Weekly Round-Up: January 10-16, 2016

Big week last week, between the Golden Globe awards and the Academy Award nominations announcement – awards season has officially begun and I’ve got my work cut out for me as far as seeing all the nominees!

Last week, I saw:

  • Descendants (2015) – Terrifically addictive Disney Channel Original Movie about the kids of Disney villains & heroes all going to high school together. RECOMMENDED.
  • 45 Years (2015) – Heartbreaking drama about an older couple dealing with the resurgence of the husband’s long-lost love in their lives. Delicately told and superbly acted. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) – Well-constructed action-adventure film brought down by an overly repetitive plot and weak script. NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • Eating Raoul (1982) – Wonderfully demented black comedy about a straight-edge couple who devise a plot to raise money for their dream restaurant by killing the swingers who torment them. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • Mistress America (2015) – Disappointing comedy from the Frances Ha dream-team of Greta Gerwig & Noam Baumbach about the burgeoning friendship between a college freshman and her big stepsister-to-be. Intriguing premise is brought down by an unwatchable third act, with overacting galore and pacing that’s suited more for stage and less for film. NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • Tangled (2010) – One of my favorite contemporary animated films, this is a perfect pivot blend of traditional Disney storytelling and modern computer animation, with a terrific script and music to boot. REQUIRED.
  • Spotlight (2015) – I’m guessing the hype around this movie is more the importance of the subject matter and not for the, uh, film itself. Formulaic journalistic drama about Boston Globe reporters investigating the Catholic Church’s involvement in & implicit support of abuse cases. This operates in The Hills style of storytelling, where scenes transpire followed by a scene of people recapping what we just saw. NOT RECOMMENDED.

What did you see last week? How do you feel about the Oscar noms?

45 Years (2015)

The latest masterpiece from Andrew Haigh, 45 Years, is a patiently told drama about a woman (Kate, played by Charlotte Rampling) who finds her marriage with Geoff (Tom Courtenay) in crisis. The body of his long-lost-love Katya, who was in the picture before Kate and Geoff ever met, has been found decades after she died in a horrific accident. Her sudden “return” brings back memories and regrets from Geoff’s youth, and all Kate can do is wonder where she’s stood all this time.

Just as the best comedies support jokes written around a funny story, this upper-tier drama is propelled by this genuinely tragic situation. Each scene contributes to and is weighed down by this unexpected revelation. Kate delicately interrogates further, to learn the nature and depth of his past romance, but listens on helplessly as Geoff describes the love, and life, that Kate never offered. Kate’s perception for each of Geoff’s mood swings or negative outbursts pivot from one-time occurrences to outward representations of his regret. Her desire to know and secure her place as Geoff’s real life is constantly in conflict with her sadness of finding out the truth of what happened so many years ago.

As with any Andrew Haigh work, there is meaning with every choice. I’m sure I’ll uncover more as I re-watch this, but a couple I noticed off the bat:

  • Visual imbalance. The film is structured into days of the week, with title cards as formal dividers. As each day begins, the opening shots are of their home in the country, a suburban road, a forest glen. Each shot is mostly straight but slightly tilted, at a subtle diagonal angle (not Batman villains status). This choice reflects Kate and Geoff’s relationship, which is mostly strong particularly having lasted 4 1/2 decades – yet the Katya revelation throws things slightly off. We are not at ease, from a narrative level, and this visual cue contributes to that subconscious tension. (There is certainly a visual essay to be written on this!)
  • Time. This element, both visual and aural, works twofold: first, as a more immediate, anxious device. Two times, Kate window-shops for watches as a gift Geoff; on her second visit, later in the week and deeper into her marital crisis, the ticking sound of watches becomes even more prominent and impossibly loud, as a looming, steady pulse heightening the anxiety of her situation. Second, time functions as a broader theme. The name of the movie is even 45 Years, and the central conflict is a matter of their relationship now as it was all those decades ago. In a bittersweet moment towards the end, when we aren’t sure where Geoff’s heart truly stands, he smiles and comments to Kate that “I never look at the time.”

As with Weekend and Looking45 Years‘s greatest asset is its authenticity. Over the course of several days, we play witness to this couple in all their highs and lows – sweet dances in the living room to painful interrogations late at night. The emotional moments take you suddenly and unexpectedly, just as they do in real life. There are no fourth-wall-breaking sensory forces at play, as the soundtrack all comes straight from the confines of the narrative.

In the tremendously satisfying and moving finale, the couple’s 45th wedding anniversary, their wedding song plays as they drift onto the dance floor. We break from the painful crisis at hand and pivot into a wonderful dream – them apart, away from the world around them. Smoke gets in your eyes.

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45 Years
is available now on Amazon.

Weekly Round-Up: November 15-21, 2015

This past week was exceptionally Criterion-heavy – between prepping for the Criterion Blogathon and my bi-annual “Criterion binge” (that is, a binge of Criterion movies to know whether or not they must be purchased during the Barnes & Noble half-off sale). As such, this was an especially rich week for film viewing:

  • The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) – Arguably one of the first real horror films (as far as I’ve read — I can claim no real authority on this era of film), Cabinet brings genuinely spooky visuals and inspired set design to a wholly memorable cinematic experience. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • Forget Me Not (1936) – Wonderfully sweet love story – I wrote a longer post you can read here. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • Weekend (2011) – One of the great dramas of the 21st century, and one of my favorite movies, period. Check out my writings on this extraordinary film here. REQUIRED.
  • Day For Night (1973) – Terrifically rich film about film, and possibly my favorite Truffaut thus far. REQUIRED.
  • A Special Day (1977) – This poignant and heartbreaking film brings together a defeated housewife and party subversive on the day Hitler visits Mussolini, circa 1938. Marcello Mastroianni and Sophia Loren at the top of their game. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • Rushmore (1998) – Sweet comedy-drama about a talented, ambitious, yet unfocused adolescent struggling to navigate the world around him. RECOMMENDED.

What did you see last week?

The Musical Pulse of Andrew Haigh’s “Weekend”

This essay is part of the superb collection of pieces in the Criterion Blogathon, hosted by Criterion Blues, Speakeasy, and Silver Screenings. Visit the full roster here for a multitude of insights, commentaries, and reviews on some of the finest in cinema history, by some of the best bloggers around!

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Between my numerous entries on Weekend and studies of the HBO series Looking, I think I’ve written more on the works of Andrew Haigh than just about anything. There is something terrifically addicting about the art he brings us – I’m drawn to his work first because it’s genuinely good, and upon each viewing I uncover something new, and am pulled deeper into the experience. He is absolutely a talent to keep an eye out for, and I eagerly anticipate seeing his latest film 45 Years (if/when it ever crosses the Atlantic!)

With Weekend (my introduction to Haigh), one of the initial draws was the strong musical soundtrack – I downloaded the two John Grant songs almost instantly, and gradually compiled as much of the (unofficial) soundtrack as I could. These songs have swirled in my mind over the past couple years and gradually brewed into the piece you are about to read. (And for the record, Looking has an excellent soundtrack as well!) The below piece is SPOILER-HEAVY so read with caution.

Andrew Haigh’s Weekend exemplifies contemporary neorealism in several regards. One way is through its narrative structure: we follow the main protagonist Russell along every step of his journey – his solitary walks to the bars, his bike rides to work, even him putting on shoes. Each aspect of his life is documented and compiled as part of the experience we share with him. Even visually, this is further communicated through numerous wide shots rather than close-ups, imagery of of Russell in a broader landscape, like the Manchester buses and on his lifeguard station at work. His frequent, though authentically staged, isolation is communicated to us in nearly every scene without Glen.

We not only see elements of neorealism, though; we also hear them. Weekend‘s sound design has a mostly atypical cinematic soundtrack to speak of – few”out-of-body,” omnipresent musical selections that only we, the viewer, can hear. The film opens with virtual silence as Russell gets ready to go out. The only sounds heard are the soft splashes of his bath, the crinkle of his shoebox lining, the tick of his lighter.

Not only does this instantly convey a sense of realism (which will permeate throughout the film through the aforementioned elements), but it also conditions our senses to take notice when music does happen. The songs, while played within some authentic, real-world setting of someone’s house, a dance club, etc., are frankly so few and far between that they carry a noticeable weight and significance all their own. All (good) soundtracks should include musical selections that support and communicate the story, and it’s even more impressive that Weekend can do so within its own neorealistic boundaries of when a song can be heard.

In chronological order, here is a timeline of the musical moments in Weekend:

Song: “William Posters” by Milk.

Jamie recounts a story of when he and Russell were kids getting into trouble. He describes Russell as being “stoned out of [his] mind” as they fled from a massive fire (which, presumably, they started). Russell smokes and sits back as Jamie gives us our first real introduction to his past.

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Song: “Oubliette” by Milk.

Jamie & Russell talk about Lois’s (Jamie’s daughter, Russell’s goddaughter) upcoming birthday party. Jamie asks how Russell has been, since he’s been keeping “a low profile recently;” Russell replies that he may be up for a promotion at work, though he looks like he has more to say.

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Another guest at the party interrupts them and sits between the two, and even takes Russell’s hat to tease him.

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In the next shot, we cut to silence. Russell has left the party and is saying goodbye to Jamie.

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Song: Club pop music.

Russell goes to a club. He and Glen have their first “encounter” and exchange glances, but Glen walks somewhere else – as we later find out, Russell was his #2 choice for that night. Russell is stuck dancing with the “hobbit,” who pathetically keeps trying to kiss him. There is a laugh-oud-loud moment when during the pop jam thumping overhead, the singer sneers, “We, we like to tear it down.” as a clearly disinterested Russell nurses his beer whilst being fondled by the hobbit.

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No music is heard for about 30 minutes. During this time, Russell wakes up with Glen in his flat. They are initially a bit awkward, trying to recount the events of last night. Before Glen leaves, though, they exchange numbers.

While Russell is at work, he and Glen text, meet up after, then head back to Russell’s apartment. Before Glen leaves, he lets Russell know he is leaving for Portland the following day, and invites him to his going-away party that night. The next musical moment is:

Song: “Bang Bang Cherry” by Hook & The Twin.

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“Bang Bang Cherry” pairs a slinky guitar riff with a fire alarm-esque keyboard screech. The natural rhythm of the song progresses in a mostly traditional way, interrupted occasionally by the off-putting keyboard sound.

This complements the action onscreen well – Russell arrives at what he was expecting to be a gay club for Glen’s going-away shindig. As he’s waiting for Glen, he orders two beers, only to find out Glen doesn’t like beer. When Russell asks why he chose this venue, Glen remarks, tongue-in-cheek, that it’s “a bit more fun, isn’t it, than your normal gay bar?”

Much like the song heard thumping overhead, Russell’s arrival and his exchange with Glen does not quite transpire how we would expect. The alarm also (literally) warns us for some of the fires still to come.

Song: “We’re So Light” by Hook & The Twin.

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“We’re So Light” builds up from a pulsating keyboard line, drum machine, ripping guitar licks, and stacked vocals to build an almost-overwhelming whirlpool of sound.

As this song throbs in the background, Russell learns more about Glen’s past from Glen’s roommate Jill. She asks, “Has [Glen] told you about John? […] This is way back when he did boyfriends.” and elaborates on John’s exploits, including cheating regularly on Glen, even getting beaten up after cruising in a public park. The camera remains stagnant on Russell, as the gravity of this bizarre past of the man he thinks he knows weighs him down. He realizes he doesn’t know Glen as well as he thought.

Song: “William Posters” by Milk.

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This is the only song to appear in Weekend twice. The first time we hear it (as mentioned above) is when Jamie is describing an anecdote from his and Russell’s past – a humorous, but not embarrassing, experience Jamie shares with the other guests at his home.

This second instance of this song is a much more private affair. Russell, who logs a diary of sexual encounters, shares this very intimate journal with Glen; we get the impression Russell has never shared this with anyone before.

On another (more narrative) note, it is interesting too that the same song is heard twice within roughly 24 hours of this film’s timespan. It is not unlikely that Jamie and Russell, friends since age 12, be fans of the same band, in this case Milk, especially given that this same Milk song played at Jamie’s house one night and at Russell’s the following night.

Song: “TC and Honeybear” by John Grant

My favorite musical moment in the entire film. Russell and Glen have just had a major argument, spanning marriage as an institution to owning pets to the elephant in the room: what their relationship is now, and what it will be. Russell, upset, steps away to the restroom. While he’s in there, Glen plays “TC and Honeybear” – Russell hears it muffled, coming from the living room.

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This song is a soft, acoustic guitar-driven ballad. As Russell leaves the restroom and walks down the hallway, we hear the lyrics: “Before that, Honeybear had given up. He felt so sad and lonely.”

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As he enters the living room, we hear: “Then one night, he looked up and he saw, he saw his one and only.” And he joins Glen at the window, as they look out into the night.

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One could certainly connect the lyrics of “TC and Honeybear” to Weekend as an essay all on its own. I view “Honeybear” as Russell – a quiet, reserved man lacking confidence, while “TC” represents Glen – a catalyst, someone to bring him out of his shell.

The song slows down with a ritardando and picks back up with a lovely  instrumental interlude with flute. Russell grabs Glen’s hand.

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Song: “Marz” by John Grant

Russell returns, alone, from the train station. He stands in the balcony and opens the package Glen gave him.

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He presses play and hears his own voice. “Um — I don’t know. I can hardly remember anything.”

Glen: “Just start from the beginning, when you first saw me.”

The gloomy piano riff of “Marz” begins. The lyrics tell of longing, optimism, waiting for something better.

This musical moment is particularly striking because of how different it is from all others that preceded it – this is the first and only “out-of-body” piece of the soundtrack. All other songs heard in the film take place within the strict context of the story – played in a club, in Russell’s apartment, at Jamie’s house. We are the only people to hear this song, and it isn’t playing really anywhere (in the Weekend universe, at least).

This is also the first and only song heard when Russell is really alone. Every other piece heard in the film is in some situation where Russell is with others, and even the way the scenes play out illustrate Russell’s character relative to those around him. We know he’s shy from how he lets Jamie speak on their behalf and tell his childhood story, during “William Posters.” We chuckle at the irony of his encounter with the pathetic hobbit in the club as “We like to tear it down” echoes overhead. We observe the tenderness between him and Glen as “TC and Honeybear” hums in his living room. But in “Marz,” we get Russell – just Russell.

So why does this matter? Looking at Weekend as Russell’s story, of him coming to terms with himself and his identity, the musical moments are another element building up to his self-acceptance, and us finally getting into Russell’s head. The film maintains multi-sensory levels of separation between Russell and the world around him – through its wide shots, of Russell as one small piece of a broader ecosystem, to its neorealistic musical soundtrack design, creating a confounding disconnect between action and emotion.

We break both of these barriers in this “Marz” sequence. We get close-ups of Russell, just Russell, alone in his apartment. We hear the song directly, not through an incidental, secondary channel like a radio or DJ, but as the sole audio track heard. The impact is so strong, it feels like the fourth wall has been broken – a surprising push from a mostly subdued neorealistic drama. This finale is a moment of purity, an unclouded look at Russell. It offers a chance for introspection, not only for Russell, but possibly even ourselves.

A weekend is a short amount of time, and a 97-minute movie is even shorter. It is truly a testament to filmmaking, and the emotional impact of music, of how much can change in so short a time.

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If you’re like me and you simply can’t get enough Andrew Haigh, check out the other essays I’ve written on his works:

Greek Pete

Weekend

Looking

Criterion Blogathon Starts Tomorrow!

Something’s cooking!

Very excited to participate in a Criterion Blogathon this week, joining hundreds of other blogs in writing about one of our favorite topics – the films, actors, and directors of the Criterion Collection! My piece on Andrew Haigh’s Weekend (2011) will be posted this Friday.

Can’t wait to see what others in the blogging community have to say about some of the best in cinema– you can follow the full roster available on Speakeasy’s blog to scope out which blogs to follow. Which posts are you most looking forward to?

Greek Pete (2009)

Greek Pete is the bizarre, semi-documentary, arguably-pornographic, story of a young British man who aspires to be the best male escort he can be.

We follow Pete around for the course of a year, from intimate interviews to him meeting with his clients to celebrating the holidays with his “family” of other male escorts. Compared to Pete, they seem like a truly sorry lot – casually discussing prostituting themselves out as young teenagers, facing physical abuse – while Pete went into the business, on his own accord, for the money and to be the best at something. (When speaking to a client about his aspiration to be the best male escort, he even measures himself up in relative terms – “do you think you’re the best accountant?”)

The unfamiliar, often uncomfortable, discourse in which this film operates makes Greek Pete all the more fascinating. The star, Peter Pittaros, is a “real” escort and everything about the film seems wholly convincing (at least to an outsider), making it unclear where the documentary ends and the fantasy begins.

Is it when he’s laughing about past clients with some models, before they engage in a threesome as a fat cameraman videotapes from inches away? Or when his de facto boyfriend Cai (also a call boy) watches bitterly as he serves a client?

The sad emptiness of this world hits hardest at the end. Pete’s dream has come true, having earned the award of Male Escort of the Year in Los Angeles. He returns to London, to Cai sleeping in bed, oblivious to Pete’s return. Pete scrolls through his phone and updates them on his new recognition, encouraging his friends to look it up online, says goodbye, then repeats.

It almost doesn’t matter whether the world Andrew Haigh creates (or merely visits) is real or not – the bizarre universe of these young men is nonetheless powerful for its graphic, yet refreshingly unapologetic, portrayal of the lonely life of an escort.

“Weekend” and “Looking”: Tragic Love Affairs

Now that the superb first season of Looking has concluded, we can now approach it as a singular, (sort of) complete work. It is so similar in tone and subject matter to Weekend, and of course they are both the brain-children of the brilliant Andrew Haigh, so it’s impossible not to compare the two.

In case you haven’t picked up on it, there’s a great wealth of material to draw on from both these works, so this will likely be the start of a series comparing the two. In order to tether down this can of worms, I’d like to focus first on the love stories these works present.

Weekend is a romantic tragedy due to circumstances beyond the characters’ control. The timing of Russell and Glen’s meeting is simply inopportune, as Glen has already made arrangements to leave the UK for Portland, Oregon to attend art school. Two days wouldn’t be enough time for Russell to drop everything and run away with Glen, nor would it be enough for Glen to justify giving up on his presumed dream.

In contrast, the romantic tragedy between Patrick and Richie of Looking is directly caused by the parties involved. Patrick is at once pushy and uninvolved, and Richie can only take so much of Patrick’s uneasiness. There are no circumstantial, destiny-driven forces at play; this one’s all on them.

It’s important to point out this distinction after the excellent episode “Looking for the Future,” which has been very favorably compared to Weekend; when taken just on their own, Patrick and Richie can make a very convincing couple with real potential. Throw Patrick into the temptations of his everyday life, though, like caving to his friends’ pressure or battling his irresponsible crush on his boss Kevin, and he can’t fight for what he tries to tell himself he wants.

In Weekend, as much as we want the two to find a way to make it work, the looming timeline keeps the clock ticking in the back of our head and we know all along they’ll have to part ways. With Looking, though, without a real time clock (beyond an eight-episode season) and no immediate obstacles in the way, we can’t help but root for Patrick and Richie to make it.

Side by side, this distinct set of circumstances almost makes the failed Looking romance even more heartbreaking. In Weekend, the two men are in love with one another, but it rationally cannot be; in Looking, the two men can be together, and one simply caves out of it.

The romantic tragedies of these works are both moving and thought-provoking in unique ways, simultaneously shaped by their narratives and strengthened when examining them at once.

“Looking” at Richie

So I’ve been saving the best for last… Richie is not only my favorite character on Looking but is probably one of my favorite television characters, period. He is the sole source of wisdom and true compassion in the Looking universe of chaos and often cruelty, and serves as a distinctive foil to the ruthless Patrick.

From their first meeting, Richie is portrayed as good-hearted though naive – relative to the cynics around him, at least. He takes Patrick’s false identity as an oncologist (remember the business card?) as true, a subtle touch of dramatic irony. Sure, he falls for it – but why shouldn’t he take others’ word for it? In a way, his good-natured ways come across as foolish, because those around him are so phony. He falls for the act.

His optimistic outlook does start to crumble, though, that fateful picnic in Dolores Park for Dom’s birthday – his first real meeting with Patrick’s friends Dom and Agustin. This is also one of his first times seeing Patrick interacting with others, whether seeing how Patrick represents himself through the humiliating “gay voice” display, or how Patrick misrepresents Richie to his friends.

This experience, though, toughens up Richie in a really strong and positive way. When Patrick tries to make up for the picnic fiasco by inviting Richie to be his plus-one at his sister’s wedding, the typically kind and easygoing Richie snaps back with an annoyed “I don’t think so,” and getting out of Patrick’s car on the way to the wedding just days later.

Richie’s thicker skin culminates in the season’s strongest, most painful moment. He meets Patrick outside his apartment building, clearly with something on his mind, and lays out everything he’s been going through since the wedding. A character who is in many ways a mystery, who we know solely through Patrick’s association with him, is brilliantly defined through his assertion: “I am this close to falling in love with you, but I’m not gonna do that to myself if you’re not ready. And I don’t think you’re ready.”

Watching this excellent conclusion to season 1, I can’t help but think back to Patrick and Richie’s first date and them dancing in the club. The song playing, Erasure’s “A Little Respect,” chants the chorus “Oh baby please, give a little respect to me,” an interesting framework to view their relationship by. When they meet in the first episode, Patrick does not respect Richie – he isn’t honest about himself, and throughout the season, continues to disrespect and humiliate Richie both to his face and behind his back. In these eight episodes, Richie comes full circle and does what he needs to in order to regain his self-respect.

“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.