Submissions open for the London Underground Film Festival!August 10, 2012
Jodorowsky’s Dance of RealityAugust 12, 2012
By James Marcus Tucker
“You know what it’s like when you first sleep with someone you don’t know? You become like this blank canvass, and it gives you an opportunity to project onto that canvass who you want to be. And everyone does it.”
Glen in Weekend (2011)
Andrew Haigh’s British gem is, on the surface, a romantic love story. Its naturalistic, unselfconscious performances and muted restrained tonality, however, are more indebted to John Cassavetes and Kelly Reichardt respectively, than, say Mike Leigh or (most certainly) Richard Curtis.
Weekend’s simple, pared down story follows two gay men in an undisclosed British town, who meet at a gay club, only to slowly uncover each other’s sartorial and psychological layers during the course of the eponymous weekend. Glen is all bravado and confidence. He is an artist – or at least aims to be. He antagonises straight men at bars, declaring the ills of heteronormativity. Russell however is a reserved, unassuming lifeguard who spends most of his social time with his heterosexual best friend and his family. An unlikely pairing it would seem.
As the film progresses, we realise that more than anything, this is a film about identity and desire – more specifically the ungraspable nature of desire. Glen and Russell are the star-crossed lovers on a cultural divide. Glen, for all his confidence and heteronormative baiting, is on a search for himself (he is moving to Portland, Oregon on Monday to start an art course); Russell lives a more private life, celebrates the virtue of gay marriage for seemingly sentimental reasons and narrates proudly about his charity shop crockery’s imagined back-story. The relationship is a complex, yet microcosmic representation of THE identity-political question still not settled in gayville.
So while we are reminded of this cultural dilemma (the film itself emerges from this very dilemma), it isn’t a political film. It is a film that carefully hones in on two subjective personal experiences of a very political existence. Even the homophobia that does creep in, does so mostly out of shot.
So, with the world outside ignored, Glen and Russell are given space and time to discover each other’s secrets. Haigh, an editor by trade, has done well here to minimise the utility of his craft to near nonexistence. The majority of the film is played out in master shots (not always wide, but often starting wide and moving closer) and Haigh’s justified confidence in his actor’s partially improvised performances pay dividends. When cutting is employed it is mostly to indicate a new scene, a progression in time, or to show us what Russell is looking at. Russell painfully persuades Glen that his stubborn insistence on a perpetually single life is just an emotional defence, during a scene that builds in one long take. And as more stories are revealed, Haigh takes on the conventional tropes and scenarios of too many gay narratives – but does them with a flourish that makes them genuinely exciting to watch.
We never see Glen and Russell’s “first time” – the film jumps from the nightclub to the next morning – but Glen is determined to get Russell to describe the experience into his dictaphone for an art project he is doing about his sexual conquests. Whilst depriving the viewer of the visual treat, what is described, and how it is described by Russell’s perplexed, embarrassed and hazy tones reveals a multitude of issues around sexual expectation, identity and insecurity. The second convention turned on its head occurs when Russell has his coming out moment. Russell, we learn, didn’t know his biological parents and was brought up in foster homes. It emerges that Russell was never given the right of passage of coming out to his parents – and most significantly for Russell, his father. In what is perhaps the most moving coming out scene I have witnessed, and the most remarkable scene of the film, Glen offers to pretend to be Russell’s father, and give him the opportunity he never had. It is a small, intimate, restrained yet ultimately life changing moment.
These moments in the film reminded us of the role (Lacanian) Fantasy plays in our subjective experiences. Lacan insists on Fantasy being the very basis of our existence. Rather than merely daydreaming scenarios, Fantasy (the stories we tell ourselves and others, the narrative that we create to underpin our lives with consistency) shields us from the trauma of the Real of existence. As Russell acknowledges, “everyone’s got their stories.” Later in the film we discover even Russell is keeping a diary of his sexual encounters – only for him, it is private and written down. Both Glen and Russell are busy constructing narratives about their sex lives, adding a layer of confessional and meaning-making to their day-to-day experiences. For them, the Fantasy constructed to keep the traumatic Real at bay is better written down or recorded for artistic purposes, lest they be lost to a fading alcohol muffled memory.
The film also reminds us that desire, the object of which being ultimately elusive and slippery is never just about what one wants. It is also about who we want to be, and (more importantly) who we want to be for others. For identity is surely the unavoidable stance we can take, only when others are around to notice. It is why Russell needed his coming out moment. It is why Glen is on a quest to find (and ultimately define) himself. It is why any relationship exists at all.
Haigh is seemingly aware of the power and performativity of speech itself. Russell’s recollections of the night before into the dictaphone, and his long awaited coming out do not play out simply to deliver a message or behave as a stylistic flourish to tell the story for the audience. They are speech acts that, as with physical lovemaking (or violence) have a very real effect. Glen and Russell’s first sexual encounter is arguably more palpable and truly shared through Russell’s words than in the drunken fumbling of the night before. Russell may not have come out to his real father – but the declaration itself has symbolic meaning, and the mere act of coming out (to the intended addressee or its substitute) changes one’s stance in the world. Language itself is alive and doesn’t just refer, but it does. (For an in depth discussion on this idea, see Judith Butler in Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative, Routledge, 1997) Weekend could be one of the most understated paeans to the power of language and speech in a long while.
Similarly, it is a testament to Haigh’s knowledge of his potential audience, that even in the penultimate scene – the Brief Encounteresqe train platform goodbye – we are kept in the dark yet again about something tantalising though the use (and manipulation) of speech. Russell’s final words to Glen are muffled by the sound of a train, and we are unable to distinguish them; what he does say however is surely what he truly wants to be heard. We are reminded of Glen’s comment earlier in the film about how gay men only go to see art so they can see cocks. In a telling self-reflexivity, Haigh has denied us this visual image, and now denies us Russell’s most important words. The line between public and private, continually played with and challenged throughout the film, continues through to the last scene as Russell leans out of his tower block window.
Where to go from here? As Russell is taking in the misty skyline, we discover Glen has left his dictaphone recording of their morning-after discussion. Russell plays the tape which picks up at the point Russell cannot think of how to describe the previous night’s experience. Glen’s advice is instructive and closes the film; “Start from the beginning, from when you first saw me” – and from this, Weekend manages to resist plunging its conclusion into the shallow waters of romantic drama; there is no happy ever after. Yet Haigh is also keen to eschew any nods toward the queer, anti-social nihilism of the Lee Edelman/No Future variety when it comes to his vision of homosexual coupling. Love is most certainly affirmed, but in its more genuinely recognisable repetitive nature; that of falling in, being changed, and starting over.