“Sexuality is complicated, Honey”: The Works of Lisa Cholodenko

When trying to talk about Lisa Cholodenko, her most recent feature film, The Kids are All Right (2010), is inevitably the easiest place to start. Most people have heard of it, if only vaguely, and some know that it was the first mainstream, filmic representation of a two-mom family. While Kids is an easy introduction to Cholodenko, it is in many ways a misleading one. Of course, the film does raise the issue, so central to Cholodenko’s work, of alternative arrangements of desire, but it does so in a way that is arguably the most moralistic, some have said conservative, of her oeuvre. Her earlier work—High Art (1998) and Laurel Canyon (2003)—deals with sexual dissidence in a fashion that has less recourse to mandated narrative and morality. While these movies explored and suggested the possibility of new forms of desire, relationships, and society, Kids seems to fall back on rehearsed scripts and roles. Throughout Cholodenko’s work there is an obsession with tropes and positions against which her characters chafe. Her previous work, most notably High Art, was received warmly by a radical gay movement (while being underappreciated by more mainstream audiences); Kids was dealt the opposite fate. While Rotten Tomatoes scores Kids at 93 percent (in contrast to High Art’s 73 percent or Laurel Canyon’s 68 percent), it was explicitly rejected by queer academic circles that had broadly appreciated her previous work. Cholodenko’s ambivalent relationship to the conventions of narrative has been a feature of her work, a constant push and pull that she explores, rages against, and is herself captured by.

If we look at Cholodenko’s work, especially High Art, as related to the New Queer Cinema movement (for an encyclopedic chronicle of the movement and its modern day iterations see B. Ruby Rich’s book), we can see how her work has changed. “Queer,” in this context, is a concept forged in the 1980s—a convalescence of activism, artistry, and academia—against the AIDS crisis and a society ambivalent to the horror of the disease. While any brief summary would be futile, it is a concept typified by rejection of societal structures; it is a disorder that rejects strict codifications and alignments of sex, gender, and sexuality that open new possibilities in their discontinuities. New Queer Cinema took these values forward with a confrontational narrative style that rejected the presentation of non-straight characters as a threat to be overcome, or, in more liberal representation, as restricted to “coming out” narratives. Instead, it embraced an existence that was defiant to norms and modes of living, and asserted a radical self-determination.

High Art follows young photography magazine assistant editor, Syd (Radha Mitchell), as she drifts from her boyfriend towards an affair with enfant terrible photographer Lucy (Ally Sheedy) and her world of heroin, hedonism, and queer kinship. This new world represents a radical break from the petit bourgeois norms that defined Syd’s life up until this point. It is a world that encapsulates the defiantly “anti-social” stance of the queer position in the spirit of, for example, Zoe Leonard. Cholodenko is explicit in the queer, radical lineage of the film, linking Lucy’s girlfriend Greta (Patricia Clarkson) to Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Greta repeatedly reminisces about collaborating with the late “Old Queer Cinema” director. Perhaps the most obvious homage High Art owes to queer art is to the work of photographer Nan Goldin (on whom Lucy is based) complete with her recurrent themes of heroin use and exploration of queer spaces and communities. The film’s frames drip with Goldin’s distinctively sensual, saturated red palates, dominant in Lucy’s apartment, and in contrast to the insipid blues of the apartment Syd shares with her boyfriend. The two apartments, both in the same building, impose a visual logic upon their inhabitants that echo their colour palettes. The sterile, pastel backgrounds of Syd and James’ rooms pick out the couple, usually separated, in static, portrait-like frames. They are trapped by these frames in their mandated proto-domestic and atomised roles as they sip nightly cocktails and stilted conversation. For Lucy’s apartment, Cholodenko uses a constantly moving camera to frame the revolving door of guests, and blurs the boundaries between characters as they melt into and emerge from the deep-coloured background. This dream-like spatial framing—an effect only enhanced by Shudder To Think’s beautiful and hypnotic score—resists the definite positions and edges imposed on bodies in the world outside it.

Syd’s arc, from a stable, boring relationship with James, to a passionate affair with Lucy, has been read as a coming-out narrative. This lens, however, places Cholodenko’s work within a pre-New Queer Cinema frame of reference, to which Lucy’s milieu does not belong. Instead, we need to see Syd as bisexual. Being romantically attached to a man as we are introduced to her, she is assumed straight, a process that flattens her character’s complexity of desire. Her romantic relationship with Lucy is not accompanied by any great moral struggle or implication for identity, instead it “just is.” Even before Lucy insists Syd edit her submission to the magazine, it seems inevitable from their first meeting that the two will become sexually entangled. Their instant chemistry is catalysed through a haze of cigarette smoke and drug use. Syd’s infidelity, however, plays into the trope of the flighty bisexual, unable to choose a body with which to permanently pair. Syd fulfils this, of course, but Cholodenko is unwilling to condemn her. In a crucial midpoint scene, the subjective camera of a heroin-addled Syd collapses the distance between the two apartments and conflates the bodies of James and Lucy. This allows a visual rendering of a bisexual object of desire as the visual styles of the two bodies and spaces merge. The restless bisexual framing of desire is used to destabilise identity and decentralise sex and gender as sine qua non of sexual partner choice.

In their post-coital state, Lucy finally fulfills her brief for Syd’s magazine. In submitting images of a glowing Syd, Lucy implies a question, later given voice by the austere editor-in-chief Dominique: “Are you her lover?” The question is deceptively complex. Perhaps Dominique asks to understand the “truth” of the photo; perhaps she really asks, having known and assumed Syd as straight, whether she is “now” a lesbian. In this way, Cholodenko acknowledges and rehearses the audience’s assumptions of Syd. We expect a “coming out,” as maybe does Dominique; a confession that will make sense of a subject, and confine her to a monosexual category. Yet Syd is alone at the conclusion of the film, leaving us in flux, “in-between,” with no happily-ever-after, nor reconciliation. We are denied closure, and instead are left with a narratively “unstable” identity of perpetual bisexual becoming.

High Art forces us to explicitly question what we know about a subject based on their desire and their interaction with bodies, themes which Laurel Canyon expands. Here, Alex (Kate Beckinsale) and her boyfriend Sam (Christian Bale) move from Massachusetts, where they have studied at Harvard Medical School, to the titular Los Angeles suburb. They move into Sam’s mother’s (supposedly vacated) house so Alex can finish her doctorate thesis in peace while Sam begins his residency at a psychiatric hospital. The mother, Jane (Frances McDormand), is unexpectedly still at the house that she uses as a studio, recording with a band, fronted by her boyfriend, Ian (Alessandro Nivola), to deliver a long overdue album. In another infidelity narrative, we are offered alternatives to the eternal monogamy mandated by the conventional narratives of cinema and society.

Again, Cholodenko creates two startling opposed spaces: the cold, harshly lit external scenes of a stale garden party in the Boston suburbs, compared to the lush, sun-dappled exteriors of Laurel Canyon. The camera styles repeat High Art’s visual pattern. The two coasts are differentiated, with the East typified by static camera work compared to a fluid West. In the opening scene, Cholodenko provides parallel, stifling shot/reverse-shot conversations—Alex with her mother, Sam with his future father-in-law—as the two are presented with their future selves. The order of this developmental journey is upset by the wild, overgrown grounds to Jane’s house. Here prescribed roles seem to loosen as the bodies of the cast becomes lost in the ferns, and their outlines disrupted by shafts of dappled light.

The water of the pool around which the stage-like set of house, studio, patio are arranged becomes a space of renewal, where newcomer Alex is reborn. Her growing fascination with Ian, her boredom with her work, and her increasingly fractious interactions with Sam culminate in sexual expression (the degree of which is uncertain) between Alex, Jane, and Ian in the pool. Cholodenko’s use of hypnotic, oneiric lighting culminates here to cast the pool as a space of potential, of dreams unbound by convention, where this transgression is not judged but embraced as the action of desire. In a motif that reflects High Art (where a leaking bath results in Syd and Lucy’s chance meeting), the fluidity and lack of definition in water unleashes desire beyond structure.

Transgressive sexuality is a historic facet of the house. Through conversations between mother and son, we understand that Sam never knew his father, and that a string of Jane’s male and female lovers were a fixture of his childhood. While we may accept and applaud Jane’s continued pursuit of emotional, sexual, and romantic happiness after the birth of her son, Sam does not take such a generous view. He resents his mother’s lack of monogamous stability required by his view of what she, in a parental role, should have provided him. He is exasperated, if unsurprised, by her relationship with Ian, a man his own age. Jane’s relationship with Ian is emphatically non-monogamous and undefined. Ian is the anti-Sam, the disorder of his taxonomizing, medical gaze; the lover of Sam’s mother. He is, in a different story, the other corner of a love triangle. Both men lie on the cusp of career success, and vie for Alex’s attention. But this story is more complicated than the narrative Cholodenko writes with reference to. Both men desire Alex, but both men have desire that stretches beyond her, as her desire stretches beyond them.

In the revelation of infidelity, a drunk Sam lashes out at Ian but injures his mother. This prompts not a fracture but a reconciliation that continues as the two talk by the pool the following morning. Sam comes to recognise his mother as simultaneously a friend in a process that begins to deconstruct the boundaries and structures of his world. This is not destructive. Instead, Sam steps into a less ordered world where he may relate to people and not roles. It is against this backdrop that Ian and Alex share an embarrassed smile and talk. This is not a goodbye that would be found in a more typical infidelity narrative. More conventionally the third, irreconcilable member of the couple must be cast out, leaving the pair to their happily ever after. Cholodenko instead embraces a world where the bounds of interaction could potentially encompass friendship, sexuality, and familial ties without the need for labels or structure. It moves towards the queer kinship of Lucy’s flat, where identities, in the sense of role, are questioned and complicated, where (at its most utopian) people can be people and not limited in their relation to others.

The Kids are All Right then seems to undo much of this work, fixing desire into the couple form as the condition of family making. Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) find their domestic landscape disrupted by the arrival of Paul (Mark Ruffalo), the sperm donor for their two children, Joni and Laser (Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson). The children, seduced by the same promise of a mythical father as Sam was, contact Paul and invite him into the family unit. In an attempt to build a relationship with the family, Paul invites Jules to landscape his garden and get her business off the ground, which ends with the two beginning an affair. Paul is subsequently cast out of the family unit with no further opportunity to build a relationship with the children. The disorder he brings to the unit must be banished to maintain the family. It is this moral conservatism, as well as the presentation of lesbian desire as automatically superseded by desire for a man that provoked the anger of well-respected queer critics. Recurring points were that this presentation, in fact the first in mainstream film of a lesbian-headed family, recycled tired clichés of lesbianism as temporary and fragile. If, as is implied, the family must cast out Paul to survive. Cholodenko, in exploring the complexity of desire that is not primarily directed by gender, is trapped by common, homophobic social narratives and by the perception of her audience.

Seeming to preempt such a response, frustration permeates the film. It is a frustration borne of working within clichés, character arc, and trope already embedded in audience expectation. Cholodenko’s frustration turns to humour using the (assumed) straight male Paul as an audience cypher. He professes to “love” lesbians as an ice-breaker with Joni and describes the children to one of his restaurant employees as archetypes. He reduces them to clichés of a “sensitive-jock” and “whip-smart and super, super cute.” But Cholodenko’s cognisance of perception allows for playfulness. In an abortive moment of intimacy between Jules and Nic, Cholodenko diffuses the (straight) male-gaze that so often subsumes lesbian sex, by having the couple watch gay male porn, draining it of erotic potential. While also serving to underline complexities of sexuality as she has done across her work, this moment acknowledges and subverts her status as a lesbian filmmaker within an aesthetic culture that is assumed to be by and for (straight) men in a way that does not capitulate.

Despite moments of playfulness, Kids feels mournful in a way that neither Laurel Canyon nor High Art, in spite of their heartbreak and tragedy, ever do. There is a sense that Jules and Nic are reaching back to a time before. One of their few moments of cohesion is retelling the story of their first, flirtatious meeting. This is a story told in their “lawn and patio” garden, in what feels like a flattening of their complexity into a white-picket fence domesticity. Even the “fecund” garden that Jules plans for Paul cannot truly recapture wildness. It is a contrived, self-conscious, and ultimately abortive landscape design project that fails to conjure something like the wild grounds of Jane’s house-cum-studio.

During this creative process, however, we find a wild desire that blurs the taxonomy of relationships. Jules and Paul begin their sexual relationship as she enters his home, sweaty from her work. This, however, is also abortive and the garden ultimately fixes in place rather than liberates. Later, as the family eats with Paul at his house, Nic finds Jules’ distinctive hair on the pillows in the master bedroom. The fluidity of desire that brought Jules’ to the bed defines her actions as a part of her remains there. This renders her knowable in her infidelity and Nic attempts to redefine Jules’s identity as a consequence. She asks “are you straight now?” in a question that recalls Dominique’s Syd-directed query. Nic is really asking if she is being abandoned because of a shift in the identity of her partner. Like Syd, Jules cannot answer, because the grammar of monogamy and monosexuality leave her unable to intelligibly articulate the complexity of her desire.

What is offered in Kids is security—the respectable (if non-heterosexual), established (if imperfect) family unit at the preclusion of other modes of being. But, it is a way to crossover from the art-house ghetto of her earlier work. A drive towards respectability might be an important political move to increase societal tolerance. Films such as Kids can loosen and broaden the concept of what “family” can constitute in societal understanding. Clearly in a moment where LGBT films crossing into mainstream circulation are still rare, any representation is important, and perhaps stories more friendly to familiar narratives are how that happens.

Or not; I don’t think Cholodenko would want a fixed answer.