Let’s Talk About The Gay Stuff in ‘It Chapter Two’

This article contains spoilers for It Chapter Two as well as the preceding film and the original novel.

Like the Stephen King novel on which it’s based, It Chapter Two opens with a hate crime. Adrian Mellon (here played terribly by former director of note Xavier Dolan) kisses his boyfriend at a Derry carnival, and the two are followed out of it by a gang of homophobic hoodlums. The two are viciously beaten, and a barely-conscious Adrian is thrown over the side of a bridge into a rushing river. He’s pulled out and eaten by Pennywise. The crime alerts Mike Hanlon to It’s resurgence, spurring him to reunite his friends to battle it again.

So, there’s gay stuff in It Chapter Two. Queer shit. There is Homosexual Content TM. If you read Stephen King’s novel, you knew it was coming. If you’re like me, you were dreading the film’s handling of the Adrian Mellon scene. We were right to do so. The scene is exceedingly brutal, seeming to relish the seeping blood covering Adrian’s now unrecognizable face the same way the film delights in the outlandish gore inflicted by Pennywise. In King’s book, homophobia in Derry is implicitly tied to the presence of It, both evils feeding off of and into one another. In the film, homophobic violence is no different than Pennywise’s fantastical “kills.” We’re meant to be horrified by both, but with the whispered suggestion that it’s still fun to watch.

This is where the queerness ends in the book. Not so in the film. Seemingly by way of apology for the Adrian Mellon scene, the filmmakers have added just a dash of gay to their main cast. Richie Tozier (played by Finn Wolfhard as a child and Bill Hader as an adult) is heavily implied to be gay. I say “heavily implied” because it’s never outright stated. There’s no coming-out moment. Still, it’s pretty obvious what’s going on here.

The film’s lengthy middle portion is taken up by new flashbacks which take place during an unseen part of the first film, when the friends briefly split up after wounding and escaping from It. Each character has a new jump-scare setpiece encounter with It during this time. Richie’s begins at an arcade, where he’s playing Street Fighter with another unnamed boy. The game ends, and the boy slaps Richie’s hand, lingering just a half-second longer on the gesture than expected. The camera notes the physical contact. Richie responds by asking, a bit too desperately, for the boy to play another round with him. At this point, the bully Henry Bowers and his gang appear. The boy is Henry’s little cousin, and he instantly turns on Richie. The bullies call Richie a faggot and a fairy and chase him out of the arcade.

A frustrated Richie wanders to a nearby park, at the center of which is a massive statue of Paul Bunyon. Naturally, the statue comes alive, but its taunt of Richie is of particular interest. “Wanna kiss, Richie?” it asks him, before transforming into a garish CGI monster and chasing him across the park. The illusion vanishes and Richie is spared, and the film cuts to adult Richie in the same park, staring at the same statue. Then Pennywise appears to him and starts to tease him about his “dirty little secret.”

So at this point it should be obvious what the film is getting at. Richie is gay, he’s closeted, and this is the deep-seated fear that Pennywise is picking on. The problem is that there’s a clear divide in the film between the treatment of this idea in the child segments and in the adult segments. When Richie is a child, the depiction of his burgeoning sexuality is depicted with shocking subtlety and tenderness. As an adult, it’s nonsensical and heavy-handed.

The centerpiece of Richie’s sexuality is his relationship with fellow Loser Eddie Kaspbrak. The new flashbacks to the Losers as children have a new focus on the playful antagonism between the two. They tease each other and bicker in the way only close friends can. It’s never the primary focus, but it’s conspicuously present.

At one point, the two argue in the background of a scene over whose turn it is to lie in the clubhouse hammock. Eventually Eddie just gets in with Richie and they lie there together. Eddie gently kicks Richie’s face with his foot, knocking his glasses off. There’s something sweetly familiar to this detail, that moment of physical contact that meant nothing to Eddie but something more to Richie, a gesture with significance Richie couldn’t decode at the time. It’s, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, actually recognizable to my own experience of being a young queer person who had no idea who she was. You carry these little totems with you, tiny pinpricks in your heart. The details may drift away, but the way the moments made you feel never will. Is it great queer cinema? Not hardly. But it’s far better than anyone should have expected from a film like this.

That’s the kid scenes, though. The adult scenes are much, much different, presenting some pressing questions of coherency. Chief among them: Why is Richie still closeted in 2016? He lives in New York City, he’s a successful stand-up comedian, he has no family ties to speak of. Why can’t he just be out? Had the film’s timeline adhered to the novel’s, with the adult half playing out in the 1980s, this may have made more sense. It certainly does for the child Richie. I thought of the scene in the first film where Eddie, ever the hypochondriac, rants about the terrifying possibility of AIDS infection. What must young Richie have thought of that?

This isn’t to say, of course, that homophobia doesn’t exist in 2016. The film makes a point of this with the Adrian Mellon scene. Still, the film can conceive of no reason why Richie should have remained in the closet all these years beyond a general sense of shame and internalized homophobia, neither of which is ever actually depicted. We have no idea how Richie feels about being gay. There’s no sense of his life or personality as they relate to his queerness. Him being gay is just another Dark Secret for Pennywise to pick on. It’s Ben’s shame over being formerly obese, it’s Beverly’s fear of her abusive father, it’s Bill’s guilt over his brother’s death. It’s just another hanging thread to be tugged on, a board hung around the neck headlined “This Is My Trauma.” It’s cheap, it’s ugly, it’s borderline offensive.

And yet….there’s an “and yet.”

At some point in the film, we see a flashback to young Richie carving “R +” into a wooden fence. The camera obscures the final initial. The last we see of adult Richie is him returning to that fence, where we see that he carved “R + E,” and he gets to work digging out those same old lines, making the mark new again. Eddie didn’t survive the final battle with It, and Richie was more affected by this than his friends. As I watched him re-carve those letters, I couldn’t help but feel a tiny spark of warmth, remembering the look on young Richie’s face as young Eddie lightly kicked it. Hader and Wolfhard turn a deeply lame character rewrite into something gentle and tender. They find a queerness that feels familiar in a script to which queerness is alien. It Chapter Two is not queer cinema. Its depiction of gay characters is largely trashy and pointless and incoherent. But in these performances, there’s something more. There’s real queer life. If only the movie was good. If only, if only, if only.

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.

Ko-Fi Request: ‘Scorpio Rising’

Kenneth Anger was so far ahead of his time. He was the original “feeling sad n horny 2day :/” poster. But since he was born in the 1920s, he had to resort to making massively influential experimental films instead. It’s such a shame. Think of the tweets we missed out on.

In all seriousness, Scorpio Rising strikes me as much for its singular vision as it does for the filmmakers it would obviously go on to influence. Anger made a film about how much he wanted to fuck James Dean in 1963. The whole thing is as suffused with tragedy as it is with sexual desire. The leather fashion and particular rebellious attitude represented by Dean had gone out of style by then, and Dean himself was eight years dead. Anger posits the queer leather daddy style as a picking up of Dean’s torch, or perhaps picking up the pieces of a shattered movement.

The men featured in the film sweatily work on their motorcycles just as they work on themselves, on their clothes and appearances. They are consciously constructing their unique selves, and yet they’re still part of a like-minded (and like-dressed) collective. Anger’s conception of cis gay men in the early 60s is of a group of people desperately claiming the imagery of the past and charging headlong into the future. Queerness here is a subculture more than it’s an individual identity. It’s something to which you belong.

This makes Scorpio Rising a far cry from the widespread assimilationist politics of the 21st century. Mainstream queer culture for the past few decades has been all about wanting to be seen as “just like the rest of you.” The focus has been on equating queerness with being cishet for the sake of agitating for equal rights. This rankles for several reasons, chief among them the implication that queer people are socially acceptable because they’re the same as “normal” people, as if people who are different don’t deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. You shouldn’t need to convince the privileged that you’re the same as them to be afforded their rights and protections.

Anger shoots Scorpio Rising’s gay men with wild abandon, rapid cuts and shadows concealing and revealing their supposed debauchery. They are depicted as a true subculture, something apart from the mainstream cishet world. Anger doesn’t do this to otherize them; there is no negative connotation to his depiction at all. It seemed to me more celebratory, an affirmation of collective difference and in fact dissidence. The juxtaposition of religious imagery with the film’s men (men mounting their motorcycles against Christ astride a mule) is obviously a deliberate provocation, but it also seems a statement of purpose. Anger declares that we have always been here, and we will always be here, as much a part of human society as Christianity or any other religion. There’s a ritualistic quality, too, to the shots of the men fixing up their bikes and slowly getting dressed. Is queerness here its own religion? I won’t ascribe anything so didactic to Anger. Still, Scorpio Rising remains a fascinating work to dig into.

Ko-Fi Request: ‘Kamikaze Girls’

This article was based on a request from one of my patrons on ko-fi. For $3, you can recommend a film for me to watch and write an article about! Visit this link if interested!

Kamikaze Girls isn’t an unlikable film, but nearly everything I like about it is done better in other films. The wild stylistic flourishes are straight out of House or the work of Sion Sono. The cartoonish costumes and hairstyles are part of a more coherent whole in Takashi Miike’s Ace Attorney. And as for the central relationship, well, there are movies about actual lesbians to watch. This film doesn’t do anything wrong, per se, but I wish the things it did right hadn’t been outdone by films that came both before and after it.

The film depicts the unlikely friendship between the Rococo-obsessed, self-centered Momoko (all frilly dresses and lace sunbrellas) and the thuggish, bruising “Yanki” biker Ichiko (more into long leather trenchcoats and bootleg Versace). I say “unlikely” because Kamikaze Girls takes for granted their mutual fascination and attraction. We know quite a bit about these characters’ backstories, but this does little to explain what it is they actually like about each other.

The film’s main problem is that the answer is obvious: they’re gay! This has the exact structure of every romantic comedy I’ve ever seen, the girls have an instant chemistry and bond they can’t explain, there’s a meet-cute and a breakup and they get back together for a happy ending, it’s all right there. But they can’t be explicitly gay, because this film was made in 2004. They have to hide behind subtext and coding, even if that subtext and coding is so transparent as to be hilariously ineffective.

Now I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with queer coding. Throughout history it’s been the only way to openly express queerness in art without fear of reprisal. I’m happy to accept the queerness of certain works or characters based entirely on subtext and metaphor. My frustration with Kamikaze Girls arises because, as I said, it is so blatantly a queer love story and yet it still pulls back. The film is terrified to take that one extra step. A cynical appraisal would say that it slathers itself in style and artifice to create an ironic distance from the heart of its story. I’m not a cynical person or a cynical critic, but it’s hard for me to come away from this film at all charmed by its relentlessly idiosyncratic aesthetic when that aesthetic appears to be masking something rather than expressing it.

Take for example Nobuhiko Obayashi’s House, which I mentioned earlier. There’s lesbian subtext aplenty in that film, and it’s also a runaway train of visual affectation. The difference (besides Obayashi being a better director than Kamikaze Girls’ Tetsuya Nakashima) is that House’s aesthetic choices enrich and explore its subtext, bringing it to the fore in ways both campy and genuinely tragic. House doesn’t run away from the way its characters are coded. That’s the story it’s telling, on purpose. All of Kamikaze Girls’ bizarre effects, all its disorienting editing, its wacky characters, its animated sequences; all of it serves to distract and obfuscate, to emotionally detach from its narrative core. It just doesn’t add up to anything worthwhile.

Now, none of this is to say that I think it’s a bad film. I more or less liked it! I can certainly see why someone would be infatuated with it. Maybe one day I’ll revisit Kamikaze Girls and find more to appreciate about it. For now, though, I find it a fitfully entertaining, mostly frustrating experience.