Patron Request: ‘Romancing in Thin Air’

Ah, straight romance. The bedrock of so many art forms. Speaking as a big-time queer, I sometimes have to swallow my bile and appreciate a film like Romancing in Thin Air for what it is rather than, let’s say, what I’d prefer it to be. This is an undeniably sweet movie, with the tenderest of hearts. I still felt at a remove from it, though, at least until the ending.

The problem, by the way, is not a lack of romantic inclination on my end. I’m a swooner. I’ve been known to melt at the slightest show of affection. I love loving and being loved. But part of me found the relationship here too rote to really feel. The lovelorn movie star who escapes the press in a rural motel, the closed-off widow who pines for her long-missing husband, the latter’s frozen heart to be warmed by the former. Of course the woman was one of the man’s original fan club members. Of course the man is an alcoholic and must be nursed back to sobriety. It all just struck me as too pat, too by-the-numbers. They’re archetypes more than they’re real people. They just felt too engineered.

Things do start to come together by the end. The plasticity of the central characters is recontextualized when the actor, Michael Liu, makes a film about the tragic story of the woman, Sue, and her late husband. In his version, Sue’s husband survives his ordeal and reconciles with her as Michael looks on bittersweetly. Suddenly the plasticine nature of these characters makes more sense. We’re meant to take this as not just a story but a direct emotional provocation, just as Michael’s film is meant as a direct message to Sue. It feels like the film confessing its intent to emotionally manipulate. That’s all well and good, but it’s not like romantic dramas have to be so cynical. Plenty are genuinely moving without such a manufactured air.

It’s a shame, because I think Johnnie To does really good work here. The scenes near the end of Sue’s silhouette against the fictionalized version of herself projected on the movie screen are so powerful that they made me wish I liked the entire movie more. Sue’s friends Teeny and Beauty, superfans of Michael, are delightful to watch. And the romantic motorcycle rides made me think of His Motorbike, Her Island, and whenever that’s happening you know something’s going right. I wanted to like Romancing in Thin Air. But every time I thought I found something to latch onto, the film slipped away from me. I don’t think it’s a bad film. I just didn’t really care for it.

Ko-Fi Request: ‘Mysterious Skin’

About halfway through Mysterious Skin, the nervy, tender Brian Lackey (who believes himself the victim of alien abduction as a child) meets fellow abductee Avalyn. Avalyn tells Brian that for abductees like them, everything they do and think and feel is informed by that experience. It all comes down to that one moment of victimization. She means it as reassurance, a comforting thought in a confusing world. The idea that all your pain and anguish can be explained so simply is a tempting one. Brian isn’t assuaged, but he is encouraged to continue digging into his memories to uncover the truth of what happened to him.

This is the core idea of Mysterious Skin. This is the root of the film’s understanding of trauma. There is no getting past it, there is no living with it. It is you. It controls everything about you. You are who you are because of it. How many stories have we seen where a victim’s past can be “overcome” in touching victory? How many times have we seen people win a battle against their memory? There is no triumph in Mysterious Skin. There is only the catharsis of knowing, once and for all, your truth. There’s no solace in that act. The only solace is in the arms of someone who went through the same thing — the cold comfort that, despite everything, you’re both still here.

I think this is what truly disturbs so many about Mysterious Skin, beyond its unblinking depiction of child sexual abuse. This isn’t a film about a fight. There’s no struggle to be had against trauma here, and not even the finality of a battle lost. The film’s final shot — of two victims cradling each other as they are engulfed by the black void of the film’s end — suggests a lack of closure that persists past the conclusion of the narrative. We aren’t shown what happens to these kids next. As far as the movie is concerned, they stay on that couch in their rapist’s old house forever. They aren’t given the satisfaction of leaving the way they came in.

What pops out at me most about Mysterious Skin is how Gregg Araki depicts memory, or more specifically the act of remembering. No other director not named Nobuhiko Obayashi does it in such a compelling way. An evolution of sorts of his film Nowhere, where every single second of the film has a song playing, Araki associates certain remembered thoughts and images with music. He then abruptly cuts the sound as the rememberer snaps back to the present. It’s as though memory is another world unto itself, a metaphysical place to which you can be transported.

Brian’s memory is altered as a defense mechanism. Over the course of the film the images in his mind gain more concrete detail, and shed their fantastical elements. Neil’s memory, on the other hand, is crystal clear from the beginning. He remembers the smallest gestures and features with exacting detail. This is how he reckons with what happened to him, by taking ownership of every facet of his memory. Brian tries in vain to bury the reality of it under an incomprehensible fiction, because of course the abuse itself was so incomprehensible to him. Neil’s memory is all extreme close-ups; Brian’s feels more at a remove. It’s a subtle but effective distinction.

Mysterious Skin is as hard a film to write about as it is to watch. It takes a lot out of you to probe a work so upsetting. I trembled with rage and fear for these boys, and when the credits rolled a part of me wished I could leave it at that. This isn’t a film I see myself revisiting. But it’s one I’m glad to have seen, from a filmmaker I’m excited to discover more from.

Patron Request: ‘Smiley Face’

There’s something so charming about a stoner comedy done right, and something equally insufferable about a stoner comedy done wrong. It’s a fine line to walk, mostly because being stoned out of your gourd is always a more interesting experience when you’re the one having it. A lot of stoner films fail to capture that feeling, and end up being more like the experience of hanging out with a stoned person when you’re sober. Gregg Araki’s Smiley Face succeeds on the back of an aesthetic recreation of what it’s like to be high, rather than being around someone who’s high.

The film’s editing is its MVP. Director Gregg Araki edited the film himself, and he does a fantastic job of imitating the brainwave rhythms of stoned protagonist Jane F. The film floats aimlessly between ideas and events, down a stream of consciousness without a paddle. Intentions and characters are introduced and forgotten and picked up again at the slightest external stimulus. A single half-remembered line of dialogue instigates a total change of direction for Jane. Sometimes she just forgets that she’s supposed to be doing anything and stares into space for a while. Other times her brain concots sprawling fantasies that quickly spin-off into obscurity and nonsense. This is what I mean when I say that Smiley Face does a good job of cinematically approximating what it’s like to be stoned. You’re forced to live inside these editing beats, sharing Jane’s headspace. It makes a journey that may otherwise have been frustrating actually watchable and fun.

And you can’t discount the impact of Anna Faris’ performance in that. A lot of actors are too buttoned-up to play stoned as anything but parody. Faris is doing heightened work, to be sure, but in a way that plays as authentic. For as big as this performance is, you never really feel her capital-A Acting. She’s also just hysterically funny. The look of genuine horror on her face as she wildly imagines a scenario where her creepy roommate has sex with skulls slew me, as did her reaction to seeing an “I Heart LAPD” sticker on a casting agent’s filing cabinet. Every expression and gesticulation feels unrehearsed and unrefined, like she really is just making it up as she goes along. I don’t think Faris gets enough credit for her ability to do that. A lot of actors, even great ones, just can’t get that loose.

The politics of Smiley Face are delightfully inscrutable. There’s a running thread about a first-edition copy of the Communist Manifesto, which Jane imagines selling online for hundreds of thousands of dollars. It’s a cheeky bit of commentary on the way communism as an ideology can be absorbed and repackaged for sale by capitalism, even out of necessity by the people living in it. By the film’s end, the book is “redistributed,” so to speak. While things don’t end well for Jane, there’s a victory in removing the Manifesto from a realm where only the wealthy can access it and giving it back to the people. Araki shows some skepticism about communism, too. In one of my favorite scenes, Jane imagines herself giving a stirring speech about the rights of the humble laborer and the need for revolution. When she’s done, Araki replays the moment to show what actually happened: Jane rambling through unfinished, meaningless sentences and being thrown out of the butcher’s warehouse where she was making her “stand.” Maybe Araki is more concerned with people who make their politics their sole personality trait. 12 years later, you can hardly blame him for it.

I got a kick out of Smiley Face. It’s a far cry from the avant-garde queer apocalypse in Nowhere, the only other Araki film I’ve seen (though it does directly reference that film’s opening shot). But as stoner comedies go, I’ve seen few that do a better job of letting you in on the experience of getting zooted to the freaking moon. Also, please cast Anna Faris in more movies. It’s insane that she hasn’t had a lead role this entire decade.

Patron Request: ‘Personal Shopper’

The other day, preeminent trans film critic Willow Maclay wrote a great piece regarding a definitional understanding of trans cinema. In it, she argues that what makes the growing trans cinema canon so exciting is that there is no hard and fast definition — what we call trans films resonate with trans people on an individual level, and for deeply personal reasons. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. I’ve written two pieces this year, on Alita: Battle Angel and Phoenix, which reckon with films that are not explicitly about trans people, yet still depict a close approximation of my experience of being a trans woman. These are trans films because I say they are, because I see myself in them even if I’m not meant to.

Personal Shopper, I was delighted to discover, joins the list of films that have done that to me. It’s not quite about dysphoria in the way Alita and Phoenix are, but it tackles areas of trans living that those films don’t. This is a film about the vague fixations and dissatisfactions that (at least for me) precede a gender revelation. It’s about wanting to be someone else, but not knowing who that person is. It’s about being drawn to things you’re not supposed to be, for reasons you can’t explain.

The always stellar Kristen Stewart brings her trademark mumbling monotone to the role of Maureen, a shiftless young woman who juggles a search for the ghost of her twin brother with her job as a personal shopper for a supermodel named Kyra. She begins to receive texts from a mysterious harasser who may or may not be a ghost. The anonymous texter challenges her with personal questions, drawing out of her admissions that she would not otherwise make, perhaps even to herself . At one point, they ask if she wants to be someone else, and she says yes, but she doesn’t know who. The texter tells her that they can’t figure it out for her. In my Phoenix piece, I talked a lot about the closeted desire for someone else to recognize transness in you, to tell you who you’re supposed to be so you can stop agonizing over a decision that is only yours to make. I feel the same turmoil in Personal Shopper.

Later, the texter forces her to admit that she wants to try on Kyra’s dresses. “Because it is forbidden?” they ask. She puts down her phone.

The scene where Maureen nervously strips down and, with tentative movement, puts on Kyra’s complex dress just about ripped my heart out. I remembered the mornings I would spend in my room, when everyone else was out of the house, trying on old dresses that had been left in a crawl space. I remembered the rush I got from twirling in place and letting the hem wrap around my legs, and the terror I felt when I heard the garage door coming up. It was a forbidden act, and yet I felt compelled to do it by a voice I didn’t recognize. It was only later that I heard the voice as that of the person I wanted to be, the person I could be.

Personal Shopper wraps up with a moment of such comforting closure that I wish I’d been able to see it back when I was in the darkest days of questioning. Maureen demands to know whether the spirit that’s been haunting her is her late brother, by knocking once for yes and twice for no. The spirit doesn’t answer her. “Is it just me?” she asks. One knock. Fade to white. To be a closeted trans person is to be haunted by yourself, possessed by something that grows steadily more familiar over time. The spirit draws you to things you think you’re not supposed to do or be. Eventually, you realize that the ghost has been you all along.

Patron Request: ‘Assassin’s Creed’

I’ve long been a fan of the Assassin’s Creed games. I say “long” in lieu of the longer explanation of how I fell in and out of love with the series, and then back in again, and the exact points at which those relationship shifts happened. Suffice to say: I loved the early games, took a break, and came back with the most recent entries. There are gaming pressure points the franchise, in its best installments, powerfully hit upon for me. The big one is their open world design. I remember spending hours upon hours just running across Venice rooftops in Assassin’s Creed II, or climbing to the top of the highest point in Constantinople in Revelations and paragliding off the tip over and over again. There’s some magic in the maps of these games, some potent combination of living history and digital playground. For all the Ubisoft bloat surrounding even their best outings, I’ll always love the “running around” of it all.

Assassin’s Creed the film takes place mostly in anonymous grey rooms. The ratio of present-to-past has been flipped from the games; here the minority of the runtime is genetic flashback, rather than the vast majority as it was there. The sinister Abstergo facility where protagonist Callum Lynch finds himself is mostly comprised of featureless walls and glass doors. It’s as though they didn’t finish dressing the set. Absent is the satirically corporate atmosphere from the games (one of which took place in a thinly-veiled recreation of a Ubisoft studio). It’s a film absent a setting.

The recreations of historical cities are digital here, like in the games. But there’s no sense of place in the film, no coherency to their design. They’re just CG backdrops for action scenes. A mid-film parkour chase attempts to approximate the “running around” experience, but the typically 2010s lack of continuity in the editing breaks any potential for recreating that “gamey” immersion. The fun of the games is in the possibility of running straight from one end of the map to the other, a single continuous trip across an unbroken world. This is the one time I might actually have appreciated a cutless tracking shot!

I can see a director like Paul W.S. Anderson doing something interesting with the blatant digital artifice of the setting. Justin Kurzel seems completely oblivious to that potential. Instead, the film regurgitates the most insipid thematic elements from the games. Vague arguments about “free will” take the place of actual ideas. In one hilarious moment, a villainous Templar insists that their goal is to eliminate violence. “Violence kept me alive,” Callum spits back. Our hero, folks! I suppose, if nothing else, this moment makes Assassin’s Creed one of the more honest video game adaptations.

I’m struggling to finish writing this review before this film evaporates entirely from my memory. It’s bizarre how they failed to translate the best elements of the games and failed to make a movie that’s fun on its own terms. They couldn’t even come up with a vaguely charming cardboard cutout for their past-protagonist. Everybody loves the compassionate womanizer Ezio from the games. Aguilar, on the other hand…it would be charitable to describe him as a “character.” I just don’t understand how this happened. Surely at some point someone should have stepped in and said, “Hey how come nothing happens in this movie? How come it’s so unwatchably dour? How come there aren’t any characters?” Assassin’s Creed is one of the better examples in recent years of a film so designed-by-committee that it ultimately fails to appeal to anyone. It saps everything likable about the games and ends up an unidentifiable grey mush. It’s barely a movie. Once I post this, I’ll forget I ever watched it.

Patron Request: ‘The Legend of Drunken Master’

Anyone who knows me knows that I love the John Wick movies a whole lot. That love is informed by a lot of things, not least among them the series’ knotty plotting and labyrinthine world-building. When an action scene happens to John Wick, it’s for a plethora of increasingly convoluted reasons. I think that’s fantastic. It’s a joy to watch unfold. Still, there’s joy to be found in exactly the opposite approach as well.

In The Legend of Drunken Master (as it was released in the States), there’s a plot, yes. But a good portion of the fight scenes have little to do with that. For the first half of the film, Jackie Chan’s Wong Fei-Hung fights mostly over petty slights. He fights because he’s good at it, and he likes it. The film understands that there’s really no need for a narrative excuse for action. You’re not here for the why of it all.

Still, it comes up with an intriguingly nationalistic reason to keep things moving. Sinister officials from the British consulate are conspiring to ship ancient Chinese artifacts out of the country to be sold. Wong and his family become embroiled in the plot when a switched package leaves them in possession of one of the most valuable objects the thieves desire. Wong ends up fighting for his country’s dignity in the face of feckless foreign invaders. It’s interesting commentary on the Western relationship with China, from the latter’s perspective. “Next they’ll tear down the Great Wall!” says one indignant character. The Brits have a parallel plan to con Wong’s father out of his land, if for no other reason than that the martial arts students practicing on it disturb their sleep. I wouldn’t call The Legend of Drunken Master an overtly patriotic film. Its ideas about Chinese identity and culture being stolen and sold feel rooted in honest concern rather than jingoistic fervor.

And we’ve talked so much without even getting to the action itself. Do I even need to say that it’s phenomenal? Jackie Chan is up there with Buster Keaton as one of the greatest physical performers in cinema history. The specificities of his physicality are so unique. Every joint in his body seems to have a life of its own. Each movement seems to have an exacting grace, and yet it comes across as so chaotic at the same time.

The choreography itself somehow manages to keep up with him. The improvised weaponry is consistently inventive. Each strike seems like a piece of a puzzle, one fitting neatly into the next, assembling a perfect picture when all is said and done. Perhaps that metaphor implies a didacticism that the fights do not display. Their flow is terrifically seamless. Director Lau Kar-Leung shoots them almost casually, with the canny understanding that the performances speak for themselves. Every setup is positioned with the sole goal of capturing the fullest, clearest image of the fight participants. Why that isn’t just the standard for action cinematography, I’ll never know. The Legend of Drunken Master is an all-time classic action movie. I wish there weren’t so many terrible ones these days that its historical significance only grows.

Patron Request: ‘Her Smell’

It’s hard to find the right word to describe what Elisabeth Moss is doing in Her Smell. The one that keeps coming to mind is “dangerous.” Not because it’s the role is a daring risk in terms of her career or image, far from it. It’s in the performance itself. It is so unhinged, so unrestrained, that every single moment teeters on the edge of a disastrous abyss. She has to give this character an insane amount of energy and never let up for a second. But she has to be smart enough not to let it tip into self-parody or camp, because that is decidedly not the movie Alex Ross Perry is making. Her Becky Something has to feel, in all her specific vocal tics and explosive emotional outbursts, like a fundamentally real person. Otherwise, the film’s sobering final third just feels like another act. That Moss pulls it off is nothing short of extraordinary. It’s one of the best performances I’ve seen all year.

What I’m unsure of in Her Smell has more to do with Perry’s fixations as a filmmaker. He’s made several movies about “difficult people,” almost always men, whose deep-seated insecurities are masked by a “charming” abrasion. They’re the sort of shitty men so many terrible writers imagine themselves to be, men who are supposed to deserve love and admiration (usually from the women in their lives) despite their total self-absorption. Queen of Earth is a notable break from the pattern, though I don’t remember that film well enough to say whether it distinguishes the Moss character from the eponymous lead of his most egregious example, Listen Up Philip.

Becky Something is just as off-putting a personality as any of his other leads, but this feels like the first time Perry is genuinely interested in interrogating his main character’s emotional defects without an ironist’s distance. The depiction of her flaws doesn’t come with a sardonic shrug and an eyeroll, as if to say “Yeah, I know, but so what?” Becky does horrific things to the people around her, and we see it through the eyes of the people she’s hurting. Her Smell doesn’t ask you to understand why she’s doing this; there’s little time spent on backstory or psychologizing. She’s just a tornado, and you have to endure her.

What makes me uneasy is that this is the first Perry film I’ve seen where the main character actually gets better. She’s forgiven by the people she hurt, one of whom actually says, “It never made me not love you.” We see her get sober, we see her mellow out, we see her reflect on her behavior. What we don’t see is what she did that instilled in others the will to keep loving her. She’s another Perry protagonist who receives love from people she’s done nothing but abuse, and by the film’s end we’re meant to understand that she’s earned it.

I’m not the writer who’s going to tell you that this is oh so problematic and therefore bad writing. I appreciate the aspects of Her Smell that trouble me. What I’m unsure of is if Perry has really learned anything as a filmmaker. This is certainly a far cry from the jauntier indies of his early career, with its droning panic attack of a score and noisy handheld camerawork. I just wish Perry had gone further in his examination of Becky. More than that, I wish he had further examined his own proclivities as an artist. Maybe it’s unfair to ask a director to be anything but what they are. He just gets so tantalizingly close here that I can’t help but see the better picture.

Patron Request: ‘Good Time’

Life is short. There are only so many movies you can fit into your schedule before your synapses stop firing. So I tend to have little patience for movies that make me feel as miserable as Good Time. Each successive scene presents a new object of distress, every development a new anxiety. Nothing good happens to anyone in Good Time.

The film is a harder watch the second time around, when you anticipate every forthcoming disaster. It’s a film you watch with eyes wide open the first time, and rewatch through your fingers. I’m not typically a squeamish viewer, but there are plenty of “oh god please don’t do that” moments here. Chief among them, of course, is Connie coming close to statutory rape in order to distract a teenage girl from his face appearing on the news. There’s a disconnect key to Good Time: Connie is plainly despicable, but you still cringe when he fails.

How do the Safdie brothers accomplish this? His motivations, of course, are ostensibly pure. He roped his (probably) autistic brother into a robbery scheme that got him arrested, and now he needs bail money to get him out. Your sympathy for Nicky is Connie’s sympathy. What Connie does to get that money, the people he hurts and takes advantage of, it all becomes if not forgivable, at least understandable. What makes Good Time a great movie is that it knows that that shouldn’t be the case. The casting of former teen dreamboat Robert Pattinson is key here. When he gets that teen girl arrested because, again, he roped her into his scheming, you see the look of pity and regret flash across his face. But of what good is that pity? He can feel bad all he likes, but it doesn’t mean he’s going to change. Good Time puts the lie to the idea that the ends justify the means. Connie’s cause is sympathetic, yes. But can that really excuse his actions?

The Safdies also put you in Connie’s headspace with their chaotic direction and sound design. Everything around him is always just too much for anyone to handle — the hell that is other people. Everyone is aggressive and loud, they all talk over each other; the cuts are awkward and lopsided and unnatural. The fact that he often keeps his cool is admirable, and when he doesn’t, it’s understandable. The fact that he’s so completely loathsome fades into the background. It’s hard to hate a guy who’s so put-upon.

But, again, the film is well aware of what it’s doing. It wants you to question why you allow yourself to feel for him. It doesn’t do this in an obvious, didactic way, either. This isn’t a film that shames you for having an emotional connection that it deliberately created. (This isn’t every video game from the last 15 years.) It is, to use a cruder term, just asking questions.

It also provides a pretty explicit answer. At the film’s end, Connie is arrested, and he takes the rap for Nicky off-screen. Nicky’s therapist remarks on what a “responsible” decision this was. He says Connie is “right where he belongs” in prison, and that so is Nicky, in a therapeutic support group with other autistic adults. I don’t think the film means us to take the therapist’s word as thematic gospel, but it does raise the idea that Connie accomplished nothing that wouldn’t have occurred if he hadn’t turned himself in immediately. The teenage girl and carnival security guard wouldn’t have been arrested. The man he stole from police custody at the hospital would still be alive. Connie’s rampage was disastrous for everyone he came into contact with. And at the end of the day, he was only attempting to help his brother in a way that would allow him to elide responsibility.

Good Time blows up the flattened notions of “good” and “likable” and “relatable” that film criticism likes to box characters into. Connie is none of the above, but he’s something far more important: Watchable. You don’t have to like him. But you can’t look away.

Patron Request: ‘Linda Linda Linda’

Have you ever seen a movie with a climactic moment so perfectly thrilling, so explosive in its joyous energy, so precisely timed for maximum emotional release, that the rest of the thing almost doesn’t even matter? If you haven’t, I’m sorry, because it’s just the best feeling in the world when a movie gets it exactly right. Might I recommend one?

Linda Linda Linda ends with a flawless final performance that just radiates happiness, but for most of its runtime, it’s remarkably sedate. Director Nobuhiro Yamashita is what I’ve called a “tableau director;” his camera rarely moves, and he’s adept at crafting images awash in lived-in detail and naturalistic blocking. There’s a stillness to much of Linda Linda Linda that belies its punk rock core. It has a more laid-back energy than I expected from a film about a high school rock band.

I appreciated the film for taking that swing, though. This is not a familiarly riotous, rollicking take on this material. It’s quiet, it’s relaxed, it’s placid. The film is singularly focused on the world of the four central characters. Every shot fills in the details of that world a little more. The film takes its time doing this, but it’s so frequently beautiful that the pacing rarely matters.

In any case, the draw here is the characters. The four band members — guitarist Kei, bassist Nozomi, drummer Kyoko, and new lead vocalist Son — are tremendously charismatic, and they have great chemistry. When Son, a foreign exchange student from Korea played by a young Doona Bae (!), blows off a boy who’s been crushing on her because she’d rather be with her friends, I was grinning ear to ear. Linda Linda Linda is a film about how great it feels to have friends who love you as much as you love them.

Yamashita frames the girls in such a way that you feel how close their bond is. He likes to bunch them together in the frame, all of them leaning on each other. When one of the girls is out on her own, Yamashita isolates her in negative space, or alternately crushes her with clutter. The girls are always depicted visually as a single unit. Even spaced out on stage at the end, there’s a symmetry to their positioning that only enhances their connection. It’s a clever bit of visual storytelling from a rather understated director.

And yeah, that final scene. I would put a Youtube link here, but I really think it works best in context with the rest of the film. It needs to be built up to for the impact of its release to have any punch. That said, I’ll definitely be revisiting it whenever I’m feeling down. Watching Son cheerfully scream into the mic as her classmates go wild is like staring into the sun. It just radiates happiness. Linda Linda Linda’s performance finale goes in the great movie endings pantheon. I’ve seen few things that match it for sheer intoxicating joy.

Patron Request: ‘Muscle’

Queer movies of the 80s and 90s always have a tinge of apocalyptic dread to them. The mainstreaming of the gay rights movement meant the rise of a far more vocal opposition in the form of religious conservatism, and the AIDS crisis threatened nothing less than our extinction. The films of this era tend to reflect a sense of encroaching doom, the inevitability of decay in an uncaring world. That’s the case in America, anyway. I’m not as well versed in the queer history of Japan, but Hisayasu Sato’s Muscle shares much of the same concerns of the American queer cinema of the late 80s. This is a film where queer desire is self-destruction.

We follow Ryuzaki, a gay man who edits a magazine called Muscle. The opening sequence is a Muscle photoshoot, all close-ups on glistening rock-hard bodies as they flex and twist alluringly. There’s an innocence to this opening that the film throws away almost instantly. It establishes queerness as irresistible and perfectly natural. It presents these bodies as if to say, “Why wouldn’t you be turned on?” It uses the bodybuilding magazine to conflate the ostensibly hetero desire for a muscular body with the sexualized desire for the same body.

When Ryuzaki’s lover, Kitami, begins to develop a sadistic streak, Ryuzaki cuts his arm off. The abstraction of this moment makes it unclear whether this was an act of self-defense or not. Muscle finds love within violence and violence within love, specifically queer love. A year after this incident, Ryuzaki has been released from prison, and the film follows him on his search both for Kitami and a copy of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo.

Sato’s vision of queerness as obsessive and sadomasochistic reflects the cultural anxieties of the community in the late 1980s. AIDS hit Japan just as it hit America, and it was in full destructive force around the time of Muscle’s release. I can’t imagine how it must have been to be a gay man at the time, knowing that your sexuality could get you horrifically killed, and that the wider world wouldn’t care. That anxiety is all over Muscle. Ryuzaki desperately seeks out Kitami, a man whose sexuality is inseparable from violence. Does he want to be destroyed? Does he distinguish between that destruction and love? He carries around Kitami’s arm in a jar, fondling it as he wakes from sex dreams (or are they memories?) and using it to masturbate. He is so attached to this remnant of the brutality that ended their relationship. To him, brutality is their relationship.

The film ends on the sort of tragicomic note that mainstream queer films can’t get away with today. Loud voices in the modern queer community are terrified of transgression, of not appearing to fit a cishet standard of “normal.” Something as provocative and, dare I say it, problematic as Muscle would be unacceptable in 2019. They would refuse to see it as the genuine expression of terror it is, terror at the seemingly unstoppable tragedy ravaging the community. I cherish queer art like Muscle, because it’s not sanitized for the sake of being relatable to a cishet audience. It’s honest, and with that honesty comes depravity and blood.