Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Picked Flick #59: The Crying Game

Neil Jordan's The Crying Game lives and dies by the power of the narratives it produces, both within the movie and among its audiences. I saw the movie when I was in high school, and yes, I had already surmised the Twist. Oscar's taxonomies only confirmed suspicions that I had already gleaned from the unique sort of hubbub swirling around this tiny picture. People I knew seemed as proud not to have "figured out" the riddle as they normally were to outwit one—what was that about? Time Magazine devoted a stand-alone story to the movie, which was exceptional enough, but then when I re-read the article to figure out why it read so strangely, and I noticed how stringently the whole article refused personal pronouns, my inner switch really clicked. For me, though, Knowing the Secret was only the start of the voyage, and the fun. As a 15-year-old, privy only to the dimmest and most distant Morse Code bulletins about my own desires, the prospect of seeing a movie where homosexuality figured so decisively—and presumably in a way that avoided or at least challenged the old stereotypes, since otherwise, would Time have cared?—was almost unutterably delicious. My older brother and his friend saw it the night before I did, and though they were both totally stunned by "the" revelation, neither of them were all that moved. They drove me to the same shopping-mall multiplex the next night so that I could see for myself, and then joined me right following for Scent of a Woman. Thank goodness Scent hardly required more than a modicum of attention, so I could easily sit there replaying The Crying Game over and over inside my mind, hyperstimulated to a level that verged on the narcotic.

Watching The Crying Game now is nothing like the same experience, for any number of reasons. Both in my personal life and in the wider culture, the film's images of a gay watering hole and its verbal and visual rhetoric around homosexuality seem almost quaint. Maybe in 1992 The Crying Game already looked quaint to people who had actually visited a gay bar or a drag performance, or who had real-life honest-to-God queer acquaintances. As for me, I was watching from a vantage of such conjecture and fantasy that I remember feeling wholly seduced, not by the secrets but by the surfaces: how beautiful Dil was, how much I liked her form-fitting wine-colored suit and Miranda Richardson's heavy cable-knit sweater (thus commencing my 14-year affair with Sandy Powell), and best of all, how capably and, in my opinion, sophisticatedly the film interwove its sexual themes into other political arguments. In a film that, as far as I had been told, pivoted entirely on one big reveal, it seemed to me that The Crying Game was about sexuality only to the extent that it was about everything else that it was about. Captation, friendship across enemy lines, a lover's grief, unwelcome revenants from the past, hot and cool approaches to protest and subversion... The Crying Game didn't deny or derealize queer sexuality, but nor did it divorce sexuality from a bigger, gnarlier knot of human problems, and this, for me, was its Big Twist. As little as I had let myself really think about homosexuality, I had thought even less about terrorism and guilt and secret honor, and even less than that about how sexuality could bleed through, in, around, and as those other ideas. Similarly, as floored as I was by Jaye Davidson's performance as Dil—not his casting but his performance—and as therefore aggrieved as I was by Oscar's preference of Gene Hackman, I also clocked Adrian Dunbar's searing indignation, Stephen Rea's recessive sadness, Miranda Richardson's shifting web of motivations, and Jim Broadbent's unobtrusive whimsy as the barman. The Crying Game, just as much as Howards End the same year, was my introduction to great character acting; understandably, it took another year or two for me to recognize that people outside of Britain knew how to do this.

When I watch the film now, I am conscious of an enormous reversal in my relation to it. At times, the mystery of Dil seems actively to impede the flow and clarity of the picture, and a few of her boozy, pill-popping, floridly bruised, bondage-inflected episodes near the end feel none too advanced from Celluloid Closet tropes. The innuendoes of admiration and genital contact in the opening scenes between Rea and Forest Whitaker are much too obviously suggestive of later turns, although it's still a powerfully understated study in tacit, almost illicit affinity between hostage and patrol. Anne Dudley's score is as impressively Hitchcockian as Jordan's writing, and even if the screenplay, which I remembered as such a sinuous exercise in subtle connections, now feels a little bullish and schematic, I'm still duly impressed by the performances and by Jordan's success in getting his own head into such territory in 1992, much less that of his rapt global audience. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

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Blogger tim r said...

Fabulous post. I must see this again. You're quiet on Whitaker though — not so taken?

6:00 PM, April 18, 2006  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

I rated him much higher this time than I did initially—though, since his scenes now seem somewhat duty-bound to exposition, and he's almost visibly smirking at what we will only "find out" later, I still don't cotton to him completely. He's not quite as manipulative or as formidable as I wish he were, if the character is really doing what I take him to be doing.

6:19 PM, April 18, 2006  

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