Hello and welcome to the latest installment of Criterion Cuts, the weekly article where I dig into the archives of everyone’s favorite foreign/art house home video distribution company and unearth some obscurity and tell you just why it might be worth your time. As always, most of these come from the generous offerings available to Hulu Plus subscribers unless otherwise noted.
Today’s movie is one of those rare times that I get to pick out a movie that’s just been released by Criterion. The collection definitely skews towards older films, so when something relatively new comes out it’s always a reason to sit up and take notice. That said, today’s film was already on my radar and something I had seen even before the Criterion announcement. It showed up on a whole bunch of top ten lists last year, and when it hit Netflix Instant (where you can still watch it) earlier in the year, I was sure to check it out immediately.
So this is also one of the rare times where I’m watching a movie a second time for writing about it. I don’t do this nearly as much as I’d like; with the various demands on watching as many things as I can I don’t revisit nearly enough. Still, when it’s for a movie as good as today’s movie is, I’m more than happy to make the exception. But first, a bit of a history/cultural lesson.
It’s impossible to talk about Weekend without talking about the elephant in the room, which is fine by me because it gives me a chance to address some thoughts about ‘special interest’ cinema. So, for the record: yes, Weekend is a gay film, and Netflix probably has it shoved in the ‘gay and lesbian film’ subcategory with a lot of movies that you’ve never heard of. It’s going to be my job to talk you into watching it anyway. Not because gay issues are problematic (they are, like anything, perfectly fine things to make a movie about) but because ‘gay cinema’ has accrued a sort of cinematic stigma.
It’s a weird cultural back alley that gay cinema finds itself in these days. Originally homosexual themes would find themselves in films seemingly at random: early movies were full of characters that fell in a full range of (admittedly, still fairly broad, but it was the 20s and 30s) stereotypes. But the oppressiveness of the Hayes code and a general tightening of social conservatism drove out all the gay characters, leaving only an endless series of characters and stories with coded images, but nothing out in the open. Gay cinema was effectively in the closet, whether it wanted to be or not.
That started changing in the 60s, but really exploded in the 80s and 90s, as people rapidly came out of the closet and found a market that was starved for representation with stories that reflected the lives and interests of LGBT people. And thus, gay cinema became a thing, and soon there was a swath of mostly indie films that were produced for this specific market. The problem is that the perception of limited appeal means that the movies were made for a limited audience (read: cheap and with no stars) and thus never broke out, which meant that they never grew the market, which means that those constraints only grew tighter. So you have decades of a subset of films that basically exist in obscurity, with only a few breakouts that become cult hits (But I’m A Cheerleader is a pretty decent example) and the odd high-budget studio attempt at aiming for that market (your Brokeback Mountain and A Single Man arthouse and awards fare) but watering it down to get in the straights.
Which is why Weekend is significant. Not because it’s the first of anything, but that it comes from the culture but reads and has broken out like one of the latter examples, a rare success in a genre that gets woefully little attention.
On an average Friday night in the average British city of Nottingham, a man named Russell (Tom Cullen) heads from the party his straight friends are throwing to a gay club, looking to hook up. He spots an interested guy named Glen (Chris New) and takes him home for what will ostensibly be a one night stand. The next morning, however, the two of them find themselves fascinated by the relative stranger they’ve woken up next to, their light banter quickly turning reflective.
Glen’s an aspiring artist, working currently on a project where he interviews the men he sleeps with about their experiences coming out. Russell has no great story, as he was given up for adoption and doesn’t know his real parents. For him coming out is something other people do, and as Glen prods him Russell reacts with increasing defensiveness. The two men part awkwardly in the hallway to Russell’s apartment, Russell insisting that they shake hands while right next door a man kisses a woman farewell after a similar night and similar early morning parting. Glen rolls his eyes and supposedly drops out of Russell’s life forever.
Except he doesn’t. Russell and Glen seem fated to bump into each other again, and the second time the two men take much more strongly to each other. In fact, suddenly they’ve become a pair, feeling each other out as they begin to explore each other’s boundaries. Russell is shy and proper, going out of his way to present as straight, even going as far as to lie to his friends about what he’s doing and where he’s going when asked, even though they know and seemingly aren’t bothered by his homosexuality. Glen, on the other hand, has a chip on his shoulder after watching a past boyfriend get beaten up for being gay. He’ll confront anyone at any time, constantly challenging what ‘proper’ behavior is. They shouldn’t work together, but it’s like fireworks, a rapid headlong rush together that reeks of falling in love, something both men seem decidedly uncomfortable with.
And that’s even before, the next morning, Glen drops a bomb: he’s a day away from leaving for America for two years of school. And suddenly the weekend of getting to know each other takes on a sudden, desperate urgency as the two of them are adamant that they get to know each other and enjoy the moment, and at the same time stating again and again that this is just a weekend fling, and come the end they’ll go their own ways and that will be that.
If you’re thinking “Hey, this sounds like Before Sunrise” then you’re right on the money. And like that movie, a romantic masterpiece in its own right, there’s an energy that the ticking clock provides that drives these two characters into revealing more and feeling more than anybody normally would in such a condensed period of time. It’s not only good drama, but it makes for amazing cinema, as they spend these few days talking about things both trivial and profound, doing a fairly incredible amount of drugs, and falling in love like two people do in all the great cinematic romances.
What works then is just how normal the arc of the relationship is, and how little a deal is made about the ‘special interest’ subject matter aside from how each character individually defines himself culturally. It works its magic not through issues or preaching or by presenting some sort of broadly acceptable, non-threatening version of gayness, but by making a movie about two real people with real nuance who just happen to meet and what that means for them. It is a firm reminder that the magic of cinema is the magic of the intimate: the long glance, the quiet moment, the two people laughing at a private moment that we invisibly look in on and get to share. It is the beauty of storytelling, and rarely is it does as well as it is in Weekend.