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Daniel Walber

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Daniel Walber is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. He sometimes wishes he were French Canadian, loves any movie under 80 minutes, and is gay for Bette Davis.

The Out Take: What Is Queer Cinema?

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Introducing “The Out Take,” a new bi-weekly column dedicated to queer cinema! 

What is Queer Cinema? Or rather, what is LGBT Cinema? There’s really no way to address all of it as if it were a single category, but for a second let’s pretend that’s possible. To start we would need to ignore international boundaries, including Pedro Almodóvar and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s diverse ideas of gender fluidity alongside the crossover-hit dramas of Lisa Cholodenko and Kimberly Pierce and trashy comedies like “Adam & Steve” and “Another Gay Sequel: Gays Gone Wild!” Then there are the documentaries, from the legendary “Paris Is Burning” to the heartbreaking and historic “How to Survive a Plague.” We also shouldn’t forget all of the uncompromising experimental work, from Jean Genet to Barbara Hammer.

But wait, there’s more! Film is a collaborative art form, of course. There were straight people on the set of Todd Haynes’s “Poison,” not least among them producer James Schamus, who would then go on to work on Swoon and collaborate with Ang Lee. Yet, speaking of Lee, what do you do with “Brokeback Mountain”? It’s the best-known American film with a gay subject, probably ever. It also stars two straight actors, with a script by two straight writers (which was in turn based on a short story by a straight novelist), directed by a straight man and produced by Schamus. It’s a beautiful film that did an awful lot of good pushing forward gay visibility in movies, but do we count it? I have no idea.

The same problem of categorization runs the other way, as well. Haynes and Gus Van Sant spent the 1990s making risky, revolutionary works of queer cinema. More recently, they have brought us more polished, prestige films without gay characters. Can we count “Restless,” “Good Will Hunting,” or “Mildred Pierce”? Faced with an ultimatum, I’d say that Haynes’s recent work has held on to a lot more of its queerness than Van Sant’s, even in the context of “Milk.” But should we have to choose? We can probably go ahead and exclude “Finding Forrester,” but there’s definitely something going on in “Paranoid Park” that is worth a second glance.

On the whole, I’m inclined to embrace everything. It seems ridiculous to have a rigid definition to describe an area of culture that is all about fluidity and inclusivity. The films of Marcel Carné, in an age well before anything could be openly expressed? Absolutely. Rereading the films of Rock Hudson and Cary Grant? Fantastic. New films like “Beyond the Hills” and “Ginger and Rosa” are not only among the best work of the year, but both bring new ideas regarding representation of gay characters. They should be seen, discussed, and celebrated. That’s what I’d like to do with this space.

That being said, it isn’t necessarily easy to be excited all of the time. As with many things in the 21st century, we’ve come an awfully long way but there’s still plenty of road left to travel. To bring things back to the early 1990s, the initial challenge was visibility, plain and simple. It was a huge deal when “Poison” and “Paris Is Burning” both won awards at Sundance because it meant that the American independent film community was awake and paying attention to queer voices. Now, twenty-three years later, the story is a bit different.

Let’s talk first about the visibility that has, for the most part, been accomplished. There are gay (primarily white) men everywhere, usually used as an excellent source of comedy. Some of this is entirely ok, like America’s favorite gay couple on “Modern Family.” Some of it is a bit less ok. “Brüno” comes to mind. Every fictional character seems to have a gay friend these days, to the point that even Woody Harrelson ended up getting to play gay in “Friends with Benefits.” If you don’t remember that, and I don’t blame you, the big joke was that he totally acted like a straight dude, but wasn’t!

So, there’s a mixed bag. It will, perhaps, resolve itself as America on the whole becomes more gay-friendly. The much, much bigger problem in representations of LGBT characters on the big screen is the distinct deficiency in stories about women and transgender people. By and large, the New Queer Cinema directors who ended up building long, prolific careers in the subsequent two decades are all men.

Some of this is incidental, but it also has to do with the essential problem of American cinema as a whole. Hollywood is less willing to fund projects helmed by women directors. This is then doubly frustrating, because LGBT films are hard to get produced in the first place. That the ratio of films directed by women is still so lopsided even now is an embarrassment, and is easily the biggest obstacle to the telling of LGBT stories on film. And while Lana Wachowski inspires us all, both through her fluid work and her extraordinary public presence, she should not be the lone role model.

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“Beyond the Hills”

The goal, therefore, is two-fold. On the one hand, we should keep calling the movie industry out on its problems. That doesn’t mean getting angry about everything; “21 and Over” had some really frustrating homophobic elements, but it bombed so it’s probably best to leave it alone. “The Hangover: Part II” however was a transphobic disaster that probably should have been called out by more of us, even if LGBT people weren’t its target demographic. The very fact that these movies assume a self-selecting audience of those that won’t be offended is a problem in and of itself.

The second element, which I deeply believe is the more important and effective, is to focus on the good stuff. Good LGBT cinema is good cinema, plain and simple. If you haven’t seen “Pariah,” get on that. Go see “Ginger and Rosa” or “Beyond the Hills.” Be on the lookout for perceptively told trans narratives, like Célina Sciamma’s “Tomboy” or Xavier Dolan’s “Laurence Anyways.” Watch “The Celluloid Closet” and find yourself thinking differently about a century of Hollywood cinema.

Ten years ago, Indiewire held a discussion “Considering the State of Queer Cinema.” Bush was President, and Rick Santorum had just said those unpleasant comments about man-on-dog sex. Even then, things were much different than they were at the arrival of NQC. B. Ruby Rich pointed out that in the early 1990s, “There were so few films that everyone turned out for them…a decade later, each film is not a circled date on the calendar of every queer household any longer.”

Now, a decade after even that, the President of the United States supports marriage equality. Not every representation of LGBT characters is positive, and we still have a long way to go. Yet there’s enough queer cinema that we can easily miss some of the best stuff if we don’t pay attention. Moreover, as Andrew Haigh pointed out in a piece last year in The Guardian, more LGBT movies means a wider variety. As a filmmaker, his goal is to “describe the gay community in all its complexity without worrying that your film has to represent a community.”

Haigh’s “Weekend” is a warm and terribly astute example of where LGBT cinema may be going. So too are Aurora Guerrero’s “Mosquita y Mari,” Ira Sachs’ “Keep the Lights On” and Jonathan Lisecki’s “Gayby” signs of things to come. It’s an exciting time to be writing about LGBT cinema. Of course, when hasn’t it been exciting? Queer filmmakers have been thrilling audiences and critics since Kenneth Anger was arrested on charges of obscenity, since Derek Jarman snuck an erection past the British Board of Film Censors, and since Sadie Benning got her first Pixelvision camera. Something tells me there will be plenty to talk about for years to come.


Categories: Columns

Tags: Beyond the Hills, Brokeback Mountain, Daniel Walber, Ginger & rosa, Laurence Anyways, Milk, Queer Cinema, The Out Take, Tomboy, Weekend

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