Friday, January 27, 2012

Is the Gaze Gay?

I won't hold Andrew O'Hehir responsible for the title of today's review of Ira Sach's new film, Keep the Lights On, which premiered at Sundance. The title Salon's editors chose was "A great gay film, or just a great film?" There's no need to, since the openly heterosexual critic makes enough such blunders in the body of the review itself. At the end of the first paragraph, for example, he reports that the film has "plenty of explicit gay sex, but no NC-17 material," by which he presumably means no visible erections or penetration, though the word "explicit" is rapidly losing all meaning anyway except as a dog whistle to censorious fundamentalists and horny teenage boys.

Soon after, O'Hehir writes that Keep the Lights On is
a loving but entirely fearless portrait of gay urban life at the turn of the millennium, seen through the prism of one dysfunctional love affair. In fact, this movie may test how far the gay community has come on issues of self-representation. While it seems unlikely that bigots and homophobes would actively seek this film out (except, you know, on the sly and stuff), any who do see it could certainly cherry-pick details to support the thesis that Erik’s entire cadre of humanity are degenerates.
It's also "absolutely not a freak show", and
Like Andrew Haigh’s “Weekend,” another recent film that feels like a step forward or a step away from the “queer cinema” of the ’90s, this isn’t a movie about identity or coming out or facing oppression. It’s an unstinting relationship drama — perhaps consciously modeled on Bergman’s “Scenes From a Marriage” — about two guys who fall in love in the most tolerant and diverse metropolis in America, surrounded by supportive gay and straight friends, and manage to screw it all up with drugs and craziness and horndoggery. You could choose to interpret the movie as being about how people like Paul and Erik are ghettoized by an uncaring, heterocentric society or whatever, but frankly there’s nothing like that in the film.
Ah yes, Weekend. I still haven't had a chance to see it, and it doesn't seem to have a US DVD release scheduled yet. That was the one that apparently I'm not supposed to see, by the filmmaker's express criterion that no one should be interested in films that don't mirror their life circumstances in every particular, but I still intend to see it. Eventually.

What really gets to me me in those remarks is that the claims O'Hehir makes for Keep the Lights On are exactly what "the 'queer cinema' of the '90s" supposedly did: the films that drew critical and audience attention in that period tossed out concerns about "self-representation" and attempted to move beyond "identity or coming out or facing oppression." I take it that O'Hehir has never seen The Living End, Totally F***ed Up,The Doom Generation, Nowhere, Swoon, My Father Is Coming, Female Misbehavior, High Art, My Own Private Idaho, The Watermelon Woman, Go Fish, Poison, Zero Patience, Lilies, No Skin Off My Ass, Better Than Chocolate -- to name only some English-language, US or Canadian-made contributions to the Queer Cinema of the 90s. It seems that O'Hehir doesn't know what he's talking about.

O'Hehir said a lot of the same things when he reviewed Weekend last year, though then he merely dismissed the queer cinema of the 90s:
As in so many other areas of culture, the 1980s were way ahead of the present: Pedro Almodóvar’s “Law of Desire” and Stephen Frears’ “Sammy and Rosie Get Laid,” for instance, anticipated this trend by 20 years or more. But if those movies helped spawn the self-involved, studiously transgressive art-house ghetto called “queer cinema” (which never reached beyond a tiny minority of the LGBT public), they had startlingly little effect on the world of mainstream cinema, which remains committed to tried and true models, even in the age of gay marriage and openly gay military personnel. Gays in the movies can be suffering heroes, objects of pity, opportunities for the audience to demonstrate its superior compassion and/or dishy best pals. They are hardly ever just people.
This was at least marginally better informed, though it underplays the vehemence of Hollywood homophobia, what he calls "the world of mainstream cinema." (I think he's confused about Stephen Frears's oeuvre: the primarily heterosexual Sammy and Rosie Get Laid had minor lesbian characters, but it was the earlier My Beautiful Laundrette that broke new ground in its handling of its central male couple.) Cable TV, from Tales of the City to The Wire, has done much better with GLBT material than Hollywood.

But the earlier piece also tells a very different story about queer cinema than O'Hehir told today. He may have been right about the much smaller audience that those films reached -- it would have been even smaller without the advent of home video, and it still says as much about what Hollywood refused and still refuses to do as about the limitations of Queer Cinema -- but that doesn't explain or excuse his misrepresentation of what they were trying to do. It would help to remember that presenting queers as "just people" is still, twenty years later, an avant-garde and arthouse stance as far as "mainstream Hollywood" is concerned, which determines not just production but distribution.

That Keep the Lights On made its debut -- "came out," as we homosexuals might say -- at Sundance is a help for distribution, but it's worth remembering that several of those dwellers in "the self-involved, studiously transgressive art-house ghetto called 'queer cinema'" also broke out as Sundance: Poison in 1991, followed the next year by Swoon, The Living End, The Hours and Times, and later by Go Fish. Other notable independent gay films, like Hedwig and the Angry Inch, were developed there. The Sundance imprimatur won them attention outside the gay press. So it turns out that Keep the Lights On is not a breakthrough, but merely the latest in an honorable and well-established tradition.

Now let me go back to the article's title, which may not have been O'Hehir's choice but still expresses his assumptions. Imagine substituting "black" or "Jewish" or "women's" for "gay" in that rhetorical question; better yet, substitute "men's" or "American." So much depends on whom you think you're asking. "A great American film, or just a great film?" "A great men's film, or just a great film?" To some extent, just asking the question discredits the asker. The answer will depend not on the film but on the viewer's willingness to identify with characters different than him or herself, a capacity that seems more limited among heterosexual American males, especially white ones. There are of course many exceptions, but as a general rule that's the group that covers its ears, clamps its eyes shut, and hisses "No!" when offered stories about the Other. (If Andrew Haigh, the man behind Weekend, were straight, he'd fit right in with that mindset.) There's nothing wrong with wanting also to have stories about people like yourself, it's the impulse behind "minority" art, but when you can't or won't enter into different worlds, something is wrong with you. It could be racism, it could be sexism, or homophobia, or xenophobia; it could be a hidebound inability or refusal to experience different film or storytelling modes.

I admit there's a paradox, though. The other side is that we need to recognize the particularity of all art, and indeed of all human experience. Just sticking with cinema: Every film will be a men's film, an American film, a white film, a black film, a Chinese film, a women's film, a gay film, a lesbian film, a heterosexual film, and so on and on, at the same time that it's also just a film. Everyone has blind spots, so no one will be able to appreciate everything, even the good films. (On the other hand, it should be obvious that badness doesn't necessarily interfere with people's appreciation of many films -- not just as a Good Bad Movie, but as their favorite movie of all time.) No film is truly "universal" in its subject matter; every particularity is also human. And every film has politics -- makes assumptions about power and its lack, about money and its lack, about the structures that limit and enable human life; but that's another post.

The best formulation of this paradox, or at any rate the first I encountered, was in "Gay Is Good," a Gay Liberation broadside by Martha Shelley, probably from 1970 or 1971:
And I am personally sick of liberals who say they don't care who sleeps with whom, it what's you do outside of bed that counts. This is what homosexuals have been trying to get straights to understand for years. Well, it's too late for liberalism. Because what I do outside of bed may have nothing to do with what I do outside -- but my consciousness is branded, is permeated with homosexuality. For years I have been branded with your label for me. The result is that when I am among gays or in bed with another woman, I am a person, not a lesbian. When I am observable to the straight world, I become gay. You are my litmus paper.
Sigh. Written over forty years ago. Still relevant.