Queer Cinema’s Degradation & Rebirth

Cinema, gay and straight alike, has been in a state of distress for some time. This isn’t to say that no good films are being put out now, but the actual worthwhile films have definitely decreased over the years. However, to understand the degradation of films, particularly queer cinema, it is important to understand the films that have stuck in our minds over the years. While the question of “what is it that makes a good queer-themed film?” is most certainly unanswerable, we can look to the past when queer-themed cinema was a more prevalent force in the world of film. Sadly, this is probably as far back as the 80s. While this niche film community still exists today it is not with the same force as in the 80s with films like Parting Glances. Parting Glances is an interesting film to start with particularly because of how its handling of sexuality and more importantly, the AIDS epidemic. While today it is better understood that HIV/AIDS is not merely a gay disease, in the 1980s it was most visibly affecting the gay community so it was important to Sherwood to get this message out about the deadly virus which, unfortunately, would claim his life only several years after the film’s release. However, on the more subtle but equally important topic of sexuality, Sherwood handles the film with a cool and collected manner. It was easily one of the first films to portray gay men as men who existed outside of the gay sub-culture. Certainly they were recognizably homosexual characters and lived up to some of the stereotypes that had been established in gay-themed films before them, but with Parting Glances, the characters of Michael, Robert, and Nick all existed as fully formed characters. While the films before had dealt with the fact that the subjects of the film were homosexual, they did little to overcome the preconceived notions of what homosexuality was. Other characters existed as figures in film that were formed solely by their sexuality, but Michael is a dimensional character that thinks and feels and is only influenced in a minor way by his sexuality. This worked to humanize homosexuals and to combat this idea that homosexuals were somehow uncharismatic and characterized by their intensely and graphic sexual drive and nothing else. Another point of interest in this film is the time of its release and the handling of its subject matter. This film was released during the AIDS epidemic, which saw a real sense of direction in queer-themed cinema. Nick’s status as an HIV-positive man is crucial to the success of this film and its importance in the timeline of the height of this film movement. While there were few films that dealt with the topic, those that did were drenched in a sense of melodrama and often seemed to take themselves too seriously. Sherwood never understates the importance and the seriousness of Nick’s status, but it’s more about the relationship between Michael and Robert and Michael and Nick than it is about the illness. This was significant in two ways. First and foremost, the disease was being talked about in film. In a time characterized by the paralyzing fear of the disease, film was an effective means to communicate because it had the power to reach such widespread audiences. Even a film, such as this independent picture, which wouldn’t have been as accessible to audiences all over the United States, were at least able to see that this was an issue worth talking about. Secondly, and this is an idea that cannot be expressed enough, is that Nick was never seen only as an AIDS victim. He was not defined by his disease which, given the death rate of people diagnosed with AIDS in the 80s, was inspiring. Typically, characters living with AIDS found purpose in their deaths. Directors and movie stars alike saw the possibility of educating people about the horrors of AIDS by appealing to their emotions. What leaves more of an emotional mark than the death of a beloved character? Filmmakers didn’t seem to be able to think of much else. However, Nick is never expressly given a death sentence in this film. While it is understood that, yes, he will die from this disease, depriving the audience of this visual strengthens Nick’s character. It helps us to realize him as the love of Michael’s life, which he is more importantly than he is a victim. This goal of humanizing the homosexual population and even trying to humanize the virus was a noble goal on Sherwood’s part. It embodies the purpose of queer-themed cinema in the 80s. Sadly, soon after, queer filmmakers and queer-themed cinema to lose sight of this goal.
Perhaps most important filmmakers, such as Sherwood himself, were among the ones whose lives were destroyed by the AIDS virus or maybe, the sense of urgency was lost over the time. Gays had politicized in the 80s, they had made themselves known individuals, it seemed that what was done had been done. Even as the precautions against AIDS began to be taken and the disease began to fade from the headlines, it was almost as if a sense of purpose was lost in the gay community. Gay filmmaking has continued since then, but it has by and large remained a fringe community in the world of film. Since then, the topic of homosexuality has become less taboo in some senses and been introduced into mainstream film in a way that oddly mirrors its first establishment. In the introduction of the homosexual into mainstream cinema, the homosexual character first existed in the role of a supporting character, primarily in films geared towards a female audience. Although homosexuality itself was out of the closet, so to speak, the “masculine” world was far from ready to deal with homosexual characters. More often than not, the gay character plays the best friend to the lead female in “chick flicks”. What’s perhaps most troubling is that the “supporting gay” very rarely exists in a role outside of comedic relief and often serves to perpetuate gay stereotypes that, over the years, many have worked to fight against. Very rarely, if ever, is the gay character ever in direct relation with any male characters in the film, unless of course, they are gay as well. This does little to assert the masculinity of gay men and leads to the creation of supporting gay characters that are exaggerated reflections of gay stereotypes, such as the character of Damian in Mean Girls. Damian embodies the understanding of homosexuality in mainstream cinema. The only purpose of the character was to fulfill a comedic role that could have easily been filled by a woman. He’s not even understood as a sexual being. He expresses no interest in any people in the film, male or female, so while it is never seen that he is homosexual, he is understood as such through his mannerisms and what other people say about him more than an actual sexual interest. It’s interesting to me that in the film’s conclusion, it was viewed as necessary that Janis Ian, the girl who everyone thought to be a lesbian, had to be given a male love interest, quickly and in perhaps the last 15 minutes, with no real detailing of the relationship, but just so it is understood that all those malicious rumors people spread about her being a lesbian were untrue. Meanwhile, the gay is left without even a potential love interest. The concept of actually sexualizing this character is left completely unexplored so as not to ruffle any feathers and keep audiences happy. Although this is a common trait of chick flicks, even now, gays have gradually moved out of the supporting role character into the world of drama.
Their existence in the world of comedy took place before the supporting role, but in a very different manner. The gay lead had been established much earlier on in cinema with films like La Cage Aux Folles, but was re-defined when The Birdcage, its American counterpart, took American cinemas by storm. It featured all of the gay stereotypes that Americans had come to know, but in some ways turned it on its head. It was an actual movie that, yes, featured unrealistic homosexual characters, but it was a movie with heart. The Birdcage is often credited with re-revolutionizing mainstream gay cinema in America, but another film that is an important film in re-defining homosexuality in American cinema was In & Out. What was most interesting in this film was the exploration of how sexuality is viewed in American culture. Where The Birdcage got most of its laughs from its gay characters and the stereotypical mannerisms of them, In & Out derived an equal amount of its laughs from both sides of the fence. In some ways, it criticized the American public for its condemnation of homosexuality and people would allow it to alter their perceptions of people they had gotten along with before coming out. However, this film was to be a widespread release so there was no way that studio executives would allow the film to end on a note such as Howard coming out and being completely unchanged except that he was openly gay now. This idea that Howard is the same man as he always was would have been too baffling for film audiences. People, as awful as it may sound, need there to be a clear division between gay and straight. That’s why the notion of a masculine homosexual is rarely realized on the screen and Howard is no exception. The film’s ending, which is perhaps its most memorable part, is a collective dance to The Village People’s “Macho Man”, the joke being, of course, that gay men can’t be macho. The idea of gay men being masculine figures is treated as laughable, at best. For all of the good that the film does in stating that homosexuality shouldn’t be treated any differently and having a homosexual lead, they do resort to the stereotypes for cheap laughs at times.
This is quite a different approach to the homosexual lead that was the focus of dramas in later films. There’s no real definable time that homosexual dramas came in to popularity, but one of the earliest instances is 1999’s Boys Don’t Cry, which earned Hilary Swank an Academy Award for her portrayal of Brandon Teena, a transgender teen. However, the main stigma that Hollywood and most of America has is with the concept of two men together in a serious and/or romantic manner. Unfortunately, the most well known example is that of Brokeback Mountain, which puts gay relationships in a less than favorable light. What both these films have in common is this perception of homosexuality or even the notion of “otherness” in defining one’s sexual identity, is something shameful and even punishable by death. While it cannot be ignored that each of these films expressly condemns the perpetrators of the crime, but the fact of the matter is that this takes place towards the end of the film. The majority of the films, particularly Brokeback Mountain, is defining the relationship and noting it for its irregularities. The notion of “homosexuals are no different than you or I” was thrown out when gays became the leads in dramatic films. They immediately became objects of shame. This was an idea that had been used in films before such as Victim or The Children’s Hour. As soon as a character faced the prospect of being gay or what society would do to him/her, they frequently killed themselves. However, Brokeback Mountain symbolized a change of sorts, although this change seems to have been equally as disturbing if not more so. Homosexual characters were no longer killing themselves, but homosexuals were being killed by others. There’s something to be said about the fact that homosexuals weren’t even viewed as strong enough to fight back, and that violence was being done to them as a testament to their own weakness. In some instances, this was done to put a face to the terrible discrimination that the GLBTQ community faced, but more often than not, this plan backfired and gays became objects of pity more than anything else. People saw that the idea of two men in love with one another could never end well and they felt bad rather than questioned their own values. For instance, in the 2004 election, one of the deciding factors was that Bush vehemently opposed gay marriage. This was an idea that people could get behind so they went with it. Less than a full year later, Brokeback Mountain was released. Here, you had a face to the issue and suddenly audiences were rushing to it. They became something to gawk at, particularly heterosexual audiences, to see two men engage in romantic behavior on the big screen and pride themselves on being better than the practically faceless villains they saw on the screen. Leads in these mainstream gay films served more purpose for heterosexual audiences than they did for the gay community. Gay filmgoers saw little to nothing recognizable in these characters that their heterosexual counterparts had such profound respect and compassion for. At least “compassion” is what most people labeled it as. The fact of the matter is that by this stage in Hollywood’s “age of understanding” the best way most studios knew how to humanize an idea like homosexual love was to make it something that audiences couldn’t altogether relate to, but rather, they could pity. In terms of understanding gay-themed films, mainstream audiences claimed an interest in it, but still, there was a lot of progress to be made in terms of the representation of homosexuals as equals and their love as a valid one.
In more recent years, this quest to humanize the gay community has evolved since films such as Brokeback Mountain. While there is still little to no sexualization of the gay community in films, the understanding of gay characters is quite different. They have since become characters in their own right existing, as many heterosexual characters have for years, outside of their sexual preference. These characters seem to face the uncharted territory of queer cinema. Parting Glances explored fully formed gay characters and modern films, such as RockNRolla or Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist, have been dealing more and more with characters that just happen to be gay. This theory of homosexuality as a secondary characteristic is a newer one and more common amongst those born during or after the initial gay rights movements of the 70s and 80s. It’s getting to the point in our film history that these younger types are becoming the filmmakers. Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist is an excellent example of what direction film seems to be heading in. Although Nick, the titular character, is not gay himself, he’s a member of a queercore band with several other guys. These characters, while supporting, are not reduced to the role of gossiping queens. They provide real support to the character of Nick and are an absolutely essential part of the progression of the film. More importantly, their homosexuality is not a major plot point. True, it provides for a couple of cheap laughs, but their masculinity is never undermined by their sexual orientation and the fact that they like members of the same sex isn’t constantly brought up, but rather, it’s handle in a quiet and tasteful manner. They are understood to be men first and, with the exception of one band member and his male love interest, the topic of sexuality is handle very respectfully and they are given the same common courtesy as their heterosexual counterparts. Although it sounds like such a minor victory, in the film’s conclusion, one of the gay characters gets in and wins a fight. From the time that queers were killing themselves and others were killing them, to have a gay man actually win a fight shows signs of progress. While this isn’t to say that violence is good or even justified, it shows strength in the gay community that has never really been portrayed before. It’s a minor win in the film that represents a win for the queer community in terms of its filmic representation.
Gays have just about always been in films and there are certainly signs that indicate no stopping any time soon. Although the progression of the portrayal of homosexuals and queer culture is spotty at best, there is a noticeable projection. From the role of comedic leads and supporting roles, to more dramatic roles, and the eventual evolution of cinema’s perception of sexuality, there have a number of roles that placed homosexuals in the lime light. Although its difficult to say if the negative has outweighed the positive, it’s clear that the visibility of homosexuality has increased over the years and the attention being paid to the representation of queer culture is increasing as well. While work has been done, it’s alarmingly evident that there’s still much more work than needs to be done. It’s difficult to say just where queer filmmakers and queer themed film will take us, but it’s clear that what lies ahead, in the characters that exist outside of the confines of stereotypes, is uncharted territory.

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