[EDITORS NOTE: This is the first in a regular series of articles that will take a critical look at the state of contemporary queer cinema. In developing this column, indieWIRE turned to New York City based writers Michael Koresky and Chris Wisniewski, inviting them to take a sort of “he said, he said” approach to discussing queer films.]
Michael Koresky: Surveying the landscape of queer cinema has become increasingly difficult in recent years. Where there was once a thriving independent gay-lesbian film scene — confident enough in itself to exist on film culture’s fringes, populated with genuinely outcast movies that didn’t have their sights set on wider audiences — there seems to be an increasing disinterest among viewers in seeking out smaller films simply because of gay content.
Many would point to the outsized, mainstream success of “Brokeback Mountain” as the turning point (after which viewing gay cinema as cultural marginalia no longer seemed sufficient), yet to me the shift seems much greater than this, due more to changing attitudes at large than anything else, not to mention the ready availability of gay content on cable channels like Logo and Here!. If homosexuality has become something approaching mainstream, then why should gay movies still be relegated to those third-rate specialty houses that seem like porn-era holdovers? In some places, we’re already allowed to get good and married, so why can’t we get good movies as well?
For this, our first column about where queer cinema’s at, and possibly where it’s headed, we could think of no better place to start than the films selected for this month’s slate of LGBT festivals (from San Francisco’s recent Frameline and last month’s NewFest in New York to Los Angeles’s upcoming Outfest). If there’s been any impression from the films we saw this year, it would be that reality has, with some exception, trumped fiction, but more significantly, the best films were those that dared, in this so-called “post-gay” climate, to remind us that all is not necessarily alright, whether in governmental policy (“Ask Not“), with the continued practice of safe sex (“Sex Positive“), or, most dramatically, under Islamic law (“Be Like Others,” “A Jihad for Love“) While I adored the festival’s romantic, inspiring centerpiece “Chris & Don: A Love Story,” a documentary about the decades-long romance between Don Bachardy and Christopher Isherwood, currently in limited release, I most admired those filmmakers who weren’t ready to hang up their activist hats just yet.
Chris Wisniewski: There certainly wasn’t anything “post-gay” about the best nonfiction films of these festivals. “Ask Not,” for example, reminded us that even though we may be poised to put the Bush-Clinton-Bush-era behind us, in some arenas we haven’t come that far since 1992. But “Ask Not” isn’t just a glorified PSA; director Johnny Symons smartly follows a core group of soldiers who put an appealing human face on the “don’t ask, don’t tell” problem (though they still may not be quite enough to fill the movie’s full 73 minutes). “Don’t ask, don’t tell” isn’t just a matter of policy for these people, it affects the lives of those who, for reasons deeply personal and political, have chosen a life of military service.
A few entries skewed too far towards the individual and the anecdotal side of things (Richard Gere‘s brother is sweet and all, and his kids are adorable, but it wasn’t enough to hold my interest through all of Tom Keegan‘s “Out in India“). The biggest offender on this front was the formless, self-consciously “hip” “Bi the Way,” which purported to expose the changing attitudes towards sexual identity among today’s under-30 set. Directors Brittany Blockman and Josephine Decker simply assert that this sea change is taking place — okay, with a little commentary from Dan Savage and Michael Musto — but they seem more interested in their assemblage of bi interviewees, picked seemingly at random from various points around the continental U.S., than they do in asking serious questions about contemporary attitudes towards bisexuality. They devote easily more than ten minutes of screen time to “Tarnation” director Jonathan Caouette‘s ten-year-old son, because (I guess) he’s told his parents that he might decide he’s bisexual one day. It wasn’t exactly edifying.
Tanaz Eshaghian‘s “Be Like Others,” on the other hand, wasn’t simply edifying, it was heartbreaking. Eshaghian’s film examines the lives of pre- and post-operative transsexuals in Iran. An interview with a doctor and cleric give us all of the political backstory we really need: sex changes are permitted under Islamic law, and are therefore legal in the Islamic Republic of Iran (the government will even change a person’s gender on his or her birth certificate). Since homosexuality is not legal, an unspoken ambiguity lies at the heart of “Be Like Others” — are the people who decide to change their sex transsexual, gay, or simply too effeminate to avoid constant persecution? This ambiguity hangs over every interview Eshaghian conducts and every medical check-up she observes. Shortly before his surgery, one of her subjects admits that he wouldn’t be going through with it if he could be accepted as he was in Iranian society. The moment is devastating, and it suggests that “Be Like Others,” the strongest film I saw from these festivals, isn’t “post-gay,” but it may be “pre-gay.”
All of this raises an interesting question: what makes a queer movie “queer” in the first place? For the fiction films, it seems that having an LGBT character in some prominent role is sufficient grounds for inclusion. Morgan Jon Fox‘s “Omg/HaHaHa” and Sam Zalutsky‘s “You Belong to Me” aren’t really about queerness in any meaningful way — and that’s fine. I would still take either over the awkward lesbian subplot in Kyle Schickner‘s “Steam.” Nevertheless, the question about what makes a movie queer is important for two reasons. First, it makes me wonder what it is queer audiences want or need from their movies (identification? entertainment? titillation? a political call to action?). Second, since these festivals provide their eclectic indie entries with perhaps their only public screenings, many of these movies — some worthy of an audience, some less so — would never screen anywhere without the annual June queer spotlight.
MK: Identification and titillation? Sure, I’ll bite: I enjoyed watching the appealing Daniel Sauli star in the effective suspense thriller “You Belong to Me,” in which his protagonist’s sexuality was secondary to the main plot, and all the frantic European soap-operatic hand-wringing of Ferzan Ozpetek‘s latest, “Saturn in Opposition,” couldn’t disguise the fact that the film’s best feature was Luca Argentero‘s gorgeous face. Yet as much as I was titillated by Argentero or found myself identifying with Sauli as he was thrust into a Polanski-esque New York apartment nightmare, such fleeting pleasures were trumped at every turn by exhilarating documentaries such as “Be Like Others” and “A Jihad for Love,” whose implicit refusal to fall into complacency was as important to their success as their ability to open our eyes to worlds we don’t normally get to see here in the West — or that we want to deny. I think, in terms of the fiction films, the reason for their inclusion is a mix of all of those possibilities you pose — with unfortunately the final one (“a political call to action”) the least common.
I find it especially disappointing that the feeble “Steam” was chosen as a centerpiece film at NewFest, when not only is its gay character merely one of an ensemble (and when compared with Ruby Dee and Ally Sheedy, decidedly the least interesting and well-acted), the filmmaking is certainly less than stellar. Wouldn’t it have been nice for that spotlight to go to a truly important work like “Be Like Others,” which could have used more of a push?
Also worth noting is how the changes in recent years in the independent film realm, in which shooting on video has almost completely overtaken film, have affected the landscape of gay and lesbian cinema. Because of video’s lightness and cheapness, we probably have more films than ever competing for these festivals’ slots (and undoubtedly deals with TLA Releasing and the like), yet there seems to be less diversity than in the past. Beneath the piles of frivolous urban beefcake comedies by Casper Andreas and the bounty of shorts about coming-out, coming-of-age, and just, well, coming, it’s nice then to see a film like “Omg/HaHaHa,” a pipsqueak Godard-meets-MySpace doc-fiction hybrid (wow, I hated writing that) about a sprawling Memphis community of wayward high-schoolers. It’s hard to imagine it finding much of an audience outside of YouTube or e-mail forwards, so it’s a tribute to NewFest that they chose this difficult, not wholly successful, but unique work for screening amid the more standard fare, and it’s certainly redolent of a new generation’s expanding of the boundaries of what constitutes a “film.”
It’s one of the rare cases where a somewhat similarly themed nonfiction counterpart was desperately lacking in comparison. Whereas in “Omg” Fox surveys today’s allegedly ambisexual youth culture with a refreshing matter-of-factness (that helps it overcome its occasional stooping to Harmony Korine-like grotesquerie), the aforementioned “Bi the Way” is nothing but a lame proselytizer, confused and bereft of insight into today’s youth, looking at such a wide range of ages and races in its attempt to capture the pulse of a “bi” generation that it ends up saying nothing other than “Join the party!” It’s marked with a childish refusal to raise the basic questions about its principals that surely everyone in the audience is thinking: could that African-American New Yorker’s steadfast refusal to label himself as gay have anything to do with codes of masculinity in the black community? Is Jonathan Caouette’s ten-year-old son really some sort of poster child for an incipient generation of open-minded bisexuals, or is he just trying to impress a father who’s been in the limelight for exploiting his own sexuality for some years now? And what does that subplot about the goateed dude with the hot bi wife engaging in threesomes (like something out of HBO’s late-night “Real Sex” series) really have to do with a “new generation of bisexuality,” anyway? It’s barely a documentary, just a self-congratulatory “investigation” to justify its filmmakers’ evident desire to take a road trip.
The perfect antidote was Daryl Wein‘s portrait of AIDS activist and former S&M hustler Richard Berkowitz, “Sex Positive,” a thoroughly researched, compellingly edited documentary that’s as engaging as one man’s sexual and activist history as a wider look at AIDS advocacy in the Eighties, featuring interviews with important figures Larry Kramer, Joseph Sonnabend, and a dominating, eloquent Berkowitz himself, who’s been living with HIV for decades now. It’s the kind of film whose subject matter remains perilously important, and it was sad to watch it in a sparsely attended theater (especially compared with the sold-out showing for the negligible “Saturn in Opposition.”)
CW: Maybe you’re a little hard on “Saturn in Opposition.” Like “You Belong to Me,” I think it moves along quite nicely before stumbling in its second half. But where “You Belong to Me” falls apart by revealing itself a little too soon (it could have coasted on its open-ended atmospherics for at least another 15 minutes before veering into Alfre Woodard-in-“Desperate Housewives”-season-two territory), “Saturn in Opposition” loses focus at just the moment that it should declare itself to be about something. There are certainly worse movies playing at a theater near you than either of these, and so maybe we should focus on the sold-out audience for a decent foreign gay film instead of bemoaning the sparse attendance for “Sex Positive.” I think the world would be a better place if everybody was forced to watch “Sex Positive” and “Be Like Others,” but it may be asking too much to demand a bigger audience for the documentary films or more political engagement from the fiction entries. After all, American documentaries are generally better and more politically engaged than the trash Hollywood studios dump into theaters every week; queer has nothing to do with it.
Maybe contemporary queer cinema really is simply a reflection of the post-gay (and post-film) culture you postulate. I find it oddly heartening that these queer fiction films are no longer tethered to the coming-out, coming-of-age, discrimination, and AIDS meta-narratives, even if I wish they were a little bit better on average, and it’s exhilarating to see documentaries as varied as “Chris and Don” and “Be Like Others” find audiences, however small or rarefied they may be. It’s also a little dangerous to try to assess queer cinema on the basis of these festivals alone, lest we forget that filmmakers as varied as Terence Davies, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Tsai Ming-liang, and Todd Haynes are still making some of the best movies in the world today. And “Sex and the City,” a movie written and directed by a gay man, co-starring an out woman, and featuring two gay characters, has already made over $125 million dollars at the American box office — it doesn’t get much gayer than that.
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot and the managing editor and staff writer of the Criterion Collection; Chris Wisniewski is a Reverse Shot staff writer, a regular contributor to Publishers Weekly, and director of education at the Museum of the Moving Image.]