Everybody's Dazed Boyhood: Linklater and Gay Identity
Isn't everything autobiographical?
The photo above shows my dad (third from the left) on the Canadian National wrestling team at the 1977 University Games in Bulgaria. Most shocking is how the pants they wore in their day-to-day lives were somehow tighter than the uniform spandex singlets seen here. Less shocking is how this could be a screenshot pulled straight from Linklater’s most recent film Everybody Wants Some!!.
I had the pleasure of seeing the Canadian Premiere of Everybody at a TIFF Bell Lightbox screening that included an onstage Q&A with Linklater. As I sat in the theatre with my boyfriend of four years, a new revelation about Linklater’s work dawned on me: he is my favourite writer/director, yet rarely, if ever, has he had a substantive LGBT aspect to his work. Never is this tension more pronounced than in Everybody, his most delightfully unapologetic bro movie yet. It’s a curious intersection, as his films, with their coming-of-age themes, often explore male identity and sexuality without any element of fluidity to it. It prompted me to question: why do I relate so deeply to a body of work that doesn’t reflect, or even seem to consider, the gay identity that has been a key part of my own coming-of-age story?
It was a bit surreal, watching and observing Everybody as I did my own college years: at a distance yet still firmly immersed and emotionally invested in it all. I myself was a wrestler. I also played competitive soccer, basketball, and loved a good kegger. The film’s situations and character archetypes were familiar to me; to this day, I remain close friends with many guys like the ones in Linklater’s story. One of the things that feels so true about it — something that is unfortunately still very prevalent today, especially in the sporting world — is the traditionally masculine and hetero-dominated environment the film inhabits. In the same way a gay character might have felt out of place in Everybody, this doesn’t feel like a world in which everyone could co-exist like we see in more enlightened films of today. That said, I laughed, cried, hugged and had great relationships with all my childhood friends, and I’m sure most viewers could feel that way about the boys in Everybody by the end of the movie as well. Their evolution in mentalities by the end of the film points the audience toward the more enlightened world we live in today. But for me, in relation to the film and in my life back then, there was always that remove: me in the theatre, sitting down, watching it play out on a screen in front of me.
When you consider yourself an outsider, observing becomes second nature. In Everybody, Linklater’s gaze mirrored my own. Vulture’s Kyle Buchanan has already called it “accidentally one of the gayest movies of the year”. While it isn’t a gay man behind the camera, he does capture what it’s like to be closeted and surrounded by men whose sexuality (and yes, homoeroticism) can at times feel all-encompassing. One of the key narratives of boyhood is one of longing. That takes on new proportions if you’re closeted, suppressed, and boxed in, then put squarely in the middle of a situation like this:
For me, the male gaze in Everybody is one of a closeted gay boy sitting just out of shot, laughing along with the group, hoping desperately no one finds him out while simultaneously having a crush/on-the-verge-of-a-pretend-relationship with his best friend. I have lived those all-too-familiar moments of Dazed and Confused, Boyhood, and Everybody, when the inevitable sex and relationship talk pops up. Having a beer while semi-fictionalizing my latest conquest; getting too high then tripping out about the elephant in the room; having a girl show interest in me and feeling like I want to jump off a cliff. Yes, they may have been tough times, but watching Linklater’s latest film reminded me that I wouldn’t change them for the world.
In his talk, Linklater spoke about how he very purposefully set the film in 1980 since it was such a transitional time. Music, culture, fashion — everything seemed to be in flux. It was, perhaps, not something he needed to explicitly mention, as nothing about Linklater’s body of work ever seems unintentional. 1980 was also a pivotal moment for LGBT communities: three years after the assassination of Harvey Milk, the year the first case of AIDS was documented, eight years before the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) would send 107 million “Understanding AIDS” brochures to U.S. households. So where was a gay man’s place in an U.S. college baseball team in the early 1980s? It didn’t exist. The absence of the LGBT world is the comment on it; it was still a silenced voice, a looming discussion but not yet a reality.
Everybody takes place in a time when it could display privilege existing in its fullest form: straight white American man, good looking, statuesque and on a college baseball team no less. With this lens, Everybody becomes a reference point for the beginning of the LGBT rights movement. It makes sense for free-wheeling, semi-sensitive bros to move through such disparate scenes, from disco to country, and not have much interaction with the LGBT community. That said, these were brewing issues; should we expect more diversity of Linklater? Am I a misguided fan of something that doesn’t belong to me?
Knowing how deliberate Linklater is, I would imagine that he is keenly aware of what is left out of his films. The media eye was cast over him following the success of Boyhood, with many thoughtful pieces on the absence of diversity in the film. The Atlantic’s Imran Siddiquee wrote a compelling piece focused on race, posing a painful question: are the lives of black boys worth less than those of white boys in America? Much less was written about something that is equally as important for the characters and stories of Linklater’s work: gay people in America.
Take The Atlantic’s question a step further and consider a gay black man or trans black woman. What obligation does a filmmaker have in depicting lives outside their own? I want diversity in films, but I also don’t want it to seem forced or false. Questionably qualified voices speaking on behalf of marginalized voices for the sake of diversity can be worse than not having those voices represented at all. Even in cases where a story finally comes from your community, framed as your voice, it can feel off, and prompt you to distance yourself from it (e.g., me with HBO’s comedy-drama Looking). Then sometimes one comes along that makes you say, yes — I get that (e.g., me with Jean Marc Vallée’s C.R.A.Z.Y. or Andrew Cividino’s Sleeping Giant). Linklater is reflecting the reality he knows, which, as The Atlantic says, further perpetuates the white-male-dominated world it’s rooted in.
The difference between individuals or communities marginalized due to visible attributes and sexual orientation is this: pain versus privilege. This idea is never more clear than in the always excellent, educational and wonderfully astute Transparent. Director/writer/creator Jill Soloway bluntly challenges the audience with an awe-inspiring line: “your pain and privilege are separate.” It hits hard, and has reframed my thinking towards my own coming out and how I view the world. Could this line ever appear in Boyhood, Dazed & Confused, or Slacker? Likely not. It’s something that arises by having minority voices represented. (Though, imagine if one of the all-American boys in Everybody randomly dropped a line like Soloway's?) I don’t think it's fair or necessary to pit these things against each other, and there are many examples of where they could overlap, but it raises a complex and important distinction that sparked new thinking in my love of Linklater’s coming-of-age films. Growing up, any visible difference in your appearance inevitably can render you one notch lower in social status and puts you at increased risk of not only a lack of opportunity but also discrimination and even violence. Sexual orientation is chameleonic. It can be leveraged when it works to your advantage, and tucked away when not needed. While this process can be painful, you still bask in privilege others can’t attain so easily. Though, I must point out, many kids, especially today, may be more "visibly" gay or come out at an early age, which unfortunately puts them in the latter category of marginalized people.
The fact Linklater’s films resonate with me so much underscores the privilege I benefited from during my formative days. My pain is what I dealt with knowing all my life that I was gay. My privilege is that I lived those college years as depicted in Everybody, and grew up in a world that treated me as blissfully as Mason in Boyhood. My pain was having to keep a secret from all those around me, trying to have relationships with women, constantly be anxious about being found out and forever thinking to myself “what the fuck am I going to do about this?” My privilege was walking home every night safely with no concern, going into job interviews with no second thoughts based on discrimination, and entering social situations with no thoughts that someone might choose not to like me based on my appearance.
After coming out, I lost a certain privilege. I went from white male to white gay male — which still comes with its own set of privileges, a dialogue very bluntly and (always) controversially addressed by Azealia Banks. Pain can exist outside of societal structures; lack of privilege does not. To some extent, anyone reading this article likely enjoys a degree of day-to-day privilege. But this also comes with an equal degree of responsibility — to stand up for those who may be segregated, marginalized, and discriminated against. Does that same obligation apply to filmmakers and their craft? I’m not sure. Should Flavorwire’s Top 25 and Sundance’s nine favourite coming-of-age movies be more diverse? Yes. Should they be randomly slotted in? No. Should there be more diversity behind the lens? Yes. If Mason in Boyhood ended up coming out would his story have had the same mass appeal? Unlikely. Could the film have broached the topic to some degree? Yes. Is Linklater a bad person for not doing so? No. I love him. We love him.
These questions bring to mind the Critics Choice Awards speech by Alan Yang, writer/producer of Master of None: “Thank you to all the straight white guys who dominated movies and TV so hard, for so long, that stories about anyone else kind of seem fresh and original.” It’s undeniably true. But Master of None is reflecting today's world, and tackles diversity topics head-on. Those are not the types of dialogues Linklater is looking to engage in or comment on. If we rephrase the question to what he has given us versus what is missing, we can only see it as plentiful.
I think the best thing a film, or any story, can do is be true to itself. What could be viewed as a narrow outlook could also be seen as focused, and it is within that realm Linklater is able to deliver universal lessons in his work. He doesn’t really touch on race, sexuality, religion, politics as much as he could. Instead, he delivers messages that are devoid of these fragmenting topics, distilling the common human element in a situation. Though Linklater has essentially already said this himself, through the character of Jesse in Before Sunset, when answering a journalist’s question about whether he considers his book to be autobiographical. Jesse replies:
"Uh, well, I mean... isn't everything autobiographical? I mean, we all see the world through our own little keyhole. I mean, I always think of Thomas Wolfe. You know, have you ever seen that little one-page 'Note to Reader' in the front of Look Homeward, Angel?... Anyway, he says that we are the sum of all the moments of our lives and that, uh, anybody who sits down to write is gonna use the clay of their own life — that you can't avoid that. So when I look at my own life, you know, I have to admit, right, that I've — I've never been around a bunch of guns or violence, you know, not really. No political intrigue or a helicopter crash, right? But my life, from my own point of view, has been full of drama, right? And uh, so I thought, if I could write a book that, that could capture what it's like to, to really meet somebody, I mean, one of the most exciting things that's ever happened to me is to meet somebody, to make that connection. And if I could make that valuable, you know, to capture that, that would be the attempt, or... Did I answer your question?"
The philosophical elements in Linklaters films range from a subtle undercurrents (Everybody Wants Some!!) to straight-up 101 classes (Waking Life). A few of my favourite lines in Linklater films:
“Frontiers are where you find them” – Everybody Wants Some!!
“You know how everyone's always saying seize the moment? I don't know, I'm kinda thinking it's the other way around. You know, like the moment seizes us.” – Boyhood
“What are these barriers that keep people from reaching anywhere near their real potential? The answer to that can be found in another question and that's this: Which is the most universal human characteristic: fear, or laziness?” – Waking Life
The idea of universal wisdoms catering more to specific groups contradicts their purpose and value. Which is how I ultimately feel about Linklater’s films as well, like I’m sitting in a college philosophy class that could be filled with students from all walks of life. Instead of looking at what he is leaving out, let’s look at what he is connecting for us. Looking at the quotes from these scenes and many others in his body of work, it's undeniable that they can resonate regardless of gender, sexuality, race, income, location — anything. These characters are essentially vehicles to deliver a director's message. And that is what we get from Linklater’s films. If we add or remove skin colours, genders or bedmates, the wisdom remains. That same wisdom that helped me get through my more painful years full of privilege, and less privileged years with little pain.