Romance novels are an escape: from the mundanity of life, from a love drought, from a tired relationship. Red, White & Royal Blue was designed explicitly as an escape from modern politics, showcasing an incredibly utopian world in which Americans were willing to vote for a Democratic woman President in 2016, and the royal family are more than figureheads propping up a rapidly decomposing system. It could never happen, but it’s nice to dream. Casey McQuiston’s feel good hit of the Summer is probably the gayest mass market title of 2019, and its success is heartening.
There’s a general rule in Young Adult fiction that applies often enough to stick: if a story is about a boy with deep-seated character flaws, the characters around must adapt to accommodate him; if it is about a similar girl, she will have to undergo some growth and change so that the people in her life don’t give up on her forever. Hot Dog Girl, possibly one of the best cover and title combos on the YA market this year, definitely falls into this mould.
Elouise May Parker is a piece of work, and no one in her book understands her cockamamie scheme.
The world of Young Adult fiction is incestuous. If you read the acknowledgements in the back of a book, and you really should, they all have the same names. Adam Silvera is no different, and his books, although gay-flavoured, aren’t that much different to the rest. There’s some sort of statute that means every YA novel must have at least one reference to Harry Potter, unless there’s need for a parallel universe equivalent. History is All You Left Me has the same plug-in-and-play cultural references as every other novelist in the Silvera crew. Maybe this makes the teens feel safe and at home. At any rate, History is All You Left Me is instantly better than Silvera’s debut More Happy Than Not, which leant too heavily into the teenage tearjerker genre.
No book exists in a vacuum, even if you try to pick your reading schedule relatively blindly. It is hard to pick up Less now without knowing that it won the Pulitzer this year – even if you had meant to read it before you knew that it was in the running. The knowledge of a win hangs over a book: it bolsters sales and raises awareness, but it also raises expectations, and allows the dreaded word “overrated” to be floated.
Andrew Sean Greer’s Less won a Pulitzer. If it hadn’t, it would still be a good novel, but you can see how some of its preoccupations might have attracted the attention of an awards committee.
At Trespass, after some delay in hitting Australian shores, my review of Love, Simon, a film that is both important and far superior to the book that it adapts. This is a rare combination and one that should be seized upon. Gay teen movies are becoming more common, and if they can be as good as Love, Simon, we’ve got a lot to look forward to.
Beginners is the sort of movie that I’m required by law to love, but I couldn’t. Emotional distance is a huge factor in too many contemprary movies: fundamentally broken characters who don’t care about fixing themselves, choosing instead to fixate on their moping don’t make for particularly interesting movies. This is not to say that you can’t make films about depression or depressed characters, just that, like any other film, you should work on making them engaging in at least some regard.
That Beginners tells such a personal story makes its distance unforgivable.
Oliver (Ewan McGregor) is recovering from the death of his four years out of the closet father Hal (Christopher Plummer).He meets Anna (Mélanie Laurent, who still hasn’t learned to pick them after Inglourious Basterds), an actress, and they kind of have a relationship but kind of don’t. The film features parallel story lines of the last months of Hal’s life and the beginning of Oliver and Anna’s relationship.
Mike Mills wrote Beginners in response to his own father’s coming out. You would think this would endow the movie with a degree of feeling, but it doesn’t. The whole exercise is remote. Oliver’s mother is represented in flashbacks reminiscent of Harold and Maude; Oliver tries to trace his melancholy to his parents’ presumed loveless marriage, but the answer is much simpler: he’s a sad sack, endlessly waiting for a lion.
It’s easy to blame your parents for everything, especially when you deliberately don’t seek parts of the story that make sense of their emotions and actions. The childhood flashback sequences of this movie don’t particularly prove anything except that Hal felt absent and Oliver misses his mother. These scenes are quirky but offer little. The film’s whole structure doesn’t make much sense; the parallels aren’t easy enough for us to draw, and what Oliver is doing always feels the same regardless of whether his father is alive or dead.
Periodically the film is broken up by Oliver’s illustrations of the history of sadness. These are for his job, where they prove profoundly unsaleable. They were drawn by Mills himself, and they seem too pithy to really reflect what is supposed to be fighting to release itself from Oliver. At other times the film tries to force collages of “these were the days”, utterly failing to set the scene and continuing to take the audience further and further away from the film and from Oliver himself.
Ultimately Oliver’s depression becomes the entire content of the film: that his father was gay and died seems incidental; that he can’t connect and commit to a potential girlfriend is symptomatic but irrelevant. Depression can feel like your life has become a total blank, and largely meaningless to you. It can be frustrating. Oliver is undeniably frustrated; he can touch but he cannot feel. Mills has injected this melancholy into the very marrow of Beginners, resulting in a film that is bland and tasteless.
It’s disconcerting to feel this disconnect: dead and dying parents are supposed to be a safe way to get audiences to discover their emotions. Christopher Plummer attacks the role with gusto, but it’s always presented through the filter of Oliver. He is shown feeling grief, but we feel nothing. We’re given the memory of this grief, but it is the grief of a man looking at himself and thinking “where did I go wrong?”. I would dearly have liked to feel sad that Hal had died, but Mills never let me.
Any movie with a gay theme and a big name cast like this is going to get a special kind of attention from the outer limits of media. Beginners has been well received, and that’s the mystery: there’s really nothing to it. We’re bathing in misery which is only occasionally leavened by imagined subtitles from Oliver’s dog.
Beginners has nothing to say about romantic relationships, nor does it explore the particularly fascinating reality of a man finally allowing himself to be gay at 75. A guy is sad, his father was happy. Guy continues to be sad, maybe thinks he shouldn’t be sad any more but he’s not sure.
You don’t have to like Beginners. It’s not really that good a film, tackling important and interesting issues in the least engaging way possible. Mike Mills was perfectly suited to make this film but he failed his material, gazing so far into his own navel that he disappeared into it.
Maybe The Moon is Armistead Maupin’s biggest deviation from type in his career. The first non-Tales book he wrote, it’s a paean to a departed friend and gives Maupin a chance to reveal a different voice. This voice can be charming, but it eventually gives way to a second hand anger that belongs to an entirely different book. It’s hard for me to know what to make of it, even a week later.
Cadence Roth, at 30 years old, stands 31 inches tall and the best years of her acting career are already behind her. Maybe The Moon is presented in the form of a diary documenting her attempts to revitalise her career, find love and reconnect with old friends.
Michael Tolliver lives! … Again!
A three year gap is significantly less than eighteen years. On top of that, this is the first Tales of the City book that I have read contemporaneously. Do you have any idea how strange it is to shift from Maupin speaking to people who predate me to him speaking directly to me, the world in which I’m living? It’s a stretch.
I think that Tales of the City books work best as capsules of their time, which of course means, except for Sure of You, they improve with age. That Maupin now speaks of Twitter and Facebook with varying degrees of understanding feels strange to me. Did readers thirty years ago think that D’orothea and DeDe’s involvement with Jonestown was simply bizarre (well, it was by default, but … more bizarre?)?
All this is not to say that Mary Ann in Autumn is a bad book or disappointing. For me, at least, it is essential for its service in returning Mary Ann to her figuratively ancestral home. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I tell you how badly betrayed I felt by her in Sure of You. Mary Ann is not absolved of her sins, but it seems she may well be redeemed.
I know that an exclamation mark would be hyperbolic, but I think that, after an 18 year absence, “Michael Tolliver Lives!” is an appropriate title. Abandoned by his author in 1989, Michael Tolliver has been up to a lot in his absence. This wasn’t originally going to be a Tales of the city book, but Maupin realised that Michael Tolliver was the perfect vehicle for an ageing gay man.
This explains why it’s written in the first person, and how everything seems to grow organically from that original concept. It can be dangerous resurrecting beloved characters after a long time away, but Maupin has let them all live and die natural lives in the interim.
The shift from third person to the first is not without its problems: unlike The Night Listener, where the narrator was addressing his hypothetical radio audience, there is no indication of whom Michael is speaking to. This is not normally a problem with other first person books, but it’s clear that Michael is addressing someone, and I refuse to believe it’s me. He reminds you of things a couple of times and he explains things that don’t strictly need explanation.
Because we’re presented the exclusive viewpoint of Michael, other characters – Brian in particular – get short shrift from Maupin. This isn’t a failing as much as it is a necessary evil. Just because one wants an author to overstuff a book doesn’t mean that they should. Maupin shows more restraint here than he has previously.
Of course, the other side of the double edged sword is that the exercise is rather more personal than any previous entry in the Tales canon. Rather like Maupin’s prior effort, The Night Listener, I found myself tearing up or even outright crying at times in the last fifty pages.
I welcomed this book because I considered Sure of You a huge downer to end the series on. Maupin doesn’t idolise his characters, and so they sometimes make horrible decisions and become people that you can easily fall out of love with – as I did with several. The character arcs from book to book actually made me worry about reading on for fear that the characters – not Maupin – would compromise themselves.
Michael Tolliver Lives is an invigorating experience. It sounds stupid, but it is “life-affirming”. Maupin writes death and loss very well, having experienced it too often first hand (this series, after all, spans pre-AIDS society to “post”), but he also writes survival. His honesty is brutal, and I don’t agree with every stance that Michael takes, but I don’t have to. I’m touched in such a way that I don’t have to internalise the whole experience. Ultimately, Michael Tolliver Lives, despite the way that it treats some characters (Mona!), feels like more of a gift from Maupin than anything else.
Mary Ann in Autumn, only recently published, promises to be a return to the original format of sprawling and unlikely storylines that intertwine in vague and strange ways. Mary Ann’s return as a focal character might set everything that was wrong in Sure of You right once and for all.
Brüno is a difficult movie, to put it lightly. It is frequently very funny, but overall it’s not very good – neither in story nor in message.
Perhaps, given my position as an internationally renowned homosexual fashionista, this movie hits closer to the bone than Borat ever could have hoped, but it simply doesn’t work as well. There are only so many Teutonic variations on “arsehole” you can say before you realise you’ve got to make an actual movie. Brüno is not that movie, because it never gets past that point.