Friday, March 2, 2012

The Real Tinsel Underneath

Earlier this week Band of Thebes quoted a piece from the Onion (which you all know is satirical, right?) on the depiction of gay people in Hollywood, or rather "mainstream" films.
Seeking to honor filmmakers for fair and inclusive portrayals of the LGBT community, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation announced Sunday the establishment of a prestigious new prize to be awarded to any mainstream motion picture that gets even one thing right about being gay. "We're not asking for a two-hour-long pitch-perfect exploration of the gay and lesbian experience—just a single accurate, believable detail that feels in any way telling or true-to-life," said GLADD spokesperson Cheryl Weingardt, who promised a major cash prize and high-profile award ceremony to any Hollywood director able to deliver a film—any film at all—that includes a brief on-screen moment in which a gay character seems even somewhat authentic. "It can be a line of convincing dialogue, an emotionally honest reaction shot. All we ask is that you have someone gay in the frame for a couple seconds without it being completely insulting to the audience's intelligence." Weingardt added that she hopes her grandchildren will one day see a popular movie in which a gay person's role isn't limited to being the main character's witticism-spewing confidante.
Who could argue with that, really? But even as I read it, I realized that it would be imposing a double standard to expect Hollywood to depict a gay character who "seems even somewhat authentic," because Hollywood doesn't depict authentic straight characters either.

But what would authentic gay characters look like? I don't believe most gay people want authenticity, they want idealized "positive" images -- fantasy figures, in other words. Which isn't a bad thing; it's only bad when people claim falsely that they want realism.

Not only we but other minorities have been squabbling for decades about what images are positive and which aren't. When William Friedkin filmed his notorious 1980 film Cruising, using the leather bars of New York City as a backdrop for the story of a serial killer, gay activists attacked it as a negative portrayal of gay male life. But I remember reading that the gay leathermen who appeared in Cruising as extras were proud that they were providing some positive images of gay men, as opposed to the sissies and drag queens who were the most visible stereotypes then (as now). It's a mistake to assume that the controversy was only a leather / non-leather conflict, since numerous gay activists were leathermen themselves. I've been reading some of the retrospectives on the film for its 2007 revival and consequent DVD release, and they tend to overcompensate by taking the leather scene's fantasy images for reality: because these guys imagined and presented themselves as tough, macho, brutal, threatening, dangerous, they therefore must have been. Probably it was possible in a large city for some men to immerse themselves totally in the scene 24/7, but most had day jobs. The first leatherman I ever met, in 1970s Bloomington, was working on his MBA; his lover, another graduate student, was an organist in the music school.

One famous Manhattan bar, The Mineshaft, had a strict dress code. This site recounts that
According to Jack Fritscher, Mick Jagger was turned away for showing up with a couple of women, who, like sneakers and business suits, were not on the list. Once in a while, some women disguised as men made it into the Mine Shaft.

Punk rock singer and poet, Camille O'Grady, was actually admitted to the Shaft one night when she showed up in full leather with a couple of very hot male slaves in tow.
On another occasion, the famous leather daddy and pornographer John Preston was refused entrance to a leather bar because he was wearing "loafers, [a] dress shirt, slacks." Sensibly, he didn't make a fuss, since he understood the mindset involved: indeed, he'd helped propagate it. (He was taken aback when he realized that many readers took his S&M classic Looking for Mr. Benson utterly seriously, not recognizing its humor -- Mr. Benson was partly a sendup of James Bond novels, transposed to the gay leather scene.)

Preston explained he'd stopped wearing "regimental leather" anyway. All the cool kids had stopped, because the losers ("sightseers" was his word) had started wearing it.
I want to "be real," all right, but not in terms of fitting in. It seems that at some point, many of the men who were really into sadomasochism dropped the costume and started to challenge the others in leather bars with their conscious lack of dress. If you really want rough sex, it's better to dress against the fashion. Many of the denizens have given up their leather and gone back underground to reclaim their place on the cutting edge.*
But I digress, though there are important points of contact here with the question of "authenticity" in GLBTQ film. (I should probably return to Preston's complaint some other time.)

Now I'm drawing a blank. What else can I say about this that I haven't said before? But maybe you haven't read those posts. Much of the discussion I see about gays in film or other arts assumes -- and sometimes says explicitly -- that people should (or can) only be interested in work that shows them people just like them, which would mean among other things that straight people don't have to watch gay films. A lot of it is simply dishonest. Let me quote again the incredibly stupid gay director Andrew Haigh, who told the New York Times:
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.”
I pointed out before that very little of "so-called gay cinema" took place in West Hollywood, so someone must have cruelly prevented Haigh from seeing Querelle and Law of Desire, but on rereading that excerpt I noticed something else wrong with it. "A wide swath" doesn't even necessarily mean to a majority of so-called gay cinema. What about the other swaths? Does Haigh mean that nobody should make or release movies he doesn't like? But "a wide swath" is the interviewer's language, not Haigh's. What Haigh says is that something never represented how he felt about being gay; it sounds like he's complaining about all of so-called gay cinema. Not that it matters, he makes no sense at all.

Personally I'd be surprised if Hollywood ever made a GLBTQ film that really worked for me, but that's okay, because I don't expect authenticity or truth from Hollywood; and I don't expect authenticity or truth in art of any kind to consist of looking like me, or looking like I wish I looked. Hollywood's gay critics seem unable to make up their minds what they do want, though.

One other funny thing I noticed in those articles about Cruising, though: the gay men who said things like "If we knew that all our struggle would just lead to 'Will and Grace,' we wouldn't have bothered." What they wanted, apparently, was "edgy", dark, gritty, Crisco-smeared fuckfests (simulated) that showed what gay life really was like. Except that leather bars aren't what gay life is really like; they're part of it, of course, but they are no more its core or its essence than sweater bars or twink bars or the Metropolitan Community Church or the Log Cabin Republicans. (It should be remembered that the MCC and the Log Cabin Republicans are not incompatible with the leather scene, bathhouses, and other 'disreputable' aspects of gay male life. MCC Founder Troy Perry has been a bathhouse patron, and I remember reading somewhere that he was into leather. I'm very wary of people who indignantly denounce what they call negative images in gay art; too often such people are accurately depicted by those negative images. We've got our own wide-stance gay people, alas.)

It doesn't really matter what kind of gay people a film (or other work) depicts: there will be gay people who will object that they don't look like them. Which is true, because we are not all alike, so it's not even a valid objection. It's at best a truism. The gay films that I've liked have not been about gay people like me, but I could still see something of myself in their characters. I'm not an Anglo-Pakistani slacker or his punk boyfriend, but I liked My Beautiful Laundrette. I'm not a gravel-voiced professional female impersonator, but I liked Torch Song Trilogy. I'm not a Spanish avant-garde filmmaker who uses too much cocaine and has his pick of hot boys at screenings, but I liked Law of Desire. I'm not a Hong Kong expat in a crumbling relationship in Buenos Aires, but I loved Happy Together. In many respects I have more in common with the Chicago political dykes in Go Fish, another favorite film, than with the men in any of the films I've named; go figure. I'm not sure what is missing from gay films, but it's not "positive images."

From what other gay men say, they want more "hot" sex in films about us, and I often get the impression that they'd like to see hardcore action: erections, penetration. I still have never seen either Queer as Folk series, but I remember how excited -- and by "excited" I mean all giggly and giddy -- many gay men my age were by a famous anus-view shot of a man being rimmed. I also remember gay critics who were displeased because Philadelphia didn't include a scene of Tom Hanks with his legs in the air, begging to be fucked. (When I read this I thought: well, why should it? The lack of sex scenes was the least of the trouble with Philadelphia.) I guess it's fair enough that they were pleased to see an acknowledgment of specific gay male sexual practices in films and TV shows, but I didn't really see the point. If you want to see hardcore action, there's plenty of readily accessible porn available, which has its own problems and limitations, and a lot of the criticisms that gay men make of gay films apply. (Come to think of it, maybe Andrew Haigh was complaining about gay pornography: I don't really think he was, but it does at least fit the muscles and West Hollywood criteria.) But I don't think that non-porn actors, including gay ones, owe it to their audiences to have real sex on camera.

Griping about the failings of gay movies is too often like the complaint that gay men only think about looks: it's more of a cliche, a way of passing the time, than a serious, meaningful criticism of what has been done in GLBT cinema. (A lot of lay criticism, as I'll call it, is thoughtless and ill-informed, often tainted by wishful thinking, and mainly consists of finding gay characters in movies whether they're there or not.) Commercial cinema is, by its very nature, never going to be as uncompromising as many critics evidently want. Independent, less-commercial filmmakers have done a lot of good work, but it's unlikely that any independent will produce work in the tradition of the Hollywood Dream Machine -- and I can't say I mind that in the slightest.

I liked Will and Grace, which I thought was remarkably bold for broadcast TV; more important, it was funny and well-made. It didn't give me everything I wanted, but why should it have done so? There is a sense in which I think the oft-made call for the End of Gay Cinema has some validity: not that there should be no more films with same-sex-loving protagonists or other characters, but in the sense that we shouldn't ask whether each new offering is The Great Gay Film. Greatness will take care of itself; all I ask is for filmmakers and other artists to tell more stories, as honestly and intelligently and passionately as they can.

* from My Life as a Pornographer, and Other Indecent Acts (Richard Kasak Books, 1993), p. 127