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QUEER CINEMA NOTEBOOK | What We Learned on Our Summer Vacation

QUEER CINEMA NOTEBOOK | What We Learned on Our Summer Vacation

[EDITORS NOTE: This is part of a regular series of articles taking 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.]

Chris Wisniewski: There was something almost too easy about our first installment of this Queer Cinema Notebook. Frameline, NewFest, and Outfest provided more than a great excuse to get started; they also offered a glut of LGBT-themed content for us to sift through, debate, and, in a few happy cases, champion. But queer cinema’s annual moment in the sun is fleeting, and as the summer stretched on, it became clear that our next installment posed a more serious challenge.

Without a healthy reserve of festival committee-approved offerings to draw upon, what would we write about? For eleven months of the year, Queer Cinema (if there even is such a thing) exists on the margins, and we spent most of this summer, as in most years, wondering where the queer characters were in the first place. (There are, apparently, no gay people in Gotham City, and with audiences, gay and straight alike, swooning over Batman, who noticed that New Queer Cinema trailblazer Tom Kalin delivered his first feature since 1992’s “Swoon,” the alternately captivating and off-putting “Savage Grace“?)

The more we saw, though, at both the multiplex and the art house, the more we realized that the “mainstream” movies with queer content or subtext were just as thought-provoking as (though more discouraging than) their out-and-proud indie and foreign cousins. So what did we learn on our summer vacation? For starters: Ellen and Portia can get married (hooray!); Lance can dance with the stars, as long as he’s dancing with a woman; and Judd Apatow‘s male protagonists can love each other — really love each other, man — as long as they do so in a totally not-gay way.

Michael Koresky: Apatow’s certainly a good place to start. Over the past couple of years, his films have been praised for bringing to the surface the inherent homoeroticism of the Hollywood buddy comedy. This is seen by more than a few critics as somehow groundbreaking (“The Rogen-Apatow collaboration has come a long way from the ‘You know I know you’re gay’ riffing in ‘ The 40-Year Old Virgin,'” claims Village Voice‘s Robert Wilonsky. “At last, they’re out of the closet.”) But the thing is, they’re not out of the closet. At all. So, the question must be posed to Apatow: where are the gay characters?

The very title of Apatow’s once-ignored, now-venerated debut and origin myth, “Freaks and Geeks,” infers a marked interest in social marginalia, a defense of the outcast. But it should be clear at this point that Apatow and Co.’s fascination lies primarily with their own white, hetero selves, and that any conspicuous images of male bonding remain defined as safely straight. For me, “Pineapple Express” was the last straw: one long gay joke disguised as an enlightened “bromance” (ugh, that word), it’s perhaps the ne plus ultra of this new faux-sensitive comedy, in which the acknowledgement of affection between straight men (see also “Superbad,” “Blades of Glory,” etc) somehow grants the filmmakers a free pass to indulge in the kind of easy, queasy laughs that wouldn’t be out of place in gay-panic epics of the Eighties. To wit, after a feature-length awkward dude courtship, James Franco and Seth Rogen suggestively grind against each other in order to free themselves of duct-tape bondage: Audience go “ewww!”

Brandon T. Jackson as Alpa Chino in Ben Stiller’s “Tropic Thunder.” Image courtesy of Dreamworks.

This sort of pandering to the dominant group wouldn’t be quite so egregious if any of these films featured outwardly, unapologetically gay characters. There wasn’t too much of that around multiplexes, or even specialty film houses, this summer. With visibility so low, even Brandon T. Jackson‘s Alpa Chino, whose fretful sexuality in “Tropic Thunder” comes out in a minor third-act twist, seemed somewhat refreshing, especially for an African-American character in a major studio comedy — who doesn’t die by film’s end. (Of course, then, director Ben Stiller can’t resist throwing in a deflating cameo from Lance Bass, our de facto Gay Male Celebrity, at the end.)

It’s hard to figure out what exactly separates “Pineapple Express” from your average frat-guy-targeted comedy, yet people seem to have bought into the myth that Apatow speaks for the little guy. Of course, by now we’ve all come to terms with the fact that studio products will rarely, if ever, appeal to anything other than the widest possible audience (why else would Pixar feel the need to gender codify tin trashcans in “WALL-E“?), but there’s little excuse for the continued gay-baiting that crops up incidentally in films like “Pineapple” or “Hancock,” in which Will Smith derisively calls comic-book-variety superheroes “homos.” Perhaps all this is expected, but it might have been ameliorated by some sense of quality representation this summer on cinema’s outskirts. Too bad that left a lot to be desired as well.

CW: The summer wasn’t quite as bleak as you’ve made it sound. Beyond the gay-themed art-house offerings, which ranged from decent (the Korean import “No Regret,” appealing and sexy before the buried-alive bit) to excellent (Jacques Nolot‘s “Before I Forget,” easily one of the best movies of the year), at least we can have a debate about mainstream representations of queerness — better to have something to debate than to once again bemoan our invisibility, right? Take “Tropic Thunder.” Sure, Stiller plays the outing of Alpa Chino for laughs, but, as you note, the character ends up at the Oscars instead of inside of a body bag. He even gets his guy (as does Colin Firth in “Mamma Mia!,” I might add). As for the cameo, just ten years ago, the phrase “our de facto Gay Male Celebrity” would have been unthinkable, and I wonder if you would still call the cameo “deflating” if Stiller had chosen a different gay male celebrity — say, the adorable Dr. Horrible, Neil Patrick Harris — instead of the unfortunately ubiquitous Mr. Bass.

Speaking of cameos, what should we make of the third-act appearances of George Takei and Bruce Vilanch in “You Don’t Mess with the Zohan“? At first blush, that scene in “Zohan” seems to play right into classic gay panic, with its homophobic, white-trash villain (and a super-cute puppy he hates almost as much as the Arabs, the Jews, and the homos) catapulted into a gay soiree. But “Zohan” plays it as satire: We’re in cahoots with Takei and Vilanch, tittering at the homophobe and loving the puppy. Score one for Apatow, who co-wrote that screenplay.

Still, the most refreshing example of queerness in an otherwise non-queer summer movie might have come from the French thriller “Tell No One.” I was so-so on writer-director Guillaume Canet‘s convoluted murder mystery, which started intriguingly enough before slipping out of control (any time a movie climaxes with ten minutes of flashback-assisted, exposition-heavy voiceover, some additional streamlining may have been in order), but the movie’s treatment of its lesbian couple, played by an against-type Kristin Scott Thomas and the lovely Marina Hands, was unremarkable in the best possible sense of the word. Canet’s film suggests tenderness and history, as well as a healthy bit of friction, between the two characters, and gives each of them a pivotal role to play. I can’t think of a mainstream American film that featured a gay or lesbian couple in such a central part without in any way calling attention to — or eliding — their gayness.

Contrast the depiction of lesbianism in “Tell No One” with the mention of it in “Pineapple Express.” When Dale (Seth Rogan) breaks up with his out-of-his-league high-school-aged girlfriend, he complains that she’ll go to college, get really into Godspeed You! Black Emperor and the Shins, and “become a lesbian.” Sure, it’s just one throwaway line, but it assumes an alarmingly dismissive attitude towards lesbianism — as though queer female sexual identity is somehow put on, a faddish matter of (late adolescent, upper-middle-class) taste. Some critics see a similarly glib, potentially misogynist sensibility in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona“‘s lesbian dalliances, but there’s less judgment in the Woody Allen film. Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) doesn’t label her evolving sexuality, and there’s nothing wrong with that, even if Allen (probably) gets a kick out of seeing Johansson make out with Penelope Cruz. So, in the case of “Vicky Cristina,” which is it: Is Allen just a dirty old man, or should we score one for Woody?

MK: I’m not sure that Woody Allen deserves points just for being his old low-down dirty self, but there’s also no sense in expecting that the 72-year-old director, known for one of the most set-in-its-ways oeuvres in American cinema, would be able to paint a particularly progressive, generationally sound view of sexuality. Considering that the idea of a lesbian lip-lock in a Woody Allen film sounds about as welcome and potentially tasteful as bologna on a peanut-butter sandwich, it’s nearly miraculous how well he acquits himself. Framed as a PG-13 darkroom smooch, the scene is chaste and dull, but that’s in keeping with a career that’s never gone in much for true eroticism, just the neurotic expression of it (don’t forget that the only memorable sexual coupling in an Allen film was conducted between Gene Wilder and a sheep in a garter belt).

Allen’s modesty is forgivable; by contrast, this summer’s most inexcusably chaste gay seduction came in the rancid biopic of the Germs’ Darby Crash (born Paul Beahm), “What We Do Is Secret,” a film that had no qualms about depicting the L.A. 1970s punk scene as a shrieking, chest-slicing den of fuck-all come-what-may, but treated its true-life subject’s homosexuality with three layers of rubber kid gloves. While this was no “A Beautiful Mind” whitewash, there was certainly something conspicuous about its relegation of its tortured antihero’s closeted gayness to one risibly staged bedroom come-on, which, as performed by Shane West and Ashton Holmes, had all the palpable sexual energy of two kids poking each other with sticks. The rest of the film comfortably leaves Beahm’s sexuality as a barely teased footnote in a plasticized recreation of an overly romanticized era.

Speaking of things that are prefab, to return to your earlier point about cameos by Lance Bass, Bruce Vilanch, and our freshly anointed Gay in Space, George Takei, I would only pose back to you, with further risk of seeming like a humorless taskmaster: what’s really the difference between those very-special-appearances and, say, Paul Lynde popping up in Joan Rivers‘s “Rabbit Test” thirty years ago or guesting as the voice of Pumpkinhead in “Journey Back to Oz“? I guess my point is that Vilanch and the like are being trotted out not as signifiers of a newly enlightened age but as our new gay grotesques. And perhaps that is what separates them from the adorable Dr. Horrible: Neil Patrick Harris’s cameos in the “Harold and Kumar” films might plunk him down in some alternate reality where he’s a hetero horndog named . . . Neil Patrick Harris, but at least, so far, he’s taking on roles that allow him to disappear into character and not be freakishly paraded onscreen.

But I better shift subject before this second edition of our survey of queer contemporary cinema devolves into musings on B celebrities. Why bother when films like “Before I Forget” sometimes pop up (and of course “Chris and Don: A Love Story,” which we mentioned last time, but which got a wider release since its festival play dates)? Nolot’s brilliantly modulated meditation on the aging body and soul of a Parisian hustler fashioned, none too ashamedly, on himself is one of the best films so far this year, although its occasional push toward nihilism and narrative abstraction (and its early and rough sex scene) might scare off some of the less adventurous. Hopefully “Before I Forget” will continue to find an audience in the years to come.

CW: I think there’s a middle ground between “signifiers of a newly enlightened age” and “new gay grotesques.” Bass, Vilanch, and Takei are all proudly out of the closet (unlike Lynde, there’s no winking or nudging), and I’m not convinced that either “Tropic” or “Zohan” treats them as objects of ridicule. You are, however, right about this: who cares, when I can just as easily spend a few more words making a case for “Before I Forget”?

Bleak, provocative, and quietly devastating, “Before I Forget” simply grows richer in memory. Nolot’s film is about decay and disease, sex and, in its way, love. Without didacticism, it also manages to suggest the role that money plays in fixing the meaning and value of sexual and romantic relationships. What could easily degenerate into simple Marxist cynicism (some get paid a hundred Euro for their bodies; others inherit fortunes from their lovers; still others get stiffed because their relationships aren’t recognized, respected, or official in any way) instead remains remarkably complex because of its resolute — frequently corporeal — human focus. Nolot’s film is a genuine and challenging work of art.

Between “Before I Forget” and “Tell No One,” score two for the French. See? The summer wasn’t all bad.

[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.]

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