Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Some thoughts on the craze of Queer performances

I have decided to post this in reaction to J.'s comment on the proliferation of Queer performances by heterosexual actors (who all seem to either have just had kids - Cillian Murphy and Heath Ledger - or talk about them incessantly - Phillip Seymore Hoffman - as a kind of proof of heterosexuality). It is a safer way to represent homosexuals and while actuall homos will never actually live up to their responsibility (Nathan Lane, Tom Cruise, Matthew McConauhey), we, as a general public, are comforted in knowing that the homosexuals we watch on screen are meerly simulacras those who we can recognize as being heterosexual celebrities. This is an excerpt from my tome on homosexual cinema, and as I am hesitant to actually accept these recent films to the cannon of Queer cinema propper (where in actuality, only Capote and Brokeback Mountain present homosexual protagonists - lest we not forget that trannies are not homos). This was written before these movies and was more a reaction to the horrific queer film Eating Out, but I think it is pertinent regarding all of the "performances of the year," are expressly heterosexual actors playing homo roles. Also, if you like this, YOU CAN PURCHASE THE ENTIRE PUBLICATION AT SKYLIGHT BOOKS IN LOS FELIZ FOR A MINIMAL $4!

Learning to love the Cage

In order to follow the evolution of the contemporary Queer cinema, it is imperative to understand the three consequential cultural events that culminated in the nineties. The AIDS epidemic exacted its devastating effect on the Queer population, resulting in 70,000 deaths in 1990 and 115,000 cases. It would eventually claim 350,000 lives by the close of the decade. The cultural impact this singular event produced left its mark on every aspect of the arts. The New Queer Cinema was, in many ways, a direct reaction to the epidemic. Embodied by a similar sense of devastation, the movement was also informed by the attitude that embodied the fervent political attitudes of Queer activist groups like ACT UP. The narrative scenarios were frequently daunting, but the rebellious stance taken by these films hinted at a possible transcendence of the harsh world that they so frequently depicted. In this sense, these films, which are so frequently criticized as fatalistic, present a productive kind of optimism. It is only from the situations at hand that these protagonists suffer. If one were to use these documents as a call for social change, a more realistic (and informed) version of contemporary Queer cinema's utopian (or just simplified) ideals may have been possible.

Perhaps the New Queer Cinema's greatest achievement was its visibility. The Living End, for instance, was made for a meager $22,000 but ultimately grossed nearly $700,000. Jennifer Livingston's Paris Is Burning raked in a remarkable 3.7 million dollars, a sum hitherto unheard of, particularly for a film depicting Harlem drag balls and the ethnographic "other" that frequented them. The new movement had a voice, and one that was being heard. One of the most receptive ears to this impressive oeuvre was Hollywood, which rode in on the coattails of the New Queer Cinema's successes. In 1996, MGM released the Birdcage, a remake of the seventies French comedy La Cage au Folles (the Poof Cage). Starring Robin Williams and Gene Hackman, the film grossed 124 million dollars. It's interesting to consider just what drove people all across America to see The Birdcage. One would imagine the greatest factor is, of course, Robin Williams. "See Robin Williams play gay!" as if it were the new brand of Minstrel show. It is safe. Robin Williams is not gay in actuality, but he pretends to be so the general public, who was hitherto disassociated, can understand this "new lifestyle" without actually having to engage in it - even look at it. Robin Williams gives a light performance to alleviate the pressure of experiencing a new and laden reality. Now, it is not my intent to suggest that no one had ever seen a homosexual before The Birdcage came out (so to speak), but the film is extremely influential, perhaps Hollywood's first mainstream example of the normalized homosexual protagonist that is not meant as an act of judgment (Cruising) or martyrdom (Philadelphia). The film's other act towards integrating or banalizing the homosexual - which is not original to the Hollywood film, is significant given the choice of a film to remake - was to establish him functioning within the heterosexual family structure. Robin Williams and Nathan Lane live together, but Robin Williams - undoubtedly heterosexual Robin Williams - is also a father, with a female ex-lover in the wings. So, Williams' homosexuality is legitimized by his ability to work within this "family" structure, whereas Nathan Lane, who is Williams' lover and the star of the Cabaret they own together, is the accursed other or, as he claims at one point, "I could be the uncle." Hollywood, in depicting the homosexual for mainstream consumption, established him as partaking in a heteronormative lifestyle. If he does not confine to these guidelines, he is left as "the uncle," and removed from the familial structure - which is, of course, the worst thing one could possibly be. In what is the most deplorable role of The Birdcage, the butler, Agador Spartacus, is cast as the ethnographic other. Existing solely for comic relief, the black servant delivers nothing but slapstick physical comedy. He truly is the minstrel show, containing no depth and bearing none of the grace that the figures in Livingston's documentary thrive on.

In 1997, the first crop of the homosexual themed Hollywood films popped up in multiplexes across the country. Paramount released Kiss Me Guido and In & Out with big name stars like Kevin Kline, Joan Cusack and Matt Dillon. This was later followed by films of lesser box office draw: The Object of My Affection and The Next Best Thing, both of which depict the homosexual as a kind of desperate alternative to a paternal figure. In both, an eccentric urbanite falls for her gay best friend and attempts to raise her baby with them. In the case of both films, the female protagonist finally realizes that the Homosexual is no excuse for a father, as he cannot service her as a traditional father would nor can he provide a "real" example of masculinity for her son. The result, then, is a cold hearted abandon of the "poor lonely homosexual" for a traditionally masculine figure. A five-years-later epilogue is tied onto The Object of My Affection. In it, everything is hunky dory. All of the nasty things that were said are forgotten, and the homosexual has taken his place as the "uncle." In The Next Best Thing, we do not even get the reward of seeing the alleged happy ending. It is only depicted on title cards. The homosexual gives up his child to the mother's new boyfriend. He gets to see the child every once in a while. The mother and her boyfriend are still the homosexual's best friends.

The Hollywood Homosexual film negated any need for independent Queer cinema. With Big Brother making films with budgets in the millions, the independent's voice became quaint and unnecessary. The New Queer Cinema was already fading by the time Hollywood took over, and these big budget productions nailed the lid on its coffin. When the Hollywood version of the homosexual proved economically iffy a few years later, the issue was dropped from the table. Instead, he was relegated to the role of quirky and desexualized best friend. A relatively stunned Queer community was then forced to pick up the pieces of a very confused Cinematic genre. Aware that the homosexual film was no way to make a profit, a Patty Hearst-like homosexual film industry somberly began going through the motions of their predecessors. With little to no budget, these filmmakers began emulating Hollywood's take on their community. They accepted the terms of the heteronormalized homosexual. And, as no Hollywood Homosexual film dared to present a homosexual love story, these new Queer filmmakers based their love stories on the structure of the heterosexual Hollywood film.

The wake of devastation that swept the Queer film industry after Hollywood's abandon can still be observed. As I have mentioned before, Queer films are played in theaters quite infrequently. Somewhat resentful of Hollywood's abandonment (but not such that the style of filmmaking is relinquished), Queer cinema began appropriating tactics of the film industry even more powerful than Hollywood: the Porn industry. Queer cinema resorted to "straight to DVD" releases. The hunk quotient was upped considerably, as the protagonist's physique on the box cover became more the selling point than the film itself. Even the Queer community began to acknowledge the shoddy quality of the films, showing up to Queer festivals to support brethren filmmakers, but scarcely attending a Queer film in theaters; renting a DVD, cover down, so as not to alert others to your questionable taste. Queer film occupied a new space in America. It became nothing but a guilty pleasure. The kind of thing one apologizes for as he is admitting liking it. To celebrate new works of queer cinema is not to praise them, but to justify them. Certain mediocre elements "required" in their construct need to be overlooked: bad acting, bad writing, loose plot structures... There are certain films that are NOT bad films, but that they exist within the cannon of contemporary Queer cinema which dictates the structural elements which they must abide by, the interesting aspects to the films are overshadowed by the mediocre filmic tropes of this cinema at large. Bad acting works for Hollywood because you are not going to see acting. You are going to see Julia Roberts or Ashton Kutcher. You are going to see a face, a persona. This approach does not work for contemporary Queer cinema because it lacks the star - with a backstory and set of acknowledged traits - which may function as an excuse for the poorer aspects of the film. This is a technique that Pornos have mastered. The recurring presence of certain porn stars who can do certain famous "tricks" with their bodies can be directly paralleled to Julia Roberts' smile or Jennifer Lopez's rump.

Even now, The Advocate's New New Queer Cinema looks to the genre film to revitalize its own sullied cinema. Like Frankenstein, it is resurfacing faces from the New Queer Cinema as a means by which to legitimize itself and to say "remember when..." Hellbent, a Queer horror film will be released this summer. But it is a campy horror film, where one is to laugh at the West Hollywood Halloween parade murders. Does this not sound like a frightening literalization of Leo Bersani's argument, posited in Homos? With de-emphasizing the importance of Queerness and abidance to the conventions of Horror (which, I would just like to add, is innate with slashings, decapitations, and dismemberings for entertainment's sake) "it accomplishes in its own way the principal aim of homophobia: the elimination of gays."


Blogger J said...

I appear to have opened the preverbial bag of worms on this one. After I posted my response to 'Narnia,' I realized that this year's holiday awards show is really no different than any other year. We've had our share of lesbo Oscar flicks in recent years (Hilary Swank and Chloe Sevigny in 'Boys Don't Cry,' Charlize Theron in 'Monster,' 'The Hours') and the whole transgender thing isn't new (remember when all your parents friends rushed to the theatre to see "The Crying Game?") [side note: I didn't mean to imply that "trannies are homos" but they still fall under that shamelessly politically-correct umbrellla of acronyms... LBGTQRSTLNE.... whatever].

There's always that comfort for John and Jane Film Goer that the homosexuals they see onscreen aren't REALLY gay. It sure makes it a lot easier to take knowing that Colin Farrell is fucking half of Hollywood's women even if he does kiss a few boys onscreen or that Julianne Moore and Toni Collette's lip-lock in 'The Hours' doesn't mean anything since they're both happily married. New Queer Cinema doesn't exist any more, just as the film noir genre doesn't either. We can see films that attempt, successfully or not, the spirit and style of those movements... but for all intensive purposes, they're dead. If "Eating Out" is the new "Poison," shoot me now.

11:07 PM  

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