Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Movie Review: The Butch Factor

The Butch Factor does what a good documentary is supposed to do: it makes you think. It does so by asking a complex question, presenting a variety of different, interesting viewpoints and leaving you to form your own opinion. It asks the question: what is masculinity and how do gay men perceive it? Especially for this group it is a loaded question. There is social pressure for a man to be manly, and this can be extra tough on gay guys, as they are not seen as ‘real’ men to begin with. After all, sleeping with another guy is seen as intrinsically girly, especially the ‘bottom’ role if there’s anal sex involved - even though ironically no girls are participating. It makes gays more self-conscious about feminine traits they may have and can lead them to shun their more effeminate brethren for fear of being associated with them and losing the respect of their straight peers. The documentary crew talks to musclemen, sportsmen, regular joes, ‘sissies’ and to a female-to-male transman about what makes a man.

Does a ‘real’ man have to have muscles and physical strength and is that all there is to it? We’ve all seen pumped up guys who look butch right up to the point when they open their mouth and then a purse falls out. There are gay guys who look masculine at first glance but show feminine traits when it comes to body language. Is a real man just a regular guy, doing things a stereotypical straight guy does? Does it necessarily mean getting excited about beer, sports, being hairy and possibly growing a gut? Does it mean not following your own interest, going out of your way to conform to the manly standard, turning away all things labeled as gay or unmanly by others? Isn’t someone who is preoccupied by appearing masculine actually showing he isn’t confident about his masculinity to begin with? And doesn’t that insecurity in itself hurt his ‘butch factor’?

Is it about strength of character? The outwardly most feminine gay men, have no choice but to grow a pair as they can’t pass for straight and have to fend off the aggression that brings out in people. Being regarded as a ‘real’ man is never an option for them, though they have all the required parts and likely have more of a fighter mentality than most men who pump iron. Is your level of masculinity set at birth, something you just are or aren’t and can’t influence all that much? But then: is a transman who has been through hormone therapy and starts acting and thinking like a man not as masculine as the next guy, apart from the genitalia?

There is a lot of shame about femininity within the gay scene; not only do some seem to think that interacting with a feminine guy would suck the masculinity right out of them by association, but a lot of gay men - including the feminine ones - are attracted to stereotypical masculine markers and behavior, passing over the queenier of their kind. Possibly it’s because they are seeking masculinity in others that they fear they are lacking themselves. Then again, there may be something more biological going on, hormones being set to respond to masculinity on a primal level: no perceived masculinity, no arousal. However, that ‘perceived’ caveat is an important one. Is masculinity something you intrinsically are, because of how you look, move, talk, smell… or is it subjective, something you are judged to be by others on the basis of culture? And is it ultimately something anyone should worry about or should we just get on with our lives and be ourselves, regardless of how people perceive us? Watch this very interesting documentary and discuss.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Movie Review: X-Men: First Class

The X-Men movie franchise has had it rough lately. X-Men: The Last Stand showed a great drop in quality after the pretty good first two X-Men movies: director Bryan Singer had decided to bail on the series after X-Men 2 to direct the very disappointing Superman Returns. He left the reins to Brett Ratner, a man with a reputation for making generic blockbusters and Ratner created a rambling mess of an X-Movie, losing a lot of goodwill for the series. X-Men Origins: Wolverine also underperformed, sinking plans for X-Men Origins: Magneto. The project was morphed into X-Men: First Class.

It shows how the X-Men team first came together in the sixties and how Magneto and Charles Xavier went from being friends to being enemies. In the comics – and in the continuity set by the first two movies - these two were friends for a very long time, but here it doesn’t seem more than a few weeks. It’s symptomatic of how the movie takes the continuity of the previous X-movies, gives cheeky nods to it and then just as easily disregards elements of it. Very funny blink-or-you’ll-miss-it cameos by Rebecca Romijn and Hugh Jackman tie the movies together, but for each bonding moment, there is an incongruity to push the movies apart. By the end of it, I still wasn’t clear on if I had been watching a prequel or a reboot of the X-Men movie continuity.

Magneto is well-served by the story and is acted well by Michael Fassbender. His traumatic childhood in a concentration camp (which ‘borrows’ the first scene from the first X-Men flick) and the ensuing hunting down of his Nazi tormentors make for some of the most interesting scenes in the movie. Maybe Magneto is a bit too sympathetic even, as I think you are supposed to be on Xavier’s side by the end of the story, but you may well end up on Magneto’s. Charles Xavier is entertaining as played by James McAvoy though I have trouble picturing his version of Xavier physically and mentally changing into Patrick Stewart. Other characters of note getting an origin here are Beast and Mystique.

Yes, there are a lot of other characters here as well, but frankly most of them don’t have much of an impact. The X-Men comic universe is a grab-bag of mutants both good and evil, but the grabbing here was oddly random. We get Alex Summers as Havok, in comics lore Cyclops’ younger brother and a much later member of the X-Men, but here one of the first to join with no mention or sign of his elder sibling. We get Banshee and Emma Frost, the sonic scream and diamond form respectively not translating particularly well to the big screen. The sparkly features of Frost never fail to look like an intricate but unconvincing special effect. Darwin and Angel – a different Angel than the one from the first trilogy – have no apparent purpose, are not especially personable and could have been any number of more interesting characters. The bad guys underwhelm: Riptide is mute and occasionally lets rip with bursts of air by waving his hands and Azazel looks like Nightcrawler painted red, which makes sense if you know he will end up being his father, but most viewers won’t know of that comic book connection. Kevin Bacon as Sebastian Shaw – leader of the evil pack – is more smarmy than intimidating.

The sixties’ setting of the movie and the tying in of the Cuban missile crisis are interesting, but certain more touchy aspects of the era – sexism and racism – are conveniently ignored, making it feel more contemporary than perhaps it should. There are the usual plot holes and inconsistencies along the lines of: ‘Hey, if he could do that earlier, how come he doesn’t do this now?’ For instance: Magneto can rip apart a boat with an anchor, but can’t rip a hatch off a submarine and sink it? And why didn’t Magneto kill his main tormentor when he clearly had the opportunity to do it as a kid at the beginning of the movie?

Now, all of this sounds like I didn’t enjoy the X-Men: First Class, but despite the nitpicks I did. I got more excited about it than about Thor in any case. Though it barely holds together in some spots, there is a lot more going on and there is more of an interesting moral grey area, plus the standard, none-too-subtle outsider metaphor to work with. Being pretty familiar but not entirely up-to-date with the comic book version of the X-Men I had fun trying to unravel the messed up continuity and figuring out where they would be going with all these remixed elements. I am curious if they will follow up this movie with a sequel to the prequel – which could be good, if they ditch a lot of the dead weight – or an actual X-Men 4. I would probably prefer that, as it could wash away the bad taste of X-Men: Last Stand and maybe give the saga a proper ending.

Final nitpick (SPOILER): I defy anyone to explain to me how Xavier and Co. managed to escape off the besieged island at the end of the movie.