Reasons to see indie film “Weekend” this weekend

Indie film “Weekend” lingers on the connection between two gay men after a one-night stand. (Courtesy of www.lasplash.com)

There is a raging maniac urgency underneath the cucumber-cool surface of the limited-release Indie film — you know the type. We presuppose these “quiet” and “thought-provoking” and often “foreign” films to have a stable niche audience of art school students and masochistic yuppies — but they don’t. From the increasingly corporate festival circuit to the please-buy-me distributor dance to the inertia of limited-release invisibility, the Indie is always fighting for survival in an incredibly vicious market. This viciousness is masked by a certain bourgie-bohemian “oh whatever, art is art, money’s no matter” sensibility which in the end does nothing to mitigate the dollars-and-cents realities of film production — capitalism’s still capitalism even when it’s arthouse.

Alright, further preambling be damned — I’ll cut to the chase. You should all trek to Philly to see Andrew Haigh’s “Weekend,” playing at the Ritz Bourse (400 Ranstead Street). I would tell you how long it’s going to be in theatres except, well, I can’t. Because the smaller “niche” cinemas that show these “quiet/thought-provoking/foreign” films have bills to pay too; they only keep movies around as long as they are economically viable. Of course, this is true of every cinema, from multiplexes to drive-ins, but for Indie movies this means really rapid traffic and really brief theatrical releases. This circuit of temporariness is one version of Indie Hell (another version of Indie Hell would be the forced viewing of “Clerks” forever and ever, but this is a semantic distinction).

So I would urge you once again to go see “Weekend” if you are looking for something to do in Philly this, ahem, weekend. I even have two highly persuasive reasons. One, it’s good. Two, it’s politically significant in very exciting ways.

“Weekend” is about two gay men (in Manchester? I think? It’s never clear) who meet for a one night stand and proceed to spend the next 48 hours or so together. Both in plot and aesthetics, “Weekend” borrows lightly from other movies dealing with temporary but meaningful connections (it is especially indebted to Sophia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation” for its sense of timing) but it is something entirely new and wonderful: fleeting and weighty, meditative and mischievous, it’s just really really good.

Russel, played by Tom Cullen, is a semi-closeted man whose discomfort and alienation even among his best friend’s family is so palpable it hurts. He mumbles and smiles and suffers, generally lost amidst the happy straight folk in his life. Enter Glenn (Chris New) whose politics, artistic proclivities and queer-and-here energy catalyzes something radical in Russel.

The emotional intensity is couched within a necessary impermanence: Glenn is leaving on Sunday for Portland, where he’ll live for two years. It sounds half like emotionally misanthropic neorealism, and half like a schmaltzy love-conquers-distance rom-com, but it’s neither. A friend with whom I saw the movie put it this way: people are happy and unhappy, funny and unfunny, performative and devastatingly sincere and “Weekend” captures this balance beautifully. It’s just very human.

And the performances are exceptional. Reviewers have been drawing attention to the theatricality of the movie, calling it a “chamber play” or a “chamber drama,” which is generally pretty annoying and meaningless but in “Weekend” actually works. Both Cullen and New are trained in the hyper-British “Royal School of X” tradition, and the magnetism of the film’s pacing has a lot to do with their ability to subtly transfigure small spaces during Haigh’s unwavering long takes. Instead of relying on montage to sustain tension, Haigh’s static camera allows dialogue and physicality to take center-stage. The effect is hypnotic.

So yes it’s good, but why is “Weekend” politically novel? Well, for one thing it’s very aware of its stakes — what queer cinema looks like, if it looks like anything at all — but it is resolutely unpreachy. Glenn repeatedly refers to the ubiquitous telling of straight storylines (actually, he’s a bit of a Swattie, which is both appealing and horrifying), so much so that it becomes a form of redundant self-reflexivity.

You begin to understand that Haigh is envisioning not just queer subjects but queer narrative. And the documentation and “telling” of stories is intractably linked to plot development: Glenn records his partners the morning after every sexual encounter, hoping to create an archival artistic installment that he bemoans “no straights will attend” (a coyly self-aware commentary on “Weekend” and its own chances at the box office). And Russell keeps a diary to the same effect, though it is not meant as public epistolary — as public in any way — the way Glenn’s art project is. Instead, he shares it with Glenn and Glenn only.

But how is this story, of two white able-bodied gay men who briefly meet then go their separate ways, radical or insightful? Placing “Weekend” within the context of Hollywood gay representation, one appreciates the extent to which Haigh engages coming-out narratives in significantly new ways. Other high-profile gay- or trans-themed films end with death, rupture, tragedy (“Brokeback Mountain,” “Milk,” “Boys Don’t Cry” and others and others and others).

In gay public media, we have two formulations: LGBTQ organizations that articulate coming out as life, and Hollywood storylines that associate outing with death. “Weekend” is much more contemplative about what queer “telling” entails, suggesting it is less about ponderous inevitable narratives than about ephemeral connectivity, contradiction and uncertainty — about stories without final endings. Let us hope that, after his first feature, Andrew Haigh’s stories are still largely untold.

Nolan is a senior. You can reach him at ngear1@swarthmore.edu.

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