Saturday, September 24, 2011

While I'm On the Subject ...

Band of Thebes has a post today about a new gay film from the UK, Weekend. It's been getting a lot of good press, such as this review by admitted heterosexual Andrew O'Hehir of Salon, so I mean to see it when I get the chance.

But I was put off by some of the statements in BoT's post, especially some made by the filmmaker as quoted in the New York Times by Dennis Lim:
“Weekend” is the exception that proves the rule: As gay experiences have become more varied, and as the conversation about being gay has evolved, gay films have largely failed to keep up. A wide swath of so-called gay cinema “never represented how I felt about being gay, ever,” Mr. Haigh said. “I haven’t got muscles and I don’t live in West Hollywood.” Often overlooked are the subtle complications that have come with progress. “People are accepting you but perhaps not fully,” he said. “And do you want to be accepted fully?”
Have gay films "failed to keep up"? For that matter, have "gay experiences become more varied"? This is misleading in so many ways. "Gay experiences" have always been varied; to claim otherwise is to declare one's (willful?) ignorance of our history. From the descriptions I've seen of Weekend, it contains no themes that couldn't have been covered in gay films at any time in the past forty years. For that matter, they have been covered in gay films.

BoT calls Lim's account of gay cinema "a wide-ranging think piece"; I don't think so, though I don't think it pretends to be. It skims far too lightly over the subject, and exhibits very little thought along the way, if any at all indeed. After derisory summaries of Parker Tyler's 1972 opus Screening the Sexes and Vito Russo's 1981 survey The Celluloid Closet, Lim writes:
As gay liberation took root, the most prominent gay films were sincere romantic dramas like “Making Love” and “Personal Best” (both 1982), which strove to validate same-sex relationships by presenting them in a nonthreatening light, and the films grew even more somber as AIDS entered the picture (“Longtime Companion,” “Philadelphia”). Gay characters now turn up regularly in Hollywood movies, as comic sidekicks or diversity tokens, but usually take center stage only if they are martyrs (“Brokeback Mountain,” “Milk”).
I wouldn't connect Making Love or Personal Best to gay liberation, which was pretty much dead and buried by 1982. As so often, Lim and the Times confuse gay liberation with commercial gay male culture, ignoring the eclipse of gay liberation (which never sought to "validate same-sex relationships by presenting them in a nonthreatening light") and its supersession by the avowedly assimilationist gay-rights movement that dominated the scene by the late 1970s. (That's not necessarily a putdown: the assimilationist gay-rights movement is, for better or worse, representative of American gays as gay liberation never was.) Those two films are also Hollywood product with all the limitations the term implies, so Lim is ignoring (as I suppose he must) everything that happened in gay cinema outside that paradigm. As for gay characters turning up "regularly in Hollywood movies as comic sidekicks or diversity tokens," that was a feature of Hollywood's treatment of queers long before gay liberation, as Russo showed exhaustively in The Celluloid Closet. The main change has been the substitution of "diversity tokens" (another Hollywood staple from way back, where minorities are concerned) for the fag- or dyke-villain-killers who were Hollywood's other preferred queer stereotype before Stonewall.

I also like that bit about "sincere romantic dramas", as though heterosexual cinema never bothered with such trivia.

Lim writes as though gay cinema is a purely American and possibly a post-Stonewall phenomenon, though the earliest examples of gay cinema I know of (defined as films made from a gay viewpoint, by gay or gay-friendly filmmakers) are European, made between the World Wars. Gay criticism has come a long way since Tyler and Russo too, but Lim shows no knowledge of figures like the Brit Richard Dyer, the Canadian Thomas Waugh or the American Alexander Doty, the Americans B. Ruby Rich and Judith Mayne, among many others. Since the 1970s or so, a lot of the most interesting gay films have come from outside the US, and critics writing about gay cinema had to pay a lot of attention to those films if they wanted to have anything to write about, because so little was coming out of America. but to acknowledge that would violate the sacred principle of American exceptionalism: we're the first, the best, and the only significant country in the world.

As for that bit about "Gay characters ... usually take center stage only if they are martyrs", we know whose fault that is, don't we? I mean, Hollywood is out there begging for something else -- something fresh, something different -- but all Teh Gey will offer them are gay martyrs. It couldn't possibly be because Hollywood prefers to depict gay people that way ...

Lim continues,
In the indie sphere the brief flowering of the New Queer Cinema of the early ’90s identified a new niche audience. Gay-theme movies, festivals and distributors proliferated, capitalizing on the epiphany that gay films, and in particular romances, could be as formulaic as straight ones.
There was also a brief flowering of independent gay films in the mid-1980s, as floundering Hollywood companies discovered they could make more money by buying and distributing films they hadn't produced, whether made independently in the US or by various producers in the UK and Europe. As with the New Queer Cinema, such films benefited (as did their audiences) from their lack of Hollywood's terror of doing anything too interesting or (buzzword) "transgressive." Most of my favorite GLBT films were not made by Hollywood, which labors mightily to produce one or two minor gay-related works (marketed as world-historical breakthroughs) every decade. It's Hollywood, not gay cinema, that has "largely failed to keep up" with gay life, and only someone who equated Hollywood to cinema would make such a mistake.

So, back to director Andrew Haigh (the most useful thing I learned from Lim's article was that the surname is pronounced with a hard G, to rhyme with "vague").
Accordingly, the question of whether “Weekend” is a gay film is probably best answered: yes and no. “The root of the film for me is two characters trying to work out who they are and what they want from life, how they’re going to fit that into the world around them and show the world that they are those people,” Mr. Haigh said. “These issues aren’t just about being gay. They’re about how you define yourself, in public and in private.”
Once again I must wonder: what, according to Dennis Lim, is a "gay film"? Does he think that a gay film is only and completely about "being gay" -- whatever the hell that means? It only makes any kind of sense if you believe that to be gay is not to be human, and that our concerns are totally alien to those of "universal" real people. I don't entirely blame Haigh for answering a stupid question, I blame Lim for asking it.
A wide swath of so-called gay cinema “never represented how I felt about being gay, ever,” Mr. Haigh said. “I haven’t got muscles and I don’t live in West Hollywood.” Often overlooked are the subtle complications that have come with progress. “People are accepting you but perhaps not fully,” he said. “And do you want to be accepted fully?”
That's all very well -- after all, one way to see a movie you like is to make it yourself -- but come now. I can't think of many "so-called" gay films I've seen that were set in West Hollywood. Several have been made there, no doubt, because a lot of gay filmmakers went there to build careers, ended up having to make their own movies, and couldn't afford to go on location anywhere else. That's part of what being "independent" means. Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss, presumably one of Haigh's and Lim's offenders, was made in West Hollywood by a transplanted Hoosier, who thought he was courageously breaking stereotypes. Go Fish wasn't made in Chicago because the filmmakers wanted to escape West Hollywood hegemony, but because they lived there and made the film on a shoestring. I could name any number of gay films that weren't set in Hollywood and don't feature hypermuscled men, so I think Haigh's complaint reflects his own tunnel vision and fantasies rather than an actual failing of "so-called gay cinema" -- all the more so when you remember that he's English, and very few English gay films out of the many that have been made were set in West Hollywood.

BoT also approvingly quotes Haigh's “I was always frustrated, and angry sometimes, about the stories that people were telling, which were either coming-out stories or frothy, sexy comedies which weren’t funny or sexy.” Oh, and heterosexuals aren't interested in coming-of-age stories either, but again, there have been enough glbt films that were neither coming-out stories or frothy, sexy comedies that I wonder who was restricting Haigh's film viewing so cruelly for so long. ("No, Andrew, you can't see Querelle or Law of Desire or Apartment Zero -- they aren't set in West Hollywood!" "Awwwww Mum!")

(Incidentally, Lim reports that for his next project "Mr. Haigh plans to shoot in Los Angeles with a male lead." Stereotype!) So, can such an intellectually dishonest filmmaker make an artistically honest film? I'll find out when Weekend comes close enough for me to see it myself.