Sapphic Cinema: “High Art”

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Under normal circumstances, I don’t have a lot of patience for films with queer content that insist they are NOT GAY MOVIES. It speaks to the uneasy push-and-pull studios and networks have with queer audiences; they want our dollars (and our write-ups), but it’s like they would rather insult thousands of queer viewers than alienate one potential straight ticket-buyer. High Art is an exception to that rule, because, in spite of its three queer (or two queer and one opportunistic, depending on your reading) characters and the presence of out writer-director Lisa Cholodenko, this isn’t a film about lesbianism so much as it is about narcissism.

highart1

Every time I watch High Art, I come away with a different opinion, which, by a certain metric, makes it a success. As a director, Cholodenko likes to implicate her audiences and characters by challenging our notions of glamour, success, and love. Targets include the bohemian lifestyle in Laurel Canyon and the well-adjusted, mainstream homosexual in The Kids Are All Right (which, don’t worry, we will get to in good time). In High Art, her 1998 feature debut, her subject (or target) is Syd, the ambitious, driven, yet strangely vacant junior editor at a photography magazine. She is played by Radha Mitchell, who is lovely and luminous and who I will hear nothing against.

highart2THIS IS THE BIGGEST FACE SHE MAKES THE ENTIRE TIME, THOUGH.

Syd is desperate to move forward at her magazine since she still has most of the duties of an intern. Her boss and the secretary both suggest she should consider sleeping her way to the top, but no! Such a thing is beneath our Syd! She studied semiotics, you see, and her boyfriend is Gabriel Mann. (I love Gabriel Mann and his soft little voice, even though I always mix him up with the guy who played the male lesbian on The L Word. They are a lot alike, tbh.)

They seem like the perfect upwardly mobile New York couple, but the film assures you early on that they (and everyone else) has a socially-sanctioned drug of choice. Gabriel Mann smokes weed and cigarettes, and Syd likes a martini after work. It’s almost like (and I don’t want to blow your mind here) EVERYONE IS A HYPOCRITE.

Syd’s well-ordered life is rudely interrupted when a literal crack opens up in her ceiling and lets in the big, scary world.

highart3GODDAMMIT, NOW I HAVE METAPHOR ALL OVER ME.

When she goes upstairs to investigate the source of the leak (IN HER LAZY, UNEXAMINED VALUES, AMIRITE?) she meets Lucy Berliner (Ally Sheedy, honorary lesbian team member, and forever best part of The Breakfast Club).

highart4GIRL, DON’T LET ANYBODY MAKE YOU OVER AND STICK YOU WITH EMILIO ESTEVEZ.

Lucy gets to fulfill an archetype rarely embodied by women: the louche, brilliant but dissipated Byronic brooder. It is a type that I am a sucker for, and so are you; don’t lie. Lucy was briefly a celebrated photographer but walked away from fame and fortune because she just could not fucking be bothered. (My favorite line of the whole movie is “it just seemed kind of punk rock at the time.”) But don’t worry, Lucy has found a new activity to occupy her time.

highart5IF YOU DOUBT MY ORIGINAL THESIS THAT THIS MOVIE IS ABOUT NARCISSISM, PLEASE PLAY “COUNT THE MIRRORS.”

Yes heroin, that thing people still do even though we have all seen at least one movie about it. But of course, a drug habit isn’t a drug habit without a circle of sycophants and enablers, and Lucy has a whole gang of glassy-eyed companions.

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