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There was a point in film history when almost any film with gay or lesbian characters or content was defined as transgressive. In the 1960s such films as Victim, The Childrens Hour and Compulsion, with their tastefully handled homosexual content, were considered shocking. By the 1970s the closet was opened and Boys in the Band, Midnight Cowboy, Sunday, Bloody, Sunday, and The Killing of Sister George shocked and titillated audiences. Over the past 15 yearsthanks in part to the rise of independent cinema and the work of queer artists and activiststhere is no dearth of gay and lesbian images or plots. Drag queens (and Kings) have had their day in Hollywood with Victor/Victoria, The Birdcage, and To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar. The light gay comedyusually a pallid imitation of the style of Noel Cowardhas been well represented with Billys Hollywood Screen Kiss, Better than Chocolate, I Think I Do, and Trick. Even television was loosened up with Ellen and Will and Grace as well as a host of minor sidekicks on a number of shows, and even hot pop junk like Survivor has featured a real, live gay person as its anti-hero in Richard, the fag with power and brains you love to hate.
But to a large degree all of these films are homogenized and pasteurized versions of queer experience. They are, like most Hollywood products (and an increasing number of independent films), lifeless reflections of a consumerized world that has little to do with real lives and real people. The acceptance of homosexuality in popular culture is predicated not on marginalization, but on trivialization.
It is, of course, impossible for gay characters and scenes in films to have that innate shocking power that the kiss between Murray Head and Peter Finch had in Sunday, Bloody, Sunday 30 years ago. Nor is that even desirable, since the scenes power was based, in no small part, on revulsion. But the impulse behind many gay and lesbian movies has radically changed from wanting to deal with serious issues (in both light and serious ways) to wanting to entertain in the most simplistic way. It is not that gay peoples lives have to be treated with severe moral gravitya gravity that, in the past, usually focused on the existence of homosexualitybut they should be taken seriously. Granted, there are a few films that do thisKimberly Pierces powerful Boys Dont Cry about the murder of transgendered Brandon Teena, Alex Sichels charming and scary All Over Me, and Roland Tecs moral examination of gay male relationships, All the Rage took their characters, lives, and situations seriously. But for the most part the boon in gay and queer cinema is a lifeless and insubstantial one.
Nowhere is this more evident then in John Waterss newest release Cecil B. Demented. There is no doubt that John Waters has an incredible knack for hitting that ironic, queer cultural nerve. From Pink Flamingo with its scornfully celebratory vision of white trash life to Polyester s skewering of middle class norms to Serial Mom s dissection of female maternal perfection, he had his finger on the ever-weakening pulse of U.S. culture. Certainly the idea behind Cecil B. Demented is great: its eponymous hero (Stephen Droff) a mostly insane, independent film maker who heads a cult of movie mavens, called the Sprocket Holes, are bent on destroying Hollywood and promoting their own radical brand of art. They live in an abandoned 1930s movie palace and have dedicated their lives to destroying bourgeois art and shocking middle class sensibilities. Cecils grand plan is to kidnap fading Hollywood starlet Holly Whitlock (Melanie Griffith) and force her to be in his new movie, which, in true cinema vérité, will be filmed in a series of planned guerilla theater interactions. The joke is, of course, that after some resistance Holly sees the error of her ways ands becomes a full fledged member of the Sprocket Holes and happily participates when Demented and his crew crash a luncheon for Hollywood bigwigs, or disrupt a screening of mainstream schlock like Patch Adams: The Directors Cut. Demented, as true an activist as he is an artist, means business and the Sprocket Holes guns are as loaded as their cameras. People start dying until they are finally cornered and captured at their final film shoot/shooting at a drive in where Holly becomes, literally, the flaming goddess she has always wanted to be.
If this sounds great on paper, it is. The problem is that there are a handful of jokes that pay off, some throwaway lines, parts of Griffiths bitch persona, the occasional demented glint in Stephen Droffs eyes, but for the most part Cecile B. Demented feels like an 88-minute movie that should have been an 8 minute skit on Saturday Night Live. What went wrong?
In the early and mid-1970s John Waters was considered by many to the great hope of the daring, dada-esque school of American movie making that was not afraid to take chances, push boundaries, and offend. What Waters brought to the table of contemporary cinema was a huge fuck youbad taste, sloppy editing, low production values, often horrid acting were carefully used to outrage good taste. It was revolutionary, if occasionally boring. More importantly, Waters began to say something. When Dawn Davenport (Divine) in Female Trouble holds her audience hostage at gunpoint and demands to know, Are you willing to die for art?, we knew that Waters was in complete understanding of the power of the interplay between art and audience. Even after Waters went more Hollywood, in films like Hairspray (1988), he still had something to say.
In her famous essay Notes on Camp Susan Sontag states that along with Jewish moral seriousness, it is homosexual aesthetic irony that fundamentally defines contemporary western culture. Waterss vision was a combination of bothleaning heavily on the latterand it was unique for its time. It was also probably one of the first examples of an overt gay sensibility making its way into the mainstream.
The early John Waterss films work had a moral integrity about them. He understood that mainstream culturefrom socially enforced gender roles, to the idea of good taste, to commercialized concepts of artwas vacant and corrupt. In Cecil B. Demented he has strayed from that vision. While ostensibly it is still the radicals vs. the bourgeoisie nothing really matters very much. Cecil and his crew seem as supercilious and as pointless as their corrupt antagonistic Hollywood counterparts. Even Waters choice of satire seems lame. Making fun of Hollywood with Patch Adams: The Directors Cut is far too easy a target, sloppy to the point of embarrassing. Who exactly is he trying to offend here? Robin Williams? An edgier choice would have been a mean, wicked parody of Life is Beautiful or even Boys Dont Cry.
His casting of Melanie Griffith is no different that traditional Hollywood casting against or aggressively with type. His use of Eric Roberts or Ricki Lake (who made such a hit in Hairspray) is no longer the daring move it might have seemed when Tab Hunter was the romantic lead (against Divine) in Polyester. Casting Patty Hearst in Serial Mom seemed funny and apthere was an icon from the 1970s whose crazy life-history seemed to embody the insane contradictions of politics and celebrity: todays heiress is tomorrows revolutionary is tomorrows pop star). But the use of Hearst here has no significant meaning. Nothing pushes our buttons; nothing shocks us, or even makes us think much.
There is a playful feeling that has been emerging in Waters films over the past decade since Hairspray and his attitudes towards sexualityand homosexualityare friendlier and sexier. The boys are cute and there are more overt gay characters and gay sexuality than we usually find in Waters films, but the jokes are silly. A character named Fidget (Eric M. Barry) keeps playing with his dick; Lyle (Adrian Grenier) is a straight boy in love with a gay man and suffering for it because he cant get over his heterosexualityfunny, but hardly cutting edge. Even the porn parody featuring Cecils girlfriend, a porn actress named Cherish (Alicia Witt), features gerbils crawling over her buttold cable TV material. In the end Cecil and his troupe make their statement against Hollywood and are destroyed for it, even as Honey redeems herself and her art. The problem is that Waters doesnt seem to have any real statement to make and, alas, is also destroyed for it. Having hit the bottom of the artistic barrel, maybe Waters can retrench andlike Cecil B. Dementeddedicate himself to making us squirm in our seats in discomfort and pleasure.
Chuck and Buck, written by Mike White and directed by Miguel Arteta, does make us squirm. This strange, edgy little film knows exactly what it is doing as it probes our insecurities and longings with what feels like a thin pickaxe in our collective emotional brain. Part fairy tale, part psychological study, Chuck and Buck uses a placid, ostensible, naiveté to mask a far deeper, disturbing emotional core.
Buck (Mike White) is a gay man in its late 20s who, after his mother dies, decides to look up Chuck (Chris Weitz) his former best friend from childhood and to resurrect their friendship and sexual relationship. Buck is either a complete innocent, or hopelessly naive, or slightly mentally impaired, or the worst case of arrested development in current cinema. He seems to have no relationship with prevailing social or emotional realities and little concern but getting Chuck back into his life. Chuck, however, is now Charlie, a successful record producer in Los Angeles, and engaged to Carlyn (Beth Colt), a sensible, nice woman. Charlie also has a life and does not want to share it with the needy, childlike, and sexually aggressive Buck.
The bulk of the film details Bucks stalking of Chuck and its painful. Charlie doesnt really want to see his childhood friendand we sympathize: Buck is creepy in his neediness, his lack of boundaries (he gropes Charlie in the bathroom during the funeral), and his incessant desire to relive this boyhood love affairand becomes more and more hostile to him. On the other hand, we can all sympathize, to varying degrees, with Bucks simple (and simple-minded) desire to be loved, appreciated, and acknowledged.
Mike White (who plays Buck) wrote the film, and he has an amazing ability to convey the most elemental emotion without embarrassment or hesitation. The performance is unnerving and often excruciating: he doesnt understand why Charlie refuses to leave his fiancée and pick up where they left off 15 years earlier. Buck may be creepy but he never loses our sympathy. But part of the incredibly well crafted maneuvering and sensibility of Chuck and Buck is that its anti-heros homosexuality never becomes pathologized. The issue here is longing and need, not sexual orientation per se, and in a curious way Bucks fragile (although demanding) emotional state cuts through the divide of sexual orientation in the audience. Gay and straight members alike can relate to feeling pathetically needy.
Mike Whites script takes some surprising turns. Buck writes a faux-fairy-tale play about his relationship with Chuck that gets produced and, shockingly, he finally gets his wish and beds down (if only for a night) his old friend. White throws us some other loops, such as making it Chuck who started their childhood affaircausing their friends to chant, Chuck and Buck, suck and fuckand implying that Chuck has been fleeing this attraction since his teen age years. But what is so resonant about Chuck and Buck is that it pushes us to responding emotionally, even viscerally, to the material.
Part of the risk is that Chuck and Buck could be read as homophobic. Buck is a walking textbook of classic psychoanalytic symptoms that have defined homosexualityarrested development, mother-fixated, latent hostility to women. He is the nightmare antithesis to the gamely happy, well adjusted, and normal gay characters in films like Trick or Kiss Me Guido. It was surprising that gay and lesbian groups, such as GLAAD, who monitor mainstream media representations of homosexuality, did not complain about the film, and even more surprising that gay magazines such as The Advocate even provided positive, if somewhat wary, coverage of it.
It would be comforting to think that the success of films like Boys Dont Cry or Chuck and Buck signals a change in the maturity of both gay and mainstream audiences. But such comfort may be premature. To a large degree, for the time being, films that deal with gay, lesbian, and transgendered characters with any complexity of depth are almost as difficult to find as Hollywood films about interesting and complex heterosexuals. And that may be, in our current contemporary culture, the closest we get to equality.