29 June, 2015Issue 28.5Film & TVThe Arts

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Queer Teeth and Contemporary Film Culture

Benedict Morrison

Jurassic World is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a toweringly bad film. The breadth of the assortment of its deficiencies is not unimpressive, and the seamless synthesis of terrible performance, direction, writing, story, and concept makes for a kind of perfection. It is, nevertheless, a perfection which chills with its unsubtle and cynical meta-cinematic commentary; the head of the so-obviously-going-to-go-wrong-that-it-really-isn’t-very-interesting park remarks that audiences have become bored of wonder and now only desire more teeth. So, sadly, there is no equivalent to the blissfully moving moments from the original Jurassic Park, in which Sam Neill and the gang dance with brontosauruses, moments in which the ground-breaking possibilities of cinema make you want to sing. No time for that here; we are, the film tells us quite unapologetically, bored of wonder. It’s teeth that we want. And when the teeth arrive, they do nothing but eat things messily. With no real suggestion of interesting wider significance, the teeth are just teeth, and are never, more’s the pity, allowed to be anything as interesting as Jaws. This, though, is not a review of Jurassic World, and the extent of the awfulness—for which the unprecedented scale of the boringly predictable Indominus Rex stands as an obvious figure—will have to be taken as read. Rather, this is a—perhaps chaotic—collection of thoughts on a campaign of cultural conservatism, and a moment in Jurassic World, almost masked by the tedium and silliness, serves to demonstrate the point.

The Jurassic films have always taken a highly orthodox attitude towards the rightness and elegance of the procreative family. The crisis, ever since Richard Attenborough got ideas above his station in the original film, is caused not simply by hubris, but by the far greater sin of unnatural procreation. The dinosaurs—the ultimate in test tube babies—are monstrous because they are not made as God intended. In Jurassic World, this blinkered view reaches its apotheosis; Indominus Rex goes on the rampage because, we are told, she doesn’t know what she is, a result of being bred in isolated captivity and having no mummy and daddy. The adolescent reared without such benefits is bound to slip into such an existential crisis, a violent vortex of epistemological and ontological uncertainty. Even the confused gendering of a female Rex marks this agony of compromised identity, marks her out as a monster. To counter these diseased products of improper tinkering, the films throw forth a flurry of children, whose charms initially fail to win the interest or approval of the sadly unpaternal hero. Ultimately, the danger of dismemberment for the children stirs profound—and, it seems, profoundly natural—parental instincts in the hero, and he and his suitably decorative partner exit, set on making their own contribution to the evolution of our species.

And so to the offending moment in Jurassic World. A young British woman has been entrusted with looking after the heroine’s nephews. The kids, being replete with a Scooby Doo-style intrepid energy of youth, quickly (and for no very good reason) give their minder the slip, and go off to frolic with epic lizards instead. Later, the young woman is reunited with her charges, but it is too late to make up for her earlier lack of maternal care. Redemption is not to be hers. She is to be made an example of. And to be made an example of in this Jurassic World involves being tossed between pterodactyls, half drowned, and ultimately—without even the dignity of narrative significance—consumed by a dirty great mosasaur. The dinosaurs may be savage, but they are merely the dumb agents of an even more savage social order which will not abide a woman who does not care about children.

This trivial example marks a wider attack on the queer in contemporary film. In this climate, even “good films” insist on the link between heroism and family. The bizarrely Oscar-winning Argo includes an obligatory coda in which the brilliantly banal Ben Afleck—really, a performance almost overwhelmingly lacking in charisma—returns home to pat his little boy on the head. Now, no one should seek to argue that heroes should neglect their families, or that domestic life is uninteresting dramatically. Rather, it might be argued that it is a weakness that a film which has played with notions of enigma and performed identity ultimately backs away from such subversively queer subjects, and instead reinforces the clear impression that its hero is resolutely heteronormative. The wife and son are not entitled to anything as highfalutin as autonomous characterisation; they are superfluous props in the account of a man’s heroism, a heroism measured not through compassion, derring-do, or resourcefulness, but through fertility. By extension, tragedy and pathos also become functions of family life. In Gravity, the stunning visuals are compromised grotesquely by the interminable backstory of its clichéd characters. When an astronaut is killed, his endearing joie de vivre is not deemed sufficient to arouse our sympathy. Nor is the sight of his shattered helmet and damaged face. Instead, as the magnificently fluid camera hangs momentarily suspended beside his floating body, a photograph—inexplicably attached to his belt strap—bobs into view, depicting the astronaut and his wife and children. How much easier, the films suggest, it is to admire and to mourn a father. Of course, this affirmation of a traditional set of values, pinned firmly to the starched pinafores of family life, comes at the expense of a repressed Other. The queer—that incorrigibly plural and wildly jouissant assault on the assumptions of the orthodox Symbolic Order—is consumed by dinosaurs, is eclipsed by revolution, is lost in space. It leaves behind only a trace, and that trace is dismissed as monstrous.

“But, no!” the cry may go up

There is another kind of film! Jurassic World, thank goodness, is not the extent of cinema. Even the heteronormative narratives of Argo and Gravity are not the extent of it. This is a liberal age of liberal works in which difference is embraced, in which, indeed, otherness is cherished as a criterion of narrative quality. Characters from marginalised groups are commonplace. Gone are the days of invisible homosexuality, of denied transgender. Everything—from Hollywood blockbusters to daily soap operas—has moved with the times. Absolutely anything can be seen on screen now. The queer is everywhere.

So runs the argument.

We are in a golden age. Never have diverse narratives of difference been so plentiful.

So runs the argument.

Well… This is not untrue. Representation is more complete than ever before. Films and series that, only a few years ago would not have dreamed of depicting such controversial minority behaviours as same-sex love now fall over themselves to put them on screen. But with only a very little archaeological scratching, the mechanisms which underlie this liberal veneer are exposed. From Philadelphia to American Beauty to Mean Girls to last year’s Love Is Strange, a cavalcade of stereotypes trip blithely, like some perverse danse macabre, towards total cultural assimilation. Straight (and straightening) is the gate through which they pass, and it neutralises the queer potential which should so necessarily nibble away at the mythic structures that reinforce the assumptions and orthodoxies of our culture. Within this parade, there is little sex—the paying public must be spared so uncomfortable a sight. Instead, we witness a blazon in honour of liberal generosity, a reinforcement of the conviction that “no union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family.” So says Justice Anthony Kennedy in the conservative closing paragraphs of his ruling legalising same sex marriage. And so says today’s cinema.

Now, this is not to speak against gay marriage, or against gay representation. It is of inestimable importance to individuals and groups to see themselves reflected on the screen. But the argument that this is queer is fatally flawed, because it confuses diversity with queerness. Even as films and TV shows bombard their audiences with narrativised images of diversity on an unprecedented scale, little by little queerness is eroded. Queerness is not a function of narrative inclusivity, of narrative generosity, but of narrative strangeness. When the film’s prevailing grammars are violated, its syntaxes disintegrated—there is the queer. It shines in The Servant, in Performance, in Peter Greenaway’s baroqueries and Luis Buñuel’s nightmares, in Terence Davies’ uncannies and Jan Švankmajer’s animated oddities. It is the residual and pesky bit beyond, beneath, and behind the ordered structures that seem so familiar, the challenge to every certainty. The conventional narratives and rigorous characters of Hollywood and television’s current “golden age” may pose interesting questions, may challenge some assumptions, but they believe wholeheartedly in the holy trinity of Meaning, Authority, and Understanding. The gays we encounter in their well-tended gardens are sympathetic, yes, but also identifiable, comprehensible. They absorb and make normal once-inadmissible categories. And so it is that the queer—that incorrigibly plural and wildly jouissant assault on the assumptions of the orthodox Symbolic Order—loses its teeth. Jurassic World, for all its detestable wretchedness, is at least honest in its desire to destroy the unnatural figure of a woman who is resolutely outside the heteronormative. The techniques of repression evident in contemporary liberal drama are less explicit and, in consequence, more insidious.

Benedict Morrison is reading for a DPhil in English at Merton College, Oxford. He is Editor in Chief of the Oxonian Review.