Film can be a great place to put across one’s political point, but should it be at the expense of artistic integrity?
The performing arts have always been the best place to put across one’s political point. Unfortunately this can often be at the expense of artistic integrity. Characters and plots are often created to carry a message rather than to be true to themselves, and endings in particular are manipulated to make a point. This often leads to frustration in the viewer, which can undermine the work’s political message, however worthy it might be, so that it, too, loses its integrity.
By pure chance, I came across one such case in point. I’m a great fan of the HBO series Rome starring Kevin McKidd and James Purefoy, two very sexy men, so I was intrigued when, in the commentary, McKidd confessed that he and Purefoy once snogged in a film. I just had to see it, and was very pleased to hunt down in my local video shop (remember those?) a copy of a delightful little romcom called Bedrooms and Hallways (1998). Or should I say, what could have been a delightful film, because I came away from it terribly disappointed.
Spoiler alert: this review may reveal more of the ending than you might want to know.
Leo (McKidd) is a young gay man who, while a bit battered and bruised by love, is looking for a long-term relationship. His greatest fear is falling in love with a straight man. He is persuaded by his workmate to join a men’s group where he meets handsome Irishman, Brendan (Purefoy). Brendan is going through a difficult time with his ex-girlfriend, Sally, with whom he is still running a business. During an honesty session, Leo admits he is attracted to Brendan. While Brendan doesn’t feel the same way, he likes Leo and is flattered. They become friends, but then one night Brendan knocks on Leo’s door and sweeps him into bed. They begin a warm relationship, but while Leo is very much in love, Brendan is adamant he is experimenting and doesn’t know where the relationship will lead.
But, of course, there have to be complications. When Leo finally meets Sally, they realise they were schoolyard sweethearts and rekindle their old friendship. Meanwhile, Terry, another member of the men’s group (and to my eye a rather unattractive fellow), finds his own sexuality challenged by the relationship between Leo and Brendan. He develops a passion for Brendan which he masks behind hostility. Eventually Leo and Sally become lovers, while Terry challenges Brendan to a fight as a prelude to going to bed with him. Despite these tumultuous events, in the end, everything returns to the status quo.
Now, I understood the political points the producers wanted to make: that homosexuality is a valid and natural choice, and that everyone is bisexual. However, I felt that these plot developments in the film were so against character as to be totally unconvincing, both artistically and politically.
If Leo had been at all ambivalent about his sexuality, if he had expressed any reservations about following the gay path, his going to bed with Sally might have been believable. But until she showed up we didn’t even know he had ever had a girlfriend. And if Brendan had been at all insecure or needy, one might have understood why he succumbed to Terry’s dubious charms. But this was never the case. Both Leo and Brendan are presented as strong, confident men. Rather than making a point, all that this bed-hopping achieved was to demean the sweet relationship that had been developed between them.
The point could more convincingly have been made without taking that final leap. If Leo had only gone as far as kissing Sally, it would have been enough to lead him to questioning his sexuality and force him to make a choice. Brendan, too, could have been led to face up to whether he loved Leo for himself or was only experimenting with homosexuality by how he felt about Terry, without the necessity of going to bed with him. At the very least he could have been shown to have reflected on the experience.
To maintain the artistic integrity of the film the producers had to make a choice: either they made Leo and Brendan strong and intelligent characters, who therefore didn’t have to jump into bed with anyone who offered to know their own mind; or they could make them insecure, needy characters who jumped into bed with all and sundry because they had no concept of self. For their political purposes they needed Leo and Brendan to be strong characters, but for the purposes of the story they needed them to be ambivalent and so open to experimenting.
In the end all they got were two men who had appealed to you for a while, but then lost you altogether. Or in other words, the producers had failed to make either their artistic, or their political point.
This is a pity because if it hadn’t been for the last ten minutes of the film, it was one I might have bought for my private collection. It would have been something to counter the emotional wallop of Brokeback Mountain.
© Pauline Montagna 2016