[This article now appears at ABC's The Drum]
I go to Tropfest each year expecting to be disappointed. There always tends to be two or three films I like, and a lot more with too much ‘typically Australian’ humour for me to stomach (lots of bodily functions and fluids). The latter kind always do better in judging than the former, but I leave knowing I’ll come back next year.
Two films into Tropfest 22, I knew I didn’t want to come back next year.
I didn’t even want to stay for the rest of this year’s.
Now, I understand comedy is subjective, and I’m certain that others would consider a lot of the comedy I appreciate offensive (If It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia were fuel, I could live off it), but Matt Hardie’s Bamboozled was… soul-crushing. Capping off a weekend that saw the nation’s first legal same-sex marriages, it was an unintentionally poignant reminder that we have a long way to go when it comes to treating the LGBTQI community as ‘equal’, rather than ‘other’.
In Bamboozled, Pete bumps into his ex at a bus stop. The twist? His ex has had a sex change (a really tasteful use of the year’s theme, ‘change’) and is now a man. They catch up over a few (hundred) drinks, rehashing the two years they spent together. Their connection is clear. The next morning, Pete wakes up next to his ex (a man) and he clearly regrets his decision. Yes, their shared history and obvious chemistry is null and void because, ‘Ew, gross, I slept with a boy.’ Cue audience laughter. Then, he finds out its an ‘elaborate hoax’, and instead of sleeping with a Helen-turned-Harry, he’s just slept with a Harry. And he’s shamed for it. Cue more audience laughter.
“We got you, man! We got you!” Harry howls.
As if things can’t get any worse, in comes Helen, his real ex. “How do you like that, Pete?” she asks. “And now, you slept with a guy!”
“You totally banged me, man. You totally banged me!” Harry continues. He adds a, “He loved it!” as he high-fives his co-conspirators.
So, yeah: Ugh, Tropfest.
Some are defending the film, saying it’s just a joke. And that’s exactly the problem, there’s nothing particularly funny about being intimate with someone of the same gender. That, in and of itself, is not humorous. And neither is shaming them for it. That’s othering anyone who doesn’t identify as heterosexual, pointing at them and laughing (literally, in this case).
If selecting the film as one of 16 finalists wasn’t — wait for it — bamboozling enough, it went on to win. In the short term, it’s disheartening. In the longer term, it may have a positive effect. It may have inspired someone who was sitting in Centennial Park who wasn’t laughing to pick up their camera and tell a story we didn’t see on the big screen tonight.
But until then, it just feels shitty.
UPDATE: Director Matt Hardie has defended the film as a parody of the media in an interview with ABC.
“The punchline really is a comment on media and how the world may have homophobia, but the lead character, and what I was saying, he was completely willing to go with either gender, he was in love with the person,” he says.
Right, okay. I don’t know what media he’s commenting on. Yes, reality programmes like 2003′s There’s Something About Miriam were vile and exploitative, but they were also in 2003. Since then, we’ve seen positive, sensitive portrayals of the LGBTQI on the small screen thanks to reality TV. I’m no fan of Big Brother, but there’s no denying it’s done some good in this regard.
Let’s be honest here, if Hardie’s character Pete really was “completely willing to go with either gender”, his first words when waking up next to an affectionate man wouldn’t have been, “What the F?” In fact, the whole scene wouldn’t have been framed like every other morning-after-drunken-regret scene committed to film.
Hardie says the punchline is two-fold. It’s a commentary on a media (that may or may not actually exist), and “how the world may have homophobia”. I’m assuming he means Helen’s gleeful, “How do you like that, Pete? … You slept with a guy!” This is perhaps the most problematic part of his explanation. The world having homophobia isn’t a punchline. Having people shame a man they duped into having sex with another man isn’t a punchline. Playing it for laughs isn’t showing how the world may have homophobia, it’s showing the world how to be homophobic.