By Alistair Mccartney
Let's face it: if you were queer, the cinema was not exactly the safest place for you to be for the better part of the 20th century. Whether you were up there being represented, suffocating in celluloid, or down there in the dark, munching on your popcorn while silently inhaling that representation, you were in risky territory.
The Hollywood vernacular offered little choice for their gay and lesbian charac-ters. Gayness was approached purely on the level of mimicry, and the results were not pretty-subtle identities were reduced to an alarmingly simple set of gestures, a mincing walk and a limp wrist. As the late Vito Russo in his seminal book and documentary "The Celluloid Closet" succinctly articulated: " Gays [on film] were either something to laugh at, something to pity, or something to fear.
How does one choose? One couldn't really, for it was merely the illusion of choice.
If movies were nothing more than "innocent entertainment", flying in one ear and out the other, this all may not have mattered. But cinema is anything but innocent, and as Russo pointed out, Hollywood took on a dual role, fancying itself not only as a pleasure machine but as a visual tool of enlightenment: " Hollywood, that great maker of myths, taught straight people what to think about gay people. And taught gay people what to think about themselves."
Whether you believe or reject the notion that there is a trickle effect between the silver screen and the material world (between the cinema's surface and the viewer's depth), whether you agree or disagree that people's actions in the "real world" are causally influenced by what they see at the flicks, it was unarguable that the repre-sentations themselves were a form of violence.
But slowly, beginning in the late 50's and early 60's, with the opening up of social mores and the fact that gays were getting behind the cameras, writing their own screenplays and documenting their own version of themselves, the closed and claustrophobic nature of these representations began to change. The result was a less voyeuristic cinema with more sympathetic images; less stereotypes, more di-verse and empathetic portrayals of queers for whom they really were: infinitely complex beings. The cinematic situation began to get better.
Or did it?
Reflecting on what the U.S in the last year of last century had to offer in regards to "gay cinema," I truly wonder if things haven't gotten worse. I could count the great gay American movies of 1999 on one hand (if there were any to count.) Now that's being unfair. Last year saw some fine efforts come out of North America. There was Kimberley Peirce's visually sharp and utterly sorrowful "Boys Don't Cry." But then it's problematic whether that was even an instance of gay cinema: transgender cultural activists complained of how lesbians projected their own life-stories onto a life that was not lesbian, appropriating Brandon Teena's specifically transgender tragedy. There was David Moreton's gutsy and sexy new wave coming of age saga "Edge of Seventeen", but really, how long can gay filmmakers keep on recycling the same theme of coming out, as if that was the only gay narrative worth filming? Charming and edgy as it was, it suffered from a homo market over-saturated in movies about 17 year olds losing their cherries and having their hearts broken. Where was Lisa Cholodenko (the director of the wonderfully cool and wry "High Art",) when I needed her?
Whatever happened to the brief bright flash and fad in the mid-80's that was "queer cinema?" Whatever became of the promise made by such directors as Gregg Araki, Tom Kalin, Todd Haynes, the promise of an aesthetically challenging cin-ema, a seductive and slippery visual aesthetic able to do justice to the seductive slipperiness of gay identity? If Araki is anything to go by, that promise got broken or more likely, it got forgotten. Through the 90's I felt like I could always rely on Araki's movies for a heavy dose of splendid perversity. But then he goes and ends the century not with a bang but with the wet whimper that was "Splendor", proving himself to be yet another of the legions of queer directors who made a pact with Satan (the studio) for an eternity of funding (on the condition that they make light-hearted light-weight screwball comedies.)
For Araki it didn't work, and no one saw his movie. For Jim Fall, the formula proved successful: gay men went to see his romantic "comedy" (I use the term loosely) "Trick" in droves. This movie created a "new" genre whose banal terms we'll now suffer under for the next 50 years no doubt-geek meets go-go boy; geek loses go-go boy; geek gets go-go boy back. Wow, what an innovation, what a story to live our lives by! Appallingly vapid, "Trick's" only redeeming feature was, as critic Ernest Hardy pointed out, actor J.P. Pitoc's exceedingly fine behind. This is O.K. if we're talking gay porn, but it's more of a problem if a feature film's narrative thrust rests solely on the curvy attributes of an actor's ass.
Holding up "Trick" as my primary piece of evidence, any way you look at it, this country's F.F.F (fag film factor) is in a sorry-ass state.
There is a blind spot at the heart of gay cinema, and it is of an (a)historical nature. For although the images of gays in film in this country did unarguably get more sophisticated, this didn't mean that the old craggy ones just went away, dissolving into the ether. No: these old ways of seeing queers stuck. We like to think that we shed our cultural history like a snake sheds its dead skin, but culture is not unfortu-nately equipped with that enviable talent. We bring the lead weight of our history with us. Every movie made in the 20th century that presented an offensive and ugly portrayal of gays and lesbians is with us in the 21st century, being rented from video stores, circulating in people's memories. As stated in "The Celluloid Closet", "These fleeting images left a lasting legacy." 1950 is closer to 2000 than you might think.
Witness the overwhelming proliferation of cliched, cardboard images of gays in current mainstream releases. "The Talented Mr. Ripley", for all its sheen and style, recycles the old "homosexuality as pathology" narrative. The big Oscar tip, and everyone's favorite "hip" movie of last year, "American Beauty" (directed by gay Sam Mendes) offered its gay viewers the grand choice of being either a cartoonish simulation of suburban hetero normalcy (more straight than the straights), or a nazi-patriarch on the outside/ sensitive gay on the inside, who when rejected must kill.
We are in a fragile moment where popular culture is particularly interested in gays, or more accurately, fixated on gays, equally terrified and titillated. There is a gay character everywhere you turn in movies and on the TV. But judging by the one-dimensionality of most of these figures, visual media seems not so interested in breathing life into gay characters as using and exploiting "gayness" as a cipher, a convenient screen onto which culture can project its secret desires and buried anxieties. Although dismantled some time ago, the censorious imperative of the in-famous Hollywood Production Code is still at play, manifested in the vast numbers of these poorly realized half-human gay characters we continue to see on the screen.
The current poverty of ideas and lack of interesting identities in gay cinema in this country makes me think that contemporary gay film-makers are ignorant of the staying power of these negative representations. I'm led to conclude that they are blind to the way images, long after they have been filmed, hook their claws into the psyche, nesting in the collective unconscious.
If gay stateside filmmakers continue to avert their gaze, they will go on uncon-sciously reproducing stereotypes. If they refuse to reflect on the dubious history of their medium, they will continue to craft a cinema that does not truly reflect its subjects. There is an eerie logic to this scenario: As Lesbian screenwriter Jan Ox-enberg declared in "The Celluloid Closet" "We're starved for images of ourselves." It makes sense then that we'd greedily consume any scraps we can get.
If the best gay cinema the U.S has to offer me this century is the visual equivalent of comfort food or as sexually enlightened as a Doris Day/ Rock Hudson comedy, I'll continue to look outside this country for my visual fix. To my mind, with a few exceptions already mentioned (Cholodenko, Araki, Haynes) the best gay cinema of the gay nineties came from elsewhere: "Happy Together" from Hong Kong's Wong Kar Wei; "Lola and Billy the Kid" from Turkish director Kutlug Ataman; "Head On" from Greek-Australian director Ana Kokkinos; "The Wild Reeds" from France's Andre Techine. All these films came from cultures that must contest their place on the international circuit, from cultures where it is impossible to live the lie that gay life is one long bubbly comedy. All are testament to the fact that the most invigorated aesthetics tend to come from a space of struggle. Gay filmmakers in this country have become complacent, fooled by the market economy's acceptance of gays, mistaking it for social acceptance. This smug complacency has bled over into their creative work, making for one fatigued, bland excuse for a gay cinema. Paradoxically, the only way they will be able to make the cinema a safer place for queers to be in the 21st Century is by taking great risks. If gay filmmakers do not begin to do so, by looking honestly with their eyes and focusing their cameras di-rectly onto the chaos AND beauty that comes with being gay in this America, they run the risk of creating a seeming oxymoron: a blind cinema.