Is There a Right Kind of Gay: HBO’s Looking, the Movie

looking-the movie-hbo

Looking: The Movie
Directed by Andrew Haigh
HBO, premiering July 23

When Looking premiered in 2014 it was dubbed by many “the gay Girls,” a mostly inaccurate and unfair comparison. Both series air on HBO, both make use of audacious, caps-locked typefaces in their opening credits, and both operate as fictitious ethnographies of a small group of friends kind-of-but-not-really figuring things out in vast cityscapes. The similarities end there, and in its first and only two seasons, Looking attempted to establish itself—with varying degrees of success—as the Queer as Folk for a marriage equality era, a gay comedy-drama about a group of gay friends that, as Matt Zoller Seitz put it in his review of the first season, felt important because of its “no big deal attitude.”

Despite being pegged as such, this never felt entirely true of Looking, a series whose politics have often been disappointingly dated, limited to capturing what feels like a “we’ve seen this already” (Queer as Folk) gay experience, where every development does, in fact, feel like too much of a big deal. Its lead character is a white gay San Franciscan who suffers from tons of internalized shame, which grows irritating considering he’s 29 and presumably “out” for some time now. Patrick Murray is too old to obsess over whether or not Richie, a Mexican-American man who we quickly surmise will become Patrick’s central love interest, is or isn’t circumcised—the major conflict in the first season’s second episode. His immaturity and general unlikeability may not be the reason why Looking was cancelled—it had often been criticized for being too episodic, too slow, too unwilling to delve into touchier matters like how the tech world, in which Patrick works, has rendered San Francisco practically unlivable—but it certainly isolated many queer and gay viewers who were expecting a narrative that goes far and beyond a “coming out” one. Given this, it came as a surprise when HBO generously decided to give the series a proper conclusion, forgoing another season for a film, aptly titled Looking: The Movie.

Directed by Andrew Haigh, who served as Looking’s showrunner and directed several episodes throughout its two season run, Looking: The Movie picks up a year after the events of the second season. Patrick has moved to Denver, away from the drama that left him boyfriendless and homeless and essentially jobless, and returns to San Francisco for a wedding (HBO has asked reviewers not to reveal whose). And as Patrick dreamily looks out the window of a cab in his adopted city, it’s clear that creator and co-writer Michael Lannan has decided to use this time jump as a reboot of sorts, an opportunity to not only fashion a more sympathetic and put together Patrick, but also to delve into a tension that had always been Looking’s greatest strength. Over its one hour and 25-minute run time, Looking: The Movie narrows its focus and reveals what Patrick and his friends have been seeking out, perhaps unrealistically, over two seasons—a precise and stable gay identity.

In 2011 Haigh wrote and directed Weekend, his breakthrough feature that follows two gay men who first meet at a bar before spending an intense weekend together. His film is a talky one, and the two men, Russell and Glen—Russell, who is reserved, shy, and overall pretty uncertain about his gayness, Glen, an artist who is loud, flamboyant and unconcerned and uninterested in straight happenings—essentially create an extended discourse where they voice their insecurities and desires. Weekend, in a sense, becomes about two opposing forces that can come to exist in a gay identity—the one that wants to embrace and perpetuate the normative values commonplace in a heteroseuxal world and the other disgusted and resistant to being policed by institutions such as marriage, children, and suburban homes with reliably trimmed hedges. Social theorist Michael Warner, in his book The Trouble with Normal, would call Russell a “stigmaphobe” and Glen a “stigmaphile” to explain their diverging attitudes that manage to spring up in a society governed by queer stigma. Considering his interest and experience investigating these anxieties, Haigh’s Looking: The Movie is more focused, streamlined, and even more political than the series, and is a powerful examination—even in its relatively small scope (white, gay, male)—of what seems to be and has been on each and every character’s mind: What Is The Right Kind Of Gay And How Can I Be It. It’s also, unlike the series sometimes, a gay piece of media of our time, a contemplation of what a right such as marriage really means for same-sex couples.

Taking from Queer as Folk, Looking: The Movie understands the significance and holiness of designated queer spaces, and a bulk of the film is situated in clubs, bars, bedrooms—locales that serve to bring Patrick and his friends’ preoccupations to the surface. In the case of the movie, marriage and commitment. There’s an early scene, on the eve of the wedding Patrick’s in town for, that the group, including Patrick, his artist friend and former roommate Augustín, their older friend Dom, Richie, his boyfriend Brady, and Dom’s lifelong friend Doris party at a club. Doris, the sole straight and female voice on the show, but also the character most repulsed by heteronormative values—humorously so—brings what’s on everyone’s minds to the surface. With an anxious air hanging over the group, Doris says, “Marriage is for the gays! Alright? And you poor fucking bastards, you can have it! It’s a magical time!” It’s a sweet, funny sentiment, and exceptionally poignant considering that Looking existed before marriage equality became an unalienable right. But it also pokes at everyone’s commitment issues, and causes one of the future grooms to think about his history, how he went from being this anti-marriage, radical queer to a person who’s about to become everything he used to ridicule. It causes another character to think about his priorities, his decision to focus entirely on work, but all of them, in some way or another, appear to be in negotiation with their gayness.

Patrick has always been the focal point of this inner conflict. He’s the butt of his friends’ jokes about shame and insecurities throughout the series, but in the film he’s different, and it’s not just the pounds he’s shed or the way he brushes his hair. Somehow he’s found a sort of peace with himself. In season one he had an overwhelming fear of bringing Richie, not only his boyfriend but his Latino boyfriend, to his sister’s wedding. To introduce Richie to his conservative, WASPy family was too much, and we learned Patrick to be a fleer, the type of person who runs away from something as soon as it becomes too much. At the end of the second season he did the same thing after moving in with Kevin, his boss and later boyfriend, after the two had a huge argument over their ideas of monogamy in their relationship. Patrick was despicable to watch because one felt him constantly hating himself.

However, the rhetoric in Looking: The Movie revolves around opened and closed doors, and Patrick repeatedly mentions he wants to close a chapter and open a new one. This means getting closure with Kevin, figuring out what the lingering glances and word games mean with Richie, but mostly it’s about finding some sort of peace within himself. Later in the film, near the end, Patrick exchanges harsh words with Brady, a writer who becomes ruthless when drunk. He’s jealous of Patrick’s relationship with Richie, but he also repeatedly stated that Patrick is what is wrong with the gay community. In the past he poked fun of Patrick’s and Kevin’s relationship, but at the club he calls him femmephobic and several other scarring names. While he’s certainly not wrong, and Patrick is the first to admit this, there’s something about Patrick responding, “I will never understand why you are so intent on making me feel bad because I can’t live up to some ideal that I’ll never live up to because it’s just not who I am” that rings sincere and really brings Looking full circle.

There are various shots in Looking: The Movie where Haigh’s camera fixates on Patrick dancing comfortably and confidently, either alone or with his friends, to Britney or to something else, just swaying his body and head back and forth as he wears a grin, eyes closed. These are beautiful moments and feel all the more powerful coming weeks after the Pulse massacre in Orlando. Patrick is safe, supported, and appears to be as zen as he’ll ever be. His vitality is enviable. Moreover, they are moments that advocate for there being no right kind of gay, only a happy one. Looking: The Movie is a romance film, but it’s also a celebration of this, of messy, confusing, and loud gayness.


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