there LGBT characters? Yes, a relatively minor character. He has several point of view chapters, though, and does play crucial narrative roles in both, but is otherwise relatively inconsequential.

Brief summary / book review: The Sarantine Mosaic is a diptych, comprised of “Sailing to Sarantium” and “Lord of Emperors,” written by one of my favorite fantasy authors, Guy Gavriel Kay. He’s popular in Canada and the UK, but hasn’t seemed to have caught on just yet in the United States, and I am absolutely mystified as to why.

Set in an alternative Byzantium, Sarantium (this universe’s version of Constantinople) is the center of the civilized world, and in this city, a massive dome has been built. In “Sailing to Sarantium,” a mosaic artist in Batiara (the quasi-Italy) has been hired to make a mosaic, and so he travels to Sarantium. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that this is almost, quite literally, the entirety of the plot of “Sailing to Sarantium.” And somehow, the story never feels lacking as a result.

“Lord of Emperors” picks up where the first book leaves off, and there is much more intrigue, action, treachery and heartbreak.

It’s clear that Kay loves words, and writes with an ear to a well-turned phrase, or a carefully constructed description; his language is lush without feeling florid. He makes me want to read slowly and luxuriate, even as my brain strains forward, trying to leap ahead to find out what happens next. He is an author who finds beauty in life and in literature, and recognizes the frailty of it, but for those brief dazzling moments that make life worth living, he captures them just before he cracks your heart with grief.

About the ‘Are There LGBT Characters’ series of posts: Being a gay reader, I am interested in LGBT books, but I haven’t always seen reviews clearly note if there are LGBT characters and how significant they are. These mini reviews are my way of addressing this problem.

Are There LGBT Characters In: The City & The City by China Mieville (rapid review)

Title: The City & The City

Author: China Mieville

Rating: 4/5

Are there LGBT characters? No. But there’s no romance, in general, in this book. Sexuality as a whole plays an extremely minor role in the story.

Brief summary / book review: In a vaguely defined area in Eastern Europe, Inspector Tyador Borlu of the city of Beszel investigates a murder. But his investigation takes him to Beszel’s sister city, Ul Qoma, but the two are more than sisters. They occupy the same space, the same geography. But to be in one city and to notice the other is to put you in Breach, a mysterious force that lies in between the two cities.

The story was a little tricky to pick up at first, even knowing what I knew about it. The way the two cities interact was vaguely defined at first, and remained so throughout the book, but that is, I think, by design. It’s much easier to project yourself, your thoughts, and your emotions on a hazy portrait than a sharply defined one (hence the success of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, for example). It isn’t subtle about being an allusion to how we find ways to ignore things that are staring at us in the face every day (e.g. how often do we walk past the homeless and pretend not to see them?), but that’s not really a shortcoming, either.

It’s more noir than it is fantasy, but as Mieville himself said in an interview with Random House Reading Circle:

All the best noir — or at least I should say the stuff I like most — reads oneirically. Chandler and Kafka seem to me to have a lot more shared terrain than Chandler and a true-crime book.

It is a dream-like book, all blurred edges and half-visions, with the occasional sharp edge designed to jolt and surprise.

About the ‘Are There LGBT Characters’ series of posts: Being a gay reader, I am interested in LGBT books, but I haven’t always seen reviews clearly note if there are LGBT characters and how significant they are. These mini reviews are my way of addressing this problem.

Are There LGBT Characters In: The Tiger’s Daughter by K. Arsenault Rivera (rapid review)

Title: The Tiger’s Daughter

Author: K. Arsenault Rivera

Rating: 5/5

Are there LGBT characters? Hell to the yes. It’s a lesbian love story.

Brief summary / book review: I loved this book. It is so beautiful, y’all. Here, read this excerpt:

If you ask any Qorin what home is, the answer would vary. Their mother’s ger. This spot by the Rokhon where the sun caught the silver grass just so. On the back of their mare, their cheeks worn red, a good bow in hand.

But my answer has been the same since that moment when we were thirteen.

Home is holding you. Home is the smell of your hair. I would give up the howling gales of the steppe to listen to you breathe. All the stars in the sky, all the fallen Qorin guiding us through the night, could not compare to the brightness of your eyes when you looked at me. Your eyes were wide, so wide, like campfires burning.

In the style of Guy Gavriel Kay, who writes Earth-adjacent books, K. Arsenault Rivera has constructed a quasi-historical China/Japan/Mongolia setting here (there’s been some discussion about whether this is appropriation vs. appreciation, and I go into that in my Goodreads review. As you’ve probably figured, I’m solidly #TeamAppreciation).

The Tiger’s Daughter features a romance between two women, one of the Empire and the other of the steppes. It’s an epistolary tale, which is a bit strange in the sense that one character is retelling the history of her relationship with the other. The other person was present, so why bother with the retelling? But don’t think too hard about that, and just let yourself slowly be immersed by the beautiful words, the vivid language, and best of all, the romance of the two women.

It’s a slow-paced tale; it’s not an action-packed sprint, but a wandering in moonlight. Take your time with this one, and savor it.

About the ‘Are There LGBT Characters’ series of posts: Being a gay reader, I am interested in LGBT books, but I haven’t always seen reviews clearly note if there are LGBT characters and how significant they are. These mini reviews are my way of addressing this problem.

Are There LGBT Characters In: Confessions of a Mask by Yukio Mishima (rapid review)

Title: Confessions of a Mask

Author: Yukio Mishima

Rating: 4/5

Are there LGBT characters? Yes, the main character/narrator is gay

Brief summary / book review: So, this is a really interesting book. It was written in Japan in 1949, and it’s a semi-autobiography about the author/main character dealing with the fact that he’s gay. The author himself is fascinating — besides being gay, he was also a nationalist who founded his own right-wing militia and attempted a coup to try to restore the Emperor to pre-WW2 powers. When it failed, he committed seppuku.

With that in mind, reading the book itself becomes very interesting, in the sense it feels less like a work of fiction about a character named Kochan, but a true confession from Mishima. Not only does Kochan discover that he is sexually aroused by men, but he is also drawn to the idea of blood and sadomasochism, fantasizing about murdering his lovers and making them suffer.

The narrator goes into the self-delusions, denials, and mind-games closeted people go through when they struggle to accept that they’re gay. Some queer feelings are universal, it seems, and transcends time and nationality. What surprised me the most was how frank the language was, and how clearly it was written. I was expecting something a little more allegorical or archaic, but nope, the narrator will straight up tell you that he jizzed all over a table after masturbating to an art book. It gives the work a rawness and almost an honesty, but don’t let that deceive you because in the end, the reader is not reading a face, but a mask.

About the ‘Are There LGBT Characters’ series of posts: Being a gay reader, I am interested in LGBT books, but I haven’t always seen reviews clearly note if there are LGBT characters and how significant they are. These mini reviews are my way of addressing this problem.

Are There LGBT Characters In: The Steel Remains by Richard K. Morgan (rapid review)

Title: The Steel Remains

Author: Richard K. Morgan

Rating: 4/5

Are there LGBT characters? Yes, two of the main characters are; one is a gay man, the other is a lesbian.

Brief summary / book review: Grimdark fantasy about a trio of former mercenaries who are living through their traumas and trying to adjust to their post-war lives, only to find that mysterious forces are at work. Ringil is one of the gay characters, and he has been hired by his mother to find a lost cousin, and of course promptly finds himself in way over his head. Archeth, the lesbian character, is the servant of an Emperor and has been tasked to discover what really happened when a town has been razed. The third, Egar, returned to his people to run his family and his family’s tribe, but has found himself ill-suited to leadership.

The plot itself doesn’t move very quickly or dramatically, but this is more character-driven than anything else. From an LGBT perspective, it’s good to see that the author doesn’t shy away from portraying his characters with real sex lives (for instance, this is not a book where the straight characters get to boink but the gay characters lead chaste lives). Every character gets his chance to, er, shine in the bedroom in explicit detail, some more graphically than others. Explicit violence is also a part of this book, and sometimes, the sex and violence happen at the same time. The result in that particular scene isn’t very pleasant, obviously.

My biggest issue with the book isn’t with its treatment of LGBT characters, but rather, how all characters sound the same. They all have, essentially, the same vocabulary. They all say “fuck” often, and in similar ways. There isn’t an erudite character, a quiet character, a character who lies and exaggerates, a character who delivers blunt truths, etc. Strip away the dialogue tags and descriptors, and you wouldn’t be able to tell who’s speaking.

That aside, if you like your fantasy to be dark, bloody, and sexy, this book might be right up your alley.

About the ‘Are There LGBT Characters’ series of posts: Being a gay reader, I am interested in LGBT books, but I haven’t always seen reviews clearly note if there are LGBT characters and how significant they are. These mini reviews are my way of addressing this problem.