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The State of Queer Film
Nearly a decade ago it looked as though we were about to enter a Renaissance of gay and lesbian filmmaking. Unable to have access to mainstream movie making, independent filmmakers, writers, and producers began turning out a remarkable body of work. Todd Hayness brilliant The Karen Carpenter Story and Poison that moved a gay sensibility to new levels of cultural critique and intelligence, were revelations as was Tom Kalins queer re-telling of the Leopold and Loeb story in Swoon. Rose Troches Go Fish and Isaac Julians Looking for Langston broke new territory and Jennie Livingstons Paris is Burning expanded the parameters of what a queer documentary might do.
But since then it has been down hill; particularly in the past three years. The enormous possibilities opened by the success of independent queer cinema have become a dumping ground for third-rate and unimaginative comedies and feel-good movies. In 1997 we had Kiss Me Guido, I Never Met Picasso, Love and Death on Long Island, and I Think I Do followed the next year by Billys Hollywood Screen Kiss, Late Bloomers, Leather Jacket Love Story, and (slightly better) The Opposite of Sex. Not that there werent some fine films as wellCheryl Dunyes Watermelon Woman was imperfect, but ambitious; John Greysons Lilies was a triumph of style and intelligence; Lisa Cholodenkas sharp and pungent High Art and Bill Condons Gods and Monsters were about as perfect as movies get.
While it was nice to see homos in mainstream Hollywood movies, films like The Object of My Affection, In and Out, and My Best Friends Wedding, they lacked edge, intelligence, and any semblance of queer wit. Of course, mainstream films also presented us with the most stereotypical of gay typesBruce Williss gay victim in The Jackal, Kevin Spaceys wealthy queen in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Lauren Joey XXXs least-believable lesbian in Chasing Amy, and Ian McKellens repressed gay Nazi war criminal in Apt Pupil. While Edge of 17 had a few bright moments, it felt like a 20-minute short that had been blown out of proportion. The British Get Real was sweet, but came nowhere close to the perceptiveness and potency of 1997s Beautiful Thing. Relax...Its Just Sex had some interesting moments, including a plot twist that dealt with sexualized murderous rage that followed a queer-bashing, but the film had no consistent center. Trick, with its cute boys, pre-packaged ghetto humor and edgy-but-sentimental sex was homogenized, formulaic, and empty. Beefcake, a faux documentary about Bob Mizer and Physique Pictorial, had flashes of humor, but ultimately had little point. Even Rose Troche, whose Go Fish showed so much promise, failed with Bedrooms and Hallways, a light, sprightly look at love, friendships, and sex in London that never rose above standard sit-com quality. The Canadian Better Than Chocolate offered little more than a lesbian version of its gay male independent counterparts, with pretty girls, the prerequisite political stances, and a happy ending that made no thematic or organic sense.
Of course, all of these films were better than the creepy homophobia that emerged in some of the bigger Hollywood films. The Haunting brought up lesbianism, but never had the nerve to do anything with it and left us wondering what was going on to begin with. While Alan Cummings, who had scored such a huge hit in the New York production of Cabaret, garnered some laughs as a libidinal desk clerk in Eyes Wide Shut, his character simply reflected the creepy sex-hating tone of the entire film. Even worse was American Beauty with its glib pseudo- critique of middle-class suburbia and its ultimate horror of the repressed violent-ex-Marine-homo- next-door who offs the films main character after his sexual advances have been rebuffed. This guy even collects Nazi memorabiliabut nothing butch like grenades or machine guns. He collects plates from Hitlers dinner parties. But this was not as insidious as Franco Zeffirellis Tea with Mussolini, which used gay male sensibility about older actress divas to grotesquely sentimentalize Italian fascism. We also had the usual Im-not-gay-but-everyone-thinks- I-am plots in Happy, Texas, Three to Tango, and, to a lesser degree, Dogma. This last film continued director Kevin Smiths obsession with repressed or disassociated homosexuality: the angels played by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck are mistaken by other characters as a gay couple, but in the end it was more weird and annoying than interesting.
The one remarkable trend this year in both independent and mainstream films was the emergence of transgendered characters and themes. These ranged from the third-rate The Adventures of Sebastian Cole, in which a teen boy learns to deal with his transgendered dad to the groundbreaking Boys Dont Cry fictional- ization of the Teena Brandon story. In between we have Philip Seymour Hoffmans transgendered drag queen in Flawless, the quirky sort-of-trans-gendered lesbian love story in Being John Malkovich, and the always brilliant and confounding sexual politics of Almodovar in All About My Mother. These films evidence a new, far more sophisticated approach to portraying the complexities of gender and sexuality, with the best of the lotBoys Dont Crynever shying away from the harder issues.
So what can we expect after this year? In past years some of the most insightful and provocative portrayals of homosexuals surfacedusually as minor charactersin mainstream and Hollywood films: John Ritters southern queen in Slingblade, Phillip Seymour Hoffmans gay loser in Boogie Nights, Tilda Swintons high-powered bisexual lawyer in Female Perversions, Robert Downeys gay man dying of AIDS in One Night Stand, and Timothy Huttons morally-upright gay son in a dysfunctional family in The Substance of Fire. These were complex characters who conveyed the multiplicity of realities that queer people live everyday. These were not gay moviesin the sense that Better Than Chocolate or Trick arebut thoughtful, well made investigations into how people live their lives. The reason why so many gay films are bad is not because they are primarily about gay men and lesbians, but because they have become conformist, stale, formula products rather than art or even enjoyable entertainment. Trick, Billys Hollywood Screen Kiss, and Better Than Chocolate are the cinematic equivalents of television sit-coms that have gone on three seasons too many.
The one exception to this is the end-of-the-year release of Anthony Minghellas The Talented Mr. Ripley, a quirky, mostly amoral thriller about a sociopathic gay man who, while social climbing his way to a better class status, commits and gets away with several murders. Based on Patricia Highsmiths classic 1955 novel (filmed previously as Purple Noon by Rene Clement in 1960), director Minghella reinvents and politicizes it so that it is as much about class envy as the intricacies of homosexual identity in a repressive society. In Highsmiths original, Tom Ripley is a working class grifter with no scruples or identity boundaries who becomes enamored with the wealthy Dickey Greenleaf. After they are thrown together by a chance encounter, Ripleys desire for Dicky becomes inseparable from his wanting to be him. This leads to murder, impersonation, and more murder. In Highsmiths hands this became a meditation on identity, sexuality, and guilt, similar to her themes in the 1949 novel Strangers on a Train, best known in Alfred Hitchcocks film version. Here Minghella also emphasizes Tom Ripleys class ambitions and anxieties (as well as Dicky Greenleafs class privileges) and turns the film into a black comedy of class mobility and murder. Far more savvy than his highly awarded 1997 The English Patientwhich suffered from both sentimentality and Masterpiece Theater syndrome Minghella gets at the quirky intersections of sexual outsiderness and envy, class resentment, and longing, and the psychopathology caused by all of the above.
Aside from this, only two other Hollywood films were marginally gay, although very queer. Fight Club, which is brilliant in its first hour and then falls apart, is as intelligent, shocking, sexy, and serious look at the intersections of homoeroticism, male identity, violence, and freedom as I have ever seen in a mainstream film. On a less serious, but just as political, register is South Park. Beneath its dare-to-be-as-bad-as-possible tone and fuck-you attitude about offending cultural bourgeois habits, it exhibits a razor-edged wit and political sensibility that shocks us. South Parks use of homosexuality and queerness is open and forthright. It is not a case of making-fun-of-everything, but of accurately understanding how stereotypes, social power relationships, and humans work. The same is true of foreign films like Trio, a quirky German scheme- artist film that is reminiscent of Fassbinder, or Dry Cleaning, a manage-a-trois that lampooned French marriage and middle-class sensibilities.
Perhaps the best non-U.S. gay themed film was the Australian Head-On, about Greek immigrants living in Sydney and the struggles of a young gay man to come to terms with his sexuality in a subculture and a society that values his maleness but not his queerness. Exploring issues of exile, national identity, sexual desire, violence, and gender, Head-On pushes boundaries and buttons. The sex scenes, always tinged with violence and discontent, are both shocking and arousing and make us think more than most films do.
Even when movies have no gay or lesbian characters or plots or themes, they have often offered homosexuals a vision into fabulous, imaginative worlds that break us from the straights of the normal. Sometimes, when we are lucky, we can see films that deal directly with queer characters and convey some sense of the reality we inhabitPoison, Quer- elle, The Life and Times of Harvey Milk, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, Long Time Companion, High Art, Boys Dont Cry. But what we have been calling gay films are all to often overly-simplistic, pre-packaged, pre-sold commodities fashioned to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Z
Michael Bronski is the author of numerous books and articles on culture, and the gay and lesbian community. He is also a regular contributor to Z Magazine.