A (straight) person’s guide to talking about queer cinema

Paul Rudd gay film

Growing up gay as a suburban teenager in the mid 90s, my access to queer culture was severely limited (ie nonexistent). Before the proliferation of the internet, one relied on the “gay” section in bookstores and video stores, if there even was one, to seek out examples of visible representation in the media throughout the years. I remember one day as a high school junior skipping class to go see The Object of My Affection at the local mall, a Jennifer Aniston rom-com in which Paul Rudd plays a gay character. I knew nothing about the movie or Paul Rudd (odds are that in 1998 if he were famous he wouldn’t have been playing gay), but the fact that there was a movie playing at the local multiplex with a gay character in it was enough to drive identification-starved me to ditch school. It was a formative experience at the time, even though in retrospect the film is probably terrible and featuring grossly regressive sexuality clichés. That day, I saw a gay character onscreen and felt a little bit less alone in the world, and for that I’ve always been thankful. It also might be why I’ve always liked Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston, but that’s an entirely different discussion.

For reference, queer cinema is that which predominantly features openly gay characters as the protagonist (even though they’re likely not played by gay actors, but that, too, is an entirely different discussion), or addresses their culture or history. There’s an entirely other paper to write on gay interior-designer best friends and butch lesbian sisters, but now’s not the time. Nowadays, queer cinema is much more readily available thanks to the internet, file-sharing, and Netflix. Gotta love things like search engine optimization, tags, and Boolean functionality, right? And while it might seem grossly obvious, the wonder of being able to quickly and efficiently search for examples of gay cinema or gay characters in movies, and then easily obtaining those examples, shouldn’t be discounted. Though it would be at best a disservice, and at worst an egregious overstatement, to aggregate the gay community as a unified cluster, each subsection of the LGBTQ appellation (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer- yes, we’re all different) does at some point cling to the same hope: to see themselves fairly and accurately represented in society. Like one of the aims of second wave feminists, us gays want our depictions in the media to be as bias-free as possible, all by way of being here and queer and not going anywhere.

As a gay man who freelances in film blogging and criticism, I’ve noticed some troubling trends on mainstream film sites with regards to queer cinema: lack of coverage/a general disinterest with regards to queer cinema history, inability to identify homophobia in films, and identifiably biased critiques. For the most part, queer cinema’s alterity can be attributed to a few clearly identifiable truths, such as the relative historical lack of (good) queer cinema, general lack of queer cinema in the marketplace, and the fact that most who write about film seem veritably unschooled, or uninterested, in either learning their history or providing equal coverage to gay-oriented films. Subconscious or not, the veritable lack of dialogue among film bloggers and critics about gay characters and cinema contributes to a type of homophobia: not the “I’m gonna hit you, faggot” kind, but the silent, pervasive ignorance of the majority surrounding gay people and issues that could, in extreme examples, help foster the mindset behind the earlier example.

Like the notable downsizing of female film critics, queer critics are similarly few and far between, with most, but certainly not all, of those writing about movies being straight men. Now before I continue, I know quite a number of awesome straight male film critics that are wholly inclusive to queer cinema, and this article is by no means a call to arms to unilaterally put these people on blast. Also, I know my fair share of gay critics who could do with a bit of brushing up on their queer cinema history. Consider this somewhat of a manifesto on the ways in which queer cinema can escape the ghetto of uber-specialized coverage, because, more or less, I believe this type of relegation is unintended and easily remedied.

behind-the-candelabra

On a recent publicity tour for his big gay film about Liberace, Behind the Candelabra, Steven Soderbergh said that, even though he was only asking for $5,000,000, it was nearly impossible to get the film funded because of its subject matter, let alone to push for a theatrical release. This for an Oscar winning director with two Oscar winning, A-list actors in Matt Damon and Michael Douglas already signed on. I mention this example of the difficulty to get queer representation out there on the big screen because it may be symptomatic of the coverage that follows. A similar fate may have befallen the Larry Kramer written drama about the early days of the AIDS crisis, the recently announced, HBO-helmed The Normal Heart, starring Julia Roberts and Mark Ruffalo, among other high profile actors.

Like all things capitalistic, film distribution is market-driven. Since 2010, only three films with predominantly gay themes have grossed more than $1,000,000. That’s basically what The Hobbit made while you were walking to the theater to see it. There aren’t a ton of queer films out there to choose from because, when they are out there, people aren’t seeing them. By and large queer films are small indie affairs or documentaries with limited built-in potential at the box office. Milk and Brokeback Mountain were critically lauded, Hollywood films that made a lot of money ($54 and $175 million, respectively), yet each featured identifiably heterosexual leading men (Sean Penn, and Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal), so one could argue they weren’t really too gay. Girls could drag their boyfriends to see those movies, but the guys knew that, at the end of the day, the guys onscreen were just like them. Do gay audiences really love those movies, or are they just zeitgeist-capturing phenomena to satiate the heterosexual masses once every few years?

milk-2

So what’s the best way to ensure queer cinema doesn’t get lost in the coverage shuffle? The obvious answer would be more to choose from. But since that’s not, at the moment, a fruitful alternative, film bloggers and critics need to beef up on their queer cinema history to ensure that it’s fairly represented.

The Catch-22 of coverage inequity seems to traverse between integration and specialization. Similar to the way niche blogs on sites like Indiewire cater to “specialized audiences” interested in black cinema or women and Hollywood, queer cinema, too, is often placed in categories separate from the home page. Indiewire’s resident gay blogger, Peter Knegt, has his own fantastic column, Que(e)ries, but it’s not listed among the site’s other niche blogs: Rather, his queer posts, which are too infrequent, are labeled with the “Que(e)ries” title then lost in the shuffle. This aggregating convention is somewhat of an understandably necessary evil for editors in an age where ad-revenue drives content, but is specialized just a euphemism for ghettoization? Today, for instance, of Indiewire’s 21 headlines, none feature any queer content. The closest in spirit would be an article on the Lindy West/Rape joke debate, a discussion that, while not queer-based, does show a kinship due to its meditation on the importance of language and inclusive spaces. This being said, Indiewire is one of, if not the most queer-friendly of the bigger film websites.

In some ways, it’s handy for people who are seeking that content to be able to have it readily available. The flip side is that it tends to function as a lazy content-generated hinterlands where content can be said to exist without clogging up the more widely read content on the home page, for example. There are arguments either way. Ideally, minority-oriented content would have a much wider audience, thus necessitating its place in headlines.

One way to combat this coverage inequity would be to ensure that those writing about film have a well-rounded perspective, or to employ writers specifically well-versed in a variety of content. For instance, around Valentine’s Day Indiewire published a few lists in conjunction with the romantic holiday: Best Sex Scenes, and Best Romantic Comedies. In the sex article, “best” serves as a stand-in for “favorite,” which, given the scope, obviously means hottest or sexiest. In the “best” category we have the first tent-fuck scene in Brokeback Mountain and an admittedly hot romp from Naomi Watts and Laura Elena Herring in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. If you remove the eyeroll-worthy introduction to the Gyllenhall/Ledger synopsis (“it’s hot even if you’re not gay!”), you may end up at the conclusion, as I did, that the scene is, if anything, unsexy and sad, depicting these two men, hurriedly and fully clothed, in a desperate situation. It reeks of tokenism, but even at that it’s an uninspired choice. The writers do better in denouncing the infamous Neve Campbell/Denise Richards pool scene from Wild Things as ludicrous and contrived, indicating a level of acuity for what makes believable queer depiction. Though it seems this logic may extend mostly to lesbian depictions, as the “best” lesbian scene from Mulholland Drive seems itself geared for a straight male audience.

gay

More troubling still was the site’s list of the best romantic comedies of the last twenty years, a carefully culled collection of twenty years of films that features only one predominantly gay entry among more than 50 films mentioned. I’ll admit that there aren’t a lot of light-hearted queer entries in the genre, mostly because the films out there about queer people depict them as being sad, miserable, unhappy, and doomed to be alone. If the benchmark for the list were Julia Roberts/Kate Hudson Hollywood style fare I’d give the writers a pass, because by that definition there wouldn’t be a lot to choose from. However, by their own admission, many of the films chosen only narrowly occupy the same space as the pro-forma genre:

Ranking any kind of comedy is challenging because I often have to compare drastically different kinds of movies. It’s harder still to quantify what a “romantic” gesture is. Because your mileage may vary, I wanted to start with two preferred definitions of “romantic.” The first is taken from a Google search: “Inclined toward or suggestive of the feeling of excitement and mystery associated with love.” A good romantic comedy does not always end with a promise of commitment. Several of the films on this list conclude with a heartbreak or a break-up, but I still find them to be both very funny and moving because they nicely approximate the confusion and, yes, mystery of romance. Because love isn’t just a gesture or visible connection: it’s also a lot of guesswork and well-intended misinterpretation. Some of the movies mentioned below are romantic not just because they’re about love, or sex, or both, but because they maintain a certain romantic mystique.

I include the full definition because it’s important to see, as the choices that followed characterize, that there is a hugely navigable space in which romantic comedies can exist. The majority of the films that were chosen (Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet was the gay choice, btw), would only narrowly fit a rom-com category in a video store or Netflix suggestion field, for example. When I proposed alternatives to the writers of the article such as Weekend, I Love You Philip Morris, Happy Together, etc, I was consistently rejected because those films “didn’t fit into their definition of romantic comedy,” yet films like Punch Drunk Love and Buffalo ’66 were chosen among the best of their respective year, though the professed criteria would seem to encompass all.

happy Together

I know it seems like I’m picking on Indiewire, but that couldn’t be further from the truth: it’s a site I browse every day with great delight, and as such I feel invested in its popularity. That said, it’s important for writers to have a well-rounded history. Many other, better queer films would have qualified for these two lists. The fact that they were so conspicuously under/un-represented is a sad realization that those films were likely not seen by the writers. Had they been included, they may have piqued the interest of some of the readers. I know it seems like a contentious point, but things like this matter. The overall effect from this relative omission of queer characters sends a subtle nudge to readers that queer people don’t occupy the same space. At the end of the day, it’s this kind of unsaid commentary that helps promulgate ignorance. Even worse, this is a film website for cinephiles and those devoted to the “indie” scene, a scene in which the majority of queer films exist. This makes their absence that much more inexcusable. It would be better for the writers to own up to their inadequacies by including a disclaimer at the beginning, something to the effect of, “Admittedly, many gay films might not qualify for this list because…” or “To our detriment, our knowledge of gay films is limited, and so accounts for the lack of gay films we talk about below.” None such admission occurred.

In a similar, if slightly more subjective vein is the imperative to highlight and denounce homophobia in films. This etymological search is contentious mostly due to its heavily personal nature. In my experience, a homophobic portrayal arrives at the intersection of intention and context, with each factor being equally important parts of a larger whole. The most transparent examples of filmic homophobia come not necessarily through homophobic characters themselves, but in the schematic purpose of their inclusion and the degree to which those actions are diegetically justified: Is a character’s homophobia a characterizing element, or rather an ancillary and accepted part of their persona? It seems that critics often confuse the two, trying to justify the latter reality through the former’s purpose. In other words, do homophobic characters make a film homophobic? The answer is a very definitive “not always,” but also a resounding “sometimes, yes.”

Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths is a recent example of a film where the flagrant use of the words “faggot” and “homo” made me uncomfortable. As the writer/director, Mcdonagh is the primary driver of this meta-farce on the entertainment industry and male bonding. In the film, characters played by Christopher Walken and Sam Rockwell frequently use the terms as insults, but that’s not what makes the film feel so homophobic: For his part, McDonagh does nothing to represent their dialogue as anything other than comedic; here, gay is an insult played for laughs. The characters are likeable, especially Walken, and the audience is meant to casually identify with them. There’s no pretense of judgment either within the diegesis or in the film’s presentation of the material.

Of my gay friends who have seen the movie, every single one of them said they felt similarly to the way I did, yet critics seem wholly unaware of the film’s effects on gay viewers. Of the 45 “top critics” whose reviews of the film appear on Rotten Tomatoes, only 1 mentions the film’s epithetic language. In Village Voice’s Alan Scherstuhl’s mostly positive review, he noticed that “Walken’s complex bastard even half-apologizes for throwing around “fag” as a catchall insult for men who aren’t movie-style manly, but, like the apologia about the female characters’ tendency to get popped, this feels less like an effort to satirize douchiness than one to suggest that we just roll along with it.” He summed up in those few lines exactly how I, and many other queer viewers, felt about the film’s language choices. Most critics either didn’t read the film this way or chose not to write about it in their reviews. The inability to recognize and create a dialogue around the issue only leads to a perpetuation of the trend.

The nature of biased film reviewing is hardly a new concept, with the aforementioned trend being one of, but not the only, defining characteristics. It seems most pronounced when centered on queer cinema. In doing my research, I asked Jose Solis, a gay critic friend, to weigh in on the examples I planned to highlight in the editorial, and he confirmed their grossness but said that he probably wouldn’t even notice them on first glance, since he “instantly assumes that no one writes with gay men in mind.”

stranger-by-the-lake

In the AV Club’s coverage of the recent Cannes film festival, critic Mike D’Angelo, usually top notch, prefaced his review of Alain Guiraudie’s new film, Stranger by the Lake, by bragging that he “may not be fully qualified to evaluate [the film] for reasons of heterosexuality.” It’s easy to read this as a tongue-in-cheek rationalization and maybe even give D’Angelo a pass for outright admitting his bias. Things get worse, though, when he dismisses the film as porn, simple, and too invested in unsimulated gay-sex to get him “on the same wavelength.” For its part, the film (which I haven’t seen), has been described as a nuanced and frank presentation of sexual desire featuring unsimulated sex scenes.

D’Angelo uses gay as a catchall for man-on-man, as most regrettably do. But what’s more confusing still is why he even bothers trying to rationalize his bigotry by qualifying that he’s not one “that can’t appreciate queer cinema,” when he’s already admitted he’s not at all queer, and that for this big queer movie he isn’t bothering to properly review. In a way his admission is almost admirable, and maybe it’s my closeness to the material that makes me respond so heatedly. After all, in my own review of Rama Burshtein’s Fill the Void, a film about the Ultra-Orthodox Hasidic community in Israel, I noted that my unease with the film’s casual acceptance of regressive gender norms was something I couldn’t get past.

Critics, like all people, have bias, and it’s silly to try and pretend that we don’t. What makes D’Angelo’s staggering brashness so offensive is that, when faced with criticism for the review, he tried once again to rationalize his actions by pointing to his positive review of Palme d’Or winning queer film Blue is the Warmest Color, crudely bragging that his erection during the screening was a clear indication of his “preference” in subject matter, and that he “just can’t help it” that he’s a straight guy who isn’t turned on by gay sex scenes. Would it be acceptable for a gay critic to breezily dismiss films with extended heterosexual sex scenes? Of course not, because, separate from disqualifying us from reviewing most films that are released in theaters, it’s an absurd cop-out. In a conversation on the issue with a few straight critic friends, they tried to get me to bend to D’Angelo’s “brave” admission of his own bigotry, but the deeper problem is that this example wasn’t particularly problematic to any of them. It’s pervasive back-alley homophobia like this that contributes to the types of awkward acquiescence that my friend Jose mentioned above.

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It’s not my intention to create a jeremiad targeting specific people or websites. In fact, everything/one I wrote about here are examples of people who I think mean well and don’t even realize the consequence of their (in)actions. With the case of Mike D’Angelo, I’d like to believe his “hey, I’m a straight guy” schtick is something of a reflexive defense against the backlash his article elicited, and that he can see that it’s bigotry by any definition. I’ll continue to read his work, and that of all the websites I mentioned, because no one knows better than queer people that expecting change overnight is a defeatist expectation.

Film bloggers and critics are an excitable bunch, mostly because the majority of us do what we do almost exclusively for the love of movies and for little/no money. Nothing contributes to ignorance more insidiously than absence, and with regards to film culture, queer cinema is often conspicuously absent. Until there’s no need to qualify cinema as “gay” or “black” or “women’s,” which, let’s face it, will probably be never, there are a few things we can do as film writers to help combat the inequity of representation. Running a specialized column on queer film news would be a great way to get the stories out there, and incidentally I’m for hire if you’d like a contributor. When thinking about cinema, try and cull through all of its facets, including the queer-oriented entries. Editors should seek writers with a well-rounded knowledge of cinematic history, and look at their work with all audiences in mind, even on specialized sites. Including characters and storylines in reviews and editorials helps increase exposure, thereby and hopefully increasing demand. Being more aware of the effects of language both within the films themselves and when talking about them is an essential element of ensuring an inclusive, queer-friendly reading environment. We’ve made a lot of progress, but we can do better.

 

John Oursler

 




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