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 Haynes’s brilliant The Karen Carpenter
and Poison that moved a gay sensibility to new levels of cultural
critique and intelligence, were revelations as was Tom Kalin’s queer re-telling
of the Leopold and Loeb story in Swoon. Rose Troche’s Go Fish and Isaac
Julian’s Looking for Langston broke new territory and Jennie Livingston’s
Paris is Burning expanded the parameters of what a queer documentary might

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 Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss, Late Bloomers, Leather Jacket Love Story,
and (slightly better) The Opposite of Sex. Not that there weren’t some
fine films as well—Cheryl Dunye’s Watermelon Woman was imperfect, but ambitious;
John Greyson’s Lilies was a triumph of style and intelligence; Lisa Cholodenka’s
sharp and pungent High Art and Bill Condon’s  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 Friend’s Wedding, they
lacked edge, intelligence, and any semblance of queer wit. Of course, mainstream
films also presented us with the most stereotypical of gay “types”—Bruce
Willis’s gay victim in The Jackal, Kevin Spacey’s wealthy queen in Midnight
in the Garden of Good and Evil
, Lauren Joey XXX’s least-believable lesbian
in Chasing Amy, and Ian McKellen’s repressed gay Nazi war criminal in Apt
. 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  1997’s Beautiful
. Relax…It’s 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 film’s main character after his sexual advances have been
rebuffed. This guy even collects Nazi memorabilia—but nothing butch like
grenades or machine guns. He collects plates from Hitler’s dinner parties.
But this was not as insidious as Franco Zeffirelli’s  Tea with Mussolini,
which used gay male sensibility about older actress divas to grotesquely
sentimentalize Italian fascism. We also had the usual I’m-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 Smith’s 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 Don’t
fictional- ization of the Teena Brandon story. In between we have Philip
Seymour Hoffman’s 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 lot—Boys Don’t
—never 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 surfaced—usually as minor characters—in
mainstream and Hollywood films: John Ritter’s southern queen in Slingblade,
Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s gay loser in Boogie Nights, Tilda Swinton’s high-powered
bisexual lawyer in Female Perversions, Robert Downey’s gay man dying of
AIDS in One Night Stand, and Timothy Hutton’s 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 movies”—in the sense that Better Than Chocolate or
Trick are—but 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, Billy’s 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 Minghella’s
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 Highsmith’s 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 Highsmith’s 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, Ripley’s
desire for Dicky becomes inseparable from his wanting to be him. This leads
to murder, impersonation, and more murder. In Highsmith’s 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 Hitchcock’s film
version. Here Minghella also emphasizes Tom Ripley’s class ambitions and
anxieties (as well as Dicky Greenleaf’s 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 Patient—which 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
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 inhabit—Poison, Quer- elle, The
Life and Times of Harvey Milk, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, Long
Time Companion, High Art, Boys Don’t 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.

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.