“Looking” at Agustin

I’ve said in an earlier post that I find Agustin a frustrating, whiny character. His coldness toward his friends and even his boyfriend Frank are off-putting and make him a difficult figure to engage with as a viewer.

As the series has progressed, however, he grows more and more interesting. His approach to life is an almost-perfect foil to Patrick’s. Unlike Patrick, who labels individuals and actions into phony categorizes, Agustin takes the opposite approach.

After he and Frank engage in a three-way with another young artist, Frank asks if he and Agustin are now one of “those couples,” to which Agustin replies that they can be whatever they want to be. He evades labels, and instead acts according to his desire rather than binding himself to a type.

This philosophy is an interesting one to see play out. As someone who repels labels himself, he is drawn to those who do plainly describe themselves, like with his friend C.J. the sex worker. Agustin extrapolates C.J.’s line of business into C.J.’s entire identity, and views everything C.J. does as somehow representative of the sex worker personae.

To further this complexity, and reveal Agustin’s own hypocrisy, as he, Frank, and C.J. experiment in intimacy, Agustin is perfectly comfortable allowing C.J. to videotape he and Frank together – yet when he later records Frank and C.J. kissing, his seething jealousy is palpable. By not defining the terms of his relationship with Frank, he created an openness he may not have even been prepared for – and he regrets that.

While it is still a fresh storyline, his immediate repulsion to the Patrick-Richie relationship is very intriguing. He is quick to call out the romance as Patrick “slumming,” an accusation which at first comes across as harsh, but at the same time, nobody knows Patrick better than Agustin. Even we have only been with these characters a handful of weeks; Agustin has known him since college.

Agustin’s confrontation of Patrick also carries an interesting subtext; he lashes out at Patrick, but when Richie comes up, Agustin tries to backpedal and brush it aside. On one hand, he may have simply realized he’d gotten caught and was trying to get out of it. On the other, though, Agustin may have some long-standing resentment and frustration with Patrick, and was in a way trying to save Richie from the pain he feels Patrick would inevitably cause him. If Agustin can spot Patrick’s slumming so easily, Patrick has probably done this before – enough that Agustin recognizes the signs.

While he is in some ways unpleasant and even painful to watch, Agustin plays an intricate role in Looking through both his relationship with others, and his own struggles of identity.

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Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

The first scene of Dallas Buyers Club is disorienting, immediately confounding the viewer with obscured vision, indecipherable gasps, and lack of context. The next several scenes are similarly abrupt, provocative, and compelling. It sets the stage for what feels like a film.

Turns out your gut reaction is wrong, though. This movie, while starting with promise, winds out to be your typical sentimentalist junk about the AIDS crisis during the 1980s. I don’t mean to sound heartless or uncaring, but we’ve seen plenty of movies like this before.

Based on true events, Dallas Buyers Club is the story of an “odd couple” of a homophobic loser joining forces with a transgender woman to deal, and eventually set up a business, to distribute medication which alleviates the symptoms of AIDS. Each has their own selfish reasons for entering into this arrangement (elements which I think make the story compelling), but it predictably falls into the sappy selflessness you’d expect. This is truly the stuff Oscar dreams are made of.

I don’t mean to say this movie was terrible, but it certainly wasn’t good. If the events in the film are all true ones (which, for all I know, they may have been), they certainly weren’t set up well enough. For instance, Matthew McConaughey’s Ron Woodroof is somehow able to break through his first con job, as a cancer-stricken priest, without breaking a sweat… It’s suspending a lot of disbelief that, given the devastating circumstances of being HIV+, Woodroof can all of a sudden develop alternate personae faster than That’s So Raven.

Lazy touches like this make the film overall underwhelming for me. It’s not a particularly interesting movie, and I find it inconceivable how it has drawn such praise. Dallas Buyers Club gives you exactly what you expect, which in my opinion is pointless art.

12 Years a Slave (2013)

12 Years a Slave may have a clear title, but this film is anything but what you’d expect. It is not the saccharine-sweet pat on the back like Spielberg’s Lincoln or anything warm-fuzzy like Roots. Steve McQueen has hit his third home run in a row with this gritty, haunting story of American cruelty.

In some ways, it almost reminded me of Pasolini’s Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom in how it showed the cruelty humanity can put up with, or even commit, in order to survive. It is just as painful to watch the enslaved Solomon Northup be whipped and beaten as it is to watch him do nothing as the same happens to victims around him.

On a broader level, it’s fascinating how these characters create a sense of order for themselves, in a world so full of cruelty and chaos. Almost everyone speaks in beautiful, nearly-Shakespearean language, heightening the sheer intelligence and thought everyone has put into how they face their often desperate circumstances. Whether Michael Fassbender as Edwin Epps practicing horrific cruelty believing such is God’s will, or Chiwetel Ejiofor defending his master William Ford as a good one “under the circumstances,” it’s illuminating to see how these characters warp their realities in order to live through them.

McQueen takes no emotional cheap shots, or force any sentimentality or remorse out of it. Your guttural response is from merely the actions, as the camera is forcing you to witness them for yourself. No artistic work I’ve yet seen shows the condition of slavery as horrifyingly as 12 Years a Slave.

It’s not easy to watch but I’d consider it almost essential viewing. This film is a landmark not only for how neorealistically it approaches its subject matter, but also for its broader and, frankly, disturbing message about humanity.

“Looking” at Patrick as an Antihero

I decided to do some more digging into my earlier claim that Patrick from the new HBO series Looking is an asshole, and found some compelling evidence to support my theory. Whether he plays it off as humor or slides it casually into conversation, his words and actions demonstrate his snippy demeanor, aggressive attitude, and constant typification of himself and those around him.

He seems to be most outwardly vicious to his close friends, where he can say what he wants and get away with it. First thing in the morning, after Agustin and Frank hook up and Agustin emerges in the kitchen, Patrick shoots Agustin a Look and lets him know he could hear them this morning.

Soon after, as Patrick and Dom are helping Agustin pack up a car to move to Oakland, Patrick is smugly speculating the status of his burgeoning relationship with Richie. Whether casual or the “real thing,” Patrick asserts that he’s “gonna get [him]self a Mexican fuck buddy whether you like it or not.” Sure, it’s played for laughs, but it also says something about how Patrick views other people, as commodities for a story to tell his friends, rather than a genuine connection.

With others, however, Patrick says less of what he wants and more of what he wants to embody; ironically, showing his true colors by becoming a facade, a quality I’ve come to now associate with Patrick. He regularly typifies and qualifies those around him, and himself, to categorize individuals into clear definitions – but managing to avoid viewing himself in the same terms that he views others.

Patrick makes up his mind and forms a concrete idea that is hard to crack when disproven later. Whether being surprised Richie isn’t wearing a hat on their second meeting or shock that Richie’s necklace is “religious-y” (without even noticing the necklace earlier), to searching Google Images for uncircumcised penises to prepare himself, his mind is quick to freeze but hard to thaw.

His shallow, immediate setting of expectations also translates to how he likes to perceive himself, ultimately leading to the deception of others. When he first meets Richie, Richie mistakes Patrick for an oncologist, which results in a flirtation match, but Patrick never corrects him – he just rolls into the fake identity that was created moments earlier.

His sense of typifying also crosses over to his friends, like at Folsom Street Fair. Patrick has, on several occasions, expressed confusion yet fascination with Agustin’s sexual preferences, both not understanding it but loving to hear about it. At Folsom, though, Patrick first evades wearing leather, associating it with the lifestyle of people like Agustin, by asserting that he’s not the “kind of person” that’s into leather.

Patrick is such a fascinating character because he speaks in such defined terms that he invariably contradicts himself time and time again. We, the audience, have the benefit of all his faces, but it will be interesting to see how long it takes those around him to catch up to the “kind of person” Patrick really is.