film note: Esteros

The pitfalls and pressures of gay genre

Esteros
Directed by Papu Curotto
Argentina, 2016

Call me unsentimental, but I’ve grown tired of the simplistic narrative arcs of these adolescent wish-fulfillment fantasies so common to GTMs: Gay man as an adult recalls a formative experience or friendship with an ostensibly straight friend; they meet after they’ve grown up, and, miracle of miracles, the ostensibly straight friend turns out to be gay, too! Or at least willing to be gay once or twice for this particular gay friend. The presence of a straight-identified or ambivalent friend is an essential element of these films, as is an eventual collapse of will or surrender on the part of the straight-identified or ambivalent friend. Isn’t the gay-man-as-predator scenario considered homophobic by many?

Some films excise the adult version of the adolescent male couple, but that couple’s ghost of future past still haunts these narratives. They’re a variation of the same scenario, and the same sort of wish fulfillment. At best, it’s a projection of the adult filmmakers. At worst, it’s personally revisionist, but in a way that only the filmmakers know, and as such, it’s essentially pandering.

That’s not to say that neither type of these situations or relationships has never existed in the real world  — of course they have — but there’s so little variation of this theme in the movies that we get, it’s hard for me not to be skeptical or cynical. I’m also not saying that movies are not the place for wish-fulfillments or fantasies, but I’m a bit overloaded and bored by this particular subgenre’s predictability.

Further, these one-dimensional scenarios limit the emotional possibilities, for both characters and the audience, in exploring relationships of this kind and therefore lower the stakes. If the only thing on the line is whether or not the gay guy will get his man, how serious or honest are these films as biography or autobiography, leaving aside how valuable they even are as art? Aren’t they exercises in narcissism, and doesn’t gay male culture have quite enough of that already?

Here’s a short list of similar films that I’ve watched recently, including Esteros, the film at hand, that displays this basic narrative form. I’m sure there are more. There are, of course, significant stylistic and tonal differences among these disparate films, and a couple of them are quite good for what they are.

Hawaii, Marco Berger, Argentina, 2013
Bromance, Lucas Santa Ana, Argentina (again), 2016
Quand on a 17 ans (Being 17), André Téchiné, France, 2016
Hjartasteinn (Heartstone), Guðmundur Arnar Guðmundsson, Iceland, 2016
Chuck and Buck, Miguel Arteta, USA, 2000

I also watched Jan Krüger’s Freunde (Click here to watch it on YouTube), based on an A. M. Homes short story called The Whiz Kids, and although it sketches out this basic narrative, minus the adult male couple, the film is more precisely about how gender norms affect and style expressions of male/male desire, similar to the concerns of Bennys Gym and the bulk of Téchiné’s Quand on a 17 ans. The latter of which lost me when the sublimated desires of the two young men get consummated. I just didn’t believe it.

A better counter example and auto-critique of this genre is Miguel Arteta and Mike White’s Chuck and Buck. One reason I like the film so much is that it forces us to experience the embarrassment and discomfort that this GTM scenario would induce, should induce, in the real world. Buck’s obsession with one sexual act, one intimate friendship in his childhood, is sad, and his creepy, single-minded pursuit of reproducing that one perfect moment turns him into a monster, and more specifically and pointedly, a childlike monster.

When Buck does get what he wants, when Chuck gives it to him clearly as a way to get rid of him or shut him up, the film neatly foils and fulfills all the genre’s expectations. It kind of spits on them, actually. Not surprisingly, upon its release it was mostly met with confusion or approbation, and even accusations of homophobia.

As for Esteros, I can’t tell you anything about its plotline that you don’t already know, and other than the isolated screenshot below, I can’t really point out any particular image that moved me. I can’t talk about its style in any detail, because there’s nothing notable about it. It’s set in Argentina, for whatever that’s worth.

Anyway, here are Esteros’ two beautiful boys, and presenting them here like this in this beatific moment seems to be the main reason why this film exists at all:

And a shower scene for good measure. Foam is involved, too.

Curotto also directed a short film called Matías y Jerónimo, about the same but slightly younger male couple featured in Esteros, or at least with the same names, and it’s much better, partly because it doesn’t at all follow the predictable narrative pattern I sketched above, but mainly because it’s suggestive and expressive — about the possibilities of these young boys’ sexualities, primarily — rather than deterministic, and full of the color and flavor of Argentine carnival: