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Queer Cinema

B and I have been watching a lot of Netflix lately, both the traditional DVD’s and the instant watching service. At first I was making the same mistake I made when I used Netflix before of only adding movies I feel obligated to watch to my queue. Sadly, when you come home after a long day of solving company problems, exploring the wonders of the French New Wave often becomes something you do tomorrow.

We discovered was that Netflix has a very large Gay and Lesbian selection; far more than any brick and mortar video rental store (think of the children!). Over the past couple of weeks I feel like we’ve been skimming the surface of gay cinema of the nineties and early two thousands with movies like Latter Days, Hedwig and the Angry Itch, Just a Question of Love, Beautiful Thing, and, um… Eating Out 3 (B watched Eating Out 2, of which he said “once I got over I was streaming porn legitimately, I lost interest”). For the most part it’s been an enjoyable exploration. It’s always odd watching straight romance films because I never think the girl is hot, and I don’t care if they get together. I thought I’d look up the review of Latter Days, one of the more recent films to come out, at my favorite movie review site, The Onion AV Club. The reviewer Scott Tobias was not a fan not just of the film but the genre it inhabited.

“”Banned in Salt Lake City!” scream the ads for Latter Days, trumpeting the film’s would-be provocative hook of a closeted Mormon getting deflowered by a well-toned L.A. gym rat… Beyond all this manufactured controversy lies the sort of feeble, pussyfooting gay romance that has clogged indie circles for years; like trick, The Broken Hearts Club, Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss, and countless others, it banks on safe, straight-friendly formula in a bid for crossover success.”

In Latter Day’s case, the filmmakers tried to use the fact that it was banned as a rallying cry, but it was probably banned because of how judgmental it comes off towards Mormons than being gay. The review got me thinking more about the movies themselves. Most of them follow a pretty standard romance formula where boy meets boy, boy falls for boy but thing is keeping them apart. In all these movies, the “thing that keeps them apart” is invariably accepting being gay: Latter Days they couldn’t be together because the Mormon church didn’t accept gays, in Just a Question of Love and Beautiful Thing it’s the main character not being out to his parents. Eating Out 3 had the main character accept himself, the gay community, and in the end save the community center from foreclosure (I could not make that shit up). Even Brokeback Mountain put acceptance of homosexuality at the center of it’s doomed romance. Using acceptance is an easy way to connect with the audience, as it’s one of the few things that connects gays and lesbians together. We’re a people without a race or homeland.

I suppose I should just be happy we got past the late eighties and early nineties films where gays were all dying of AIDS. My personal theory (aka a theory I didn’t do any research on) is that in the nineties the whole idea of having a gay romance was so controversial it made the films “edgy”, even if the movies themselves were so conventional they’re practically safe for the Disney channel. Beautiful Thing’s protagonists have the longing stares that go with teenage romance, but it’s practically an after-school special. In the two-thousands, queer films that went for mainstream audiences did it by using well known formulas, using the ‘gay twist’ as their hook. While this makes for very conventional films, I wonder if it would have been able to make films with gay protagonists without trying for cross-sexuality appeal. By some estimates the gay population is between 5% ~ 10%. Would you invest millions of dollars in a film that excluded 90% to 95% of the potential audience? This is what made Brokeback Mountain such a breakthrough: a gay romance film made for wide distribution. Of course, it was the only one. The outlier here is John Cameron Mitchell, who is the closest thing to a gay Spielberg we have. His two films, Hedwig and the Angry Itch and Shortbus, are bold, sexually charged films made with real panache. I have no idea how he got Hedwig produced;  it’s a trans-gender musical that defies a simple pitch but is hard to look away from. His second film, Shortbus, has the explicit sex of porn but with real depth of story. Mitchell is the real deal, and I look forward to his future work.

I wonder what the future holds for gay cinema. With the cost of entry of digital film making dropping to never before seen lows, it seems like a new generation of queer films could exist that are edgy because they’re edgy and not because they’re gay. Are gay filmmakers going to follow Mitchell’s lead, or simply make what they know will work? A bigger question would be: are gay audiences looking for (and willing to pay for) challenging films, or are we just looking for Eating Out Four: The Cancun Special?

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