for Geoff and PG

Have you ever thought about what constitutes a gay film as opposed to a straight one? Is it gay thematic content, characters, gay filmmakers, or the amount and explicitness of gay sex? Assuming that you have a favorite gay film — by whatever definition — was it chosen for its artistic merits or some other reason, such as, that it advanced the ‘gay cause’?

I have never liked this segregation of films into gay or non-gay categories. However, for the record, my strict definition of a gay film is a film made by, for and about gay people. Anything that falls outside of that is, strictly speaking, not a gay film. Ultimately, however, for me, a film is either good or bad. It makes a whole lot more sense to engage with a film on an emotional, intellectual or aesthetic level and, no matter what the sexual proclivities of its makers, to view the unfolding drama in terms of our complex responsiveness to universal human experience.

In our age of urban tribalism, factions and segregation, it requires a certain amount of imagination and projection beyond one’s own comfort zones and experience to achieve this, but it can be done and I assure you it is worthwhile. Last time I looked I wasn’t a lesbian, but I still broke into a sweat over the hot finger-fuck sequence between Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon in Bound (Andy Wachowski, 1996). Furthermore, I’m no paedophile, but I still swooned when Dominique Swain rubbed up against Jeremy Irons in Lolita (Adrian Lyne 1997).

Frankly, I’m mystified by gay men who say that Lolita has nothing to offer them because the protagonist is in love with a girl. Similarly, I’m puzzled by straight people who say that Derek Jarman’s masterful Caravaggio (1986) was ‘too gay’. It’s like these people have forgotten what it means to be rounded human beings. If you want art to affirm what you already know and feel then stand in front of the bathroom mirror, don’t go to the cinema ever again. Film, as the premier art form of the twentieth century, should open up your sensorium and challenge you in all sorts of unexpected ways.

Before going any further, I should also say that I differentiate between the terms ‘gay’ and ‘homosexual’. The former is a relatively new, well-meaning but, in my opinion, misguided ideological movement. (What leads people to believe that an occasional sexual activity constitutes an entire personality is beyond me.) The latter has been around since mankind emerged from the caves and learnt to scrawl on papyrus. I have argued elsewhere that homosexual experience is part of the human totality, an option that is open to all, should they choose to explore that avenue, and not some separate and exclusive category. (A film which illustrates this point is the 1997 Italo-Turkish co-production Hamam.) Homosexuals shouldn’t be fighting for gay rights; they should be fighting for human rights.

Gay activists would have you believe that Hollywood portrays them in a negative light. Vito Russo, the purblind film historian who wrote the over-rated The Celluloid Closet (Harper & Row Publishers, New York, 1981) claims Hollywood has packed the screen with limp-wristed victims, suicides, sad-sacks, bitchy queens, psychos, hairdressers, fey fashion designers, perverts and sex maniacs, stereotypes all who have nothing to do with real gay people. Odd, they always seemed like accurate portrayals to me.

Anyone who knows their film history would instantly recognise the numerous gay stereotypes lovingly depicted by Franklin Pangborn, Edward Everett Horton, Sidney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre and the husky voiced Mercedes McCambridge (who also supplied the voice for the demon in The Exorcist), to name just a few actors who filled the screen with homosexual characters from its earliest days. But to Russo, the richly detailed Dog Day Afternoon (Sidney Lumet, 1975) is nothing more than ”the ultimate freak show . to titillate a square audience’ (p. 178-179) and that remains his ultimate judgement on every Hollywood film with gay characters. What a pity he didn’t seek out Parker Tyler’s Screening the Sexes: Homosexuality in the Movies (Holt, Reinhart and Winston, New York, 1972) before writing his desperate-to-be-offended book. He might have learned something about art, aesthetics and how to read a text.

Further back in time, there were even a couple of handholding homo jailbirds in an early Mae West film — the greatest drag queen of them all (‘Sisters!’ she quipped as she sashayed past their cell). Furthermore, the contributions of Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo to the question of gender in cinema cannot be overestimated.

Alfred Hitchcock, always fascinated by the darker byways of sexuality, explored the theme of the homosexual as Nietzschean superman in Rope (1942), and followed that up with another deadly homosexual alliance in Strangers On A Train (1951). But, because both films depicted homosexuals as sociopaths, to gay activists this is nothing more than homophobic depiction at its worst. This despite the fact that the former film was loosely based on the true story of Leopold and Lobe, two young intellectual aesthetes and lovers who killed a 14-year-old boy in 1924.

For those who insist on ‘positive role models’, Montgomery Clift in Howard Hawks’s western, Red River (1948), filled the bill nicely. And let’s not forget spunky Katherine Hepburn crossdressing in Sylvia Scarlett (1936), directed by one of the great Hollywood directors, George Cukor.

With its sharp, peppery dialogue, I interpret Cukor’s 1939 classic The Women, which boasted an all female cast, as a gathering of bitchy backstage drag queens all competing for the affections of their unseen men. While we’re on the subject of drag, Brian De Palma’s psycho-sexual thrillers, Dressed To Kill (1980) and Raising Cain (1992), contain surreal representations of men in the throes of psychic schism metamorphosing into sinister, powerful women by the last reel. And you don’t have to be the great film critic Parker Tyler to interpret The Great Escape (John Sturges, 1962) as ‘a homosexual mystery story’. Nor does it take a genius to see the noirish Gilda (Charles Vidor, 1946) as a bisexual menage a trois.

But gay activists are like persistent blowflies. Once they latch onto an idea it’s almost impossible to shake them off. To them, far from exploring complex, ambiguous notions of gender and sexuality, the above-mentioned films do not show ‘positive representations’ of gay life, and are therefore homophobic distortions. What activists really mean is that, in their bid for acceptance, they want to spread their own approved and sanitised brand of the truth, which is filled with its own distortions and half-truths. They are Stalinists who would censor the arts to suit their own political ends.

That’s why they demonstrated against films such as Cruising (William Friedkin, 1980) and Basic Instinct (Paul Verhoeven, 1992), which they claimed painted a seedy picture of gays. But the truth is that the urban, commercialised gay scene, with its bouts of drug taking, bacchanalian dance parties and anonymous sex, is decadent. Hollywood has never been inaccurate in its portrayal of homosexuals. If anything, as director Bruce LaBruce said, ‘Hollywood … has represented homosexuals with chilling accuracy largely because Hollywood was and still is rammed with fags both off-screen and on.’

Hollywood only began portraying gays inaccurately when gay activists finally infiltrated the studios during the ’80s and ’90s and began pushing for films made to their own narrow specifications. Lacking all artistry, they are basically ‘how-to movies’ whose sole purpose is to promote gay life.

Suddenly, sprightly party boys looking for self-affirmation in an uncaring world replaced the rich variety of homosexual stereotypes that had previously filled the screen. The well-meaning but soppy Making Love (Arthur Hiller, 1982) was the first of these films. Over a decade later, the weepy Philadelphia (Jonathan Demme, 1993), with sanctimonious Tom Hanks, added AIDS to the sickly sweet formula.

Not wishing to be left out of their own game, independent gay filmmakers joined in on the act with the dull-as-dish-water Parting Glances (Bill Sherwood, 1985) and Longtime Companion (Norman Rene, 1990). What activists failed to see, however, was that they were still pushing the martyr-like victims they were meant to be ditching, but because their plights were ‘sympathetically portrayed’, they applauded these films as some kind of breakthrough.

A recent offender is Tommy O’Haver’s tepid little film, Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss (1998). The caricatures these films portray look like they were made by Mattel. They are white, handsome, nice, polite, middle-class men with go-anywhere phones and innocuous straights straggling on the edges. I call them the Stepford Boyz after the 1974 film The Stepford Wives, whose unspoken domestic motto was ‘conform or die’. But rather than enlarging experience, the new Hollywood gay cinema reduces it to a set of clichés, a preordained destinyWith very few exceptions, this also applies to the New Queer Cinema.

Most gay films resemble Soviet propaganda films. Cinema in the real world follows a far more complex and organic process than inside the gay ghetto. After watching one of these films with a queer stamp of approval on its forehead, I walk out of the cinema feeling more alienated than ever because of my failure to connect with any one of these ‘positive role models’ I’m supposed to be so happy about. More to the point, I don’t want to relate to such a vacuous bunch. These people are not on the screen because they or their stories are interesting. They are there because they stuck it into another person of the same sex, and want to show everyone else how nice and normal they can be despite their sexual preferences. If anything, these characters are aberrantly normal; so balanced they make even the most exemplary heterosexual look freakish.

In this climate, what a breath of fresh air John Maybury’s Love Is The Devil (1998) and Bruce La Bruce’s rough-and-ready Skin Flick (1999) were. Personally, I relish the depiction of homos as Jean Genet-like outsiders, thieves, hustlers and troublemakers, perched on the barbed-wire fence and destabilising the status quo. I’d rather be the outlaw in Gregg Araki’s The Living End (1992), crushing bigoted heads with a ghetto blaster, or Ari, the fallen-angel hero of Head On (Ana Kokkinos, 1998), than Saint Sebastian nailed to a tree.

For all its faults, the standout Hollywood film with homosexual content is William Friedkin’s Cruising. Originally slotted for Brian De Palma, this psycho-sexual thriller, starring a sexually ambivalent Al Pacino, contains some low-down home truths about the aphrodisiac dangers of public cruising, and along the way, offers a view into the New York S&M scene before the advent of the plague.

Following in the same genre, though not as impressive, is Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct, memorable mainly for Sharon Stone’s bisexual femme fatale, with a fetish for ice picks and leg crossing. Verhoeven was more successful in his homeland with the gothic male nightmare The Fourth Man (1983), which stars Jeroen Krabbe as an alcoholic homosexual writer who falls into the clutches of a spider woman. But, being the cock-driven man that he is, rather than escaping he stays on just so he can get into her hunky boyfriend’s pants — with eye-popping results.

For my money, the film that most effectively deals with homosexual desire on an artistic level is Jean Beaudin’s 1992 French-Canadian film, Being At Home with Claude. Adapted from a stage play, this 85 minute, black and white film is a romantic and moving illustration of Oscar Wilde’s maxim, ‘each man kills the thing he loves’. Beginning with an explosive opening sequence, the film focuses on why a hustler killed his lover while they were fucking. What follows is an anguished dialogue between the outlaw and a mystified police inspector who is trying to find a motive. The performances by the two leads are brilliant; Beaudin’s direction superb and every film student should study the opening sequence.

Tellingly, when this devastating film was released, the straight press looked on it favourably, while gays were generally negative. I was even called ‘deranged’ by an irate gay reader when I wrote in praise of the film. But time has proven me right. While Beaudin’s film is steadily gaining in reputation, Ang Lee’s lightheaded The Wedding Banquet (1993) has gone out with the tide.

The true face of sex is danger and perversion. That’s why I love Suite 16 (1995), directed by the Dutch director, Dominique Deruddere. This sleazy thriller zeroes in on a compelling series of psychological and sexual power games played by a crippled older man and a young hustler who falls under his spell. An extra element of suspense is added by the inclusion of a young woman who completes the deadly triangle. As one reviewer said at the time, this film ‘has you thinking about things you shouldn’t.’ Apart from David Cronenberg’s Crash (1996), Suite 16 still rates the highest for its mutually beneficial effects on my brain and loins. And I mustn’t forget to mention Bruce LaBruce’s gleefully perverted Hustler White (1996), starring the Joe Dallesandro of the ’90s, Tony Ward. This delightfully grungey film is what porn would be like if there were more auteurs working in the field instead of the current deadheads.

When you cast your net wide you begin to find a rich source of cinematic gems that deal with the subject of homosexuality from within a much wider social and ethical context. Not surprisingly, earthy yet refined European cinema has always had the edge over English-speaking countries.

In this regard, the aristocratic Italian filmmaker Luchino Visconti’s Conversation Piece (1974), as a visually rich masterpiece about the nature of death and beauty, is more resonant than his own more famous Death In Venice (1971). Another Visconti to look out for is the last gasp in neo-realism, Rocco and His Brothers (1960), starring a knockout Alain Delon. This is a lyrical melodrama to be relished, not least because of its unashamed celebration of the masculine physique in the boxing arena.

Jean Cocteau created some of the most sublime and mysterious films ever made. Beauty and The Beast (1948) and Orphee (1952) are virtually love songs for Jean Marais, Cocteau’s lover. And while we’re focussing on Gallic cinema we should mention Andre Techine’s Wild Reeds (1994) — a coming-of-age delicacy to savour.

From his earlier erratic post-punk films to his later works in the ’90s, no praise is high enough for Spain’s Pedro Almodovar — an openly gay filmmaker who has managed to break out of the gay ghetto and create films that are accessible to all moviegoers. Having said that, I’m not a fan of the ‘mature’ Almodovar who keeps pumping out retentive refinements like All About My Mother (1999). However, Matador’(1985) and his seventh feature, the joyous Law Of Desire (1987), have a special place in my cinephilic heart.

Nor should we forget the legacy of independently produced films left behind by England’s great Derek Jarman. This is a true renaissance man whose artistry has not been fully comprehended or appreciated. From the salacious audacity of Sebastiane (1976), to the paralysing grief of Blue (1993), the only true work of art to come out of the AIDS epidemic, is almost two decades of incredible achievement.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but in putting these few films before you I hope to have demonstrated that in the reckless, wayward manner they approach the vagaries of human desire, they also arrive at an intrinsic combination of truths that ‘gay filmmakers’ will not achieve until they wake up to the fact that reality is made up of organic, unified wholes that are greater than the simple sum of their parts.

About The Author

Dmetri Kakmi is an essayist and a critic. He works for Penguin Books Australia as an editor.