It may not speak to you, or to me, but that doesn’t mean that individual genres — sci-fi, fantasy, westerns, musicals, tear-jerkers, et. al. — don’t have a voice or don’t have something to say.
Most genre films adhere to their respective conventions religiously. They convey meaning to and extort emotional responses from their fans via shortcuts — codes, markers, character types, plot outlines, even plot twists. These forms, and the idea that humans need forms to transmit culture, are as old as folk tales and storytelling itself.
But just because there’s a formula to follow does mean that it’s easy to whip up a batch of generic whup-ass. The recent Apollo 18 proves that point by adhering to the faux-reality, neo-doc, diegetic style founded by The Blair Witch Project and continuing through the Paranormal Activity franchise and nevertheless creating something inert and enervating. I was bored sillly.
If a genre film doesn’t speak to you, don’t speak to it. Either accept it on its own terms and proceed from there or shut the fuck up. I say that mostly to critics but also to film geeks. It’s possible to critique and appreciate a film, or not, from within the genre it’s working from (or against, like Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven) or to critique the genre itself. Any other approach looks like a rhetorical maneuver to either feel superior to or attempt to shame the fans who are into the film or the genre. Either way, it’s lame.
Why the fuck am I talking about this?
Because Roger Ebert dismissed Shelter, an affecting gay love story primarily by attempting to shame those who did like it (It’s got a rating of 7.7 from over 5000 people on IMDb; I gave it an 8.) and by referring to it as a “Movie of the Week.” (Which it literally is.) Here’s his opening paragraph:
In the 1970s there flourished a phenomenon known as the Movie of the Week. These television productions were often issue-oriented dramas about individuals learning to overcome obstacles: disabilities, diseases, drugs, pollution, killer semis, teen waywardness, nuclear annihilation, being “different.” Sometimes they won Emmys. Mostly they [sic.] mediocre, generally described as “well-intentioned” and even, occasionally, “daring” in their subject matter.
You don’t really have to read the rest of the review to figure out what he thought of the movie. I will say that, besides this lame rhetorical maneuver, he also seems to have watched a different movie than me. (And he did: See above.) He writes that Trevor Wright’s lead character Zach lacks personality and that Brad Rowe’s Shaun has “maturity.”
Ebert not only missed Wright’s spot-on, never-out-of-character performance, he also seemed to miss the film’s subtle suggestion that maybe Shaun should grow up. To grasp that, one only has to contrast Zach’s acceptance of his life’s responsibilities with Shaun’s running from his into the arms of a childhood fantasy, with Zach’s acceptance into CalArts and Shaun’s whoring out his writing talent for, ahem, stupid direct-to-DVD schlock. In other words, one has only to watch the movie to understand who’s actually mature. Ebert, however, is more concerned with what genre it fits in and refers to. Every dismissal follows from this fallacious framing. And that’s all this “review” is, namely a list of glib, sarcastic dismissals. What was right before his eyes were the ways this film plays with and inside genres — not with its plot moves but with complex performances and characterizations.
For instance, what prompts Zach to reunite with Shaun is not his memories of hot sex or even an admission of love, it’s the need to find a very pragmatic solution to his two biggest problems — how to afford art school and how to take care of his younger brother, Cody. The fact that he gets a boyfriend in the process isn’t even icing on the cake — it’s a price that has to be paid. It’s paid easily and with some pleasure, but it’s still a price. I can’t imagine a simplistic genre flick recognizing the kinds of compromises that gay men, particularly young gay men, and women, must make in order to survive in this world. Projecting into Zach’s and Cody’s futures, I can’t see them sticking with Shaun for longer than it takes to make it on their own. They’re the real couple in the movie. “You don’t belong to people forever,” Zach’s former girlfriend tells him. “Then why bother?” he asks. That the movie asks and attempts to answer that philosophical question tells me we’re not being told a typical coming-out story, that the issues are more interesting than that.
Wright’s is a mature, full-bodied, detailed and committed performance. He makes clear Zach’s indifference and subsumption of his own sexuality in the breakup scene in which he admonishes Shaun not to “get all emotional and faggy on me, ok?” all while tears stream down his already wet face. The denial and shame is heart-breaking and all Shaun can say is, “You’re a coward. You’re a fucking coward.” I really disliked Shaun at that moment.
That scene contains real emotional truth but so do the scenes of sex-play in which grins of pleasure and relief flash across Zach’s face as he gets his first blow job from a guy. The luxuriant contentment on his face when Shaun tells him he’s beautiful, made it seem as if it were something he’s been waiting forever to hear. I got the strong feeling that this character had never felt loved before, never felt valued. That’s what he gets from Shaun and we get him through Wright’s performance.
Equally strong is the confrontation between Zach and his sister, Jeanne, played by an adept Tina Holmes. She’s berating him for not being honest with her about the nature of his relationship with Shaun, forgetting that in a previous scene she’d made it clear that she couldn’t deal with it if Zach were gay. Then she asks him if he really thinks being in an open relationship with a man is good for Cody. He answers in quick succession: “Yes. No. I don’t know!” It’s obvious he doesn’t. The confusion of both is honest and refreshing to see dramatized without judgment. I just don’t think we’re in “Movie of the Week” territory with these scenes.
Shelter is a gay crowd-pleaser without the guilt — cheeseball montages, sentimental pop songs, and shirt-shedding sex scenes along with it all.