On Middle Age, Lenses, Dionysus And The Films Of Lisa Cholodeno; A Love Letter

I love the films of Lisa Cholodenko. I love her use of music and place, I love the light and shadow she employs with her cinematographer. I love her casting. I love the subject matter. *****

All her films, all of them have impressed me as strong, honest, and dangerous work.

There has been a lot of buzz about her latest film, The Kids Are All Right, for it's portrayal of a lesbian household shaken to the core by a male interloper, invited, ironically by the children of the couple. The film has received praise for it's complexity and vision of a truly 21st century family, and it has received meh reviews of it's perhaps upper to middle class first world problems, and it has received scathing reviews for it's betrayal of the lesbian community.

I liked the film very much.

I thought it an honest portrayal of how fucking hard long term relationships are, how ridiculous monogamy is generally speaking (though nearly impossible to come to terms with anything else), how middle age can at times SUCK ASS, and how sex is often not sex, but an other, often reactive and destructive form of communication and need, and also how desire is one weird mother fucker and once desire decided to get all up on your ass, you don't have a lot of recourse. Well, you do in terms of action, but my god...attraction is really hard to explain.

Spoiler Alerts For All The Films.

I did have a difficult moment in the film when Jules slept with Paul. I had a few difficult moments as well when the moms hovered over their kids, when Nic drank too much, when Jules had a hard time finding direction in her life, and when Paul realized, too late, what goodness was right in front of him and he tossed it away. When the kids idolized Paul only to be disappointed, that was difficult. I had lots of difficult moments because the movie was full of them.

So there's that. I liked the film because to me, straightish white lady, I recognized the commonality of life involving hard choices and difficult realizations.

Another theme in her films that I like even more is that of order vs chaos. There is a situation set to "normal" that gets turned on it's ear by a Dionysian figure. She uses images of sex and sexuality often to highlight the dichotomy.

In High Art, Syd is a stable young woman with a good job and nice boyfriend. She's happy for the most part in her normal, ordered life. Due to a leaky roof, she wanders into a veritable opium den of an apartment, filled with German artists, heroin and an amazing photographer with a past, Lucy.

Chaos ensues when Syd and Lucy cannot stay away from each other and they find themselves embroiled in a destructive and creative (both) love affair. There is sexuality in this film; a coupling gone quite wrong between Syd and her boyfriend, a trembling, anxious, passionate merging between Syd and Lucy.

In Laurel Canyon, Sam and Alex are a highly strung, upwardly mobile long term duo, moving to LA for a semester to finish their higher degrees. They presume themselves to be happy. Efficient. A good match. They are to stay at the empty Laurel Canyon home of Sam's mom, rock music producer Jane, only she's still there along with Ian, her lover, and the rest of his band. In this movie, both Jane and Ian are marked as bringers of chaos, but it is truly only Ian that is the Dionysian figure. Jane is too much a mother and producer to cause total havoc on her child, though she comes close. But havoc is wraught, with no small help from Sara, a fellow resident working with, and deeply attracted to, Sam.

Sam and Alex are frozen in their uptightness, both want release and passion but both are terrified. Sara wakes up the desire in Sam, Ian and Jane do the same for Alex. Sex is featured in this film as well, with Alex and Sam having what appears to be absolutely terrible, shirts on, perfunctory sex, and then with Alex and Sam finding steamier, more promising beginnings in Jane/Ian and Sara.

It's a big fucking mess at the end, with the only one truly unscathed being Ian, who sleeps like a baby in my favorite scene in the film, while everyone else frets, awake, ridden with guilt. Dionysus is not touched by mundane guilt.

The Kids Are Alright plays with this same theme. There is the order of the family home, the lovely kids, the amazing long term relationship of Nic and Jules. But the kids. The kids want to know who their father was and so, as kids do, they go and figure it out. And he's also a Dionysian figure. Where Lucy was a heroin addicted artist, and Ian/Jane were Rock and Roll (and Sara was full lipped European passion), Paul is an organic farmer and chef.

So much chaos ensues from his presence that the scene of Jules fucking Paul occurs which really has pissed of a great deal of people. Lenses. While I am quite clear on the depth of the problem of showing a lesbian sleeping with a man, I can see her sleeping with Paul in a completely different way. Less a betrayal of her lesbianism, I saw it as a real, if not weird as hell, connection between parents who should never have met, between artist types, between will-o-the-wisp types. She clearly is not in love with him, she is reacting, badly, to the major change in their family system, to the years of old patterns that may or may not have been functional between her and Nic. He pays attention to her, he appears to see her for who she is, and he happens to be the sperm donor of her child. He happens to be a man.

Her use of sexuality in this movie is the most explicit, with again a perfunctory, half clothed, awkward coupling between long term partners Nic and Jules and a full on romp in the sack with Jules and Paul. I do not want to believe the message here is that Masculinity is the cause of Jules' passionate sexual response, but novelty and escape.

(I do believe that LGBT films are given short shrift in mainstream Hollywood, and that portrayals of sexuality there should be just as hot and sexy as their straight counterparts.)

Things get political in the real world for that issue in the film. I'm not qualified to place a critique on the film in that manner, but I'll also admit that I have too much privilege to really get it. But I still like the film very much, for all the same reasons I love her previous two. Because aging is hard (it really is hard). Losing relevance is terrifying. Getting frozen in order, in weight, in rules and doing the right thing all the time for everyone is excruciating. And chaos is appealing and addictive and looks like an escape and actually sometimes is just that. But just as often it is nothing but fire and wine and vines tangling you inside yourself until you choke and take everyone down with you.

I think Lisa Cholodenko is right fucking on in this regard and I know that I can deeply relate to nearly all of the characters in her films, especially in Laurel Canyon (except for Ian, bless his rascal heart). LC was a film that helped me change course in my life in a core way, that helped me be more out, more honest, more free even while keeping some safe boundaries in place.

I think her work is dangerous because it asks us to examine those things in our own lives. Are we locked in a dead zone, in terms of our passion and creation? Are we running too wild, too destructively? Are we random or planned, rigid or passed right out? Are we able to be honest with those we love? Can we accept aging, losing and finding relevance as a younger generation comes along?

Can we deal with the glorious fucked-up-ed-ness of life itself?

I know I asked myself these questions when I saw Laurel Canyon. I'm still asking and answering them now. I thank her for that. Perhaps she's examining her own life, too, in front of us. That seems to me to be the most dangerous thing anyone can do, these days. If that's what she's doing, I thank her for that too.


  1. Enjoyed reading this review as well. I'm enjoying reading all of them. http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2010/7/21/the-gay-family-in-the-movie-comfort-zone/the-kids-are-all-right-backs-away-from-the-truth-about-gay-families-20

  2. Sinclair Sexsmith also has a great take on the movie http://www.afterellen.com/movies/2010/sugarbutch-says-the-kids-are-all-right

  3. Thanks for tweeting me a link to this post. Your takes on Cholodenko's other films (which I haven't yet seen) helped me understand the theme that people like Paul and Jules are playing out about being locked into a role and then finding someone who helps you see yourself differently. They're forces of change and chaos, which could also be called an important life force: like yin, or semen. If we can't embrace those dramatic differences in one way or another, we lose half of humanity, and half of our own possibility.


Post a Comment