Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Quid Pro Queer

Onward and Outward

My Own Private Idaho (1991), starring Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix as two gay hustlers

Hollywood, as a centre of exuberant performance, lurid spectacle, graceful artifice, veiled subversion, and shameless show business (shameless both in its showing and in its business), has always attracted the outcast and marginalised constituents of society. Those who felt rejected, abandoned, reviled, or ignored in their local communities could head for the city of angels and join the production line in the lustrous and openhearted dream factory. I’ve yet to examine and come to any kind of conclusion as to why it is that the queer elements of society, most prominently homosexual males, find themselves so drawn to the arts professionally as well as a way of living, but it’s clear that, if there was any place for them to trek to and thrust a flag into the soil, Hollywood was it.

June is LGBT Pride Month, and in honour of sexual and gender deviants, and of their history of struggle in personal, cultural, and legislative arenas, The Back Row is presenting a series of posts on queer cinema. The British Film Institute has just revealed its own poll by critics and academics of the greatest queer movies of all time, and this is partly in response to that, as well as to the positive engagement I encountered with my last special series, on William Shakespeare. It is hoped that awareness of the subculture and its proponents and effects will grow among this blog’s readers, and that a new appreciation can be formed of the cinematic representation of a particular class of experience. An offhand survey among friends and their associates reveal that not many of our generation of South Africans are very much conscious of the currents of queer cinema nor of its spreading influence over the rest of contemporary culture, pop or otherwise. And I suspect the case isn’t largely different for the generations above ours.

(Read The Back Row’s review of Carol.)

For many in the filmgoing public, this is only a minor disadvantage (compared to other countries on the continent and in the world, South Africa is remarkably progressive in the protection of gay rights), as would be any omission from one’s view of the depictions of experiences other than one’s own, but for some it is rather an unfortunate gap. As an underrepresented minority, here as elsewhere, queer youths can often feel isolated and alienated from their communities; the revelation of fellow-feeling and the discovery of beauty and grace arising from these complex feelings that the better examples of queer cinema invariably impart, are precisely the remedy for this loneliness. Another intention of this blog’s Pride Month series is to provide these individuals with a selection of titles that they may view and, hopefully, find something of both artistic and personal value in. Good art is necessarily pleasurable and engaging, and the best of queer cinema should not only serve to inform and instruct, but also to entertain. It is both lightening and enlightening.

The problem I encountered in planning a series on queer cinema was in the selection of films to feature. What, precisely, is a queer film? Might we restrict the selection solely to films that feature queer main characters and deal prominently with their queerhood? Would that be an injustice to the history of queer appreciation of cinema, and identification with the subtle coding and conventional supporting roles that have traditionally been the realm of cinematic queerness? Would it seem at all odd or affected to include the films that, declining to dress up the issue in sequins and glitter and toss it out in a pair of dazzling platform shoes, choose rather to courteously nod at it and awkwardly shake it by the soft-skinned hand?

The decision has been to feature films that highlight something of the gay experience, and at some point offer up at least a moment for identification by its queer viewers, or an idea or representation of their queerhood that yields to contemplation and, perhaps, discovery. The deference to these criteria has the effect of simultaneous narrowing and broadening of my selection, which I shall explain in a minute. First, a brief layout of the categories in which film-makers find themselves placing their work when they decide to focus on queerness and its shimmering facets.

There are the biographical films of historical queer figures: Lawrence of Arabia, Behind the Candelabra, Kill Your Darlings, and J. Edgar among them. A short step away are those adapted from sources featuring queer characters, such as Blue is the Warmest Color, The Color Purple, Brokeback Mountain, and Carol. There are the works which overtly politicise the issue of sexual or gender identity, including I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry and the biopic Milk, as well as those in which the main character’s queerhood is more of an unusual characteristic or intrigue in the plot than the focus of the film’s examination, like Side Effects and Black Swan. Then, of course, there’s the multitude of films centred on straight protagonists, with the quirky gay friend on whom we rely for sassy jokes and knowing pop culture references: Mean Girls, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Scott Pilgrim vs the World, Across the Universe, Beginners, The Family Stone, Easy A, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Mamma Mia!, Pitch Perfect, The Hangover 2, and any number of others.

(Read The Back Rows review of Across the Universe.)

Note that the titles I’ve named are all of mainstream films, or at least of films that are paid attention to by the kind of mainstream critic one would find in, say, the “Top Critics” section on Rotten Tomatoes. Note that such mainstream films need something like the kind of note I’ve given them, on how they’re meant to be classified both culturally and commercially if they’d like to deal with queerness and still cater for a general audience. Except for Lawrence of Arabia, which very much plays down the sexual orientation of its hero, and The Color Purple, which perhaps succeeded in being made because of the prestige of the source material and the talents involved, all the films I’ve mentioned were made in the 21st century, when queerness is no longer such a subversive topic to examine for audiences as it had been previously, and they’re all easily identifiable by genre and style, and so have a ready audience.

The more idiosyncratic and exposing works with queer subject matter are to be found in the independent cinema, with films that were financed privately and material that would generally not be admitted into the mainstream. Here are found the cult films and B movies – forerunners of today’s prolific independent cinema such as Gus van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho and fourth-rate sexual comedies like the American Pie-spoofing series Eating Out. One finds certain aspects of the queer experience here that are ubiquitously elided in the mainstream films named above, including the focus on the primary distinction of non-straight sexual identity; as Tiffany von der Sloot helpfully points out in Eating Out 3: All You Can Eat, there’s a reason “it’s called ‘homo-sex-ual,’ not ‘homo-hug-ual’”. These peripheral works serve both to highlight the often overlooked features and ideas of queerness, and to illustrate that such overt highlighting has a long way from becoming mainstream yet. Not that queers hold much contempt for this fact; it would seem many of them are quite content to face the explicit representations of the grittier parts of their experiences conveyed in a similarly grittier form and style. Low budget methods serve to affirm the resilience and innate dignity of a self-respecting queer culture, rather than to further disdain it.

However, there is the third class of queer film that garners far less attention as such than the other two: the overtly straight film packaged in apparently the most heteronormative dimensions, yet incorporating subtle coding that elicits strong identification and recognition from queer viewers. Those who know what I’m talking about will also know who the prime examples are: Judy Garland is and always has been regarded as a singular gay icon, despite never betraying a single note of homosexual inclination. The openly secret discrepancy between her public image and personal battles with drug and alcohol addiction were enough to champion her to a community well read both on such discrepancies and on the artificiality of conventional respectability. Elizabeth Taylor also made her way into the hall of gay adoration by way of her close friendship and onscreen chemistry with Rock Hudson (Hollywood’s first outed star), the tempestuousness of her many romantic relationships, her famed love of glamour and extravagant jewellery, and her spirited support in the fight against Aids. Directors such as George Cukor and Douglas Sirk allowed gay audiences to project their own lives onto the heteronormative scenarios of their films, or alternatively undercut straight wholesomeness with a camp sensibility. There are other stars now adopted, if not as champions, then as icons of covert queerhood in Hollywood: James Dean, it now seems safe to say, was at the very least sexually interested in members of his own sex (and who could miss the strong homoerotic aura steaming through Rebel Without a Cause), and Lily Tomlin, though not of classic Hollywood, at least made it in time for the New Hollywood of the 1970s, and is still with us today to confirm her lesbian credentials.

Tomlin, in fact, brings up an important point that’s been building up in my mind as I’ve gone on writing: the overwhelming majority of queer representation in film, and in particular in American film, on which this blog focuses strongly, is that of the cisgender homosexual male. It’s an old and well known but entirely valid and still essential contention to be made about filmmaking that the proportion of filmmakers who are women is miserably small, and that the result is a disheartening damper on the range of experience conveyed in today’s cinema, even the independent cinema. Of the 25 films I’ve named here, seven feature homosexual or bisexual women, while the rest centre on homosexual men. So far as I can recall, in none of them is there the appearance of any transgender person. Two were directed by women.

It’s this disheartening observation that shows us that even within a marginalised minority, there are groups and pockets woefully underrepresented. It also reminds us of the fact that, in Hollywood, as in many streams of culture around the world, individual queer experience, like individual black experience, is treated as a special interest, or a niche subject matter. It’s a subcategory of culture on its own, and if the mainstream has anything to say about it at all, it’s generally in partisan political posturing. This condescension is something for which purported progressives are often just as much to blame as reactionaries, and is the reason the Hollywood establishment has burdened us in recent years with cringing praise for such insipid and vulgar works as The Imitation Game or The Danish Girl. For this consensus, it’s enough to show an ostensibly queer character in a sympathetic light, and preferably with a literary or art-house backdrop, for it to be considered a victory of social justice. Such inanity is not only unhelpful, but useless even as art or entertainment and betrays a stunning lack of imagination and unworthiness both of activism and of cinema.

(Read The Back Rows review of The Imitation Game.)

It’s partly as a pushback against these works and their general acclaim that The Back Row is spending a month focusing on queer cinema, and why I said earlier that my selection has been narrowed by my criteria. I wish to pay as little attention to possible to the fatuous works that categorise queer experience as just that, eliding any suggestions of idiosyncrasy or individuality, and feature more prominently the personal ideas of filmmakers who examine and creatively represent a character’s queerhood as artfully as filmmakers depicting straight characters are expected to do. The simultaneous broadening comes from the inclusion of apparently straight films as subtly coded queer ones.

In dealing with aesthetics in light of a social issue – rather a tricky situation for me, as I firmly believe the two should be kept separate – I welcome readers to discuss my posts more often and more confrontationally than ever before. No doubt many of you have better formed and informed ideas than my own, and I’d welcome all your comments and suggestions, including of films that you think should be included here.


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