Sunday, July 24, 2016
When movies aren't gay enough (to notice it)
On Friday I published a piece about gay textual and subtextual themes in Swiss Army Man (and, er, the music of Macklemore).
If I hadn't already written the whole thing on Thursday, so that all I needed to do was click a button to send it out into the world, I might have included another way in which gay subject matter in the movies struck me on Friday.
It should have struck me on Thursday, and that's the point of this current piece.
On Thursday I saw (and subsequently reviewed) Star Trek Beyond, the 13th movie in the Star Trek series. I didn't like it very much and said as much in my review. My primary complaint was that this was all old hat and it was time to retire these beloved characters who had gone on enough remarkably similar adventures.
Except there was something very much "new hat" about this new Star Trek movie -- if they'd done it effectively enough for me to notice.
Star Trek Beyond outs Sulu as gay. Which is pretty darn great, even if I didn't notice it, and even if I have my qualms about making the character gay just because the actor who originated him (George Takei) is gay. (I don't like what's implied by this choice, which is that the sexuality of an actor is a relevant consideration in the sexuality of the character the's playing. I'm sure Takei wouldn't like that either, except that a gay Star Trek character is such a necessary development that one has to applaud it no matter how it comes into being. And in fact, Takei was quoted on Facebook saying basically this. I suppose it's good that they did not decide suddenly that Spock is gay, because then that would suggest that a gay actor like Zachary Quinto could not effectively play a straight character. I guess it's good they'd already gotten him in a relationship with Uhura.)
So the reason I didn't actually notice that Beyond outs him as gay is because the moment is totally flubbed. The only reason I even knew there was supposed to be a gay character in the movie at all is because I read a review from the editor of my own website, who plies his trade in freelance form on another website (actually two, which is why he just couldn't see writing a third Star Trek Beyond review for our site, and turned the responsibility over to me). After I'd already finished and published mine, I read his.
His review never mentions which character is gay, so when I read it, I had to google it. My first thought was that it was the new character played by Sofia Buetella, an alien with white face paint, but then I couldn't remember any moment where her sexuality was mentioned one way or the other.
When I googled "gay character star trek beyond" I of course got to the big (is it big?) story about how a gay kiss involving John Cho's Sulu may have been edited out of the movie.
So that's why that scene made so little sense, I thought.
The pieces were starting to come together. It's a scene where the Enterprise is docked at a space station and Sulu meets two other acquaintances, probably family members: a man and a boy. Because I was not looking for gayness at that particular moment, and the movie had given me no other moments of potential gayness, I thought, "Why are they bothering to show us Sulu meeting up with his brother and nephew? And why aren't they showing a similar homecoming with any of the other characters?" At first glance, the other man he greets seemed also to be of Asian descent, supporting the possibility of a blood relationship. I guess Sulu can have a gay relationship, but not an interracial one. (And to give you an idea of my imperfect memory of the moment, I realize in reading about it now that the child was a girl, not a boy.)
Now, I could be the world's densest viewer, but I don't think so, nor do I think I was falling asleep yet as this was very early on. So I think it really was just poor execution that gave me such little recognition of the significance of that moment, a moment I surely would have referenced in my review had I appreciated or even known what it was actually doing. And the failure of that moment makes me probably one of the very small minority of critics to review the movie and not even mention one of the single most progressive things that has happened in Star Trek's progressive history. It seems almost an unconscionable omission on my part -- except that I didn't even realize it was an omission.
Then again, I guess if it was executed so poorly, perhaps I'm not the only critic who didn't get what was happening and didn't mention it. I hope, anyway. I suppose some critics would have been expecting that moment, having read up on the movie and the revelation about Sulu it was prepared to make. I, on the other hand, did no such reading.
Without that excised kiss, this greeting between Sulu and this other man is affectionate, but nothing more, giving it the sense of something brotherly rather than romantic, and giving the relationship with the child an avuncular rather than fatherly aspect. The fact that they didn't show anyone else meeting up with family quickly disappeared into the background of my thoughts, hanging on only as another of the seemingly loose threads that this film doesn't resolve in satisfying fashion, which contributed to its overall sense of seeming like a shoddy enterprise (pun intended).
The thing is, even if the big introduction of Sulu's homosexuality was carried off in such a way that dense old me could understand it, it still has a certain botched quality to it. If they had shown another crew member meeting up with someone who is obviously a romantic partner, I might have better recognized the relationship Sulu is supposed to have with his own partner. But that would have also better explained the inclusion of the scene in the first place, as in "Look, here are the crew meeting up with their families," and not "Look, here's Captain Kirk's gaze lingering on a single crew member meeting up with his husband and child."
It's a supportive gaze, to be sure, but in the 23rd century, aren't we centuries past even the need to treat homosexuals as "other"?
Certainly, Gene Roddenberry would have wanted it that way.
And certainly, if Gene Roddenberry were alive, he wouldn't have let that kiss be edited out.