Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Homo Sum: Humani Nil A Me Alienum Puto

(The title quotation is from the Latin poet Terence: "I am human: nothing human is strange to me.")

I once upset another man in a gay chat room by saying that I wasn’t going to see some highly touted new film because I was tired of seeing heterosexual movies. He accused me of being narrow-minded, of cutting myself off from most of the human race, etc. If I had that discussion to do over again, I’d grill him on how many gay films he himself had seen; in my experience, most American gay people are as wedded to Hollywood product as their straight compatriots -- and as ignorant about independent gay, lesbian, and bisexual films.
This conversation took place, I should mention, before the success of Brokeback Mountain showed that a movie built on a love story between two men could be marketed to a straight audience. BBM was arguably not the first such success. In and Out (1997), about a small-town teacher’s reluctant coming out, grossed $64 million in the US during the first year of its release; The Birdcage (1996), about a gay couple that runs a drag club while raising a straight son, grossed $124 million or more. Brokeback Mountain took in $83 million. Granted, the earlier films were comedies that played with stereotypes and gender, while Brokeback was a grim drama that flaunted its defiance of sissy stereotypes, and so was considered more of a breakthrough. Middle-class gay men especially were excited about a love story involving trailer trash they’d have scorned in real life. Still, In and Out and Birdcage shouldn’t be forgotten in discussions of marketing gay content to straight audiences. There’s a convenient, and sometimes cultivated, amnesia about such things
Since that little chat (and for many, many years before it) I’ve watched a good many heterosexual movies, read heterosexual books, and listened to heterosexual songs. Some of my best friends are heterosexuals, so you know I’m not prejudiced! What usually bothers me in a heterosexual film is the deployment of stereotypes, especially the butch-femme role playing that so many heterosexuals embrace and practice: the beliefs that men are roaming tomcats, avoiding commitment until a good woman ropes and hogties them and makes them settle down (Knocked Up); that decrepit men in their seventies are ideal love objects for beautiful women in their twenties and thirties; that men should be hunters and women be prey, and that a woman who takes the initiative is a slut and probably a serial killer in her free time. I’ve seen a good many heterosexual movies outside this paradigm, and enjoyed them as much as I enjoy a normal homosexual film. Sometimes I just get tired of the assumption that heterosexuals are “universal,” and that their love stories are about Love, while same-sex love stories are “homosexual,” but if we try really hard, we might succeed in making a film (or writing a book or singing a song) that transcends its inherent limitations and achieves 'universality':
Some critics have classified the film as being part of the New Queer Cinema, but I disagree with that assessment. Road Movie isn't making any grand statements about homosexuality in Korea, nor does it set out to bring awareness or instigate change. It is first and foremost a film about human suffering, and the complex relationships that are formed between three disparate individuals. Dae-shik's relationship with Suk-won transcends any and all obvious notions about love and sex, and Kim seems more interested in challenging traditional masculine roles and identity, especially as depicted in the road movie genre.
Now, I can’t recall ever having heard of a gay film made by Hollywood that wasn’t marketed as not being “about” homosexuality, but about something else: love, suffering, the brotherhood of man, mortality, the search for meaning, whatever. To some extent this is uncontroversial, since any work of art and/or entertainment is about more than one thing. But try telling most people that a heterosexual film – Knocked Up, say, or American Pie -- isn’t really “about” heterosexuality but about larger, universal themes, and see what kind of reaction you get. (In a famous review of Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise, the African-American critic Greg Tate called DeLillo "the best novelist of the post-modern white male experience writing today because he writes first as a novelist and then as a white man.")
“Universality” is not a mystical quality that some works have more than others, but rather a way of looking at them. The Great Works of Western Literature are generally severely limited culturally: how “universal,” for example, is an ancient Greek king who murders his father and marries his mother? Identifying with a fictional character doesn’t depend on the reader’s or viewer’s similarity to him, maybe even the opposite; consider the popularity of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s movies among scrawny little boys. The real question, then, is what kinds of characters audiences are willing to identify with. That willingness goes in interesting directions, as witness the popularity of such characters as Schwarzenegger’s killer robot in The Terminator, or Anthony Hopkins’s cannibalistic serial killer in Silence of the Lambs. When Hannibal Lecter told Clarice Starling that he was “having an old friend for dinner” – literally – audiences cheered. This success led not only to a sequel, but to a remake of an earlier film featuring Lecter so Hopkins could play him, and eventually a prequel recounting Lecter’s youth and development.
Contrast the difficulty, until recently, of getting white audiences to embrace non-white heroes. The iconoclastic white editor of Analog sf magazine, John W. Campbell, rejected African-American science fiction writer Samuel R. Delany’s 1968 novel Nova for serialization, “explaining that while he pretty much liked everything else about it, he didn’t feel his readership would be able to relate to a black main character.” Campbell was famous for his rationalism, and for publishing stories critical of religion; but his daring went only so far. A few years later, another sf editor told African-American science fiction writer Octavia Butler that “he didn’t think that blacks should be included in science fiction stories because they changed the character of the stories; that if you put in a black, all of a sudden the focus is on this person. He stated that if you were going to write about some kind of racial problem, that would be absolutely the only reason he could see for including a black.” A black character couldn’t be Everyman, let alone Everywoman, but a white character, no matter how atypical, could. That things have changed a bit since then shows, I think, that universality is a function of the reader’s or viewer’s willingness to identify with a character, across lines of difference.
The critic and activist Vito Russo mentioned in his review of My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) that after seeing the film he overheard someone saying, “I don’t get it – why were they gay?” As with black characters in sf, a gay character has to be tagged as a problem, his or her gayness the reason for being in the story. Laundrette really is about many things other than homosexuality (British politics under Thatcher, immigration, money, race, and more), but its central love interests are a white male English punk and a brown male Anglo-Pakistani, whose romance develops without the standard coming-out narrative or other conventions of the “gay” film, whether Hollywood or independent. This made it difficult for many viewers, including many gay ones I suspect, to get a handle on the film. But it was one of the reasons why I loved it.
Even more conventional “gay” films, though, can and (I think) should be approached in the same way. Torch Song Trilogy, for example, is about the life and times of a gay man, indeed a stereotypically stereotypical gay man: effeminate, promiscuous (but still dreaming of finding true love), a female impersonator by profession. Yet the film was reasonably successful ($5 million US gross) despite neglect by its distributor, and it was based on a Broadway hit play that ran for three years, won numerous awards, and is still being revived.
Numerous straight men reported that, after their wives or girlfriends dragged them to see it, they found themselves unexpectedly moved by Brokeback Mountain. The only thing that bothers me about that is that anyone was surprised. Granted, media depicting gay, or female, or non-white, or other marginalized characters have been demanded so that ‘we can see people like us’ on the screen, and that can be a valuable experience. (Which is why I’m always stunned to be reminded how little most gay people know about gay arts and entertainment.) But – to go back to my original gripe – heterosexuals (males, whites, etc.) already have plenty of images of themselves available, and can hardly claim to be invisible in the media, though that fact doesn’t always stop them from claiming it. Most of the time I can get pleasure from heterosexual entertainment because I have so much experience (57 years and counting!) identifying across lines of difference. I see no reason why heterosexuals can’t do as well. Not just to see how They live, but to see what They (We) have in common with Us (You).