Monday, September 13, 2004

Somersault and gay-bashing

If Somersault (wr/dir Cate Shortland) is one of Australia’s most outstanding films of recent years then the Australian election has been clearly overtaken in The Most Depressing Thing Around at the Moment stakes.

[Warning: Plot spoiler alert from now on!]

I saw it last night, not knowing anything about it other than (i) it was filmed in Jindabyne, (ii) with a beautiful young female protagonist and yet arthouse/Cannes cred, it was almost certainly going to be a chick flick, and (iii) the story was based on a real-life murder of a gay man.

The last of the snippets of information had come from my ex, via an interview with Cate Shortland on “The Movie Show”, apparently. I’m not sure of its exact veracity (so typical of my ex!) because elsewhere (PDF), Shortland has said her inspiration came from the trial that followed the brutal bashing (but not murder, I assume) of a gay friend of hers by a young man met at a beat. Specifically, Shortland’s fascination was with the supportive-in-court young girlfriend of the young male accused – a woman who was the nucleus for Somersault protagonist Heidi.

Now, Females who Cling to Homophobic Arseholes doesn’t strike me as a particularly promising inspiration for a film’s central character. It might be perfect fodder for a depressing documentary or its told-as-fiction equivalent (Monster), but here in Australia, we seem to like our protagonists sunny-side up, i.e. mostly sympathetic. Cate Shortland’s curious – and probably cavalier – triumph has been to nonetheless craft the requisite sympathy in and for the character of Heidi.

As for her character’s relationship with a homophobic arsehole, Heidi’s clinginess – to the character of Joe, and all else – can’t be faulted. Personally, I can’t stand such women (as they invariably are) in real life, but I accept that such types – Fucked-up Woman Takes Small Step Forward at end of movie – are a staple of chick flicks.

Inevitably, the fact that Heidi is all-round clingier than McDonalds on one’s pancreas dilutes the actual homophobic venom in (equally fucked-up) boyfriend Joe. The gay bashing/murder scene is depicted so lightly that it is ambiguous as to whether it really even takes place. Such ambiguity may be well and good for Heidi’s character journey – she gets the best of both worlds, by having been a tourist in Hell-Lite, and getting to grow (!) by the experience – but it sure leaves Sam hanging, and with him, the whole topic of male homophobic hate-crimes.

Because of this, Somersault is a seriously-flawed film. Irrespective of her real-life inspirations for it, Shortland had a duty to either cover male homophobic violence properly, or leave it well alone. (Hint to future would-be filmmakers on this subject: if you think that the topic makes a perfect fit with a Female Protagonist Finds Herself story, then you’re wrong.)

Finally, a disclosure (which possibly explain this whole post as just a personal over-reaction to a few seconds of Shortland’s film). The film, although mostly set in Jindabyne, is intertwined with the locale and characters of white-trash Canberra and its surrounds – a fact I didn’t know until the movie was unspooling. I lived in and near Canberra for two years in the mid-90s, during which time my friendly local (and gay) GP was Dr Peter Rowland. Dr Rowland was murdered by three local young men in 1996 (same URL) in what was almost-certainly a hate crime. At the time of the murder, he was living in a farmhouse outside Canberra – a setting very similar (I imagine) to the farmhouse where the Older Gay Man in Somersault lives, and is murdered/bashed/or-is-it-a-dream by Heidi’s boyfriend Joe.

Whether Cate Shortland consciously used Peter Rowland’s murder as her inspiration I don’t know – I accept that the similarities could just be a coincidence. But even if so, Somersault is a woeful and exploitative film, for its use of the nastiest recesses of the male psyche as a transient plot device to achieve a Lassie-comes-home closing moment.

Update 14 September 2004

Just to clarify a couple of things about the relationship of Cate Shortland’s film to gay-bashing and to Peter Rowland’s murder.

Peter Rowland was murdered by a gang of three men, who (AFAIK) had (i) heard he was gay and (ii) went to his house to kill him because of that fact. Homophobic young men who go – invariably (i) alone and (ii) for no explicable reason – to notorious beats or to pay a social home visit to The Town Poof, and then bash and/or kill, are in a slightly different category.

Not, I stress, a lesser category of moral or legal culpability – rather, they have a different psychological make-up, and in particular, one in which their confused sexual identity would be plain for most to see, and especially plain to their girlfriends.

Joe’s character in Somersault shows zero credible signs of confused sexual identity. In other words Shortland has, by default, depicted Joe as a gang-of-one of the sort that killed Peter Rowland. But she had to draw this character manqué for narrative reasons – keeping Joe both one-dimensional and relatively psychologically stable allows Heidi to safely reach, and then cleanly leave rock-bottom. For the real girlfriends of Peter Rowland’s murderers, the situation would be quite different, at a guess, especially in terms of collusion in the crime.

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