Coping with loss isn't easy -- take a look around here, for example, and you'll see that many gay blogs (even up till yesterday) were still reeling about Brokeback Mountain's failure to score the best-picture Oscar. I know that we gays need reassurance on being liked (and what bigger gesture is there than Oscar, proof that they really like us?). I know that it's fucking embarrassing to lose to Crash (it's like losing a beauty pageant to a buck-toothed imbecile who earnestly pleads for world peace during the interview section). I know that a lot of people simply thought it was entirely deserving of Hollywood's top honor a love story "for the ages," humping cowboys or not.
But really, if you're having a hard time coping, if you can't say Brokeback without your voice cracking, if you've been starting sentences with, "Oscar, I swear..." and trailing off, stop. You're being gay.
So Brokeback didn't win -- it didn't receive a cherry on top of its gloppy cinematic sundae that has melted and has gotten all over and between pop culture's cushions. I can't even think of the last movie that's made such an immediate mark on our culture, starting with parodies, small and large (and don't expect them to stop coming -- TV scripts are bound to just be catching up to the events of late 2005, and least-common-denominator satirists like the Wayans brothers and David Zucker are always at least two years and a few chuckles behind whenever they take something on). So, Brokeback has one less trophy to add to the case -- it doesn't even have time to be home to look at its awards, anyway.
I enjoyed Brokeback and I'm not crying for it. It did just fine for everyone involved. What's really sad to me is that Mysterious Skin, another gay (and, even more, queer, which Brokeback really isn't) film that was eligible for Oscar this year was ignored again and again, not just by the Academy, but by critics' associations and audiences (an Independent Spirit Award nomination for director Greg Araki and a few nods from Chlotrudis were as close as it go to formal honors). Granted, its appeal is much more narrow, as it's not exactly a classic tale of unrequited love. It's more specific than that. Epic Brokeback has its gorgeously framed rolling hills and valleys. Meanwhile, Mysterious Skin has Froot Loops.
To me, Mysterious Skin was the most thought-provoking, harrowing and unshakable cinematic experience of 2005. What follows is why.
(Spoilers and a potentially disturbing retelling of events follow -- avoid this post if you haven't seen the film [go rent it, now].)
The thing that strikes me about all the praise lavished on Brokeback is that it often brands the movie as "brave." I understand that that considering its scale (small budget be damned, a major director helmed it and A-list actors appear), it does take risks. Certainly, in a pre-Brokeback world, being a heartthrob like Heath Ledger or Jake Gyllenhaal and signing for a role that effectively thumbs its nose at one of your key demographics (swooning girls) is taking a chance. But even though it includes lube-less, clothed sex and post-coital basking between boys, nothing, nothing in Brokeback can compete with the the brutally honest high that Mysterious Skin hits within its first 10 minutes.
"The summer I was 8-years-old, I came for the first time," we hear in a voiceover as we watch a flashback of the 8-year-old Neil McCormick watching his mother have sex with a guy he's intensely attracted to. Yeah, he's 8. And then, he goes on.
It's not everyday that you see a film in which an 8-year-old is sexualized and gay (what latency period?). In fact, I've never seen it before. Part of it's that it just doesn't happen a lot (though it's absolutely possible to have intense sexual feelings way before puberty is supposed to set in, and Mysterious Skin is based on Scott Heim's (at-least-) semi-autobiographical novel of the same name -- this shit happens). Whereas Greg Araki before often used his audacity, his willingness to go there for jarring, obnoxious exploitation, with Mysterious Skin, he finally has a noble cause for his tactlessness. For Mysterious Skin isn't merely an exploration of young sexuality in extremely blunt terms (though that is a major part of it and surely, a massive reason the movie is so brave). It's an exploration of developing sexuality informed by sexual abuse, which happens first at the hands of "Coach," a brilliantly cast Bill Sage, who's as hot as he is creepy.
But don't take my word for it. Neil's recounting of his first impression of Coach says it best...
"Desire sledgehammered me. He looked like the lifeguards, cowboys and firemen I'd seen in the Playgirls that my mom kept stashed under her bed. Back then, I didn't know what to do with my feelings. They were like a gift I had to open in front of a crowd."
Araki's adaptive genius is compressing these complex zygotes of emotions that young Neil feels, which take up numerous (albeit gorgeous) pages of Heim's novel. If this mutual desire seems to cannibalize the very notion of good taste, great. It's supposed to. There's an adamant refusal to tell Neil's story as a tale of good versus evil, of prey besieged by predator. Sometimes life is more complex than a force of nature.
Make no mistake, though, Coach is predatory.
We don't see it all, but we see enough, bouncing us between the points of view of Coach and Neil. Little by way of editorializing and nothing by way of preaching slips into what's actually happening as we're forced to watch through two sets of eyes we'd probably never want to be behind. All of the tight, subjective POV shots were practical during filming, as well: so as to keep the subject matter veiled from his young actors, Araki had them act into the camera by themselves (the brilliant Chase Ellison above, for example, was probably told to think of something sad, rather then being directed like, "You're being molested. Show me confused discomfort. Show me robbed innocence.").
Araki's refusal to create a hero-villain dynamic at this point shows a great respect for his audience -- he simply won't condescend. Of course molestation is fucked up and devastating. It's the entire reason the movie exists, as the aforementioned events are a springboard for the rest of Neil's character study. Here, there's a fine line between moral ambiguity and emotional complication -- Araki steps up to it and defies anyone who says he can't walk a mean tightrope.
But, uh, just in case there's any question:
That's Neil's friend Wendy, a few years after the Coach incident, reacting to the movie's portrayal of the cycle of abuse in motion (after physically abusing a peer with a bottle rocket, a 10- or 11-year-old Neil promises to make it all better by sexually abusing him). Though brief, this scene is the hardest to watch, as we're smacked with a case of this completely mutated sense of reality. We're as aghast as Wendy to be presented with the way abuse can infiltrate the very logic of a developing mind.
But Neil's story is only half of Mysterious Skin. The other principle character is Brian Lackey, a kid on Neil's baseball team, a sickly kid who can't remember a three-hour span of his life that took place the same summer Neil met Coach.
That's the main mystery of the film, although, you can pretty much figure out what happened from the start, (here's the last spoiler warning I'm giving), as Brian is the introverted counterpoint to Neil's extroversion. Brian, we find out, was also molested by Coach (via Neil, actually) that summer (he represses the memory, where as Neil romanticizes it).
"Your face looked like it had been erased," Neil tells Brian at the film's climax, as he helps Brian reclaim what he'd repressed. It's another example of Mysterious Skin's uniformly devastating acting (this time by George Webster as young Brian) -- is it possible to describe the Webster's expression more accurately?
The story follows the boys through their early 20's as Brian attempts to uncover his past (he's convinced he was abducted by aliens) and Neil takes cues from it as a hustler. Check the juxtaposition:
That's Joseph Gordon-Levitt, by the way, as grown Neil. He's the kid from Third Rock From the Sun. Talk about a courageous role. And talk about courageous direction, as Araki takes someone we knew as an asexual kid and lets him smolder.
Neil's exploits are a lot juicier than the virtually sexless Brian's, but Araki's not afraid to give Brian just as much screen time for his slow-paced ascent to self-discovery.
Brady Corbet, who plays grown Brian, is a cute kid who's wisely hidden behind glasses and drab clothing to make him seem almost entirely asexual.
All of this might seem heavy -- and it should -- but in another act of Araki's that is best described as (you guessed it) courageous, the director cuts tension via a twist of magical realism.
(Brian and his family watch as a UFO flies overhead.)
(Neil and Wendy envision their lives as a movie, and when they pick up a drive-in speaker, only to hear the voice of God, it begins snowing.)
The movie shouldn't be as watchable as it is, considering the subject matter, but Araki again respects his audience by throwing in humor. Neil, for example, shows signs of a good-natured attitude toward sex, all things considered. He grosses out his friend Eric (played by Jeffrey Licon), another town queer.
"I'd fuck him for free," he says about this daddy-type who's playing in a local baseball game for which Neil is the announcer.
He goes on to describe another player as "ass of the gods." Sadly, we never get the chance to witness what's been hyped.
Elsewhere, Neil reveals even more about his taste in men...
And, the final outstanding act of courage I'm mentioning is performed by Elisabeth Shue, whose utterly subtle performed deserved, if not an Oscar nod, than some sort of preservationist achievement award for refraining from chewing the scenery.
As Neil's trashy mom, she is flawless and as respectful to the story, to the truth as everyone else. She's the type to drink gin from the bottle and not make a big deal of it. Plus, she looks great, still!
She is the definition of a MILF-WING (Mom I'd Like to Fuck, Were I Not Gay).
In the end, Mysterious Skin doesn't offer any grand, satisfying (or tragically unsatisfying) answers -- Neil and Brian are profoundly affected by their shared past, and neither show any signs of getting over it.
And really, and beautifully, that is that.
It shouldn't be surprising that Mysterious Skin didn't get 1/100th of the attention Brokeback received. It's far too risky, far too disturbing, far too subtle to be appeal to a mainstream audience. But what a shame that is, especially when those open-minded enough to be outraged (or whatever heightened emotional state you muster over pop culture) are spending time worrying about a movie that has the pop-culture permeation that most best-picture winners couldn't even dream of (when was the last time you even thought about Million Dollar Baby or the fucking Return of the King?).
"I wish I could quit you," is a permanent part of our pop-cultural lexicon. It is "Show me the money" writ gay. It's an example of the kind of saturation most art would never even attempt to aspire to. And so, to counterbalance, I'm working "I'd fuck him for free" and "ass of the Gods" into my daily speech. I consider it my duty.