Even the Fantasy is Heartbreaking
Were the World Mine
Director: Tom Gustafson
Cast: Tanner Cohen, Wendy Robie, Judy McLane, Nathaniel David Becker
In a queer world, the happiest spectacles can be the saddest things.
Tom Gustafson’s Were the World Mine is a creative adaptation of William Shakespeare’s classic play A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The story is familiar, clichéd even. Timothy (Tanner Cohen) is a student in a small-town exclusive school, ostracized by his male peers because he is gay. He has a crush on a jock, Jonathon (Nathaniel David Becker). Beginnning as a largely passive character, Timothy keeps mum about his crush, even to his best friends. He puts up with the crap his chauvinist classmates throw at him. He is patient with his mother despite her qualms about his sexuality. Timothy lives with his queerness as best as he can, enduring each day, waiting for the time he will graduate and leave that backward backwater of a town. His life begins to change when his English teacher Mrs Tebbit (Wendy Robie) announces auditions for the senior school play A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Timothy clinches the role of Puck, and Jonathon, Lysander.
The film begins a little roughly. Though it is established from the start that the film is a musical, the visuals are initially rendered in drab colors of suburbia. Were the World Mine makes a turnaround when, in a splash of magical realism, Timothy follows the Shakespearean recipe for Cupid’s Love-juice—and it works. Like a Pandora’s box, the film explodes with action, colors bloom, light becomes beautiful. All the world becomes a stage.
That the film is a musical is no coincidence. The stage is an obvious reference to how singing and dancing is looked down upon as “queer.” (Perhaps this is why in the film, bigoted jocks are made to sing, dance, kiss and cross-dress—as a gesture of retribution for all the pain boneheaded jocks have inflicted upon generations of gay kids.)
The sadness of Were the World Mine, moreover, lies precisely in its being a spectacle. It is a fantasy within a fantasy: the play is the physical manifestation of Timothy’s desire for love and acceptance, while the film itself is the director’s—and to extend it, the queer audience’s. The film’s title itself implies this aspiration, as if saying, Were the world mine, I would make it a beautiful place where anyone can love anyone else without fear of judgment or discrimination. Unfortunately, as all queers would know, the world is painfully not ours. And we would have to make do, for now, in our small communities, in plays and films, in our fantasies.
Timothy goes on to spray the whole town with the love-juice—first to the jocks and school administrators as revenge, then to the rest of the town as a lesson. Almost everyone becomes queer overnight. Jocks fall for each other, wives chase after other wives, and the newly-queer town becomes a conservative Christian parent’s nightmare. In a rather pointed sequence, Gustafson parallels the small town’s anti-queer hysteria with the American social landscape’s homophobia in general. A TV reporter tells of how the town mayor “unconstitutionally” approves gay marriage (which leads to the town being swamped with three states’ worth of gay couples all wishing to be married), reminiscent of the controversial Proposition 8 battle in California.
Timothy’s gesture, however subversive, fails. And though he and Jonathon flee to the depths of the forest to revel in their love, they are found and shaken back to reality by the rest of the characters. It is here that the film reaches its climax.
“The will of man is by your reason sway’d with such force and blessed power,” the characters sing in chorus. Timothy learns that one cannot impose a queer perspective on anyone that easily. Genuine acceptance is achieved not with any potion, but with a tireless persuasion to extend and deepen our collective ideological horizons until, as the chorus says, “with all goodwill, with all my heart, all things shall be peace.”
This lesson is coupled with an even tougher realization: that for Timothy and many other homosexuals, personal happiness will be repeatedly sidetracked—not because it is wrong, but because their social contexts are unripe for this kind of happiness. In the meantime, love and joy will be as elusive as a field of purple flowers in a midsummer evening.
The tragedy of the happy spectacle is that even in Timothy’s queer fantasy, loves are condemned, hearts are broken, and he still has to let go of his beloved. “The course of true love never runs smooth,” says all the queer-dazed townspeople. And it is true. The love that Timothy finds in his fantasy is the difficult and real kind, not the happily-ever-after of the more commonplace heterocentric fairy tale. We fairies that do run/ From the presence of the sun/ We follow darkness like a dream…
In the end, Timothy is lauded for his excellent performance as Puck (why is it that a gay man has to make up for his sexuality with talent?), and backstage, we see that Jonathon’s feelings for him remain unchanged. The spectacle ends with happiness.
Likewise, the happiness ends with the spectacle. Unlike the filmic Timothy, the truth is that not all homosexuals will get their share of Jonathon, love and acceptance.
John Berger, writing about mass demonstrations, describes them as “rehearsals for revolution,” a show of premature political power which, with persistence, will hopefully grow into a commanding movement. Were the World Mine, then, is a cinematic mass demonstration of sorts. Timothy succeeds in changing his townspeople’s backward gender politics. “Who’s next?” Mrs Tebbit asks the viewer at the end of the film, an unequivocal challenge to the audience to do the same. Perhaps with our solidarity and perseverance, the musical dream would, someday, come true. #
Entry filed under: Edgar Allan Paule, Foreign films, Full length films. Tags: gay, gay film, gay liberation, judy mclane, musical, nathaniel david becker, proposition 8, queer, shakespeare, tanner cohen, theater, tom gustafson, wendy robie, were the world mine.