Queer and Feminist Film
Movie in the Real World Assignment
My “real world” film experience took place here on campus at a film screening of “Thick Relations,” in the Goodhand Room at the Penn LGBT Center. The hour and a half-long screening drew an intimate crowd of sixteen and featured a post-film question and answer period with the film’s director Jules Roskam and writer, Alex Samets. I went to see this film on my own and while it was not screened in a traditional public theater, the setting of the LGBT center and the audience dynamics certainly had a significant impact on the film experience as a whole, and more specifically, how I experienced the characters in the film.
I am particularly interested in the LGBT center as a space, its history, function, utility, and perhaps why this space was chosen as a location to screen “Thick Relations.” The LGBT Center has an important history and mission at Penn. Founded in 1982 as the first LGBT Center in the Ivy League, and one of the first on any college campus in the nation, the center has historically served as a safe space for sexual and gender non-conforming individuals. It is a cultural hub on campus that Lambda constituent groups, organizations from other Penn umbrella hubs, and local community groups and activists all have access to. It is a space that celebrates education, community, diversity, non-conformity, support and mentorship, but it is not a space unmarked by violence or homophobia. The center, after all, only formed and expanded in the aftermath of several homophobic incidents on campus including an incident when a gay sophomore was beaten up severely by a fellow Penn student. The center is also a space that has had to fight hard for additional funding, staff support, and campus visibility over the years.
In light of the fact that “Thick Relations” is a queer film, with a queer director and writer, that follows the intricate and intertwining lives of a diverse gender and sexual-nonconforming group of family friends in Chicago, it seems fitting that the LGBT center was the setting of choice for the film to be screened. I coin the phrase “family friends” to signify that this group of queer friends depicted in the film served as each other’s family, sense of belonging and home away from home, a reality that was evident both in their interpersonal dynamics, embraces and interactions in the film itself, but also in the director’s anecdotal sharing of having acquired this “queer family” in Chicago with the individuals that he casted in the film. This theme of family instantly reminded me of our class discussion of New Queer Cinema particularly, “By Hook or By Crook,” and the film’s similar theme of leaving home to find queer community elsewhere. Director, Jules Roskam mentioned many of the common violences that his family friends had all overcome, violences and losses that characterized their everyday existence and queer identity in the city of Chicago, but also that brought them closer to each other and to the places that they deemed safe spaces, the same way the LGBT center serves as a save meeting space for queer students and allies at Penn; for many, a home away from home.
One recurring theme throughout the film was the idea of gathering in the kitchen and finding family and friendship while cooking and breaking bread together. The opening scene of the film, features seemingly real conversations as the four friends discuss work and relationships over dinner and wine. In another scene, two queer female characters share intimate morning conversation while cooking and eating breakfast together before work. The camera frequently zooms in on the food and beverages that they prepare and consume. While watching the film, I kept thinking about times I have seen some of my own friends convene in the LGBT center’s kitchen just adjacent to the Goodhand Room and in the Goodhand Room itself. I think about the role that food plays in fostering community and how the very space that I am sitting in has been used as a place for queer students to gather with food and drinks. With this theme in mind, I find it interesting that the “Thick Relations” film-screening event did not provide food or beverages for the talk-back at the end of the film. I think food and beverages would have been a strong addition to the experience that could have brought to life one of the major family themes in the film.
Another safe space for the friends in “Thick Relations” is the neighborhood queer bar that they frequent. Jules Roskam shared how this bar in real life serves as a place where his friends can “happen to run into each other” on any given night of the week, a place where they find community, comfort, freedom of expression, and family. While watching the bar scenes in the film and after hearing the director speak about his experiences in the bar, I thought about Halberstam’s account of the bar scene in “By Hook or By Crook.” In Halberstam’s piece In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives, Halberstam writes, “Different key scenes from the film build, capture, and sustain this method of universalizing queerness” (Halberstam 95). Halberstam describes the scene in “By Hook or By Crook” that is set in San Francisco’s notorious Lexington Bar, where the queer characters in the film and in real life find a sense of universal queerness and community, just as they do in “Thick Relations.”
In addition to thinking about the sense of inclusivity that I felt while watching a queer film in a queer-friendly space amongst a seemingly queer and allied audience, I think it is equally important to think about the politics of exclusivity that were present in my film experience as well. For example, I think about the fact that even though the event was free for me as a student, reserving space at the LGBT Center does cost money, which could pose as a potential barrier for certain groups or individuals who lack the funds to accommodate reserving the space for their own communal gathering or activism. Furthermore, I contemplate the “type” of audience that this event attracted. In the small crowd of sixteen at the screening, I knew or recognized almost half of the crowd either as members of the queer and activist community at Penn, as fellow students from the Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies department, or as professors whose courses largely engage with queer and feminist theory and themes. While I think this recognizably well-read, queer-friendly crowd created an air of safe space for me while watching and discussing the film, I cannot help but wonder if there was an exclusion that took place in terms of who the event was marketed to. I wonder if the same conversations would have taken place if there were more students in attendance who lacked a background in queer studies and identity politics, and I wonder what the advertising techniques and strategies were for this particular event. Certainly, I think many of the conversations and themes that the film evoked are conversations that are most useful when they are not limited to the queer/allied community. On the other hand, I feel certain conversations and observations are only made possible by safe space. Perhaps art mediums such as film are the very vehicles that bring “outsiders” into certain spaces and bridge the gap between communities.
A final observation about my “real world” film experience is that this film did not follow any particular storyline or timeline. The focus of the film was always about the present, not the future, not the past. In the talk-balk, the director spoke to the theme of present living and experiencing and the importance of applying this mentality to how we experience film and art. This means not being burdened by time and not comparing what we see to our own expectations of what should be or what conflicts should occur and/or be resolved. The director addressed the anxieties and distortions that futuristic thinking can cause. This reminds me of Robert McRuer’s assertion that the film “Bad Education” critiques the future by being “simultaneously futural and antifutural” (McRuer 18). “Thick Relations” director, Jules Roskam similarly claimed, “I could not be less interested in timelines and plots…time creates tension and that’s why the audience doesn’t grasp a sense of time in the film.” While watching the film, I could sense that the audience was invited to feel a sense of ease about the queer community being depicted whose complete pasts, futures, and queer sexual and gender identities are never explicitly revealed.
Halberstam, Jack. “Lovely and Confusing: By Hook or By Crook and the Transgender Look” excerpt from In a
Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives. New York: NYU Press, 2005. 92-6.
McRuer, Robert. “No Future for Crips: Disorderly Conduct in the New World Order; or, Disability Studies on
the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.” Disorderly Conduct Conference. Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. 25 July 2009.