Issue #9: Assessing The Queer Gaze 🧐
Frida + Batman and Robin
Well y'all, it's a holiday weekend. Frankly, I feel even less like celebrating the grand ol' U.S. of A. than usual, but at least now we'll have a reason for all the fireworks! Though, man, what a waste of a Saturday Fourth of July; finally a day to sleep in followed by staying up late thanks to all the fireworks, and we are all stuck in our homes. Bummer. Price of democracy apparently.
That being said: Hopefully, you have the holiday weekend to chill, stay home, support causes where you can, and maybe watch a few films. If you want recommendations—well, Cate's got one! It finally happened, and we pulled a mulligan. Instead of the promised Bessie review, this week she's talking Batman and Robin, in honor of Joel Schumacher. And I'm writing on Frida, which....well, skip it. But if you want to get ahead of next week, go ahead and watch the films we tease at the end of this ;)
Zosha on Frida
Written by: Clancy Sigal, Diane Lake, Gregory Nava, and Anna Thomas
Directed by: Julie Taymor
Distributed by: Miramax
There is a scene early in Frida where Frida Kahlo’s life changes: As her bus tries to pass a trolley only to get plowed through, Frida and the other passengers are slammed against a building. Gold dust from another passenger’s cone holder flies into the air, and we’re left with Frida, lying in the wreck, gold dust mingling with her blood. The artist entombed and strangely mystical.
This seems like it would be fake, too heightened, the first in of many flights of fantasy for Frida to take in illustrating the “reality” of Kahlo’s life. And yet, remarkably, the story is true, at least as relayed by Kahlo’s boyfriend of the time who was also in the crash. Yet, in director Julie Taymor’s hands, it feels more akin to a Lifetime original set-up, a perpetual eyebrow waggle to suggest that misery is just on the horizon. This is an artist so full of life, how soon will life tear her down?
This is just one of the many ways Frida lets its protagonist down with lackluster material. Despite tackling one of the more original and unearthly artists of the 20th century, Frida steadfastly eschews any real imagination in its storytelling. The Frida Kahlo of Frida is miserable, put upon and constantly under duress from the many dangers of the world.
Not least of which is Diego Rivera, the muralist with whom she had a long and fraught marriage, who seems to dominate the film as soon as he enters it (early). Perhaps the film struggles to make sense of their relationship (certainly many have; Kahlo obviously loved him, but also wrote about seeing him naked as “you immediately think of a boy frog standing on his hind legs. His skin is greenish-white like that of an aquatic animal.” Yikes dude!). And yet, it can’t seem to think of her as anything more than a put-upon wife, with every choice she makes circling back to her disappointments with Rivera.
Perhaps that’s why the movie’s portrayal of Kahlo’s bisexuality is such an utter garbage fire. When Kahlo takes a male lover (hello, Trotsky), the scenes are to show her passion. When she takes a female lover — well, the closest you could kindly describe it is that these scenes are to show what an insatiable horndog she was. The film seems to only think that Frida could want women the way Diego wants lovers, which is to say casually and carnally. Frida can’t conceive of a story in which Kahlo felt for these women the way she felt for the men. (Particularly odd is the weird puritanical reasoning that Kahlo’s (real life!) affair with Trotsky caused him to flee her house for less-safe housing, resulting in his death, rather than acknowledging that he probably left because he fought with Rivera while she was abroad.) Bi and homophobia were certainly in vogue when the production happened in the early 2000s (and this film is notably ~distributed by Miramax~ if you know what I mean). But that can only do so much to explain why Frida can only think of Kahlo's life as oppositional to Rivera's.
Which brings us back to perhaps the crux of Frida’s problem: It can only conceive the facts of Kahlo’s life, not the energy. It’s not that the things we know about Kahlo aren’t there — there’s the Marxism, the painting, the sad, the happy, the love, the house, the gold dust. But it can never quite marry them together cohesively; it’s an artist’s portrait by sectioning. It’s not that there isn’t an interesting story somewhere with in the world of Kahlo/Rivera; there’s surely an epic, complex story about their years together, and all the partnership and mismatching therein. (All while we acknowledge that giving a woman icon a story based around her marriage is, at best, passé as fuck.)
But Frida trudges through all those things with the rote enthusiasm of a by-the-numbers painting. By reducing someone like Frida Kahlo down to a conventional Hollywood biopic, they rob her life of everything that made her interesting.
And so, even Taymor’s attempts to marry art and life fall flat. Surreal dream sequences, collages and paintings coming to life as Kahlo experiences them all flash by without any real consideration into how they impacted her life. It inadvertently weights the calamities of her life as much heavier, because those are the only things that actually manage to ripple through the chronology. And yet even those episodes are given only tacit consideration; we blow through a good 30 years of life, but we don’t really understand them, or why Kahlo painted the way she did, or where her ideas came from.
Salma Hayek, as Frida Kahlo, does what she can. Where Taymor and the script largely lather dysfunction, Hayek brings something of a head to the operation. She is the one who manages to find a throughline for the contradictions within Kahlo: Brilliant but skeptical of her talent; bold but often shy; brash, but also empathetic. Her performance is more reserved than one might expect from a Kahlo biopic, but in a way that feels more humanizing.
Ultimately, however, the film seems as out of her hands as it is out of Kahlo’s. The story that the movie is framed around is something so unoriginal that even a creative spirit like Kahlo can’t deliver. Despite living her life and her art with so much color, Frida can only render Kahlo as black-and-white.
Cate on Batman and Robin
Written by: Akiva Goldsman
Directed by: Joel Schumacher
Distributed by: Warner Bros. Pictures
I know it doesn’t technically work this way—in this house, we reject essentialist perspectives on gender and sexuality— but I continue to be amused by how many things I loved as a kid mark me as Very Gay™ as an adult. Rewatching Batman and Robin at 30—and with the newfound knowledge that Joel Schumacher was a gay director in the wake of his recent death—makes for a new and very fun viewing experience of what I consider a classic of my childhood.
Batman and Robin was released in 1997 and it shows. That isn’t a dig, but it is very much a movie of that era, and it makes sense that it would be far more appreciated in a post-millennial, nostalgia-fueled era than it was back then. Upon release, the movie bombed spectacularly, derailing plans for a fifth film in the franchise, and it remains to this day, the lowest-grossing live-action Batman film. Its Rotten Tomatoes score averages around 14%.
Oddly though, what I thought most about watching this film was how much of it was infused with an obviously queer sensibility. The entire thing is queer-coded in a way that is undeniable to a modern audience but was perhaps ambiguous (eh...unlikely) to a pre-Y2K viewership. Curiously, Schumacher himself insisted that he had not intended the film’s (extremely obvious) homoerotic over(under?)tones.
The movie is needlessly frenetic and jam-packed with characters, but that too today evokes the sense of a busy bustling energy that can be considered queer in its opposition to the steady, reliable pace of normative heterosexuality. Bruce Wayne/Batman and Dick Grayson/Robin (George Clooney and Chris O’Donnell, respectively) live together in Wayne’s sprawling mansion, approximating the queer found family in the wake of the loss of their own. Presiding over the proceedings is Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Gough) as a surrogate father to not only them, but his niece Barbara (Alicia Silverstone). All three orphans form the Bat-family with Alfred as their parent, and they operate as the family new unit they have created together.
Uma Thurman’s Poison Ivy is camp personified once her violent transformation is complete, purring out her ridiculous lines like the movie stars of old. She’s having a blast the entire time and spends each of her scenes deeply appreciating the opportunity to vamp everywhere. Poison Ivy’s motives are both deadly simple and deranged—she wants to wipe out humankind to give Mother Nature a chance to heal herself. But she doesn’t let little things like the environmental impact of the fashion industry stop her from having a new killer outfit (complete with a fresh manicure!) in every scene. What is villainy if not studious dedication to fashion?
And I promise I’m not joking when I say that this is my favourite Arnold Schwarzenegger performance of all time. Everything from his build to his accent to his stilted delivery makes Mr. Freeze the perfect addition to Schumacher’s campy interpretation of the Batman ethos. The character’s original on-screen permutations leaned heavily on the genre’s inherent ridiculousness and Schwarzenegger leans right back, delivering his many, many, many ice-themed puns with verve and comic delight.
Even Gotham itself is presented with a wink and nod. Tim Burton—who directed the franchise’s first two films—looms large over the proceedings in the world’s aesthetics. But Schumacher takes Burton’s signature style a step further, adding flourishes meant to pull the eye and evoke the story’s toyetic potential. In fact, the entire tonal proceedings have an undeniable element of slapstick.
The entirety of Batman and Robin exists along a continuum of semi-plausible queer deniability—does Poison Ivy look like a rejected Spice Girl because it would make for better merchandising or because Schumacher wanted to play dress-up with his willing doll? Who can say? But Batman and Robin is nothing if it is not gay. From the camera’s queer gaze on the titular characters’ bodies to the explosion of colour in the various fashions of Gotham’s criminal element, the film is bursting with camp and a particular whimsy that wouldn’t exist if not for a queer perspective. Given the addition of bat-nipples to the Dark Knight’s costume and the opening montage of bat-butts and bat-crotches, it feels safe to say 23 years later—and despite his protestations to the contrary— that Batman and Robin was gay because Joel Schumacher was gay, and there’s no divorcing identity from the way one sees the world.
¡Viva La Revolución!
Here are this week's links that need some clicking. You know what to do: donate where you can, share where you can, amplify justice as much as you're able:
Trans Homelessness Fund
Louisville Community Bail Fund
Loveland Therapy Fund for Black Women and Girls
National Association of Black Journalists
Send a letter to a senior citizen!
Help someone secure housing after losing their abuser!
Assorted Internet Detritus
Zosha: Things I've been reading include: An interactive that shows us just how much COVID got a head start on (whatever semblance of) our reaction to it; how to treat reusable goods and materials during a pandemic (they're safe, just be smart!); how Joel Schumacher was Hollywood's greatest genre chameleon; how it's time to seriously talk reparations.
Cate: I'm catching up on Tom and Lorenzo's fantastic costume analysis series "One Iconic Look" about seminal costumes of female characters through the years, Buzzfeed's examination of Anna Wintour's direct influence over much of publishing's problematic aspects, a look at one Indian reporter's experience being abused in media and one more look at the problems that plagued the girlboss era.
That's it for this week. You survived! Take a little time to celebrate that shit. Next week is our! 10th! issue! Can you believe it? To celebrate we'll be talking Da 5 Bloods and Contagion. And with that we're out.
Wearing masks in public and yelling about movies,
Zosha + Cate <3