Wesley Morris does many things well — he didn’t win the Pulitzer for nothing — but he’s especially adept at weaving different strands of culture into a single, comprehensible narrative. He did it with the Fast and the Furious movies, he did it with 12 Years a Slave and Kanye West, and now he’s done it in a Grantland essay called “After Normal,” which brings together HBO’s Looking, Jared Leto’s performance in Dallas Buyers Club, William Friedkin’s Cruising and the coming out of NFL draft prospect Michael Sam.
Morris puts gay culture (mostly, though not exclusively, in the U.S.) at a crossroads, in danger — or maybe not — of being so assimilated into the mainstream it ceases to exist. Looking, he writes:
is simply, though not solely, the product of an unprecedented social moment for gays and lesbians. Decades of agitation, aggression, and activism have achieved some of what was intended, which includes the decriminalization and destigmatization of homosexuality, access to humane medical treatment, and equality in all walks of life, most momentously in the walk down the aisle. The determination to live without hate and harassment became a demand for tolerance. The demand began to wear society down, and as closet doors around the world began to open and heterosexuals saw friends, coworkers, members of their families, and now teammates standing in the doorway, tolerance turned into love. The fury and tragedy of Larry Kramer’s landmark 1985 play The Normal Heart turned into plain old normal — seeing gay people not as gay, but as people.
In contrast to Looking, Morris offers up William Friedkin’s 1980 film Cruising, a movie whose depiction of New York’s gay underground was savaged by contemporary gay activists but has since been at least partially recuperated as a time capsule of a bygone era. It seems singularly representative of the current moment that Cruising has been (sort of) revived as the center of Interior. Leather Bar., a kind of conceptual put-on whose main purpose is to explore straight-but-not-narrow co-director James Franco’s fascination with male homosexuality, while Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, an angry but assimilationist work now largely regarded as a historical artifact, is being adapted for HBO by Glee/American Horror Story creator Ryan Murphy.
Morris goes back to the furor over 1996’s Basic Instinct, which LGBT protestors attacked for its portrait of a murderous bisexual, picketing theaters with signs revealing the identity of the movie’s killer, and to Camille Paglia’s abreaction to the protest. Paglia, he says, “liked the danger and the camp of that era, and she feared that self-seriousness was taking over depictions of gay life, that all the fun would eventually leave the building. She was right.”
In terms of social acceptance, the shift in the last two decades has been staggering: I never dreamed I’d see such change in my lifetime, let along such a small slice of it. But though it’s a small price to pay for the lives saved and minds changed, it’s hard not to miss the transgressive fury that ignited the New Queer Cinema of the 1990s and inspired the unmatched oeuvre of the late Derek Jarman. Todd Haynes’ Mildred Pierce and I’m Not There are without a doubt more accomplished, “mature” works than his Jean Genet-inspired Poison, whose NEA funding sparked an early battle in the culture wars. But there’s something missing as well. As Morris says,
Paglia’s annoyance feels apt for 2014, even if, on a movie-to-movie and show-to-show basis, she’s sometimes wrong. What she’s advocating for and what the detractors of Looking seem to want is some great art to come out of this moment, more deviancy. These people sense that the gay cultural boulevards are being Giulianied — that the kink, the camp, the mess, and maybe even the art are all being turned into the equivalent of Manhattan’s High Line. We’re a long way from the ragged independent radicalism of the gay new wave of the 1990s. Todd Haynes’ most recent project, for instance, was that gleaming, campless, multipart remake of Mildred Pierce with Kate Winslet for HBO.
Morris points to Alan Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake as an exception, with its darkly lyrical equation of gay cruising and unmotivated murder. (Critiwire’s Judith Dry compared it positively to the “hot, but boring” lesbian sex in Blue Is the Warmest Color.) But Stranger feels, thematically and stylistically, like a throwback — a beautiful and seductive one, but not a way forward.
As someone who will never forget having his mind blown the moment in Jarman’s Edward II when Christopher Marlowe’s Elizabethan drama was interrupted by the intrusion of protestors from OutRage!, the British equivalent of ACT UP, it’s possible my longing for the equivalent of a contemporary New Queer Cinema is simple nostalgia. Like the hardcore music of the 1980s, New Queer Cinema was spawned by a combination of anger and political disempowerment; on balance, maybe it’s better to live in a Modern Family world. Morris suggests “It might be better to ask where the new incarnation of early-’90s Haynes is, or whether that incarnation is even possible now.” Even more than possible, I wonder if it’s necessary.