How To Be Gay and Happy: An Interview with Matthew Todd

This interview was originally published in the University Observer, Vol. XXIII, Issue II in October 2016. It was later published online.

David Monaghan sits down with author Matthew Todd, whose book Straight Jacket examines why disproportionate numbers of LGBTQ+ people suffer from mental illness.

IN 2005, Matthew Todd debuted his play Blowing Whistles to captive audiences in London, and later Sydney. The play, which deals with contemporary LGBTQ+ culture, became a sort of therapy for Todd. “I was in turmoil when I wrote it,” he informs OTwo. “I’d come out of a relationship and I’d been cheated on and I was really angry, and I was blaming it all on him.”

The play depicts a gay couple who, on the tenth anniversary of the eve of their first meeting, decide to make their relationship more interesting by inviting a young man around for a threesome. “I’m all three characters in the play,” says Todd. “The first half is an adult comedy about these two crazy guys having an open relationship. The second half is much darker and it becomes a critique of gay culture.”

Unbeknownst to him at the time, the themes and ideas considered in the play – social media, sex, and monogamy – would be facets of life that would later reoccur in Todd’s writing. Straight Jacket: How to Be Gay and Happy, Todd’s new book, is the result of such ruminations about modern LGBTQ+ culture: it explores why a disproportionate amount of gay men suffer from mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, addiction and suicidal thoughts and behaviour. Using his own experience as a backdrop for research – the book is ‘part memoir, part polemic’ – Todd lifts the mask on contemporary gay culture to see what lurks beneath, and does so with poise and insight.

The title of his book refers to the restrictive, heteronormative culture that LGBTQ+ people are born into, a ‘cultural straightjacket’ of sorts. “This society presumes everybody is heterosexual and cisgender when they are born and there’s kind of very little room to grow or to evolve or exist if you are not that way,” he states. “Everyone presumes that you are heterosexual and that a boy will be attracted to a girl or a girl will be attracted to a boy. There just doesn’t seem to be very many parts of society…that are adaptable or ready to accept that people are different.”

Although Ireland has made significant strides in recent years on LGBTQ+ social issues – in 2015 we saw the introduction of both Marriage Equality and Gender Recognition legislation – there are still lingering threads of homophobia left within the country. On July 30th 2016, a gay man was assaulted in Dublin’s Phoenix Park. He was set upon by teenagers who yelled ‘you fucking whore. How much? We’ll kill you, fucking fag.’ Todd asserts: “And I think just growing up like that, being shamed by family, sometimes by friends, by other people’s parents, by wider family, by religion, by schools…and then we have all the religious institutions who spout what they say about gayness, it can be tremendously stressful.”

LGBTQ+ people deal with this ‘cultural straightjacket’ in a plethora of ways. The majority are, thankfully, able to move on and establish healthy lives and careers. Others, however, turn to drugs, dangerous sex and various other forms of destructive behaviour. International research suggests that LGBTQ+ people are two-to-three times more likely to be become addicted to alcohol than their straight contemporaries.

“I certainly wanted to get out of my head, and I did,” Todd says. “First by eating, because it made me feel better temporarily – I think compulsive eating is a massive thing for a lot of people – and then by fantasy, by pop music…and then getting lost in alcohol, and [others get lost in] drugs and some people sex, and it can easily spiral out of control and become a huge mess. And some people don’t come out of it.”

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Straight Jacket author Matthew Todd speaking on ITV.

One way in which the worldwide community has been able to deal with this has been in putting on a ‘brave face,’ which Todd suggests has been necessary: “Even the term ‘gay pride,’ [which suggests] ‘we’re gay and happy,’ and to be almost obsessively waving a banner and saying ‘everything’s fine’ – and that’s been needed in some ways, to tell each other and to tell young people that it’s okay to be gay and that you can have a happy and successful life, which you absolutely can, and many people do, but that’s kind of… We’ve just rejected all of [the negativity] and not wanted to look at some of the problems in case it plays to a narrative of ‘oh look, you’re absolutely right, we are really unhappy.”

The fear of conforming to the negative and reductive perception of ‘gay-equals-unhappy’ could explain why a book like Todd’s has taken so long to be written. “It didn’t feel like I could have a conversation about any of these problems when I came out” Todd explains. “There was never any room to have any discussion, certainly not in gay press…it was just constantly, rabidly, going on about how wonderful it was [to be gay], and never looking at any of the problems…I remember going a few times to sexual health clinics and seeing therapists and they didn’t have anything to say about it either. I remember one time, and I talk about it in the book, where I went to see somebody and I went, ‘listen, I’m not in control of the amount of sexual behaviour I’m having,’ and they looked at me like I’d said something sacrilegious.”

Dating apps like Grindr and Tinder, which are used by people within straight and LGBTQ+ communities, have made access to sex and hook-ups easier than before; at a press of a button people can meet others and, after a brief exchange of words, can find themselves in the rough and tumble of a fleeting sexual encounter. Considering that sex is used as a coping mechanism by some, does Todd feel online hook-up culture exacerbates problems within LGBTQ+ communities?

“Absolutely, totally, 100%. I know lots of people use them, and I use them, and will probably use them in the future, and lots of people will say that they’re really great because you certainly see you’re not completely isolated…but it feels like a way of behaving where we objectify each other to an extreme extent…when you get onto to Grindr where people are describing themselves as a ‘penis’ or a ‘hole,’ I do think that’s problematic. And I know that’s a controversial thing to say, but I do think that’s problematic because we’re literally talking to each other like we don’t mean anything.”

In recent years, on social media and beyond, there has been a drive to promote positive attitudes to sex. This movement has been spearheaded by left-leaning feminists to eradicate the social stigma attached to women who transgress socially-constructed sexual boundaries. In many cases the word ‘slut,’ which has been used in the past to shame and demean women, has been adapted and transformed into a positive term; sex is now a thing to celebrate.

Gay men too have faced a similar stigma in the past, mostly through right-wing media during the AIDS epidemic. In the book Todd refers to a 1980s’ Mail on Sunday article that claims the ‘awful genesis’ of AIDS lay in homosexual sex itself. By highlighting the problems with promiscuous sexual encounters, does Todd fear he may fall into slut-shaming, or that he will undo the work of sex-positive campaigning?

“There’s nothing wrong with having casual sex, if that’s what you really want, and you’re in control of it,” Todd explains. “When I was writing the book and I was talking to friends that was something I was really worried about…[In the book] I’m doing the absolute opposite of shaming. I don’t shame people for the amount of sex they have or don’t have whatsoever because I’m not in a position to – I have had sex with quite a lot of people. I just want to open a discussion about it so we are able to talk about it if someone feels that they have lost control of their sex life…we can talk about why that may be, what may cause that, if you want to do something about it, what you can do about it.”

Of course, the media plays an important role in shaping the outlook of LGBTQ+ people. In the book Todd explains how right-wing media perpetuated social stigma in the eighties using flashy, homophobic tabloid headlines like one from the Sun which read: ‘I’d Shoot My Son If He Had AIDS Claims Vicar.’

the-sun

        The Sun, Oct. 1985. Source

Even today mainstream news outlets will neglect LGBTQ+ stories and issues. The assault in Phoenix Park, as has been described, was not covered by the press outside of theoutmost.com and GCN, Ireland’s premiere LGBTQ+ news outlets. “[Media] plays a really damaging role. I mean, maybe things are a little bit better, but essentially they are only interested in showing LGBTQ+ lives through a straight lens…For instance: the issue of why there aren’t many openly-gay professional footballers comes up and the media takes a lot of interest in that because it’s something that they care about because football is something they are interested in. It’s very hard to get the mainstream media to do coverage of my book about mental health and I consider this a really, really important issue. From my experience of gay people I’ve had from working at Attitude [a magazine edited by Todd] that it is the most important issue we face at the moment, specific to us, yet most of the media are just not interested. They think it’s niche…Like I say, it’s just through a very specific heterosexual lens that they see us and I think that’s really damaging.”

Later in the book Todd makes a clarion call to LGBTQ+ writers and creatives to create more positive LGBTQ+ narratives. Often in fiction that features queer characters we are left with unhappy endings, broken hearts, and more often than not, death: A Single Man, Lilting, Cloud Atlas, and Blue Is the Warmest Colour are recent examples that spring to mind. Praise for 2015’s Carol, a film with lesbian characters that also features a somewhat positive conclusion, is a welcome exception. Repeated negativity can be a drain on LGBTQ+ youth who are looking for positivity when coming out.

He continues: “We all need to see ourselves reflected in the world. We all need to understand ourselves through culture, and I think even more so for LGBT people because we do feel different and maybe we don’t have role models when we’re younger and maybe we don’t feel we can speak to our parents, and then not to see a very broad range of experience in film and TV… it’s really, really damaging…where are the nice gentle rom-coms, where are the big films with two big, famous Hollywood actors that is about a nice, gay love story?”

In 2015, while Todd was in the process of completing his book, the documentary Chemsex was released. The film, which is co-directed by William Fairman and Max Gogarty, explores the subculture of ‘chemsex’ – that is, the dangerous practice of engaging in recreational drug use and sexual behaviour simultaneously – among gay men in London. It was an illuminating piece that shocked and bewildered viewers.

“I was very aware of them making it [while I wrote the book], but they were specifically looking at the whole chemsex thing. When I started writing the book I didn’t really know about crystal meth or methadone or G [shorthand for GHB, a psychoactive substance], what I really knew about was guys who were having problems with cocaine, and I was really shocked at how bad the situation was with crystal meth. Certainly I was surprised watching that film and it’s certainly a hard film to watch.”

Matthew Todd interviewed people for Attitude upon the film’s release: “[They] were talking about injecting blood into each other, fetishizing body fluids, which I think is tied up to our experience of HIV. There’s a real mess out there with a lot of people. It’s not just one or two, it’s a very small minority of people, but it’s too many, and enough for it to be a really serious problem, and I think it’s really important we talk about it, as painful as it is for people to look at it.”

In 2016, it was revealed that 498 people were diagnosed with HIV in Ireland within the last year, a 25% increase from 2014’s figure of 377. Half of the people affected were gay or bisexual men. Although we live in an age where information on HIV is readily available online and in print, rates of HIV transmission appear to be going up, particularly among young LGBTQ+ people.

“Young people are young and think they are invincible – who wants to sit there and wade through pages of information about safe sex? But I think they’re just not getting sex education, and they’re certainly not getting information about HIV. I think there was a whole thing in the early days of the AIDS epidemic where, because the right wing media were constantly saying ‘this is a gay disease,’ HIV organisations rightfully said, ‘well anyone can catch HIV, and across the world there are more straight people who have it,’ but they did this thing called the ‘de-gaying’ of AIDS, which I think has done us a disservice because I have met many young men, gay and bisexual men, who don’t understand or don’t accept or believe that we are more at risk in Europe and the West from HIV, and how we have higher rates of it…ultimately, this is the fault of the education system.” Those who do speak out about their diagnosis are often neglected, and there is an erasure outside and within LGBTQ+ communities.

Matthew Todd, who is currently setting his sights on filmmaking for his next project, hopes that this book will help start a dialogue about mental health within LGBTQ+ circles, and he reminds readers that mental health, gay or straight, is something that we should always be sure to keep in check: “If any of these problems do come up later, and they can come up later – I thought when I was younger that I’d dealt with all of the issues I had, and I hadn’t – there are places you can go to, be it therapy or gay groups, drug and alcohol supports…I’m saying these things as much to myself as I am to anyone else.”

Straight Jacket: How to Be Gay and Happy is available to purchase in all good book stores. If you are affected by any of the issues outlined in this article you can find help by reaching out to the following:

LGBT Helpline
T: 
1890 929 539 | W: www.lgbt.ie

TENI Helpline (Transgender Support)                                                                                                       
T: 
085 147 7166 | W: www.teni.ie

Samaritans
T: 
1850 60 90 90 W: www.samaritans.ie 

Aware (Depression) 

T: 1890 303 302 | W: www.aware.ie | E: wecanhelp@aware.ie

Pieta House (Self-Harm/Suicide Support)
T: 
01-6010000 | W: www.pieta.ie | E: mary@pieta.ie

Alcoholics Anonymous
W: 
www.alcoholicsanonymous.ie

Mental Health Ireland
W: 
www.mentalhealthireland.ie

BeLonG To Youth Services
T: 
01 670 6223 | E: info@belongto.org

Gay Men’s Health Service
T: 
01 873 4952 | E: gmhpoutreach@eircom.net

 

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Friends, Family and Folk Music | An Interview with Real Boy Director Shaleece Haas

This article was originally published online on Sept. 22nd on the HeadStuff website.

The GAZE Film Festival has come and gone, showcasing once more the best in LGBTQ+ cinema on both international and indigenous fronts. Audiences were entertained, educated, stunned and most importantly, enlightened by the frank and unflinching portrayals of a worldwide LGBTQ+ culture. Although there were many films of great merit – including Edmund Lynch’s A Different Country, a much-needed and greatly-appreciated portrait of gay Ireland prior to decriminalisation, Viva, Paddy Breathnach’s new film about a Cuban drag queen and his estranged father, and Holding The Man, an adaptation of Timothy Conigrave’s seminal 1995 memoir – one film stood out to me among the rest.

Real Boy, Shaleece Haas’ documentary about a young trans musician, is sweet and occasionally hard-hitting, offering viewers a multifaceted coming-of-age narrative that never succumbs to sensationalism. Speaking to me after what must have been an exhausting post-screening question-and-answer session, Haas explains her aims in making such a film and how she hopes to reach audiences with its narrative.

A co-producer of 2013’s The Genius of Marian, producer of the short films like 2012’sAwardwinninggir and 2011’s City Fish, and director of the documentary short Old People Driving – which won best documentary at the Phoenix Film Festival in 2010 – Haas is no stranger to the small and silver screens. Filmed over a period of four years, her latest piece focuses on Bennett Wallace, whom Haas met at a small concert: “I was at a living room concert Joe [Stevens] was playing at […] and Bennett opened that show.”

Bennett Wallace and Joe Stevens. From the Film 'Real Boy.' Photo Credit: Shaleece Haas.

Bennett and Joe’s friendship is central to the film and takes the shape of something akin to a mentor-pupil dynamic; Joe is shown in one scene teaching Bennett how to trim a beard. The film endeavours to highlight how the pair are linked by similar life experiences, as Haas now reiterates to me: “[Bennett] had met Joe at a conference for sober young people. They just struck up a very immediate friendship because of very similar experiences of addiction, of being trans, of their love of music […] Joe very quickly saw Bennett as a younger version of himself that he could support […] and Bennett idolised Joe at that point and saw in him the hope that his voice was going to turn out okay.” She adds: “not everybody has a mentor like that, it’s so valuable.”

Indeed, the text is a multifaceted one, simultaneously dealing with issues of family, friendship and, most upsettingly, addiction. Although the film maintains a kindly tone for its duration, there are intermittent reminders of the struggles many LGBTQ+ people face worldwide, and they come fast and strong. Indeed, queer communities have higher rates of substance abuse and mental health problems than their straight, cisgender contemporaries – writer Matthew Todd claims this is the result of living in a ‘cultural straitjacket’ that forces us to adhere to heteronormative society. Although other films at the festival deal with such issues in more overt ways, their inclusion in Real Boy acts as a small sobering reminder of the societal pressures placed on LGBTQ+ people.

It must be stressed, however, that the ‘cultural straitjacket’ forced upon LGBTQ+ is not unrelenting, and can be loosened. Case in point: Bennett’s mother, a key figure in the narrative, is at first sceptical of her son’s transition. Eventually, over the course of the film’s events, we see her gradually move from a place of ignorance to one of acceptance. In one of the film’s more touching sequences, Bennett sings to his mother a song that encapsulates their journey titled ‘For My Family,’ which goes “Mama, I’m sorry / I didn’t mean to make your cry / I’ve been trying to say hello / You thought I was saying goodbye.”

Of this inspiring transformation, Haas notes: “This is not about Bennett’s gender journey. If anything, Bennett’s journey is one from adolescence to young adulthood. The person who makes the greatest transformation is his mother, who has a longer journey to take from shame and loss and confusion and ignorance, really, to a place where she can embrace and celebrate her son.”

Sharleece Haas - HeadStuff.org

The process of learning undertaken by Bennett’s mother is one that some viewers of the film seem to relate to, as Haas explains: “there was an older lesbian woman [at the GAZE Q&A]who said, ‘I have a lot of trouble with with trans issues, and it’s something that challenges me and I don’t feel that I really understand, and this film made me see something and think about something and feel something that shifted that.’ There’s nothing more gratifying to a filmmaker […] because we don’t move the needle on more equity, more justice or acceptance until we can identify with people who are different for us.”

Haas is quick to note there is more than one target audience for the film, explaining that in the very same screening a young trans man claimed the documentary very closely represented his experience of transitioning: “so to me that is extraordinarily gratifying to say that I’m able to speak to both of those audiences.” The questions of family and relationships addressed in the film will also strike a chord with a multitude of people. Often queer-identifying persons must find chosen families in cases where they are rejected by their family of origin. Did Haas find speaking to multiple audiences a daunting task? “I wanted the film to be accessible to a lot of audiences, to be something that is embraced by my community of queer and trans people. It wasn’t elementary, it wasn’t rudimentary, but it also reached broad audiences, not from a place of curiosity or interest in what ‘those’ lives are like, but from a place of identification. To tell a story about family and a desire to be loved by family, that was important to us.”

There is a lack of trans representation in media, and when trans people are featured in interview scenarios they are sometimes mocked and degraded: in a 2014 interview with Katie Couric, Orange is the New Black star Laverne Cox endured offensive questions relating to her transition, to which she gracefully responded, “the preoccupation with transition and surgery objectifies trans people. And then we don’t get to really deal with the real lived experiences.” This is a pitfall Haas was conscious to avoid. She says: “I did not want to make a film about gender transition per se, or certainly the physical aspects of transition Bennett is at a time in his life where he is transitioning […] but it wasn’t about that. It was about relationships and friendships, and what that moment meant for his relationship with his best friend. It’s what Joe says in the film, that there’s the ‘body’ part and then there’s the social and emotional part. And that’s what people on the outside don’t see as much.”

Haas, a filmmaker well-educated in the nuances of LGBTQ+ culture, is also conscious of her social circumstances and the circumstances of the subjects in the film. “[Bennett and Joe] are the best case scenario,” she says. “They’re white, they’re class-privileged, they live in California, and they have family who, even though they deal with strife and struggle, didn’t completely abandon them. They are binary, male-identified. There are many ways to them the path is much clearer and easier than for many of their fellow trans people – trans women, trans people of colour, people who live in rural places. The film is not meant to represent the trans community at all.”

Real Boy is set to be screened again in Ireland, on September 23rd at the Axis Art Centre in Ballymun. Organised in partnership with TENI, there will be workshops, conversations, and also specialised screenings for the trans community and parents of trans kids. “[There is the] opportunity to not only show the film and have people enjoy it as a piece of entertainment,” Haas states, “but [also]to really engage in conversation with each other about the issues in the film: addiction and recovery, self-harm and depression, [and]family acceptance.”

Real Boy will be screened in collaboration with TENI at the Axis Arts Centre in Ballymun tomorrow, September 23rd. Further information can be found here, and a trailer for the feature can be viewed below.

Featured Image Credit: Sarah Deragon.

This article was originally published in the arts and culture supplement of the University Observer, Vol. XXIII, Issue I. It was later published online.

David Monaghan looks at how the GAZE Film Festival sets to help LGBTQ+ screen representation in the march towards equality.

CINEMA and TV are a funfair mirror: they reflect and magnify our biggest fears, force us to confront our insecurities, and make us aware of our obsessions. They take us into a world that is uncanny; a place that is at once similar and dissimilar to our own. For most people these modes of representation become a distorted reflection of their lives. This is true for all but a vocal few: up until recently accurate depictions of LGBTQ+ lives and stories have lacked in comparison to their straight, cis contemporaries.

A report compiled by GLAAD in October 2015 titled ‘Where We Are on TV’ concluded that, of the 881 regular characters on broadcast primetime programming set to appear in 2016, 35 (4%) were identified as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. They also summarised that there were an additional 35 recurring LGB characters set to appear, and that there were no transgender characters counted on primetime broadcast programming in the coming year. If cinema and TV mimic our reality, like a collective funfair mirror, then the prejudices LGBTQ+ people experience on a day-to-day basis are reflected, distorted and thrown back to us in a way that is not surprising.

Events like the GAZE Film Festival set to fill the gap presented by mainstream Film and Television broadcasting by highlighting the best in LGBTQ+ cinema both at home and abroad. This year’s festival ran from the 28th of July to the 1stof August 2016 in the Light House Cinema, and presented films that vary in tone, ideas, characters, themes, troubles, and issues. Thus offering a platform to the multiplicity of experience found within worldwide LGBTQ+ communities that might not have discovered an audience otherwise.

Joey Kuhn’s Those People, for example, distinguishes itself from other films at the festival by being entirely and unquestionably apolitical. The director says as much in a video address to the attentive GAZE crowd; he wants to draw from his personal experience as a gay man. Indeed, the protagonists of the piece, art student Charlie (Jonathan Gordon) and his best friend Sebastian (Jason Ralph), son of a corrupt New York financier, live economically privileged lives that are inaccessible to most LGBTQ+ people. Their friendship becomes strained when Charlie admits his love for Sebastian, and a love triangle ensues when concert pianist Tim (Haaz Sleiman) makes a bid for Charlie’s affections. Although the focus is on gay characters, their sexuality becomes secondary to the drama the film depicts.

“EVENTS LIKE THE GAZE FILM FESTIVAL SET TO FILL THE GAP PRESENTED BY MAINSTREAM FILM AND TELEVISION BROADCASTING BY HIGHLIGHTING THE BEST IN LGBTQ+ CINEMA BOTH AT HOME AND ABROAD.”

In contrast to this is Sara Jordenö’s Kiki, a quasi-sequel to 1990’s Paris Is Burning, which looks at where the LGBTQ+ community finds itself in the years following the latter’s release. Although framed through the transformative art of competitive voguing, a form of modern dance, the film’s focus lies in the dancers themselves who are not only LGB, but also trans.  The dancers use the artform while transitioning to help express their gender identity. Set in New York, we see house mothers and house fathers describe the impact that voguing has on LGBTQ+ youth, many of whom are disadvantaged, homeless, or addicted to drugs, and who use the art to transgress beyond the troubles of their lives. The film also emphasises the links between these LGBTQ+ communities and the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States and beyond. Many audience members were taken aback by this presentation for its frank and unflinching portrayal of disadvantaged LGBTQ+ lives.

One criticism levelled at LGBTQ+ film is for its strict adherence to one genre of cinema, drama. Very rarely are we treated to LGBTQ+ focused science fiction, fantasy, or horror films. Alexandra-Therese Keining seems keenly aware of this and offers a film that is almost a hotchpotch of styles, thankfully without seeming jarring or disparate; less Frankenstein’s Monster than Frankenstein’s Normal-Functioning-Person. Girls Lost tells the story of three friends, Kim (Tuva Jagell), Bella (Wilma Holmén), and Momo (Alexander Gustavsson), who happen upon a strange plant that allows them to change their gender from female to male. For Bella and Momo, this is a fun experiment to fit in with the guys, but for Kim this is something else: her male persona increasingly feels a lot more real than her female. A queer coming-of-age fantasy film, with elements of horror,Girls Lost is unlike anything else shown at the festival.

Irish LGBTQ+ cinema has been central to GAZE in the past, and this year was no exception. The festival’s strongest sell this year was a screening of Viva, Paddy Breathnach’s film about Cuban drag performer Jesus (Héctor Medina) and his relationship with his estranged father, in which the two clash over their opposing expectations for each other. However, the best case of Irish LGBTQ+ cinema showcased at the festival this year is Edmund Lynch’s A Different Country, a documentary that includes interviews with Tom Brace, Declan Buckley, Tonie Walsh, Sarah Philips, former President Mary Robinson and more about Ireland prior to the decriminalisation of homosexuality and the lives of LGBTQ+ people during this time – their pubs, support networks, newsletters and magazines, political movements. “It gives you some idea of what it was like,” says director Lynch. “It’s important that our history is always remembered.”

Film Review | The Beatles: Eight Days a Week Offers Valuable Insight into an Influential Band

This review was originally posted online on the HeadStuff Website on September 06th, 2016.

In the years following their break-up, John Lennon would say that the Beatles were in the crow’s nest of the ship that would discover the ‘New World.’ He was referring of course to the 1960s, a decade of discovery and experimentation. At this time support for the Civil Rights movement was proliferating, a nuclear threat would forever change the world’s geopolitical landscape, the Vietnam War was shaking America’s very confidence in itself, and ‘hippie’ counterculture encouraged youths to challenge the established order of their parents’ generation. It was a period of simultaneous excitement and unease, and this is the climate director Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind, Frost/Nixon) hopes to capture in The Beatles: Eight Days a Week. It is a film that looks at the band’s touring years of 1963 to 1966 and the ‘Beatlemania’ they inspired.

John Lennon’s quote is not without some merit: although Howard claims the Beatles’ touring years are his focus, it is apparent as the film unfolds that this is not entirely true. Yes, the film features live performances from the band and recounts their various backstage antics, but it also documents the social, political and cultural fallout from the Beatles’ introduction to the music scene. In order to emphasise their wide-ranging influence, Howard asks entertainers from every walk of celebrity life to describe how the band has influenced them: Richard Curtis, known for his work in comedy, describes their wit and charm; actor Sigourney Weaver describes the electric-energy of seeing them live (and even appears at a concert in archive footage); composer Howard Goodall emphasises the genius of their compositions.

The Beatles playing live at the height of 'Beatlemania.' Source

Most spectacularly, Whoopi Goldberg describes how the group transcended racial boundaries, stating “I never saw them as white guys!” This point returns later in the film: upon hearing that the audience at the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Florida was to be racially segregated, the Beatles refused to play unless promoters desegregated the audience. Their wish was ultimately granted and on September 11th 1964, the Beatles performed to a mixed-race crowd of 23,000. The Beatles were also famously critical of the Vietnam War and were huge proponents of the hippie ‘free love’ movement. While watching the film it becomes increasingly apparent that the Beatles were important voices for the time – the 1960s needed the Beatles as much as the Beatles needed the 1960s.

The archival concert footage featured in the film is masterfully remastered, with the group sounding crisp and clear. This makes the Beatles live experience far more tangible than before. The film also does well to emphasise the importance of Brian Epstein and George Martin. The Beatles’ success did not occur in a vacuum: Epstein helped propel them to the top by honing their image, and Martin helped create their musical style in the recording studios of Abbey Road. The film ends just as, arguably, the most interesting period of the Beatles’ story is about to begin: tired of constant touring, social events, photoshoots and fan harassment, in 1966 the group retire to the studio to focus all their energy into making music, resulting in experimental albums like Sgt. Pepper, the White Album, andLet It Be. However, in not covering the band’s entire history, Howard utilises the shorter time span to create a focused, insightful piece into the most influential band in history.

The Beatles: Eight Days a Week will be simulcast worldwide on September 15th with an exclusive showing at the Light House on that day. It will then be available to stream from Hulu. View the trailer below.

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Café Society: Review

This review was originally published in the University Observer’s Freshers’ Magazine in September 2016. It was later published online.

Directed by: Woody Allen

Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Steve Carell, Parker Posey, Blake Lively, Corey Stoll

Release Date: September 2nd

Café Society is Woody Allen’s forty-sixth film and by now his time spent in the spotlight is showing. The film is full to the brim with the tropes and archetypes of Allen’s cinema, and they are wheeled out and displayed at such momentum that it often plays like a self-defeating parody of itself.  A neurotic protagonist, jazz music, a period setting, Jewish stereotypes, and an awkward romance are all on parade in this nostalgia-fest.

The film is set in the 1930s, during Hollywood’s Golden Era, and begins as Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg, doing his best Woody Allen impression), a Jewish man from the Bronx, moves to Hollywood to start afresh. It is there that he encounters his uncle, Phil (Steve Carell), an overworked but completely adept talent agent, and his secretary Veronica (Kristen Stewart).  The relationship between the two men becomes strained when Veronica falls in love with both of them, dredging another trope of Allen’s cinema – that of an older man forming a relationship with a woman significantly his junior. There is also a subplot involving Bobby’s gangster brother Ben (Corey Stoll), and the film jumps back and forth between the two at the cost of consistent tone and pace.

This is yet another period piece by the veteran director and by now he can slip in and out, change and adapt, to the recent past with a relevant ease. The lavish sets and gorgeous cinematography by Vitorrio Storaro combine to idealise a period when glamour and superficiality trumped substance; muted primary colours typify the Hollywood Allen wishes to depict.

Such attractive imagery leaves you with a feeling of wanting, however; Allen spends more time dealing with a plot that is predictable and paper-thin, and less exploring the world he has created. Although names like ‘Irene Dunne,’ and ‘Errol Flynn’ are dispersed throughout the dialogue, the film does not dedicate enough time to immersing itself fully in the period it sets to mimic. The beauty of Midnight in Paris, Allen’s 2012 offering, is that, while advancing the film’s central romance we are treated, often humorously, to caricatures of 1920s Modernist writers.  In Café Society, we are less tourists of history than bored patrons desperately trying to see everything before the museum closes.

In a Nutshell: Café Society is a gorgeous-looking wasted opportunity. Rent Midnight in Paris instead.

Small Print? | Changes in Irish Publishing

This article was originally published on the HeadStuff website on August 16, 2016.

It is well-documented that Irish writer James Joyce once said, “No self-respecting person wants to stay in Ireland.” Although the automatic and unthinking response of many to such a claim would be dismissal, the long, broad narrative of Irish history only reaffirms the well-known Dubliner’s witticism: our island has long been tinged by accounts of emigration, from the days of the Great Hunger up until the present.

This inescapable and unfortunate truth has also not eluded the nation’s writers, many of whom in the past sought to publish their works abroad. Joyce himself published his works in Paris after lengthy battles with conservative publishers in Ireland and Britain, and Samuel Beckett lived in the French capital for most of his life, writing in both French and English. Women writers, in decades past, have also had their works suffocated by a male-dominated printing scene and, up until recent years, did not have access to popular outlets through which they could publish their works. Although writers like Elizabeth Bowen and Kate O’Brien enjoyed some success, it was limited when compared to their male counterparts.

“I suppose one of the key things in the twentieth century was censorship – ‘unsuitable’ literature just wasn’t going to be published in Ireland,” says Claire Hennessy, co-editor of the literary journalBanshee. Indeed, the Irish Censorship of Publications Board was established in 1929 in order to monitor literature in various forms, effectively banning any writing deemed ‘obscene’ or ‘inappropriate.’ Its power and influence has dwindled greatly in recent decades however, and very few works are blocked in the country. Although restrictions on what can be printed are now minimal, many Irish writers still look to the UK and beyond in order to publish their major works. “I think it’s a desire to reach a larger readership,” says Eimear Ryan, one-third of the Banshee team. “Ireland has had a lively literary journal and small press scene for the last few decades – there’s no shortage of outlets – and Irish people are great readers, but it’s still a relatively small market.”

In the last six years, however, indigenous publishing has undergone a transformation, with new literary journals appearing across the country. Irish writers, too, are beginning to win more and more prizes on the international front. Many Irish writers use small quality presses and journals, such asLilliput, The Stinging Fly, and Tramp, as a springboard before moving to bigger deals in the US and UK. She continues: “the likes of Colin Barrett, Rob Doyle and Sara Baume published first in Ireland to great acclaim, and then got picked up internationally. I think small Irish presses have gained this reputation for being brilliant talent scouts and I think that the bigger publishers are keeping a close eye on what’s coming out of the Irish publishing scene.” So what has triggered such an incredible turn around? And how has this affected the quality and themes of Irish writing?

Poetry On The Fringes

Although novelists and prose writers have enjoyed success in Ireland, the poetry scene has been met with some minor difficulties: many older presses have shut down. Jessica Traynor, poet and Literary Manager of the Abbey Theatre, believes this is indicative of an emerging new wave in poetry publishing. She says: “we’re seeing a little bit of a recovery […] I think these things go in cycles: while we’ve lost older poetry presses like Doghouse, other presses […] like Arlen House tend to be outwardly going from strength to strength.” A huge concern for Irish publishers is funding, and this is intensified for poets; when budgets are tight, poetry is somewhat impaired by its smaller audience relative to prose writing.

Michael Naghten Shanks was the editor of The Bohemyth, a former quarterly journal publishing short fiction, poetry, essays and photography. A fervent poet, Shanks has also felt the figurative pinch of tightened budgets: “when it comes to the next stage of a writer’s career […] I do think that prose writers are in a much better position. Ultimately, one has to acknowledge the economic argument for why this is the case, but I still believe more could be done to correct the balance. It is not that the talent is lacking when it comes to Irish poetry, it is more to do with how the majority of poetry publishers in Ireland are lacking the funding they need in order to be able to take the necessary risks on finding and supporting new poets. Make no mistake it is the same case for fiction publishers, but they do seem to be less reticent when it comes to the crunch.”

Internet Influence

Before its closure on August 8th 2016, The Bohemyth operated exclusively online. The role the internet has played in the recent resurgence of Irish writing cannot be understated: writers can publish their works online without fear of interference from middlemen, network with others on Twitter and Facebook, and experience greater, worldwide exposure, the levels of which might not have been attained otherwise. “If I were to think of a reason for why things seem, outwardly at least, vibrant, I think a lot of this has to do with the new lease of life the internet has given to poets” Traynor claims. “I recognise that the internet has been instrumental in building connections for Irish poets overseas. For poets, short story writers and novelists, the internet is a wonderful thing […] and I think having the internet there as a buffer has allowed some of the smaller publishers to think, ‘I can take a risk on this person.’” The internet has also influenced the writing of those working in literature in Ireland, leading many to discover artists and works they may not have happened upon in other circumstances.

The internet cannot be credited exclusively with shaping the character of contemporary writing. It is also worth noting that the new wave of Irish talent materialised in the wake of the financial crash of 2008, so one would not be mistaken in assuming that the economic, personal and political impact of such an event permeates the very pages of the writers most affected. “Sara Baume is really interesting on this,” Eimear Ryan notes. “She points out that the lack of jobs post-2008 sort of gave young artists permission to be broke and on the dole and writing, whereas during the Celtic Tiger years, there would have been much more social pressure to be earning big money, or to at least be in a job related to your degree.” Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart, published in 2012, deals with the personal fallout of the economic crash; people are left stuck in unfinished ghost estates, contemplate emigration, and attempt to make sense of what is perceived as an unprecedented catastrophe. Such a book describes accurately the environment from which modern writers have emerged.

Break From Tradition

 

Kevin Barry with Alan Bennett on The HeadStuff Podcast, Beatlebone, City of Bohane - HeadStuff.org

Kevin Barry (right) is one writer moving away from traditional subject matter in his writing. Source – HeadStuff.org

 

There is a sense in modern literature that Irish writers no longer subscribe to a mandate to write ‘in tradition,’ as Eimear Ryan elaborates: “In the work of Kevin Barry, Claire Kilroy, Paul Murray and others, the settings and characters are often Irish, but the influences aren’t. Contemporary Irish writers are being inspired by European and American fiction, comic books, video games, HBO shows, the internet.” Irish writing has traditionally been unified by overlapping themes and ideas: James Joyce wrote about Catholicism and sexual repression in Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artistdecades before Patrick Kavanagh touched on similar subjects in his poetry, and the pastiche of staunch republicanism in Ulysses’ ‘Cyclops’ chapter is not entirely dissimilar to Martin McDonagh’s caricature of militant nationalism in plays likeThe Lieutenant of Inishmore. Joseph O’Connor, in Star of the Sea, reminds us of our history of emigration, while Kate O’Brien and Jamie O’Neill both deal with gay characters living in a new but wholly-suffocating Ireland, despite writing decades apart. As has been described previously, in recent years indigenous publishing has undergone a plethora of changes, but has this altered the common signifiers of what makes an ‘Irish’ text? “There are still some very traditional stories,” states Hennessy. “Disapproving mothers! Dead fathers! Abusive priests! The nuns! Funerals! Emigration! […] Often these appeal to an international audience, tying in to a certain notion of ‘Irishness’. But there are fresh themes and topics too – in Young Adult, for example, we’ve had a number of dystopias recently [such as]Eilis Barrett’s Oasis, Cecelia Ahern’s Flawed, Louise O’Neill’s Only Ever Yours, which was not something many Irish writers did previously.”

Young Adult fiction has experienced a resurgence in popularity, with many adults now reading from the genre. Claire Hennessy has recently published Nothing Tastes as Good, a young adult novel that pushes the important issue of eating disorders to the fore. The writer states: “Annabel [one of the novel’s primary voices]came very much from reading several Young Adult novels which featured the same trope about the protagonist losing a friend to an eating disorder while in hospital, and this serving as the catalyst for their own recovery – how angry would you be, to be just a catalyst in someone else’s story?”

Readjusted Balance

 

Irish Publishing

Sinéad Gleeson, editor of The Long Gaze Back. Source – Independent.ie

 

As such, the established canon of Irish writing has been altered and, in select cases, challenged, and so have the inherent biases of a male-centred publishing scene. The Long Gaze Back, an anthology of Irish women’s writing, was published last year to mass acclaim. The anthology’s editor, Sinéad Gleeson, aimed to fill a gap within the large narrative of Irish writing left by the exclusion of prominent female voices. The women writers that feature in the collection are wide-ranging and span decades – the gap between the oldest and youngest writer in the collection is 218 years. “There’s always been Irish women’s writing but it’s about what gets paid attention to,” states Hennessy. “Anne Enright published her first short story collection in 1991 and got critical acclaim […] but it wasn’t until winning the Booker sixteen years later that she became a household name. Emma Donoghue’s debut was in 1993, long before Room exploded onto the literary scene […] Irish women’s writing has always been there. It’s about what we take seriously – and what we dismiss.”

Hennessy, alongside Eimear Ryan and Laura Jane Cassidy, established Banshee, a literary journal whose output is evenly split down the gender divide, an unusual occurrence in the Irish literary scene. “We’ve tended to publish more female writers than male” Hennessy explains, “but it’s not our intention to have the journal as a women-only publication that somehow provides a ‘safe space’ for female writers. The women writers we’re publishing don’t need that – they deserve to be read widely, as indeed do the men we’re publishing.” Eimear Ryan adds: “[alongside women writers]we’ve also published really brilliant work by the likes of Dylan Brennan, Dean Browne and Andrew Meehan. Issue #3 is shaping up really well and should hopefully be out in early September.”

Despite emerging liberal views regarding female voices within the male-dominated environment of fiction and poetry writing, women writers still experience certain gender-influenced difficulties in their line of work, as Hennessy explains: “Rob Doyle is lauded for writing about angry violent men, but when Louise O’Neill writes about the impact of male violence on women she gets hate mail […] Men are praised for subject matter that is more typically undertaken by women – Colm Tóibín’s Brooklynis basically a Maeve Binchy novel, in so many ways – not a criticism, I love her work – and it’s gotten infinitely more respect than anything she ever wrote.”

Gender bias is not the only issue contemporary writers must overcome: although externally the new Irish writing scene seems a safe haven for new talent, many minority writers – those within the LGBTQ+, travelling or immigrant communities, for example – will be quick to find that certain social biases still pervade the indigenous publishing scene. There is also a blatant lack of narratives that deal with issues of disability and mental illness. Michael Naghten Shanks discusses how to address such erasure: “As a straight, white male, my position in the literary community is undoubtedly one of privilege, whether desired for or not, and the least I, and others in my position, can do is to be conscious of that privilege, so that we can, whenever possible, readdress the balance.”

All scenes, movements and trends come and go – they enjoy their time in the spotlight before fading into memory. With little government support for literature, it’s uncertain how long the literary boom will last, or what shape Irish writing will take in the future. There are precautions, however, we can take to help ensure that there is a future for our literature: “It’s lovely that there’s a perception that there’s a groundswell of new work,” Jessica Traynor states, “it’s something that we need to try and protect, even in terms of buying books. If there’s an imprint you like, buy their books, go to their launches, get to know the people involved.”

GAZE Film Festival 2016 | Ireland’s Flagship LGBT Film Festival is Back for its 24th Year

This article was originally published online on the HeadStuff Website on June 20th, 2016.

The annual GAZE International Film Festival has been a flagship event for Dublin’s LGBT community since its inception in 1992. Now in its 24th year, the festival will continue to highlight LGBT cinema for all its diversity, or so programmer Roisin Geraghty assures: “promoting LGBT film is so exciting,” she says. “You’re trying to find a very fine balance in your programming… between the L, G, B, and T, [as well as]the narrative content and the documentary content, and breaking it down into light content and hard-hitting content. It’s difficult but so interesting.

A glance at the screening schedule seems to reaffirm Roisin’s comments: the festival opens with the documentary Strike a Pose, which follows the seven young male dancers who joined pop singer Madonna in 1990 for her iconic ‘Blond Ambition’ tour. For many, this was a milestone in LGBT history for how it communicated sexual liberation through performance. This tour of course occurred at a time when such freedom was a novelty: prejudice was high and misconceptions surrounding HIV and the gay community were widespread. This film acts as accompaniment to 1991’s Madonna: Truth or Dare, which will also be shown at the festival, alongside a special guest appearance from one of the original seven dancers, Kevin Stea.

Kiki will be show as part of the GAZE International Film Festival 2016. - HeadStuff.org

The Madonna double-bill is accompanied in the successive days by films that promise to be just as impactful, albeit wholly different in terms of content and approach. One such example is Kiki, an ‘unofficial sequel’ to 1990’s Paris is Burning. A joint American-Swedish production, Kiki offers insight into the lives of LGBT youth of colour involved in the ‘Kiki’ scene, which incorporates a series of social gatherings and ballroom competitions. These gatherings often lead to important dialogues related to Black-and Trans-Lives Matter movements.

Acclaimed director Xavier Dolan’s Heartbeats will also be screened at this year’s festival, as part of a strand that aims to celebrate Québec’s rich LGBT cinema. The focus on Queer Québécois Cinema was born of meeting between the people of GAZE and the programming directors of IMAGE+NATION LGBT Film Festival Montréal, who will be welcomed to attend this year’s festival.

GAZE International Film Festival 2016. - HeadStuff.org

Not only is there a wide range of international content available to view at the festival, but as ever there will be more than enough indigenous content to survey as well. “The Irish content is always to the fore for GAZE,” says Roisin Geraghty. “It’s very important for us to highlight Irish LGBT filmmakers and films. We have an incredibly strong Irish shorts programme this year, [and]we’re also screening Viva just before its release in August. It’s really important to us to have a film like that – an Irish film of such incredibly high standard.Viva is an Irish film by director Paddy Breathnach which follows protagonist Jesus, played by Héctor Medina, who is a Cuban man with ambitions to become a drag queen. This, in spite of protestations from his estranged father.

The festival is once again sponsored by consulting firm Accenture, who have been patrons of the event since 2012. Michelle Cullen, managing director of Accenture, emphasises the important role businesses have in supporting LGBT peoples: “The diversity of our people is very important to us. In our first year we did banners [for the festival]along the Liffey… Some of our clients and other companies have said that seeing it so publicly has helped them join it. If you’re not saying it publicly you don’t know what it could be like [for LGBT people in business].” Accenture is a member of the GLEN Diversity Champions and next weekend its employees will march with GAZE at the Dublin Pride Parade.

This year’s festival will take place in a different cultural climate to that of last year; while in 2015 GAZE showed films to an Irish public still celebrating the numerous pro-LGBT laws that had recently come into effect both at home and abroad, audiences in 2016 are still reeling from the events of June 16, in which 49 people were killed and 53 were injured in a homophobic attack at the famous Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, making it the worst incidence of violence against LGBT people in American history. It acted as a stark reminder of the prejudice LGBT people have to endure, and the ongoing efforts being made to tackle bigotry. Commenting on this is festival programmer Roisin Geraghty: “In the run up to putting the programme together I thought, ‘wow, there aren’t as many hard-hitting human rights documentaries as there was this time last year. Is that a sign that things are positively progressing?’ And then, after what happened last Saturday… It was a real reminder to us that there’s such a long way to go.” Roisin then cites Upstairs Inferno, a documentary set to be screened at the festival, as an example of a film that will strike a chord with contemporary audiences. The film is about the firebombing of a gay bar in New Orleans in 1973: “Up until last weekend,” Roisin says, “it was the second biggest attack on LGBT people in US history. As our programme went to print that was still the case.

And while incidents like the aforementioned attack in the United States inspire fear within communities who dare to exhibit difference, they can also help emphasise the importance of festivals like GAZE, whose narratives of liberation, love, diversity, and endurance – combined with an attendance at the festival by patrons from all across the country, and indeed the globe – prove that however overwhelming prejudice may be, we are stronger and better together, and this can be seen in the stories we tell.

The GAZE Film Festival runs from July 28th to August 1st at the Light House Cinema, Dublin. Further details can be seen at www.gaze.ie