Introduction to Misery Diary: Living as a film obsessive is a heavy burden to bear. It means devoting far more than two hours to analyzing and contemplating nearly everything you see. It means fearing collapse under the weight of several empty cinematic vessels in search of those that will hurt and heal you in ways you’ll never forget. And, if you throw yourself into too workmanlike an output of analysis and immersion, it can mean smothering what sparked for you in the first place.
That’s been the major struggle of my own film-loving life in the past year, balancing my natural desire to write about film with the ostensible obligation of writing about everything I witness, regardless of if I have anything particular to say about it. If there’s anything I’ve desired over this period of time, it’s an outlet to write less informally about the films, and the connections between them, that fascinate me on an irregular basis. That’s what “Misery Diary” is for me: A self-moderated space for discussing the films that I want to remember and have something to say about.
The only place I can think of starting with Looking: The Movie (A-), Andrew Haigh’s 84-minute finale to Michael Lannan’s landmark HBO series, is with the event it opens in the clear wake of. Sure, the prime location of Looking has been the hazy glow of San Francisco’s gay nightclub scene since the beginning, but it’s not an unwanted stab at political relevance to keep the recent events at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, FL fervently in mind through this otherwise light-spirited comedy. As the third act of the film comes into focus, our longtime guide Patrick can’t help but voice enthusiasm and excitement for the political progress and growing validation of the LGBT community, even if they’re not supposed to need that validation. Having it makes a world of difference.
That sense of emotional potency and mundane urgency isn’t the only thing that makes Looking an ideal conclusion to the two seasons that came before. Season Two of Looking showed its characters, Patrick, Augustin and Dom, all lost in the euphoria of their respective freedoms, regardless of the moral, personal or financial consequences of them. The comedown from that high came for at least two of them by the time the season had ended. We return after a year’s absence to discover we’re not the only ones who’ve been recuperating from our time away. Patrick has left San Francisco, the catalyst of his naively romantic soul searching, and has become a more emotional stable, confident human being as a result. I mean, stable within reason: He’ll still float an ill-advised relationship with his best friend if it’ll push him past this hump of misery.
That now means he’s returning to San Francisco as an outsider, re-discovering the world he thought he had a clear concept of, and all the broken relationships and grown resentments he left behind. The camera is attached to shoulder throughout, following him as he assesses how much he wants to immerse himself back in this world he reacted so badly to before. Over the three days and nights he spends in San Francisco, Patrick kisses four men, explores three romantic avenues, and is free to decide who he populates his life and who he doesn’t. That means making mistakes, exploring friendships that are impossible to maintain, and supporting friends who are also being wrung out by the dating frenzy of San Francisco. Raul Castillo especially shines as Richie, Pat’s old flame who increasingly finds himself strung out in the same way Pat was through Season Two.
It’s an interesting visual choice made by this beautifully casual film that Haigh holds off on cutting anyone out of the frame during the many club sequences. He allows the camera to drift in and out of our main group, spotlighting the bountiful queer periphery in the process. It’s only the last shot where he decides to nestle a select group of characters in a boxed, illuminated space, pulling out to reveal the Castro District, but keeping in clear focus the contained space his characters have made for themselves alone. It’s the perfect grace note to leave the series on, and perhaps this chapter of queer American history: the simple freedom to choose your own private family.
That sense of private, collected family takes on a sinister tone, though, in Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation (B+), a dinner party drama with an increasingly disturbing undercurrent of denial. Even before our emotionally hazy lead Will (a disarmingly tense Logan Marshall-Green) and his politely compassionate girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) make it to the party, their even is jarringly interrupted by tragic grief. Will carries some obvious unspoken baggage heading into ex-wife Eden’s home, which actress Tammy Blanchard’s cheerfully possessed expression only manages to further unsettle.
Their whole group of old friends gathered together – along with Eden’s perversely polite husband David (Game of Thrones heartthrob Michiel Huisman) and two unsettling members of their bizarre grief support group “The Invitation” – the stage is perfectly set for a malevolently patient pressure cooker. Simply having his old home and old friends around is enough to reawaken the feelings of pain and loss David attaches to his deceased son. Having his ex-wife basically throw a party celebrating her otherworldly ability to forget her pain and anguish drives him quietly up-the-wall, as this odd reunion goes through ever more disturbing activities and overly honest conversations.
With many slow-burn horror-thrillers, the intensity is seen as only as valuable as the eventful follow-through. There’s something intensely rewarding on its own about the atmospheric vice-grip that Kusama commands over us. Every detail, ever mannerism, every pristine angle and immaculate surface, every amber-lighting fixture, every pore on the characters’ skins, even, is directed with vicious precision. It amplifies Will’s increasingly uneasy, devastatingly ruptured state of mind, and builds a climate of suffocating paranoia that would be just as intimidating without the upsetting cult elements. Interacting with old, now distant, friends is already a formula for personal heartache, and writers Phil Hay and Matt Manifredi understand that no bizarre element is needed to convey that discomfort.
It’s a testament to Kusama’s aesthetic mastery, though, that the payoff is as exhilarating as it is; a bewildering finale that rivals The Witch for full-throated intensity. Saying any more would spoil the fun and effect of its climax, but one aspect worth admiring about this ensemble piece is how spare and economic it is in its character development. Not every character feels entirely fleshed out, but there’s only so much we can come to discover about someone in that confined a period of time. We learn just enough about each of them to get a sense of who they are, or were, beyond that night. It shouldn’t take much to gain compassion and concern for the lives, and potential deaths, of strangers.