No fence

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Some context. In less than a week, I’ve seen three major awards-season movies with significant African-American roots: Ava DuVernay’s stunning documentary The 13th (nominated for Best Documentary); the adapted Pulitzer Prize-winning stage play and Denzel Washington vehicle Fences (nominated for Best Picture, Actor, Supporting Actress and Adapted Screenplay); and Moonlight (nominated for Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Adapted Screenplay, Editing, Score and Cinematography). By further coincidence, I also saw episode two of the History Channel’s 2016 remake of Roots, showing here for unfathomable reasons on BBC Four, and different from the 1977 original mainly in the more visceral depiction of its violence, which is a sign of the times.

But it’s Moonlight I want to talk about, as I believe it’s as close to a perfect film I’ve seen this year, and I think it’s going to be hard to beat. It’s behind a paywall but I’ve picked up via social media that Moonlight was trashed for effect by the just-passing-through film critic Camilla Long in the Sunday Times Culture section. The gist of her pasting seems to be that its story of a young black male coming of age in Miami has been made to appease a straight, white, guilt-ridden, middle-class audience. This is bullshit, and I speak as a straight, white, guilt-ridden, middle-class man. This charge devalues the fact that it is adapted from an unpublished stage play about a specific black experience by a black writer, Tarell Alvin McCraney, and directed by a black director, Barry Jenkins, and yet it is a film so universal it will appeal to any demographic. (She disparages the central character for lacking any defining characteristics beyond “sad” and “gay”. That we’re talking about a low-budget indie film whose central characteristics are being “sad” and “gay” but which has broken through to the mainstream feels like a massive breakthrough.)

Long’s misrepresentation also subtracts from the fact that the film’s cast is almost 100% black, a straightforward reflection of the milieu in which it’s set, and thereby not an “issue”. (No need for handy white racists to prop up the story of black kids dealing with prejudice that comes in many colours. Sadistic, whip-wielding, white plantation owners are not required on this particular voyage.) Moonlight is not a film about the African-American experience through which we are led by the colonial hand of a white interpreter. Nor is it a film that wrings its hands about the statistical odds stacked against a child born black in 21st century America. That Chiron, our protagonist, is born to a single parent who is herself an addict who turns tricks to feed her habit, and has to fend for himself on the streets and at school, is not the defining narrative. For Moonlight is a love story. It is also a “gay” love story.

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The love that dare not speak its name is, we intuit, even less verbose among black males in what we’ll call working-class neighbourhoods. You have to assume progress is being made every day in terms of sexual diversity as well as racial diversity, even in more “traditional” social groups, but the story of Chiron from school age to manhood is all about keeping a dark secret. (I’ll refrain from detailing the plot too much, as you’ll want to experience its revelations in the moment, without forewarning. There is one that’s simply devastating. You’ll know it when it comes.)

I had never heard of Barry Jenkins. He’s still pretty young, 37, but I never caught his first film, Medicine for Melancholy, in 2007. Moonlight nails him to the map. Sometimes it’s just timing. This is his time. Arriving, as it does, in an America of #BlackLivesMatter and reinvigorated prejudice of all kinds, Moonlight shines especially brightly and beautifully. (You can see from the stills that it’s a picture to behold – cinematographer James Laxton has also been working for years, but this is his calling card – but its often moonlit, often sun-bleached beauty is played for sincerity and irony, aesthetically. What I mean is: even its violence, or the result of its violence, has a certain artistry. But it never detracts.)

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We have to commend the cast. Only the better established actors, Mahershala Ali (a mainstay on House of Cards) and Naomie Harris (one of our best known BME exports, and it’s a crowded field), have been nominated for major awards. I suspect the sublime Ali – playing paternalistic but conflicted drug dealer Juan – might take Supporting Actor on Oscar night. But while both are strong, it’s the unknowns who pump the blood through the film. Let’s hear it for Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes, who cumulatively play Chiron; and for Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome and Andre Holland (familiar to fans of The Knick), who give life to Chiron’s best friend Kevin. The casting is almost magical: the two acting trios look enough like each other to convince, but not enough like each other to distract. And each acts with the same relaxed, unforced poise. Kevin talks constantly, while Chiron keeps his own counsel (adult Kevin observes that he never says more than three words at a time). Both characters require care and attention to get right, and if the world was fair, all three could be nominated collectively for a single Oscar, or Bafta, or Globe.

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You might argue that no film is perfect. You might be right. But back to context. I saw Fences the day before I saw Moonlight, and without wishing to judge Fences too harshly (it, too, contains a performance worthy of accolade: Viola Davis), it feels almost pantomimic next to Moonlight’s grace and subtlety. Denzel Washington, directing himself, simply puts the camera down and points it at a Pulitzer-winning play. It’s not cinematic; it’s theatrical, and didactic. Jenkins never moves his camera without meaning, or subtext. Sure, its tracking shots could be dismissed as showing off, but the opening one, detailing Juan’s routine, checking up on a corner boy, asking about his mother, is surrounded by the camera, which spins around not for technical effect, but to reveal the wide open space of the dealer’s world: flat, bleached out, salt-flecked, while expressing the practical truth that a dealer needs to be able to see at 360 degrees. When a gaggle of schoolkids races past him suddenly, we feel his surprise; we didn’t see them coming either. (Jenkins cuts here to the boys, chasing through wasteland, and it’s only then that we see that it’s a pursuit, and a homophobic one. I cannot wait to see this opening sequence again.)

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Moonlight is a serious film, but not without humour, or hope, and certainly not one without tender mercies. It’s an acting and directing masterclass that’s all the things Camilla Long seems to think it isn’t: necessary, important, urgent, relevant. It’s also warm and sensual and streaked with tears.

Some fences are built to keep people out, some fences are built to keep people in, but Moonlight contains no clunky fence metaphors.

Being human

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There’s a clear and present danger we’re becoming inured to newsreel footage and images of migrants from as far afield as Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea, Albania, Kosovo and Nigeria squashed into boats, risking death as human contraband in waterways between North Africa and Italy, and Turkey and Greece. It has felt like a weekly, sometimes daily experience for those of us watching: frightened faces, capsizing vessels, the spinning radar of a coast guard ship, life jackets, hoodies, backpacks, helicopters, children, babies, bacofoil blankets, corpses in the surf. Which is why I think the Italian documentarian Gianfranco Rosi is making such a splash with his latest film Fire At Sea (which, if you’re not fortunate enough to live near an arthouse cinema, is now available to stream on that constant lifeline for cinephiles, Curzon Home Cinema).

I’m not au fait with Rosi’s previous work, but can’t wait to seek it out, if this is how he rolls. Fire At Sea is one of those documentaries that tells its tale not through narration or captioned talking heads (although some participants are clearly being interviewed by Rosi for the camera), but fixed shots of a landscape, or neatly composed glimpses of everyday life, which cumulatively build a bigger picture – or, you might say, a smaller or more intimate picture. It ostensibly presents a free-standing slice of life on the small Sicilian island of Lampedusa, where desperate migrants from Africa and the Middle East arrive each year hoping for a new life in Europe; a rare caption tells us that, unbelievably, 400,000 have passed through in the last 20 years. This is an island with a population of around 6,000, essentially a way-station, and the Italian coast guard is shown diligently and humanely processing what seems to be a constant flow of migrants. But this is not a film about the migrant crisis.

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Rosi is not here to provide answers. He merely presents the facts as he, or his camera, sees them. If anyone is our guide, it’s 12-year-old Samuele, something of a tyke, the son of a fisherman, an artisan of the homemade catapult (with which he and his pal fire stones at cactuses and, we suspect, local birdlife), a proficient mime when it comes to the firing of imaginary assault weapons, and a kid with an old head on young shoulders. We see him explaining his symptoms to a doctor – the doctor, in fact, as the island appears only to have one – and not only does he use his hands and arms to express himself like an Italian man, he even seems to suffer from the hypochondria of a patient six times his age. (The doctor tells him that it’s stress-related, a very grown-up diagnosis. This is the doctor who later confesses his horror at having to cut off the finger of a dead migrant for reasons of later identification.)  You might say that in Samuele, Rosi has discovered “a star”, but again, it’s not about him, or any one person. That our boy seems to lead a relatively self-contained life among the scrub and low trees of his immediate landscape – as far as this film’s viewpoint suggests, utterly untouched by the boatloads of refugees being numbered, photographed and examined by the coast guard – illustrates the potential joy of a simple life.

Although the sheer number of foreign migrants passing through the lens of this film – many are dead, or on the point of death through dehydration – means that we do not get to know them with anything like the same intimacy with which we commune with Samuele’s father, his grandmother, an unnamed diver, the doctor, and a local DJ who plays the song Fire At Sea as a request for a fisherman’s wife – but that, I guess, is the point. The local people are fully integrated into their environment. The fisherman catches a squid (we see it breathe its last on the deck of a boat); the squid is de-inked and chopped into a stew by Samuele’s grandmother; then eaten as a hearty, life-giving meal by a family of three generations. The circle of life. The grandmother, who keeps reminding Samuele he’s still young, asks only for “a little health” when she kisses the heads of her icons of the Virgin Mary and a saint in her spartan bedroom. The people who “belong” on Lampedusa – as opposed to the migrants who fundamentally don’t, but are welcomed, temporarily, with compassion and without argument – do not ask for much. Samuele is happy with a twig from a tree. His father is happy to be home from sea. His grandfather is happy to be served a mid-morning espresso at the kitchen table, gone in one sip. The migrants have little more than the t-shirt on their backs, or the scarves wrapped around their heads, but they are grateful for a sip of water when they are unloaded onto the rescue ship, some of them also potentially breathing their last, like the squid.

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There are a number of especially profound sequences in Fire At Sea, chanced upon by Rosi in the time he spent on the island: one of Samuele literally having to acclimatise himself to life at sea by facing down his seasickness: a creature of the land attempting to adapt to the ocean, in a perhaps cruel echo of the Africans forced off terra firma onto barely seaworthy boats, not to fish to survive, but to survive. In many ways, his options are limited; following in his father’s footsteps is a prescriptive path, and he’s not a natural seafarer (he’s sick over the side of his dad’s boat and turns the colour of paste). The options on Lampedusa are few, and the modern, interconnected world far away (the modernity of the doctor’s Apple monitor jars). This 12-year-old might understandably wish to leave for the mainland one day. He would, indeed, hop on a boat to achieve that. But he will be a willing migrant, not a refugee. It’s not necessarily a revolutionary visual and thematic link to make – refugees coming in, a native heading out – but it’s typical of Rosi’s sense of visual poetry.

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Another profound image is that of Samuele’s lazy eye. Again, it’s an accident that Rosi captured this milestone in a young boy’s life. But when he is prescribed a flesh-coloured eye patch to help “correct” the eye that’s not functioning properly, it’s actually impossible not to read all sorts of subtext into it. Do we, in the comfortable West, view the migrant situation with half an eye? We see the constant news footage – footage nothing like as aesthetically beautiful and patiently composed as Rosi’s, by the way – but do we actually process it? Or does it go by in a blur? Is anyone fooled by the fleshy illlusion of the rubber patch?

Fire At Sea is a film about seeing. Samuele uses his trusty slingshot with the patch fixed to the inside of his new glasses and he misses the target. He must adapt to survive (if we take his weapon as an ancient tool of survival, rather than a toy), but his adaptation is intimate, personal. The adaptation of the North Africans fleeing their country is more profound, and more deadly. Their boy is no toy. They are fleeing the weapons of others.

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I loved this film. Some critics have questioned the balance of its gaze. While Samuele and his family are viewed in close up, we never hear from the migrants, who are presented en masse. But that, I feel, is the point, and a fair point. We see them, exhausted, confused, thirsty and yet relieved, being photographed by the Italian coast guard (all wearing masks and gloves for fear of infection, which makes them anonymous), and each migrant is assigned a number, which is held next to their head in the photo for identification. They are a number and yet they are “free” in the sense that they have left a war zone or persecution behind. If this “dehumanises” them, then it is not Rosi who does this, it’s the world. Also, he takes care to include a frankly joyous scene in which African migrants in the concrete yard of a detention centre, awaiting the next stage of transit to what they hope is a better life, play football against a team of Syrians – with, poignantly, two empty water bottles as goalposts. They cheer and shout, united by the international detente of sport. They are free, but they are also locked up. Contradictions fall from the sky.

The image that moved me the most was towards the end, when Samuele goes out hunting by the light of the moon (hunting not for food, but for sport). He seems to lure a tiny young bird by imitating its tweets. But by torchlight, as he gently approaches the bird, he either changes his mind, or he was never hunting it in the first place, and he gently strokes the bird on the head. Humanity is on the doorstep. Just look for it.

The hopeful eight

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It was with some satisfaction that I belatedly watched Mad Max: Fury Road on DVD, thus putting myself in the position of being able to say I have seen all eight of the pale-faced Best Picture nominees at the 88th Academy Awards. I can thus now fruitlessly compare them. They seem like as accurate a barometer of this year’s crop (and thus last year’s movies), so I am about to do just that, although what I think should win is entirely theoretical, as I am not one of the 6,300 or so members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and thus hold zero sway in this regard.

What I think will win is also fluff. What do I know? I have feelings in my bones, and I am a seasoned Oscars watcher of many decades, so have some predictive form, but I don’t want to know what’s going to win. I’m glad about that. It would be boring. I like surprises. I actively want to be wrong. Despite being statistically made up of mostly old, white American men, the Academy is still capable of delivering a bookmaker-upsetting surprise; even causing a relative upset. I enjoy the start-of-year awards season and the resulting quality bottleneck, as I am usually entertained and exercised by its vagaries and waves. I relish the controversies the Oscars throw up. This year: lack of diversity. Meet the new controversy, same as the old controversy.

I don’t blame the august Oscar voters for Hollywood’s lack of diversity. Hollywood is to blame, with its deep-seated patriarchy and its demographic timidity, not to mention its unbreakable Plexiglass ceiling for women and the equivalent of “voter ID” for black actors, creatives and technicians. All of this bleeds into the reductive treatment of all Hispanics (sexy, smouldering, hot-tempered, etc. – it may be positive discrimination of a type, but it’s not so far round the dial from Trump’s rapists), although at least one of the Hopeful Eight was directed by a Mexican.

It’s the entertainment industry’s fault, not the mainly white, mainly male, mainly over-50 demographic of a club of movie professionals, which, by dint of inducting anyone who wins an Oscar and then has the ability to not die, means the Academy is full of people who aren’t black or Hispanic, and a vicious circle is hard to extract yourself from. The problem isn’t with the Oscars, or who wins them, but with American cinema itself, where people tend not to be of colour, or women, and especially not women of colour, like Jada Pinkett Smith, who is among those who’ve threatened to boycott the colourless Oscars ceremony. If I were a black actress, I’d kick up a right stink and then make damn sure I attended. Being invisible is playing into the racists’ hands.

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You keep hearing the truism that male Academy members “give the films to their wives to watch,” which may or may not explain the popularity of certain movies. I hesitate to make sweeping generalisations about what women or men want. Romantic comedies may be machine-tooled to appease women, but men also like them, and women also hate them. Equally, noisy action movies: aimed at teenage boys or men who wish they were still teenage boys, but not necessarily only appreciated by the intended gender or age group. The high nomination tally of Mad Max: Fury Road – which, by the way, is a “male” film by type (action, noise, explosions, petrol) but, interestingly, dominated as much by female characters as the eponymous male one – is a tonic. That it’s only really picking up “technical” awards (so named as if acting, writing and directing aren’t technical) – four wins out of seven at the Baftas for costumes, make-up, editing and production design – should not concern us. It’s doing well and it’s an action movie.

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Max is one of three Best Picture Oscar nominees whose poster is dominated by a woman’s face; also, Room and Brooklyn, both based on novels, one written by a woman, the other a man, one Irish-Canadian, the other Irish, which is a cheering ethnic skew. I first saw Brooklyn trailed at a tiny cinema in Bantry, County Cork, and felt the Irish love (I dislike being English and wish I was Irish). Though an Irish/UK/Canadian production by funding that’s set in Brooklyn and partly shot in Montreal, its Irish authenticity is deep, with the scenes set in novelist Colm Tóibín’s Enniscorthy also shot there, and only two of the principal Irish parts played by non-Irish actors (the bankable Julie Walters and Jim Broadbent). Since it’s about homesickness within the Irish diaspora in America, it could prick a few glands among the immigrant Academy members, but it’s not going to win.

Nor is Bridge Of Spies. I have no ill feelings towards it, but it’s a bit stolid and unsurprising. Cold War. Tom Hanks. Mark Rylance (not in it enough). Snow. Germans. Spies. It’s well enough made, but if it didn’t exist, you wouldn’t have to invent it. (Its score by Thomas Newman is actually something of a beaut, but it’s not the equal of Carter Burwell’s gorgeous score for Carol, which, by the way, despite being a good fit for the wives of the lazy male Academy members, looks to be this season’s big loser. I don’t really get why.)

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I admire Room; its stars, its writer (Emma Donoghue, adapting her own novel with precision), its director, another Irishman, Lenny Abrahamson. It will I think win Best Actress for Brie Larson, but it doesn’t feel like a Best Picture. Too gloomy. Too grubby. Too creepy. All the things I love about it. The Big Short, too, is a poor fit for traditional Best Picture thinking; I thoroughly enjoyed its manic energy, but I fear the financial crash and subprime mortgages will not sing in the minds of the panel. (“Aren’t we, like, in some kind of recovery?”)

If Best Picture is between any two films, it’s The Revenant (which I have raved about here) and Spotlight. I don’t think Ridley Scott’s The Martian is going to find much traction at the Oscars. I got it into it, but found it tonally disconcerting. Was it a drama? Was it a comedy? (It was canny of Fox to put it forward for the “Musical or Comedy” categories at the Golden Globes, where it picked up Best Film, thus unrealistically raising its producers’ expectations.) I wondered aloud if Matt Damon might pip Leonardo DiCaprio for Best Actor at the Baftas; that his have-a-go solo performance might sway our less macho voters. But no. There’s no beating Leo’s suffering; he’s a vegan who ate raw liver and raw fish for his art – give that man a statuette and the rest of the week off.

The Revenant is unassailable. There’s an outside chance – the “Crash wild card anomaly” (see: the year Crash beat Brokeback Mountain) – that Spotlight will beat The Revenant to Best Picture and break the Oscar algorithm. Tom McCarthy’s never going to win the Director category, as Spotlight is intelligent enough not to let the direction show (part of its consummate mastery), whereas The Revenant is something like a two and a half hour Oscar begging reel. Look! Natural light! It must have taken ages!

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I still harbour a tiny hope that Spotlight, having won Best Supporting Actor for Mark Ruffalo, might win Best Picture. It has all the hallmarks of one of those: true story, set in the past, talky, righteous, no sex, no violence (other than the violence wrought on children by priests, which we do not directly see), and an “issue” that bypasses partisan politics and shows that you have a heart. There are no shades of how much you revile paedophiles.

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As stated, I want to be surprised on Oscar night. I sort of was at the Baftas when Rylance won for Bridge Of Spies, although I suspect patriotism played its hand. (A resource in short supply when neither Tom Courtenay nor Charlotte Rampling found their way onto the Actor and Actress lists for 45 Years.) Hey, this time next year, the voting system may have been overhauled to address the existence of the past 50 years in civil rights, with Academy members who haven’t worked for the past ten years becoming ineligible to automatically vote. We already have gender-divided categories. What about categories graded for “colour”? It would make the Oscars as long and interminable as the Grammys, but perhaps it’s the kind of affirmative action the awards season needs.

Bear good

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I pity any film up against The Revenant at this year’s big awards. Not because I personally think it is an unassailable piece of filmmaking – although, incidentally, I do think that – but because it has that prevailing wind behind it already, the one that saw films as diversely deserving and undeserving as Shakespeare In Love, Gravity, Terms Of Endearment, The Artist, Amadeus, Kramer Vs Kramer, Gandhi, On The Waterfront, From Here To Eternity, West Side Story and Ben-Hur win big, and across the board, leaving all comers in their jet-propelled wake. As I always state for the record at awards season time: I prefer to be surprised on Oscar night (and Bafta night, and Golden Globes night), but a consensus can sometimes build, whether it’s within the Hollywood Foreign Press Association or the British or American Academies. If The Revenant does what I expect it to (and what it has already done at the Globes, with the big three in the Drama category all nabbed: Picture, Director, Actor), then its nearest rivals may find themselves heading for the exit, pursued by a bear.

I don’t often do this, but I have seen The Revenant twice. I saw it twice in the space of four days. I was so enraptured by its broad canvas, its artistic vision, its sodden tactility, its elemental power, and its on-the-hoof, let’s-eat-the-snow-right-here acting, I had to return to see how it felt when I knew what was coming. I have to tell you, foreknowledge is no witherer of its strange, ugly-beautiful magic. The only hope for the other big nominees is in the female categories, as the women in The Revenant do not get very much to do, it has to be said.

Put away the Bechdel test. It meets the first criterion: it must have at least two women in it. But not the second two: the women must talk to each other, about something besides a man. The film’s principal cast list contains two women: Grace Dove, who plays Leonardo Di Caprio’s deceased Pawnee wife, and Melaw Nakehnk’o, who plays Powaqa, the kidnapped daughter of an Arikara (“Ree”) tribal chief. The first is seen only in wordless flashback, where she is shot dead by a British soldier; the second is glimpsed being dragged off to be raped by a French trapper, then rescued by Leo, but empowered to exact her own poetic revenge on her abuser. You might applaud that outcome, but it takes Powaqa being enslaved and sexually assaulted for it to happen.

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I make no claims for the feminism of either the fictional or fictionalised 19th century menfolk in this western. Will Poulter and to an extent Domnhall Gleason play male characters with a moral compass, but by and large the American and English protagonists are a bunch of cavemen in furs with muskets and Bowie knives. Tom Hardy essays another venal baddie to add to Alfie in Peaky Blinders and both Krays in Legend; he is Leo’s nemesis, and very much a loner, out for himself, with no crumpled photograph of a sweetheart in his man bag. This is a rough, tough world of hunting, shooting, fishing, whoring and breaking things (in which sense: how very like our own Conservative cabinet). There is a fine tradition of independent and able women in westerns, but they tend to be subjugated in what is a deeply patriarchal world.

The Revenant makes no retrofitted liberal concessions to modern thinking, and in a way, why should it? These are violent men, raping the land and natural resources of indigenous people for profit. From this testosterone-stinking malaise, Leo’s Hugh Glass is as close as a Guardian reader as you could hope for: a principled man who married a Pawnee and had a “half-breed” son with her, risking disenfranchisement and worse for sleeping with the enemy. But his Pawnee empathy gives him a spirituality – and a drive to survive – that his peers perhaps do not possess. Their mistreatment of him forces him to live for revenge. The world of The Revenant brutalises even the most open-hearted. It’s like a war movie that’s really an anti-war movie; it can only be such by showing that war is hell.

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Aware of all of this, I was surprised at the vehemently negative response of trustworthy Observer writer Carole Cadwalladr. In a piece at the weekend, she unleashed these sentiments (having seen The Revenant before Christmas). Kicking off with objectively fair images of what’s in the film (“Ritualised brutality. Vengeful blood lust. Vicious savagery justified by medieval notions of retribution”), she then moves to undermine what is a serious film by calling it “the hottest blockbuster of the season … and yours for around £10-£15 this weekend at your local multiplex”. I assume she knows that not all films at your local multiplex are romantic comedies or Pixar animations. She quotes male critics (alright, too many national newspaper critics are male), who have praised the film’s “revenge, retribution and primal violence” and “unthinking, aggressive masculinity.” However, I don’t see this as a binary issue of male versus female, violent versus non-violent, blockbuster versus arthouse.

She does: “I’ll summarise the plot for you: man seeks revenge, man gets revenge. That’s it, basically, for two and a half hours, though there is a brief reprieve when you get to see Leonardo DiCaprio being mauled by a grizzly bear.” She counts the women onscreen, as I have done, but she misses out the silent squaw in a ruined encampment whom Will Poulter’s character feeds and leave alone, daring not to alert his aggressive “partner” Hardy to her presence. (She does not speak either, but the Native Americans we see seem to be men of few words and many thoughts.)

“The woman is not actually raped, of course,” Cadwalladr faux-complains. “She’s faux raped. Because this is what we call acting. And because The Revenant is what we call entertainment.” Who is calling The Revenant “entertainment”? It’s a fair question. It’s not the first noun I’d reach for. It’s an experience, maybe even an endurance, but was I “entertained”? By the spectacle, the scope and the thrill of the escape, certainly. But it’s tough going, this film. It’s not like a fairground ride, with sanitised ups and downs, it’s a slog. A wet, dirty, infected, sore, painful, blood-stained and spit-flecked assault course for the senses. It’s not boring, but it’s not a showbiz spectacular and there are few jokes or dance routines. To call it “entertainment” – as I rather suspect people in marketing aren’t even calling it – is to make a spurious point.

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I like Carole Cadwalladr’s writing, but she freeforms after this, saying that we “choose to pay to watch women being pretend raped rather than watching women being actually raped for free.” I’m not sure that’s a conscious choice for me. “Even the ending is ambiguous, and leaves many questions unanswered and issues unresolved. Nobody rides off into the sunset,” she correctly observes (in the Observer), thus undercutting her own sneer that The Revenant is “entertainment.” Oh dear. She speaks, disapprovingly, of a “well-oiled publicity machine of the type that fuels an Academy Awards clean sweep”, as if The Revenant isn’t entitled to pitch for recognition by its industry peers. Some Academy members may be disengaged enough to be “bought” by studio enticements, but most of these old, white men will only vote for a film because they liked it, now matter how old, white and male they statistically are. Many of them will still have freewill.

She mocks how “gruelling” the shoot is known to have been, and how “authentically” the actors “suffered”, belittling even that aspect with the aside, “They got a bit cold, apparently.” (Hey, either they suffered or they didn’t. If they didn’t, then the acting is even better.) The cinematography is “gorgeous,” she concedes, but, in conclusion, “the whole thing is meaningless. A vacuous revenge tale that is simply pain as spectacle. The Revenant is pain porn.”

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Putting a word before “porn” is a cheap trick. I should know, I’ve done it on numerous occasions. Certainly there is power in seeing pain acted if it’s done well, and it is done well. But is it pornographic? Leo’s mauled by a grizzly and bears the weeping scars, but this is clever makeup, aided by clever acting. (“Porn,” in the true sense, is sort of not acting, isn’t it? Otherwise customers would demand their money back.)  By the time she compares the artificial, acted violence with real violence, as seen in Isis videos, I was as lost as Glass. That Isis “lift” the techniques of Hollywood to make their nihilistic, barbaric point is not the fault of Hollywood. More people get killed in Gone With The Wind than in The Revenant. When she concludes that Isis “has seen what we want, what we thrill to, and given it to us,” she seems to want to make viewers of fiction feel in some way culpable for Islamic State. “The Revenant isn’t responsible for this,” she then points out, going back into the ring one more time to call a film she didn’t like “tedious” and “emotionally vacant.”

I found it to be otherwise. I would not argue that it’s a violent, masculine, macho film with little space for the input of women. But it is possible to watch it, with its sexual assault and brutal feuding, and not “enjoy” it in the way Carole Cadwalladr implies that we all do. (Unless she just means all men. It’s still inaccurate, if so.)

“Don’t pay £10-£15,” is her entreaty. Do, if you want to see an amazing piece of high-impact, naturally-lit, visually poetic cinema, is mine. And then you will have your own opinion.

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Film threat

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Two violent films, seen within 24 hours of one another. Starred Up is out this week on DVD. Joe is in cinemas. The first, from debuting writer Jonathan Asser – who, as a psychotherapist who’s worked with prisoners and young offenders, knows of which he speaks – is a prison drama. And already you’re thinking: oh no, not another prison drama. It’s true, the genre has long since hardened into if not cliché, certainly formality. But Starred Up – and you’ve heard this before, but stick with me – is different.

Yes, it resonates with the clanging of metal doors and gates, and makeshift weapons are furtively manufactured from toothbrushes and razor blades, and everyone says “fuck” or “cunt”, and there’s a sadistic, unsmiling deputy governor whose faith in rehabilitation is not devout, and a prisoner hierarchy with an unlikely, weaselly geezer at the top, and lags walk around in a circle in the exercise yard, but … it’s not about prison, no more than Hunger or Un prophète were about prison. It’s about a father and son.

Jack O’Connell, whom I never really saw in Skins but appreciated in Chris Chibnall’s United and James Moran’s Tower Block, is the son, and Ben Mendelsohn, one of the Aussie breakout stars of Animal Kingdom and brilliant in supporting roles in Killing Them Softy and Girls, is the father. The son, Eric Love (brilliant name), has been “starred up”, that is, moved from a young offenders’ institution to a grown-ups’ prison, where his dad, Neville, has carved out a functional life for himself, nearer to the top of the tree than the bottom, but he’s no Mr Big. He and his son have been estranged for most of Eric’s life, who grew up in care. He’s still in care. So is Neville.

What differentiates Starred Up – the best work from Scottish director David Mackenzie since the brooding and alarming Young Adam (although I’ve enjoyed plenty of his commercially under-loved work) – is that from the first scene we glimpse the human being under the self-generated armour of Eric’s cocksure invincibility when, after the long walk through the prison induction system to his cell, the door is shut on him and he allows his face and posture to retract from self-preservation and convey sadness, frustration and fallibility. It’s incredible acting from O’Connell (this film will make him if he isn’t made already), and infuses the rest of the film with depth.

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Eric is a coiled spring of curtailed ambition whose reflex reaction is to lash out (a request for the borrow of a lighter results in a brutal attack very early on), which makes his introduction to a modest therapy group run by Rupert Friend all the more jarring and counterintuitive. This is not a film about fairytale transformations, but the way Eric’s story plays out is not predictable. Nor is the way the father-son reunification unfolds. Mendelsohn plays Neville as recalcitrant and proud – also a man who thinks with his fists and would clearly have parented with slaps had he actually attempted to do so – but not without a heart. Friend is a chameleonic actor (proven by his transformation into an American CIA officer in Homeland) who is utterly believable from word one as this voluntary shrink whose commitment to rehabilitation is everything Sam Spruell’s cold governor’s isn’t. A peacemaking speech he makes later on in the story where he calls the black prisoners in his group “black cunts” and Eric “a white cunt … I’m a cunt, we’re all cunts” is far more profound than it sounds.

Asser’s screenplay, worked through over a number of years, with the help of many professionals at workshops – to whom he pays sincere tribute in interview – was also honed during the tight 24-day location shoot at Belfast’s former Crumlin Road Prison and the infamous Maze, with Mendelsohn particularly involved in fine-tuning his character. All of this shows in the incredible depth throughout, even in exchanges that seem trite or functional. And there’s a terrifying stand-up stand-off in the therapy group that’s as exquisitely and exactingly choreographed by Mackenzie as a dance routine.

However, and here’s why I suspect Starred Up only showed for a week at my local arthouse in March and then disappeared: it’s defiantly repellent stuff. Strong meat. Hard on the ears as well as the eyes. A film I love, but not a film I would recommend to anybody with a weak constitution. A low-level threat of violence persists throughout the entire 106-minute running time. It’s not if, but when it explodes. The violence is not as explicit as it seems (that’s clever directing and editing), but the sheer physical force with which it erupts is quite distressing. Blades, table legs, teeth, fists, all are pressed into service. Fathers and surrogate fathers are attacked by their sons and surrogate sons, and their sons and surrogate sons are beaten back. It’s tactile-Oedipal. And they’re “all cunts”. (It was a hot evening when we watched the DVD but we eventually had to close the skylights for fear of our neighbours being offended by the language.)

I appreciate that the violence inherent in the system is a valid subject for fiction, and Starred Up is a supremely intelligent depiction of that violence. But I would actually warn people from watching it. You have been warned. (Actually, I found myself wholeheartedly evangelising it to a woman I met at the Inbetweeners 2 aftershow and literally gave that warning.)

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I’d read a lot of praise for Joe, the new film from director David Gordon Green (George Washington, Pineapple Express – that’s some CV), adapted by Gary Hawkins from the 1991 novel I’ve never heard of by Mississippian Larry Brown (about whom Hawkins once made a documentary). It’s also violent. It’s also about fathers and sons, and surrogate fathers and sons. It’s also tactile-Oedipal, and a lesson in restraint. What a coincidence.

It’s also very different. Shot in areas around Austin in Central Texas, it’s not quite a Southern Gothic, although the relationship between Tye Sheridan’s 15-year-old grown-up Gary and his good-for-nothin’ dad Wade, played with unadulterated authenticity by non-actor and actual alcoholic drifter Gary Poulter (who died after filming), is a dark entry indeed. In the very first scene, Gary berates his wizened soak of a father without any fear until Wade slaps him, hard, around the face, and retreats to his preferred cycle of guzzling spirit and passing out. Gary’s surrogate father turns out to be Joe, an ex-con played with admirable restraint by Nic Cage – a restraint that has earned him endless plaudits, although it turns out that this is all relative.

Joe runs a gang of casual workers – all black – whose task it is to literally poison trees to make way for a corporate re-planting, a job they merrily do without gloves, let alone masks. But their camaraderie and joshing are genuine and inspiring, and there’s two-way respect between the workers and their genial employer. Everyone knows Joe has “a past”, and he himself explains that “restraint” keeps him from “hurting people” and keeps him out of jail. He drinks, loves his guard-dog (who lives in the crawlspace under his home, always tethered), and uses prostitutes. He also knows his way around skinning and butchering a deer. He’s more than a little bit country.

Violence erupts more than once, and again, that threat lingers. It’s difficult to relax into the scenes of socialising and ball-breaking, as bad things are always round the corner. The director paints his pictures in dark greens, buff browns and queasy yellows, but finds beauty in the way sunlight bounces off surfaces, or through a glugged bottle of rose wine. Coincidentally, Mackenzie creates a red light in Eric’s cell when material is fixed up over the only window – an effect akin to that which Green conjures for the brothel. It ain’t pretty, this backwoods world he depicts, but it is not without natural beauty, perhaps best personified by a box bridge (a key location) that’s being gradually wrapped in vine. You can poison nature at the behest of a corporation, but it always finds a way. Perhaps, Joe seems to be saying, male violence is a natural state, and restraint is unnatural.

The characters in Starred Up are in a physical prison. In Joe, they’re out in the wide open spaces; there are worse places to work than a forest, even if you’re poisoning it, but it still feels like a high-viz chain-gang, especially as the workforce is exclusively African-American. When hardworking, personable Gary and – briefly – the workshy Wade join the herbicide detail, they are in the minority. But there’s little to elevate Wade from the bottom of any social heap: he’s cruel, selfish, vicious and callow. When he launches into an implausible breakdancing routine, it is the only ray of humanity we are privileged to see. (We must imagine that Poulter, who apparently enjoyed acting in the film, started a Twitter account and had been in and out of rehab, was more redeemable than Wade.)

Gary’s relationship with his father is less complex than Eric’s with Neville. Gary is the de facto adult, but Wade is dominant through threat of violence (and actual enaction of violence); we barely see the submissive mother, who also seems to drink, and Gary’s sister appears to have been rendered mute by family life. He’s the one who must go out and earn money (he saves to buy a truck from his new role model, Joe). I won’t go into the plot, as you may wish to see it, but I have to say, I felt Joe was over-praised. I felt like I’d seen all this before. Calling a drama noir doesn’t instantly bestow it with class. Some of the story is too neat – the way it’s bookended, for instance – some of it is too messy. There’s no resolution to some strands (such as Joe’s relationship with an ex who sort of moves in with him and then just moves out), and too much resolution to others (a stand-off that brings Joe’s relationship with the local law enforcement to a head).

There’s a scene in Joe that’s more explicitly violent than even the most violent scene in Starred Up. (People in the cinema audibly groaned and said “No!” when it happened.) I’m not against violence artistically, or politically, but I can personally do without seeing a skull being caved in, or a cheek slashed with a blade. There are a lot of movies about violence. We live in a violent world. Hundreds of men, women and children are killed every day in acts of violence – albeit much of it long-range, and not perpetrated with metal bars on bone – and these acts do not act as neat catalysts for dramatic resolutions.

But I can tell you, I was in the mood to watch The Inbetweeners 2 last night.

 

Script-wanker!

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If you’re even halfway intrigued as to what this script is, with its unhelpful title Script Title and its near complete lack of information on what’s supposed to be its title page, and why it might have “Andrew Collins” stamped diagonally across it like a watermark (an addendum to every single one of the 139 pages therein), then I’ll let you in on my big secret, assuming you don’t take Radio Times, or click on the regular Twitter links to my tireless work for the magazine. I played a very small part in The Inbetweeners 2, which enjoys its world premiere tomorrow night and opens nationwide on Wednesday.

When I say I played a small part, I’m not in it. Not even in the background, as I have been in other productions I’ve worked on (uncredited as “Man With Hummus In Pub” in Grass, and “Man Walking Behind Bench” in Colin). In fact, I suspect you’ll have to stay to the very end of the credits – possibly even after the Dolby logo – to see my name, as I was a “script consultant” on it. Although I was told by the writers/producers/directors/creators Iain Morris and Damon Beesley that mine were the “first outside pair of eyes” on their screenplay, I may be one of a whole raft of script consultants credited. Either way, and as prosaic and self-effacing as I am naturally being about my small part, I am very, very, very excited to have any credit whatsoever on an actual film.

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I have written a fairly exhaustive piece for Radio Times about how it all happened, and you may read it here. What I didn’t manage to get into that piece is that, as script consultant, I was invited to attend the first, full cast read-through at a church in Shoreditch in London’s fashionable East End in November. On that day, I assume for top-level secrecy, the film was referred to as The Long Goodbye. I can’t say for certain how many people attended, but it must have been around 100, maybe more, counting the entire cast, all those producers and key production crew. Even though I was a script consultant (I think Robert Popper might be one, too, although he might also have an even fancier title), I was asked to read for a certain castmember who wasn’t able to attend. They only had one scene, but it was nerve-wracking all the same. I’m only a script consultant!

It was a memorable event in my chequered career. As will be the act of seeing my name whizz past in the end-credits roll at the premiere in London’s busy Leicester Square. Can it really be four summers since we last attended an Inbetweeners premiere in Leicester Square? Yes it can.

I attended the premiere of The Inbetweeners Movie in the sweltering, post-riots heat haze of August 2011, even though I didn’t work on it, as I am a friend of Bwark, Iain and Damon’s production company. I don’t attend many premieres, mostly out of choice. But it’s always weird walking up a red carpet when you’re not famous. Best thing is to hold your head up, eyes front, and walk as fast as possible. My most vivid memory of the night was standing talking to Rhys Thomas and Lucy Montgomery in Leicester Square after the film while a drain overflowed next to us, flooding foul effluent on the piazza, as if in mockery of the film’s baser instincts. It’s weird, but sort of not, that none of us could have known that the film would break box office records over the following weeks and go on to take £57 million, a record for a British comedy.)

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I am minded at this sensitive stage of the cautionary anecdote told by Richard Attenborough. In 1942, aged 19, he attended the gala charity premiere of In Which We Serve, the film in which he made his credited debut (playing “Young Stoker” – I know, it’s no “Man In Pub With Hummus”). He, too, sat expectantly through to the end credits, with his family in tow, and discovered that his name had been missed off. That’s showbiz. He never worked again.

To reiterate: I have not seen The Inbetweeners 2. But I have read it, a number of times, and even suggested changes and additions to it, all of which may have been ignored. I look forward, in an almost parental way, to seeing how it came out. There’s at least one disgusting gross-out moment, I’ll tell you that much and risk excommunication. Or at least there was last time I read Script Title. Curiously, script consultants don’t get invited to Australia to consult on set.

Cock and ball stories

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“Contains strong, real sex.” There’s a warning which, for some, will operate as an enticement. It adorns the posters for Stranger By The Lake (or, more properly, L’Inconnu du lac) a current French erotic thriller that’s been picking up five-star reviews and which I went to see for my birthday. It was quite a present.

The story – one of social intrigue, moral ambiguity and brazen man-on-man rumpo – revolves around a secluded, idyllic gay cruising spot in the South of France on the edge of a man-made lake, where man-made men of all ages routinely spend the day sunbathing, swimming and chatting, often nude, as a springboard to sexual acts in the undergrowth. Notwithstanding the thriller element, it paints a utopian picture (all the better to be shattered by the thriller element). The sun glistens off the water. Blue skies gradually fade to cool evenings. There is ample car parking. Nobody seems to have a job to go to. Consenting adults get to know each other on towels, or not, and partner off, while others simply loiter in the bushes and watch.

For a lifelong heterosexual who was ostracised as a “poof” in his teens for dressing effeminately and warned off hanging out with actual gay men by his parents as it was interfering with his A-levels, onscreen portrayals of this sort of “scene” – ritualistic, understood, honest, practical – always fascinate me, I cannot lie. All the bullshit that goes with heterosexual courtship is refreshingly absent. Although most of the men in the film are fit, buff and handsome, some are older, fatter, and less idealised looking. Some are single, some are not. Most use condoms, others play a riskier game. It’s the perfect milieu into which to introduce a less controllable danger: that of murder.

Outside of the thriller aspect, which recalls some of the more generic tropes of Plein Soleil and its English remake The Talented Mr Ripley, with more literal recent echoes of Jane Campion’s Top Of The Lake, and even The Returned, Stranger By The Lake is notable chiefly for being the latest 18-certificate film to blur the borders between simulated sex and real sex – that is, frank, explicit, non-simulated, and thus by most people’s definition “pornographic”. The sex we’re used to seeing onscreen, even in “sexy” films, is clearly all artful, choreographed bump and grind, and elevated to gentle titillation by soft focus, tantalising editing, orgasm acting and a saxophone. The sex herein involves erect penises and ejaculation. There, I’ve said it.

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The screening of Stranger By The Lake we attended was in Soho and on a weekday morning. I specify “we”, as all other patrons in the cinema were singles, and male, and – dare I generalise? – of a certain age. Not young men. This was an 18-certificate showing of a film. Not a porn movie in a porn cinema (although I’m sure Old Testament Daily Mail moralists would have a thing to say about its content). And yet, as specified, it contained images of strong, real sex. Which you don’t get on the telly, not even in the background on True Detective.

As unfashionable as it may be to say it, I’m not partial to porn. I actually get more out of one of those faked, edited, saxophone scenes in 18-certificate movies, albeit briefly. I have no great desire to see people “do it” for real. But many do and they are better served in this regard than ever before. So is it wrong to pay money to see Stranger By The Lake for reasons on titillation? No. This is a healthy desire, albeit one perhaps better served at home. Because a lot of the film comprises people sitting on towels and talking, often about very little of import. If it were porn, it would be quite annoying.

As a film, I think it’s quite brilliant. Singular, atmospheric, cool, disturbing; elliptical and sometimes unclear in terms of what’s going on, but of a piece with the naturalistic way it’s shot and acted. Director Alain Guiraudie holds his nerve, and the recurring fixed shot of the car park is a brilliant, evocative way of showing the passage of days. Pierre de Ladoncahmps and Christophe Paou are captivating as the younger, more innocent, smooth-skinned tourist Franck and the older, more hirsute alpha male Michel, respectively. It is their relationship – essentially sexual, but with emotional benefits – that drives the story. And although you think you see them have “strong, real sex”, the more real bits are performed by body doubles. Even actors who are prepared to go full frontal are not necessarily up for going all the way.

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A similar sleight of hand, or slight of genital, occurs in Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac Vol I and II, a diptych that really impressed me when I saw a preview of it in January – both films back to back, a four-hour sex marathon – and which I would recommend if you’ve enjoyed his previous work (particularly the first and second parts of this, Von Trier’s loose “trilogy of depression”, Antichrist and Melancholia). It’s surprisingly linear, telling the self-loathing life story in flashback of the fearless Charlotte Gainsbourg’s sex addict. Each “chapter”, adorned with symbolism and cod-Freudian analysis, touches on a different aspect of her sex life, from virginity-shedding to sado-masochism and beyond, and there’s a good deal of what looks like “strong, real sex”.

And guess what? It’s not Shia LaBeouf or Charlotte Gainsbourg’s parts you’re seeing going into each other, or being spanked or sucked. It’s the parts of some porn actors, which have been seamlessly edited or digitally composited into the action. (See also: the astonishing Blue Is The Warmest Colour, which also apparently involved full prosthetic vaginas that the non-porn actors were strapped into. It’s amazing what they can do these days.) Although some of the sex – particulary between LaBeouf and Stacy Martin playing the young Gainsbourg – borders on conventional, if not quite Hollywood, and its pretty torrid, but I would still steer you away from Nymphomaniac if it’s titilation you seek! Much is seedy and disturbing, not least the scene where two African men have an argument over Gainsbourg while standing there naked and erect, like swordsmen. (That is, disturbing in the men’s attitude to Gainsbourg – which, to be fair, the character has masochistically brought upon herself – but also quite a sight if you’re not used to seeing men with erections banging around in front of them.)

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Coincidentally, Pierre de Ladoncahmps from Stranger By The Lake, the non-hairy one, reminded me of Patrick, the lead gay man in Looking, HBO’s simply adorable new comedy-drama about life on the non-heterosexual side of San Francisco, just coming to the end of its first season on Sky Atlantic. More education into the way things work within the gay community in America’s gayest city. (I loved San Francisco the moment I set foot in the place back in the early 90s and fancied myself as quite local on a two-week stay there.) Patrick, played with puppy dog charm by Jonathan Groff (whom I don’t even remember from Glee), is far less aggressively gay than his two companions, the experimental Agustín and the seasoned Dom, in that he’s yet to be seen in a bathhouse and only in leather as fancy dress, and I guess he acts as a “way in” for hetero viewers. But the show does not shrink from its sexual preference. It could be about any firm friends in any city and their lives and loves, but many of the “issues” are gay-specific. I love it.

I think I was bound to; one of its founding writers and directors is Andrew Haigh, the openly gay British filmmaker whose second film Weekend I only belatedly caught on Film4 this year. It’s as fetching and raw and irresistible as the reviews said at the time of its release: simply, the whirlwind 48-hour romance of two men in Nottingham, whose relationship is concertinaed by the fact that one of them is leaving for America on Monday. (Just as the talented Haigh would, ironically.) It’s nothing like as sexually explicit as Stranger By The Lake, but it’s still frank and unabashed, and once again depicts the mechanics of “encounter” culture – what the cool kids in America have now dubbed a “hook-up”, I do believe: sex without strings, something women are now permitted to admit to pursuing. (Imagine!) This bypass of traditional courtship is again refreshing and confusing to a Victorian gentleman like myself.

Although it is simply beyond my understanding how anyone could regard a same-sex relationship as any less valid or meaningful or natural as a bi-gender one – I mean, really, are we still debating same-sex marriage and the equalisation of rights in the 21st century? – I do seem to have been exposed to a lot more gay cinema and TV of late, and my reaction to it is bound to be different to the reaction of someone gay, lesbian or transgender. Heterosexuals: we’re like the fourth emergency service!

Dallas Buyers Club is an Oscar-stamped film about the gay community, set at a time when it was under attack not just from Bible-bashing moralists and the ignorant but from a new virus, too. Matthew McConaughey’s real-life Texan protagonist is super-straight and in his bones homophobic, and his shifting attitude to the likes of Jared Leto’s male-to-female transgender, HIV-positive drug addict forms the heart of the story. It is essentially a heterosexual film about homosexuality, and, like Patrick’s “soft” gay man in Looking, McConaughey’s conflicted cowboy acts as a bridge into another world.

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I grew up in the 70s, when gays were figures of fun in entertainment, and little more. Thankfully, come the 80s, when my politics started to harden, gay storylines became de rigueur in soaps and entered the mainstream. The terror of AIDS served to either confirm or wash away prejudice. The tabloids continued to treat homosexuality as something that must be “confessed” by celebrities right through this progressive decade, and homophobia is still horribly rife among certain knots of men. But much progress has been made. The Sun still objectifies women and reduces anything complex to single syllables and capital letters, but you don’t sense that the simple act of being gay is the news story it once might have been.

All that said, I wonder if some of the five-star reviews from heterosexual critics for Stranger By The Lake – mine included – are borne out of solidarity as much as out of dispassionate critical consensus. A willfully contrary, negative review of Under The Skin at the weekend called it “misogynistic” for its male gaze upon the Hollywood body of Scarlett Johansson, and yet – without giving too much away – it’s the men who are presented as victims, not to mention meat, in the film. They appear completely naked, while she generally gets to keep her bra on, and are apparently priapic, although the light is low and my failing eyesight meant that I didn’t even spot that their members were erect! Maybe I’m just getting used to them?