Short Tragedies

A Review of Independent Shorts (SXSW 2018)

by Philip J. Hohle, Ph.D.

As a whole, those who selected the narrative short films for the 2018 SXSW festival are apparently obsessed with themes of gender identity. I have selected a number of these shorts to analyze for the deeper questions they raise—along with the obvious conflicts and concerns more conventionally found in the story. It is often the less noticeable films that make for the richest philosophical discussion.

These shorts do not represent the entire body of work being produced (the number of stories being made into short films is almost unfathomable). Neither does the examination here represent all the shorts submitted to film festivals—or even one festival. What it does represent are the choices this festival’s programmers made.

Inclusion in such a prestigious festival is more than just exposure for the filmmaker. It can be an attempt by the programmers to make a profound social statement. For SXSW 2018 there were only 20 shorts selected out of 3,600 entries (according to one programmer at a screening). As such, the prevalence of these themes could be taken as a representative sample among those included. While I am not privileged to know for certain, my instincts tell me they are not. As the programmer explained, they chose films “that will change your point of view.” The selection of these cinematic voices automatically implies that other voices, those not included, are marginalized. It would be interesting to know what those voices said.

An inclusion makes a statement that the subject matter, and the treatment of such, deserve the attention of, if not the public, at least the critic at this moment in time in this setting. I will note in this and other reviews that this alternative lens is not new. I recently this quote: “When a journalist becomes an activist, they are no longer journalists, but politicians.” The same applies to filmmakers; there may be rhetoric hidden under the screen's canvas—and if can taint the art.

If there is a cultural sea-change underway, the narrowed selection serves to further distance viewers from anything the previous generation held as true. No doubt, this purpose may be a subtle whisper from the infamous punk manifesto that defined the Cinema of Transgression. That statement was not so subtle: the aim of film should be to disrupt and disturb.

The reader may consider if there will be any conventions left to transgress before the beast has to turn and eat its own tail. If you consider the conventional social order to be immoral, this deconstruction is a good thing. In any case, the matter is not yet settled, so before we resign our society to this archipelago, there may be a few more propositions found in these films that need sober analysis.

Review of short: Men Don't Whisper

Understand that this reviewer is not gay. As such, it is not easy for him to understand the point of LBGTQ love stories. Like any character portrayed on screen, if one cannot feel the emotion or at least envision the bonds they feel, the lack of empathy will diminish the impact of the narrative. Perhaps that inability disqualifies me from making commentary on this short film. For better or for worse, I shall give it a go.

In light of these prevailing inabilities, the goal of a new wave of LBGTQ filmmakers seems to be an attempt to get straight folks to understand something. Perhaps it is for us to stop thinking this alternative relationship is different (ironically, it was commonly called queer in my day, and the term seems to stick).

I propose that this disruptive rhetoric is found more often in independent shorts as opposed to longer, studio films. Due to the financial stakes, executives of those projects can hardly gamble with the chance that the story will make the audience queasy. On the other hand, the independent filmmaker making low-budget shorts can bring these stories easily to the screen without the normal filtering.

Men Don't Whisper can be categorized as one in a genre where characters search for an elusive masculine identity. Of course, this is a theme for both gay and straight filmmakers, and the profound questions here are rather universal. In Men Don’t Whisper, two young men (a gay couple) realize they do not know which of them is the “man” in the relationship. Significantly, the film is centered on their attempt to find out which of them is masculine enough to claim that role.

This couple comes to the conclusion that, not unlike the perceptions of many straight men, only one who has sex with a woman can claim the title and role of a man. The film is mildly amusing as these two awkwardly attempt what is so unnatural to them—to pick up two girls in a hotel bar and take them upstairs for some easy sex. Without spoiling the ending, let us at least say that the encounter does not go well.

On a conventional level, this film is an exploration of what limits remain to the concept of masculinity in a postmodern world. When one studies the thematic trends in filmmaking, it is apparent that the quest to become a man has become a nostalgic artifact. While no couple can claim that each has a perfectly equal role—that is, one is always more dominant than the other—the once-honored character of the strong male has been eliminated from many current film narratives, especially in the shorts. In truth, a character like that would be portrayed more likely as the antagonist to one the more egalitarian protagonist. Critics embracing feminist ideology would argue that this he-man’s departure is good riddance. Thus the situation becomes an absurdist comedy when you find these two eunuch-like guys going old school to resolve a bet.

On a deeper level, the question of masculinity in this film becomes even more profound. I find the desire for someone to fill the role is significant in the context of today’s arguments over gender roles. Even in a liberated society—represented by an independent film free from the constraints of marketable conventions—the players ask the same uncomfortable question we are all asking right now.

I like to phrase the query in the popular song by Paula Cole from twenty years ago: “Where have all the cowboys gone?” Where are the men that use their sexuality, not simply to please oneself, but to serve and fulfill the woman—giving her what she really wants and needs? I have heard it said; you have to water the garden if you expect to enjoy the fruit. It becomes a vicious cycle; the boys cannot enjoy girls because they cannot give them pleasure. Of course, this is fiction, but if the two characters could, they might find their manly service to be fulfilling and enjoyable in return. Perhaps it is a universal problem among millennials; this generation has never learned how to make love. These casual relationships seem to be for the sole purpose of providing selfish pleasure and nothing else.

As many filmmakers propose, there can never be a masculine male without the character devolving into just another boy appeasing his unrestrained libido. One of the girls in this fiction exclaims, “Just having sex with a woman does not make you a man!” Of course, the journey these two girls are on provide their personal tale of tragic love, but we shall save that for another post. Still, their statement is profound. It is not just having sex that makes a man—but pleasing the opposite sex may have something to do with it. In any case, significantly, the story stops short of revealing the truth. No one gets it.

Back to the cowboy metaphor, we know the answer to the question: the romantic male-female love myth was busted in Brokeback Mountain. Still, it is significant that many filmmakers continually bring up the same question—where have all the cowboys gone? Popular western culture has succeeded in recoding the very image and idea of the cowboy as the hero. The strong, male protector no longer exists; instead, it is the male who needs to be rescued and mothered—or almost in the case of this couple, fathered. Here I am referring to the feminist take on Freudian psychology; the daughter looks for an image of her father in the boy she considers for a mate (that is, whatever healthy or unhealthy imprint the father made in her life). If these two guys are feminized, why would it be strange that they would be looking for the same archetypical father figure in each other? In any case, they both realize that neither can fill that role.

Essentially, the film proposes that having a partner play this role in a relationship does not matter anymore—a masculine man is no longer needed. Moreover, no one really misses him.

Or do we? The question will not be put to rest anytime soon.

Review of Are We Good Parents?

Another short included at the 2018 SXSW film conference posed good questions for anyone raising or who has raised a child. In recent decades, the role of the father has come under fire (think, Married with Children from the 1980s). In pop culture's stories, we continue to question the role of the parent in setting limits for their children.

In this short, a young teen daughter makes the announcement she is going on a date with someone named Ryan. What follows is a comedic life-examining by her champion-level liberal parents. The couple is filled with angst over the apparent choice of their child to date the opposite sex. Ironically, these same parents seem to have a closed heterosexual relationship. In a most Portlandia fashion, the two struggle with the possibility that they may not have eliminated all the heterosexual bias in the life of their child.

Audiences at these festivals seem to be quite open-minded (dare I say uber-liberal?). One can interpolate the political temperature from whatever gets laughs, groans, and by what questions they ask of the filmmakers after the screening. In this film, the audience found an opportunity for abundant laughs. It becomes evident they were able to scoff at the caricature of themselves without taking offense. On the conventional level, it was an exercise in poking fun at the far extreme of this kind of parenting—a cautionary tale for those on both sides of the political divide.

On a deeper level, the film raises the question of bias in another more limiting way. These are the liberal versions of helicopter parents, those who strive to protect their child from making wrong choices that they fear would be harmful—at least in the parent’s definition of harm. Here are some of the moral values/assumptions evident in this couple's parenting:

  • It is unhealthy and perhaps wrong for a child to fear the judgment of parents.
  • The sexual identity of a child is totally their choice (though this couple shows their bias in questioning that possibility).
  • When nature stacks the deck in one direction (your birth gender), ethical parents must do what they can to even the expected tug-of-war in the mind of the child.
  • A seemingly too easy choice to be heterosexual can be interpreted as immature thinking—or even rebellion.
  • An alternative choice in gender identity is a tribute to competent parenting (ergo, the title of the film)

Intentional or not, the filmmaker’s comments after the screening put the film into a new perspective. In making the film, she wondered if 18 was too late to come out as gay. Many would agree that children are becoming sexually aware earlier in life than kids in previous generations. Still, it is hard to remain neutral on this issue when one is aware of the problem of sexual abuse among children of all ages. It is one thing for a child to experience a natural and even healthy sexual awakening when the time is right. It is quite another thing when this exploration becomes abuse, and this difference must be guarded zealously. It is unquestionably right to protect kids from inappropriate adult intervention. Gay or straight, we all must monitor this boundary; if not, we allow predators a free pass to inflict harm on the innocent.

This film short raises some good questions. While we heap disdain on the undue influences of pop culture, we seldom consider if such a child’s decision on sexual orientation may be constructed on this same house of cards. Moreover, even kids are susceptible to confirmation bias and post-purchase rationalizations once they take a public stand on their identity (after they come out). If this way of thinking is not good for adults, should we, like the parents in this short, intervene to balance our child’s thinking?

Review of Tangles and Knots

Another short screened at SXSW18 was a gut-wrenching exploration of what is proper in a parent-child relationship. Referring to the bullet point made above about the taboo of parental judgment, this film can be perceived as a cautionary tale for those who forgo the traditional parent-child relationship in favor of a friend-friend arrangement.

In spite of her natural beauty, a teenage girl seems to be socially awkward among her peers. Her mother throws an alcohol-and-drug-infused pool party to prime the pump for her daughter. The strategy falters from the start, and ultimately, the mother takes matters into her own hands on behalf of her daughter. Alternatively, perhaps, it is her own needs that fuel the pitiful choices the mother makes as the party winds down.

The twist in this short is how that friend-friend relationship itself is questioned. In truth, even a good friend will challenge our thinking and our choices. Beyond seeing her daughter as a friend, the mother appropriates the life of her child. As such, like a few of the other narratives at the festival depict, the ownership of the child’s identity becomes a site of conflict.

Certainly, this is a universal, time-honored theme in drama: a child leaving the parent and becoming a separate person. Significantly, this tale is set in the context of a single or divorced mother clearly wearing the yoke of her own unfulfilled dreams as she further burdens her daughter. The dysfunctional twist in this film is that the mother’s vicarious possessing becomes an expression of her own self-loathing.

Sadly, festival viewers heard that this film is based on the filmmaker’s own experience as a daughter of such a mother. Unfortunately, these troubled relationships are quite common in society. This short film is a shocking tragedy, best considered in the same genre of film that explores the ongoing consequences of broken marriages.

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