Saturday, July 30, 2011

"The New Twenty" (2009)

The debut feature of director Chris Mason Johnson, and the inexperience shows. But as one sympathetic imdb reviewer puts it, the rough-round-the-edges quality paradoxically gives the movie its authenticity and appeal. Seven years after graduation, five college friends living in New York City find their relationships tested by sexual infidelity, drugs and an internet start-up.

What I find interesting is that the movie is not about being gay or Asian, though it has three gay characters and two Asian American characters in it. Sure, the gay couple (played by Bill Sage and Andrew Wei Lin) has to tussle with one of them being HIV positive, and the gay single (Colin Fickes who gives the best acting of the movie) goes on-line to hook up, but there is no angst-filled coming-out or starry-eyed first love or strident political protest, the usual topics in gay movies. Of the two Asian characters, one (played by Nicole Bilderback) is an investment banker who got her job by telling her interviewer that she has Merrill Lynch tattooed on her breasts; the other (Andrew Wei Lin) is some amorphous marketing freelancer. Their ethnicity does not matter to their roles in the movie; they could be black, Latin or Middle Eastern without changing the story.

This avoidance of traditional gay or ethnic subject matter is, of course, deliberate on the part of the director, who also co-wrote the script. The tagline of the movie is "Gay Is the New Straight; Friends are the New Family." The New Twenty is an attempt to depict a "post-gay, post-racial" society, in which sexual orientation and race are non-issues. That this can be done with a smidgen of believability is due to the fact that the characters move in a very tight circle, that of the college-educated, professional/bohemian set living in New York City.

It is thus appropriate that the outsider who breaks up this charmed circle is a homophobic, womanizing venture capitalist (Terry Serpico) who displays in his apartment a man-sized silver banana sculpture. The banana is, among other things, a not-so-subtle allusion to Asians who try to act like Whites, who are yellow on the outside but white on the inside. Nicole's fiance (played by Ryan Locke) is at first repelled by Terry's aggressiveness, but later accepts his financial help in starting up his internet company. In doing so, Ryan's character is implicitly becoming more like Terry's venture capitalist. When we see Ryan's character last, he has broken up with Nicole but is dating another Asian American woman.

Despite the director's attempt to go "beyond" sexual orientation and ethnicity, they slip back into the film in multifarious ways. How could they not since American society is neither post-gay nor post-race? To portray that society with any degree of realism entangles one in the realities of prejudice and fetishization.


chrismasonjohn said...

Chris Mason Johnson here, the writer-director of The New Twenty. Thanks for your mostly positive blogpost/review. I would like to make one point, though. You say in your last para that "despite the director's attempt to go 'beyond' sexual orientation and ethnicity, they slip back into the film in multifarious ways." That was, of course, exactly my intention, for them to slip back into the film in multifarious ways. I'm not naive enough to think that "post-race" and "post-gay" describe any kind of historical reality in any wholesome sense. They are ironic terms, hopeful terms, rhetorical stabs at something ten percent true, but they also certainly point toward mixed progress. That's what the movie's about: patriarchy in peril; patriarchy triumphant. Also: friendship between gays and straights without any of the usual rom-com tropes, a related theme.

Jee Leong Koh said...

Hi Chris,

Thanks for adding your thoughts. Post-gay and post-race are, to my mind, either ironic or hopeful terms. I guess the movie is more hopeful than I am. I think gay and race will always be with us. Appreciate you coming in on this.