25 March 2011
  30 years of glbt cinema

yesterday sasha stone at awardsdaily posted a very extensive poll asking readers to rate their favorite examples of glbt cinema over the past thirty years. stone was able to come up with no less than 170 films for readers to choose from. no surprise which film came in first, brokeback mountain, nor is it really a surprise that the top 25 is more or less full of more mainstream oscars-ey fare mostly released in the past 10 or 12 years. given that the glbt films that i admire are largely more indie-leaning i had to resist the urge to get angry that awardsdaily readers couldn't come up with any better examples of queer cinema than black swan (#6), american beauty (#7) and the talented mr. ripley (#9). there's nothing wrong with any of these films. in fact, each one is among my favorites. still, i wouldn't characterize any of them as prime examples of "glbt cinema."

after considering the poll a little further, however, i guess it makes sense that there isn't a lot of what i would call truly queer filmmaking and storytelling or, for that matter, films with provocative queer characters on the list. the truth of the matter is: most queer films kinda suck. for a variety of reasons there just haven't been a lot of really good queer films in the past thirty years. sure there have been plenty of decent movies with gay characters and even prominent gay storylines, but very few of them actually work to plumb sexualities or challenge the dominating heteronormativity of hollywood filmmaking. and the few examples of work that i actually do admire as queer cinema is often pretty obscure, as it's hard to find a mainstream audience for movies that work to challenge the viewers' understanding of their own sexual being. so if filmgoers really do need to turn to marginally gay films like philadelphia or chasing amy to fill a "best-of" list for the genre, i suppose they can't be blamed. what needs to be blamed is an industry that really hasn't yet begun to engage with sexuality (or gender for that matter) in the same ways that it has long dealt with race and class.

of course there is a growing list of glbt films, some even prominent-if-plucked-from-obscurity-by-the-awards-gods, and it seems that now we can expect that at least one gay character is going to be considered for an oscar nomination each year. the problem is that i find the vast majority of glbt cinema falls into two problematic categories.

on the one hand we have the inauthentic films. in my mind, the worst offender in this regard is brokeback mountain, a film about two purportedly gay cowboys whom i never once for a moment believed to be gay. to a somewhat lesser extent i felt the same way about this year's the kids are all right. milk is one more case of a film with gay characters that never really showed a glimpse of what it's like to be gay. the problem as i see it is that it isn't enough to simply insert glbt characters into a script to make a queer film; to do that one actually needs to toy with the conceptions of filmmaking and storytelling themselves. in brokeback mountain i see two men who sleep together, but that is the extent of the gay content in this film. and the truth is that there is more to being gay than sleeping with members of the same sex and getting persecuted for it.

great queer film actually thinks queer. that is, there is a deeper effort by the filmmakers behind these superior works to challenge conventional depictions of sexualities including conventional depictions of homosexualities. probably my favorite glbt movie is the british coming of age/coming out story beautiful thing. in beautiful thing, director hettie macdonald assembles an almost nonsensical cast of characters, through each one of them attempting to illustrate the nonconformity of the everyday that is characteristic of living in an urban working class british neighborhood. in this setting, main character jamie doesn't struggle with coming out of the closet or with getting people to challenge their prejudices but rather with illuminating the quotidian strangeness around him and illustrating that his difference fits into the larger pattern of difference in his neighborhood. in the end, beautiful thing, always sort of lyrical and unexpectedly (for its content) happy, culminates in an unapologetically joyous movie-musical-type ending. what macdonald was able to do here was queer the very conception of the "coming out" movie. the typical scenes of tortured personal anguish are, if not gone entirely, transformed in a way that shows the variability of the experience itself. everything about the film from its chronology, to its soundtrack to the characterization of the mother character is unexpectedly fresh and provocative. this is one example of a film that, to me, is purely and authentically representative of gay experience.

whereas i take issue with the vast majority of mainstream glbt films for their inauthentic depictions of what it feels like to be gay, i also take issue with the vast majority of more subcultural glbt films directed at a largely gay-identified audience for another reason entirely: their inability to escape queer stereotypes. in movies about gay men in particular all characters are either sex-obsessed hot young gay men, sex-obsessed aging men lusting after hot young gay men, and the sassy effeminate friends of hot young gay men. granted there are a lot of movies that fall into this category that i enjoy (trick, the broken hearts club), but i would hardly call them great glbt films (they're more like guilty pleasures). the bigger problem for me emerges when movies like last year's a single man garners some measure of prestige. a single man, albeit beautifully crafted and well acted, operates entirely off a stereotype that is neither unexamined in glbt cinema nor in need of revisiting. all we get from this movie is one more example of old gay men who can't age gracefully and can't help admiring the sweaty nubile young adult bodies around them. a single man, which i was really looking forward to last year, particularly disappointed me, because here was an open opportunity to do a really smart and engaging character study of a queer character, and what we got was another tired stereotype. it just dumbfounds me how every year there are so many deeply memorable new movie characters of every variety, but when it comes to gay characters they have to fit into a few very narrow molds.

where are the great gay characters in film? strangely, i think that if you are looking for really well drawn examples of queer characters in film you need to avoid movies on the glbt-interest shelf and dig a little deeper through the mostly supporting screen roles in not-necessarily gay themed movies. that being said, my favorite gay character in film is kevin spacey's depiction of jim williams in eastwood's vastly underrated midnight in the garden of good and evil. i think i like this character in a lot of ways because, like every character in this film, he defies any sort of compartmentalization. jim williams shows me that gay characters on screen can be interesting. the film largely centers on issues concerning jim's sexuality, yet this movie never once even remotely ventures into "gay-movie"(tm) territory. it is just a movie about a deeply troubled, deeply complicated man. and his sexuality contributes to these complications. midnight in the garden of good and evil isn't a movie about a gay man; it's a movie about a man who is many things, one of which is gay. i wish more filmmakers would just allow gay characters to develop organically in the way eastwood does with jim williams. instead, the vast majority of gay characters will always and only ever be gay characters.

i don't know how sasha stone went about collecting her list of 170 gay films to include in her ambitious poll. and i admit that this was a very nice attempt to gather a list of titles that might not have been previously available. however, in the end i argue that if you are seeking out the absolute best in queer cinema, you might be advised to look past any movie that is apt to slap a sticker on the dvd cover identifying it as a "glbt" film. the truly best queer films are those that in no way identify themselves as queer but which strive to make the viewer consider her or his heteronormative conceptions of society, filmmaking and/or their own sexualities. when watching kelly reichardt's haunting wendy and lucy, robert rodriguez' uber-violent from dusk till dawn or arthur penn's classic bonnie and clyde, your first reaction might not be to classify any of these as glbt films. ostensibly at least there aren't any gay characters in any of them. however, i would characterize each of these films as examples of great queer cinema, as they each strive to queer conventionality and illuminate certain seemingly inalienable aspects of the human condition as mutable, temporary or somehow questionable. that is what really great glbt movies accomplish: they make the viewer question. in the end, that might be the only qualification necessary to make a film a glbt film. forget the requisite drag queen.
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