Queer Representation Through the Queer Film Aesthetic

Film is primarily recognized for its ability to draw its audience in with what they see or what the filmmaker chooses to show them. Where novels give voice to their characters through the written prose, film has been forced to supply the same characteristics of storytelling through an entirely visual medium. The settings of the characters and the specific locations of where events unfold are often viewed as representative of the character’s internalized feelings and emotions. In many instances the necessity to be predominantly visual can lead to stock characters with a very forced feel. Nevertheless, it cannot be ignored that there are films that due to their script, their direction, and their actors, can create a set of realistic characters that engage the audience’s other senses; characters that affect film-goers in a much deeper sense than the purely visual. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been unfortunate enough to be forced to watch films that have, through no fault but the director’s, been reduced to a sort of skin-deep beauty, while lucky enough to see films that brought real life to their characters.
As gays sought visibility in earlier years, their struggle was far from over as evidenced in some of the films. There are a great many factors that play into this, but in my mind, one of the most harmful movements in queer cinema is that of the Avant Garde work of such directors as Paul Morrissey. While well intentioned, I’m sure, Morrissey, and in particular his film Flesh, does little to advance the representation of homosexuality in a World that was being forced to recognize these fringe sub-cultures. I understand that any exposure at this point in time could be construed as a step in the right direction; my main beef with Flesh is that it works so hard to avoid any definition of sexuality. While most of the characters, in modern times at least, would be labeled as bisexual, any reference to an explicit definition of sexual orientation is, at the most, a passing one. The article “Flaming Closets” does an adequate job of stating what I took away from Flesh, which was the idea of “Both subhuman and superhuman” (286). This can be seen in the protagonist, Joe, who, it would appear, views his vague interpretation of his own sexuality as crucial to surviving. The portrayal of Joe is by no means defamatory, but the concept of sexuality as a non-descript choice of action seems to show a complete disregard and lack of respect for the sexual community, namely bisexuals, that they are attempting to portray. By the end of the film, all I felt I could really take away from the film was the physical beauty of Joe D’Alessandro. I suppose Morrissey’s appreciation of the male and female form themselves is a celebration of sexuality, but he lacks any real connection to the ideas of what exactly sexuality is, producing a rather stale, if not physical stunning, portrayal of the life of a hustler in 1968 New York.
Fox and His Friends, on the other hand is quite a different story. While it seems slow to begin, the characters and the lives of his characters are brought to fruition by director, Rainer Werner Fassbinder. It is his unlikely protagonist, Franz “Fox” Bieberkopf, that is perhaps the most layered character that we’ve seen in this class so far. This is not to discredit the other films we’ve watched, but Fox’s story is one of the few examples of truly honest queer cinema. In most of the films we’ve seen, there is this blanket concept of this sense of otherness, that the homosexual is an outsider in a predominantly heterosexual world. In Fox and His Friends the idea that Fox is an outsider is painfully clear, but he is an outsider in the homosexual community rather than being rejected by heterosexual men and women alike. In fact, the person who is one of the kinder and gentler presences in his life is his sister. Although her sexuality is never disclosed based off of her drunken behavior at the party, thrown by Fox and Eugen, it is safe to say that she is heterosexual. Although their relationship can easily be explained by the inescapable bond of family, nevertheless it remains rare to see Fox ostracized from the homosexual community, rather than the heterosexual society, as seen in so many other movies. This leads me to my next point that Fassbinder focused on the relationships between humans, first and foremost. That they were gay people in the film seems to be of little consequence to him. Although he does seem to be saying something very explicitly about the homosexual class system, it’s interesting to see what that says about the director himself. When accused of producing a “homophobic” film about a real-life child molester Fassbinder simply said “But this is the truth…” In a day and age where homosexuals were struggling to be simply seen, no less in a positive light, Fassbinder simply told the truth, and at times, the truth can be quite an ugly reality. The heartbreaking realism of Eugen’s exploitation of Fox is, quite simply, one of the most painful things to watch. Although this film did little to progress the positive representation of homosexuals in the media, its unflinching portrayal of the cruelty of sexual politics is something absolutely timeless. Fassbinder’s own brand of sexual politics is also evidenced in this film. “If his work displays a deep understanding of the bitter power struggles of those apparently in love it is because he practiced those cruel games himself…” This statement of Fassbinder’s own shortcomings does something for my interpretation of Fox and His Friends. To say that I respect his willingness to invest so much of himself in his own work would be a gross understatement. Fassbinder bared a part of himself in creating both the characters of Fox and Eugen. He gave faces and emotions to all the things he despised in himself, but managed to craft a heartbreaking and unsettling account of gay society. It is with absolutely no reservation that I say Fassbinder was one of the most intimate filmmakers that I’ve had the pleasure to watch in this class.
While Flesh dealt with physical beauty and Fox and His Friends dealt with the ugly reality of gay society, Outrageous! managed to balance itself between these two extremes. The film handles some very deep-seeded issues surrounding homosexuality as well as mental illness, but yet it manages to keep its lighthearted tone throughout most of the movie. While the characters of the film are predominantly stereotypes, at least when the audience is first introduced to them, Richard Benner explores the emotional connection between his two main characters. He establishes both Robin and Liza through some of their actions, but more through their reactions and the consequences of their choices. What is perhaps most commendable about the film is that it established Robin as a fully formed character and, in the end, a hero to Liza. Once again, most films up until this point had established a sense of shame surrounding their homosexual characters, which might be one way to describe Robin in the beginning, but by the end of the film, there is no doubt in the viewer’s mind that Robin is a strong and confident homosexual man. Robin’s fear to perform is, in an odd way, his shame, or perhaps, his insecurity. Through the help of Liza, he overcomes this fear and realizes what is required of him to be a happy and healthy man. By the end of Outrageous! Robin is not only an independent man in his own right, but he realizes that he can be an inspiration to others. He saw how Liza came through for him and does the same for her after she loses her child. Outrageous! Was, undoubtedly for me, one of the more difficult films to relate to; however, I had a great respect for its message and its portrayal of the confident and proud gay man.
Although all of these films brought a different aspect of homosexual life to the screen, the differences between them all is quite clear. Flesh capitalized on the appreciation of the human form, both male and female. While this message is somewhat distorted under Morrissey’s direction, it is clearly a stepping-stone in this revolutionary stage of queer cinema. As I previously stated, Fox and His Friends brought to the screen a painful realism that forced gay viewers to acknowledge the ugliness of the gay class system. Finally, Outrageous! represents an incredible development as Benner establishes that gays can be healthy figures and heroes in their own right. Each one of these films is a testament to the advancement of society’s understanding of what it means to be homosexual. While there is still much progress to be made, we wouldn’t be where we are today without some of these lesser known, but powerful films


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