film analysis: Benny's Gym

Fighting through hetereosexism

Bennys Gym
Written and directed by Lisa Marie Gamlem
25 min, Norway, 2007

“How do I know I’m gay?”

That may seem like a dumb question, or at least an easy one to answer for many people, but young men and boys and even some older men, ask that honest question all the time. Some of them end up being gay, at least as our societies define and structure what it means to be gay at this point in time, and some of them don’t. Most of them don’t, although many of us men ask the question, and that’s an important thing to remember. It must be one of our era’s great comic tragedies that such a question would make perfect sense for so long for so many.

Why does anyone need to wonder at all? Why is there anxiety and confusion not just for boys that grow up gay but for ones that don’t? The material evidence for being gay seems like an easy thing to uncover, unless it means something other than sexual arousal. For an adolescent, if the presence or bodies of other boys excites him or makes his dick hard, that’s a sign of something, right? Even if it doesn’t indicate a lifelong attraction to the same sex then at least it denotes a temporary one. But that obvious answer is rarely the one any boy gets when he asks that question. And what about emotional attachments? Pubescent and adolescent boys form powerful relationships with peers, more often than not with other boys. It’s not hard to spot crushes, or to remember them, and to see and understand the reasons for the constant wrestling, jostling, teasing, touching, crotch-grabbing, butt-patting and sometimes, gay-baiting.

The reason why it’s hard to determine whether one is gay or not as a kid or adolescent is not just homophobia or heterosexism, internalized or not, and it’s not because sexual orientation is not yet fixed — most agree it’s more or less fixed early — it’s because being straight and being gay is not all that different in affect. That’s true even though everything all boys are taught about faggots is that being gay is different from being a man in some essential way. Who’s not-a-man is described and proscribed in greater detail than who is-a-man, to all of our detriment. The state of “not being gay” and calling other boys “fag” is one way that adolescent males prove, not that they’re straight, which is the default and taken-for-granted, but that they’re men. In that light, “gay panic” doesn’t seem irrational in a homophobic culture. Most boys don’t want to lessen their masculine status, even if other boys get their dicks hard. Anyone could be gay, it seems, and kids understand that better than adults.

(Sociologist Marc MCormack and others in his field call this homohysteria. I like the word a lot. I’m reading his very interesting book, The Declining Significance of Homophobia, and what I continue to learn will probably change the terms I use to talk about these issues in the future. I’m pleased that McCormack confirms something I’ve said for years — that one of the more important ways adolescent boys define themselves as men is by being “not gay.” The centrality and ubiquity of that demand is telling and it affects not only the identity formations of boys and how they relate to one another, and to women, but how artists end up making art and how filmmakers make movies, and how critics talk about them.)

Whatever being straight means and whatever being gay means, one thing that’s been true since men were men is that the identities, allegiances, attachments, privileges and obligations of all men are interdependent. We have always already been men together. How honest we are about those interdependencies has been an obsession of mine, not least when I evaluate art.

So I have an ongoing interest in representations of sexualities and masculinities in film, and the intersections of the two. My 1988 senior film was called Pictures of Maleness. It contained, among other images, shots of my roommate Janet in male drag. (No one who saw the film noticed that the dude in a towel with slicked-back hair was a woman.) The final shot depicted me nude in a basement with my junk tucked between my legs, while on the soundtrack a child on a playground shouted, Wait for me!

My senior thesis paper analyzed the “homosexual subtext” of Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me, using semiotics. (Not a method I would ever use again!) I compared the relative honesty of the source novella — Stephen King’s The Body — with the coy, romantic nostalgia of the film. In the novella, King’s narrator, a writer named Gordon Lachance, worried as an adolescent that his peers would think that he and his best friend had “gone faggot,” that their friendship and the self-improving pact they’d made would be seen as gay. As an adult, Lachance admits that whatever it was not, it was definitely love, and that had worried him. That’s a lot more honesty than we usually get out of straight filmmakers and writers, even the ones lauded as auteurs and liberals.

I believe that one’s own heterosexism affects not just attitudes, actions and political affiliations but also aesthetics and the values assigned to various styles and forms in the mainstream film canon, a canon contoured and constructed with largely heterosexist values. This isn’t a new assertion — feminists and queer theorists have made such claims about the literary canon before, to Harold Bloom’s horror — but the case has not been made strongly since Robin’s Wood’s seminal essay, The Responsibilities of a Gay Film Critic. Encountering daily the omissions, elisions and evasions of straight (and incidentally gay) film critics as they talk about cinema and the limited and often adolescent ways they include sexuality in those discussions, I think it’s past time to take a good look at what we find valuable and why.

I’m hypersensitive perhaps to the ways that films depict masculinity and sexuality. Images, characters and narrative arcs, and all the assumptions and unexamined decisions made when scripts are written and shots composed, make clear to anyone looking and paying attention that for most filmmakers and critics, all human sexuality = heterosexuality. Such assumptions are of course heterosexist and homophobic, but they not only structure and inform the making of films but their interpretations by critics and scholars, their receptions by audiences, and most importantly how these films get marketed and distributed, and therefore what sorts of movies get made after.

What gets remembered.

These heterosexist assumptions by and large go unnoticed and unannotated by the majority, even by critics and filmmakers who might deny that they’re homophobic or heterosexist, or who would be offended by being accused of either, or who might have championed films with gay characters, gay-liberation themes or films directed by gay men. (Someday I’ll write about how funny it was to read Jonathan Rosenbaum slam Brokeback Mountain for “flattering our sense of tolerance.” He’s wrong about the movie but for the right reasons. I love him for it.) Finally, by describing a film as heterosexist I don’t mean to imply that I’ve exhausted its meanings or its effects by using that adjective.

I could have chosen a dozen films to analyze, ones that I enjoy or have thought about a lot, to put forth as counter-examples to heterosexist filmmaking, but I’m choosing Benny’s Gym, a 2007 25-minute film from Norway, written and directed by Lisa Marie Gamlem — as much for its temporal and ideological brevity, and for its conventionality, as for the considerable pleasures it offers as an art film. For the most part, I’m leaving out any discussion of the film’s style. The film focuses on the burgeoning friendship between two young boys and the social risks they take or decline to take when their emotional attachments to one another become obvious, and in the case of one, start getting in the way of his ability to move freely in masculine social circles.

Alfred is an outcast, and maybe an artist — he has a sketchbook anyway. His hair is dark and curly, and he often hides those facts under a knitted cap. Benny’s Gym opens with his being bullied by a group of boys, most bigger than him, most of them blonde, led by spiked ‘n’ and skinny Benny, more or less the ringleader, who lets his comrades push Alfred around while he pisses on the sketchbook.

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Yet in the next scene, we’re shown Benny checking out a shirtless Alfred, who’s oblivious, in the school’s gym locker-room. He looks guilty for how he treated Alfred, and in fact one of the other bullies is showing off a fake tattoo on his back that spells that out, but there’s also something else in his eyes.

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So, are either of the two boys gay in the film?

I’ve watched it 5 times and I still don’t know. We’re not supposed to know, or rather, that’s not one of the questions that gets asked here. So it’s liable to frustrate gay-identity activists and homophobes alike. Yes, after riding double on a stolen motorbike — there’s always that in movies like these —

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Benny teases Alfred by telling him he wants to fuck him and then kisses him awkwardly on the mouth — like a joke, like a challenge, like a test of himself and his friend, and of homosocial boundaries — but he also notices girls, too.

In a funny scene, upon meeting Alfred’s mom, he calls her “foxy” and flirts like a teenager. But can we know enough in a 25-minute film how this very young boy will present, practice and publicize his sexuality when he gets older, or even tomorrow? Can we know enough about anyone by observing a single act to determine how and who they love?

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Here’s the conversation before the kiss:

Benny: You know what’s irritating about you? You never hit back. Why not?
Alfred: Because you want me to.
B: What if I wanted to fuck your mother
A: That’s your problem.
B: What if I wanted to fuck you?
A: Right!
B: I really do! I really do!
A No way! I’m fucking Gandhi!
R Who’s Gandhi?

Here’s Alfred watching Benny drive off on the motorbike, just after that exchange and after the kiss — a kiss that Alfred pretended to find disgusting. He doesn’t seem to find it disgusting here.

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Benny’s Gym is more about masculine gender presentation and the homosocial boundaries it enforces than it is about sexuality, which, other than the half-serious kiss and a couple of slow dances with girls, doesn’t figure much at all in the film. Everything is a ritual and a mask, and a means to an end that’s not predicted by its form. Benny has to defuse the implications of the kiss by making it seem like an act of masculine bravery — “At least I’m not chicken,” Benny says when Alfred laughs and calls him sick — and it is kind of an act of bravery, because it’s open to interpretation. During those dances, in fact, the two boys are looking at each other, and sharing similar moments from across the room. We can’t even see the faces of the girls.

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There is one scene in which the audience might expect some kind of sexual exploration, however. Benny escapes his abusive dad by spending the night with Alfred in his tree house. Benny’s demeanor isn’t exactly open or grateful. He responds angrily to Alfred’s questions and concern, and resents the fact that he has to seek help at all. The boys sleep next to each other, Alfred on a mattress, Benny with a blanket on the floor. There’s an overhead shot of this arrangement, both boys awake but not talking. The night passes, morning comes with a shot of the sun through the trees. Then there’s a closeup of two feet, the toes of one playing with the other. It’s unclear if they are the feet of two boys, or of just one, but it struck me as a tease. I re-watched the scene and decided that it’s probably just one boy’s pair of feet, under a blanket. The next shot shows Alfred waking up to find Benny gone.

Despite the intimate time they spend together, Benny is unwilling to let the rest of his friends know about his new friendship with Alfred. When Alfred shows up at the gang’s hangout to give Benny back his Bennys Gym jacket, Benny pretends not to know him and seems shamed to have Alfred talking to him at all. “Why would I hang out with him? He’s a loser!”

Alfred doesn’t respond well to this dismissal and calls Benny a coward. Then he jumps him and the two boys tussle on the ground. The rest of the kids eventually separate the two of them and Alfred hurries off. At that point, it’s clear that Benny’s masculine honor and social capital have been jeopardized, so he takes off after Alfred, intending something violent. His gang follows.

Director Gamlem builds tension quickly in this final scene — as the film opens with a pursuit and a threat of violence, it ends that way, too — and I realized that despite the film’s middle segments being devoted to showing the innocent pleasure the two boys get from each other’s company as well as the casual flirtations, this final confrontation — a kind of ultimatum from the social order — was more or less inevitable.

But the denouement was unexpected, as Benny comes to regret the costs exacted in order for him to retain his masculine social capital. The greater cost would be losing Alfred. Gamlem gives the film a final satisfying reversal, as Alfred finds himself the leader and it’s Benny who has to hurry to catch up. The boys go off together, mock-fighting, and the film doesn’t show or give a hint as to what might happen next between them. If we’re frustrated at that, we’ve missed the point. But there are any number of moments that anyone of any orientation can identify with — moments that are true to what we know about human sexuality, about the struggle for sexual freedoms, about our own honest memories — and that’s what it means to make a non-heterosexist film.

What Benny’s Gym does show is attraction between two boys, and the gender and social hierarchies such an attraction threatens, but perhaps it offers hope that individuals can resist, even if it requires taking the demands of masculinity to the logical extremes, and moving past them. Benny is shown as much of a victim as those he’s bullied and in need of comfort and forgiveness, like anyone. So in the film’s final seconds, we find out his real name.

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Despite the lack of overt sexuality or any revelations of orientation, someone will always try to make sexual orientation the central question — for instance, by putting it on compilations marketed exclusively and heavily to gay men. This particular compilation is called Boys Briefs 5: Schoolboys (unavailable currently on either Amazon or TLA), thereby ensuring that straight men and many straight women will stay away from it, or never hear of it. That’s too bad, because its non-judgmental depiction of the emergence of a boyhood friendship has a lot to say about that, and about young masculinity in general, a lot more in its 25 minutes than we’re given in all 165 of Richard Linklater’s studiously heterosexist and totalizing Boyhood

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