You may emerge from Les Miserables feeling almost as battered and bruised as its characters: Tom Hooper’s adaptation of the wildly popular stage musical runs just under three hours and feels closer to four. So many stops are pulled out—each number trying to out-tear-jerk the last—that by the time the two-hour mark rolled around both my attention and my sympathies had begun to flag. That said, this is probably the best mounting of this material one can imagine, and fans of the stage version will no doubt be satisfied. An unapologetically big, un-subtle, high-pitched behemoth of a show, Les Mis requires as excessive and bombastic a treatment as it’s been given here. With its frenetic camerawork and overwrought performances, it’s more than a little vulgar, but what other approach would be suitable for this material? Les Miserables doesn’t have the subtle embroidery of something by Sondheim; it calls for big, thick strokes, and Hooper and his cast lay them on well (though I’m still not convinced that Hooper knows what to do with his camera, which is rarely in the right place).
Finally—a mumblecore movie that seems to be aware of how insufferable its characters are! J.R. (Carlen Altman), the figure (one hesitates to call her a heroine) at the center of Alex Ross Perry’s The Color Wheel, is passive-aggressive, needy, willfully awkward, borderline hostile in her quirkiness. She’s the reverse image of the Manic Pixie type that has become such a cliché in movies about young people, or, rather, she’s its logical extension, the Manic Pixie as monster. In a strange twist, J.R.’s monstrosity makes her far more tolerable and worthy of our compassion than, say, Natalie Portman in Garden State. She’s a curious, off-putting character, and she sets this strange little film on edge from the beginning.
The infamous “Central Park jogger” case and the five young black and Latino men who became its scapegoats are the subject of Ken Burns’ incisive and powerful new documentary The Central Park Five, co-directed by Burns' daughter Sarah and son-in-law David McMahon. Most viewers will know Ken Burns’ acclaimed small-screen work: his epic, multi-part documentaries on the American Civil War, baseball, jazz, and the U. S. national parks, all shot for PBS, have proven hugely popular both inside and outside of the classroom. Here, Burns and his collaborators turn their attentions to a somewhat smaller but no less important chapter of American history. The story unfolds largely from the points of view of the five teenage boys who, in the spring of 1989, were coerced by officials into taking the blame for the rape and battery of Trisha Meili, a young white woman attacked while jogging in Central Park. Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise, all of whom were recently released from prison after the real perpetrator came forward and confessed, recount their ordeal with a devastating emotional honesty (the fifth of the men, Antron McCray, is heard but not shown on-camera).
It’s more or less a given that gay pornography makes sex between men its business—but gay pornography’s attitude toward the concept of homosexuality itself is something far more vexed. One need only survey the vast pool of gay pornography that advertises straight or gay-for-pay models to see that many pornographers have, whether effectively or not, attempted to write homosexuality out of gay porn altogether. (Needless to say, a lot of hands have been wrung over this, with many claiming that the fetishization of straight men in gay porn breeds self-loathing among gay male viewers.) Part of the issue here seems to be that the move away from narrative pornography in the digital age (individual scenes have replaced narrative feature films, a shift that suggests a return to pornography’s origins in silent, single-scene stag reels and loops) has meant that gay porn films are less likely to structure themselves around the narrative tropes of homosexuality, such as closetedness, sexual initiation, coming out, etc. Amateur porn sites no doubt trade in their own narratives of gay sex as experiment: “this is my first time” has itself become a cliché of straight-guy porn. Even so, gone seem to be the days when (some, not all) gay pornography showed a certain investment in making itself a platform from which to speak, however clumsily, about the experiences, whether lived or imagined, of the gay men likely to be consuming it.
So I was inspired to check out Solicitor (dir. Jim Steel, 1994), which might be classified as a pornographic coming-out film. In its own fumbling, almost quaint way, Solicitor uses a conventional coming-out narrative as a jumping-off point from which to stage its scenes of sexual fantasy. Solicitor manages to capitalize both on straight-guy/closet fantasies and the fantasy of gay romance. Zak Spears plays a commitment-phobic attorney with a reputation for womanizing. His affect is one of arrogant condescension, later revealed to be nothing more than the exaggerated swagger of a closet case. He gets off on watching two cleaning men—both of whom are also presented as closeted men with girlfriends—having sex in his office, a scene that proves epiphanic (“If I didn’t know better, I’d swear you were going queer!” he tells his reflection in the mirror afterward).
Meanwhile, the office intern (Bo Summers), who nurses a crush on the boss, deflects his sexual energy toward a gay friend and a conveniently delivered courier. While Summers is apparently already out of the closet, albeit hapless and inhibited, Spears exhibits shame and contempt in his scene with a male stranger he picks up at the pier. The film makes it clear that Spears and Summers, fated for one another, must heal one another’s sexual hang-ups. Their long-awaited sex scene together is staged as romantically as any final clinch from the end of a Hollywood movie: it announces their formation as a couple (the final shot finds them cuddling in bed together).
My point is not to hail Solicitor as a ground-breaking or even particularly noteworthy pornographic film; it’s rather to remind us that we can look to pornography as readily as to any number of other film genres in order to see how narratives of homosexuality have proliferated. It’s a notion to which I hope to return in the new year, when I plan to look at a handful of films from pornography’s golden age. Stay tuned.
How to describe, let alone classify, Isaac Julien’s Looking for Langston (1989)? As a film that refuses, finally, to be placed, it is queer in its very uncategorizability. Forty minutes long, shot in soft, dreamy monochrome, it mixes archival footage of Langston Hughes (seen above) with impressionistic shots of black (and white) men’s bodies in various states of erotic languor—in bed, in a field, on a dance floor somewhere out of time—while lines of poetry by Hughes and others (Essex Hemphill, Bruce Nugent) are heard in voice-over on the soundtrack. It exists somewhere between documentary, narrative, and experimental film; while, on one level, it does the work of historically recovering the homoerotic power of Hughes’ writing and the queer energy of the Harlem Renaissance more generally, it’s not a film invested in boiling its subject down to facts, or even a clear political agenda. Its aim seems rather to bring together a number of historical and theoretical subjects—blackness, queerness, poetry, sex, music, death—and to meditate on them poetically, in the spirit of Hughes’ own work.
Looking for Langston represents a split within the New Queer Cinema movement away from a realism grounded in the rhythms of the lived experience of late twentieth-century urban intellectual queers toward more rarefied, abstract, even academic subject matter. Where the films of Rose Troche or Bill Sherwood make an effort to convey some sense, however stylized or simplified, of what it was like to be a part of a queer urban subculture in the ’80s and ’90s, Isaac Julien’s film concerns itself with something far more amorphous—what Raymond Williams might call a structure of feeling, a constellation of historical, cultural and psychological factors that registers at the level of affect. In other words, Looking for Langston ultimately doesn’t tell us “what it was like” to be a gay man during the Harlem Renaissance, or any other time and place—in fact, it doesn’t tell us anything; it suggests, imagines, dreams about queerness and blackness, and about the expression of that queerness and that blackness through poetry, dance, and jazz. It’s a fantasia on the themes of homosexuality and race in the same way that Todd Haynes’ Poison (1991), another classic of New Queer Cinema, is a fantasia on the themes of homosexuality, persecution, contamination, monstrosity. Stylistically, Looking for Langston belongs to the tradition of surrealism and the avant-garde, even as it mixes references to films like Cocteau’s Orpheus (see below) with popular influences like jazz. These New Queer films put the emphasis on “queer”: not content to be conventional (i.e., straight-minded) films tricked out with gay and lesbian accents, they insist on a queerness that refuses to be incorporated into or even fully understood by members of the cultural mainstream.
Judith Halberstam writes that, in addition to functioning as a lesbian romance, Go Fish (dir. Rose Troche, 1994) concerns itself with acts of “butch self-fashioning” such as the transformation of dowdy, hippieish Ely (V. S. Brodie, pictured right) into a masculinized fashion plate—she trades in her long hair and ’70s clothes for a buzz cut and men’s shirts with suspenders, attracting a new girlfriend (played by co-screenwriter Guinevere Turner) and putting an end to her sexual dry spell in the process. Go Fish is finely attuned to the politics of queer style, in particular to the ways in which queer women use such seemingly innocuous markers of personal appearance (hairstyles, clothes, accessories, makeup) as sites of self-expression, and how these markers are read and interpreted by other members of their community (Ely’s radical changes in haircut and clothing do not go unremarked-upon by the other women who make up her social circle). Ely’s love interest Max (Turner) similarly undergoes a transformation, albeit a fantastical one, into a hyper-feminine seductress, complete with heavy make-up and lingerie, in an alternate version of her seduction of Ely, imagined by a mutual friend (seen above).
Bill Sherwood’s Parting Glances (1986) strikes me as not so much a charming and spirited gay love story (though it is that, too) as a portrait of what we might call the gay male scene—which is to say that, in its panoramic taking-in of the punks, queens, dykes, twinks, hipsters, jet-setters, muscle gods, art fags, and straight hangers-on that make up Sherwood’s version of gay New York in the mid-80s, a Proustian enterprise with inflections of Robert Altman, it is less invested in appropriating the narrative conventions of a marriage plot (ultimately pre-occupied with the question who will end up with whom?) than in conveying a sense of a particular social environment in which a vast array of bodies mingle, brush up against one another, advance, retreat. Parting Glances is almost a Linnean classification of gay male body types as they correspond to gay male social types: the rounded, pink body of the soft-spoken, sharp-tongued, sexually undesirable Edith Piaf queen; the fashionable, well-toned but not over-muscular, slightly smug, slightly banal body of the gay urban professional, compared bitchily by one of his acquaintances to that of a Ken doll; the pretty body of the puppyish, gold-digging college freshman, who moves confidently through crowds as if protected within the invisible bubble of his own sexual precocity; the sallow, wiry body of the punk rocker, whose sallowness and wiriness may not, in fact, be the visual evidence of his impending death from AIDS but rather the sign of his willful refusal to fall in line with the gay male body fascists who would appear to be warding off infection in their very obsession with their own musculature; and, finally, the non-descript, overgrown-teenager’s body of the Jewish intellectual—the image of the gay man as dork. In encouraging, even requiring us to read, understand, and classify these bodies—to cruise them, look them up and down, eat them up with our eyes, take up some and discard others—Parting Glances makes gay men of all of those who watch it.
The homosexuals in the text: Helen Shaver as Vivian Bell and Patricia Charbonneau as Cay Rivvers in "Desert Hearts" (1985)
Desert Hearts (dir. Donna Deitch, 1985) has been accorded something of a place of honor in lesbian cinema as a sensitive, romantic coming-out story, in which buttoned-down Vivian Bell (Helen Shaver, pictured, right) finds herself falling helplessly in love with the free-spirited Cay (Patricia Charbonneau, left) while in Reno to get a quick divorce. The Southwestern milieu, the country music, the figure of the sexually empowered woman…these have become standard conventions of the post-Stonewall lesbian drama, and Desert Hearts can be credited—or blamed, as the case may be—as the surprise indie hit that launched a thousand sub-par rip-offs, ex. Boys on the Side (1995), Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1994), or the gay male variation Big Eden (2000).
Cruising (dir. William Friedkin) occupies a particularly contentious place in the history of homosexuality onscreen. Released in 1980, it depicts NYC’s gay bar scene as a Dantean underworld into which an undercover cop (played by Al Pacino) must descend in order to catch a killer preying on gay men. The film was heavily protested during production as well as after its release by gay activist groups who objected to the associations of gay male culture with violent death as well as to what they felt was an exploitative use of s/m imagery to strike horror and fear in the hearts of straight audience members. Gay characters like Stuart Richards (pictured above) adhere to familiar cultural stereotypes: he’s a student at Columbia researching the roots of the musical theater tradition, and his murderous impulses (as well as his sexual fetishes) are explained as being rooted in latent daddy issues. In Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s documentary The Celluloid Closet (1996), the Cruising protests become a symbol of a turning point in gay cultural history, something of a “we’re not gonna take it” moment; we see footage of activists marching to the chant “Stop the movie Cruising!” After which point, according to The Celluloid Closet’s progress narrative, such bad, straight-authored representations of gay people are replaced by good, gay-authored representations in films like Desert Hearts and Parting Glances (on the subject of which, stay tuned).
Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike, set within the world of Tampa’s clubs, beach bars and strip joints, would pair nicely with his 2009 The Girlfriend Experience, about a high-class female escort based in New York City. Like that film, Magic Mike is a clever and somewhat wry exposé of the material circumstances that underwrite the selling of sexual fantasies. Both films are about sex work, with a heavy emphasis on work—they’re fundamentally films about money, and about the difficulty in separating one’s jobs from one’s personal relationships, especially when both the jobs and the relationships involve a lot of hands-on time with members of the opposite sex.
Earlier this week, Rachel Weisz was named Best Actress of the year by the New York Film Critics’ Circle for her performance in Terence Davies’ The Deep Blue Sea. Weisz is one of our most talented working actresses; I first sat up and took notice of her in Neil LaBute’s The Shape of Things (2003), and two years later I was similarly impressed with her turn in The Constant Gardener, for which she won an Oscar. She’s so good in The Deep Blue Sea that she makes you wish the movie were better at framing her performance. As Hester Collyer, a fallen woman whose pursuit of romantic passion very nearly brings about her destruction, she exudes a kind of nervous desperation—she wants something that no one in the film can give her, neither her well-meaning, prosperous husband, for whom she feels affection but no love, nor her lover, a self-absorbed WWII veteran who fails to reciprocate the intensity of her devotion to him.
“We’re all capable of that dark moment, if we ever get angry enough.” This unpleasant truth is spoken not by a hard-boiled criminal but by a sweet, soft-spoken woman of a certain age, a resident of Carthage, Texas, where Richard Linklater’s Bernie is set. It’s an affectionate yet deceptively cynical vision of small-town America, based on an actual murder case in which mild-mannered funeral director Bernie Tiede (played by Jack Black) impulsively shot his elderly companion Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) to death in her home, then hid the body for months in a freezer. The news comes as a shock to the residents of Carthage—a town populated almost entirely by old people, as it’s represented here—in whose eyes Bernie was a beloved, if somewhat eccentric, member of the community. Meanwhile, the district attorney (Matthew McConaughey) conspires to move Bernie’s trial to a neighboring town in an attempt to ensure his conviction, his fear being that Bernie is so well-liked by his fellow Carthaginians that it would be impossible to find anyone impartial enough to serve on the jury.
When I was growing up in the early 1990s my dad subscribed to the Movies Unlimited catalog, which I regularly perused; I usually stuck to the “Horror” section, but occasionally I would leaf through the rest of the book, where I eventually came upon a group of videos listed under the heading “Gay Interest,” one of which was Derek Jarman’s Sebastiane (1976). The capsule description of the film was accompanied by a thumbnail image of the video box cover (or maybe a version of the poster?) which showed the title character, more or less nude but in shadow and in profile, his hands bound over his head, his torso pierced with arrows. I had never even heard of St. Sebastian at the time, let alone Derek Jarman, but the image made an indelible impression on me; I never forgot it.
Andy Milligan’s Fleshpot on 42nd Street (1973) is a great example of how much fun trash cinema can be. Its plot hangs on the flimsiest and yet most reliable of threads—a girl, alone in the city and in need of money, resorts to turning tricks in order to make ends meet—and yet it’s got such a loose, grimy, homemade feel that it’s almost charming (it’s not a mean-spirited, ugly exploitation film like, say, Vidal Raski’s The Sinful Dwarf ). Milligan and his main actors have a warmth that you don’t always see in exploitation films; Deadly Weapons (dir. Doris Wishman, 1974) is another example of an exploitation film that feels downright cruel by contrast. In Fleshpot, there’s a solidarity not only between the freaks and the whores and the queens but also between the characters and the filmmakers. Like John Waters, Milligan never affects an air of superiority toward his subject matter or his characters. And so the drag queen Cherry Lane (Neil Flanagan) emerges as an affectionately drawn salt-of-the-earth type instead of a pathetic old hag.
Thirty-five years before Brokeback Mountain (dir. Ang Lee, 2005), there was Song of the Loon (dir. Andrew Herbert, 1970), a gay romance of the North American frontier that has since become something of a cult item. It claims to be set in the late nineteenth century, but many of the film’s conflicts and situations reflect those relevant to the experience of gay men circa 1970 rather than 1870. In staging its fantasy of gay love against the backdrop of the nineteenth-century frontier, Song of the Loon suggests a profound discomfort with twentieth-century gay culture. Stories of the American frontier, epitomized by the Hollywood Western, are nearly always stories of escape or flight from the social order; as a Western about the fantasy of fleeing the gay mainstream, Song of the Loon is no exception.
Sacha Gervasi’s Hitchcock is a movie about Hitchcock for people who don’t actually like, care or know much about Hitchcock. It offers a superficial account of the making of Psycho that ultimately tells us nothing of interest about the film or its creators; it simply uses them as a means by which to invoke the most tiresome platitudes, chief among them being that old chestnut, Behind Every Man There Is A Great Woman. While the film is right to note that Alma Reville, Hitchcock’s wife and longtime collaborator, played a major role in shaping the work for which her husband received most of the credit, it turns their complex relationship into something mawkish. After both he and she spend most of the film engaging in playful (but apparently chaste) flirtations with other men and women, they have a cheap reconciliation, capped with a nauseating punchline (Hitch to Alma: “Of all the Hitchcock blondes, none is as pretty as you”). Hitchcock is a film that capitalizes on the Hitchcock name—still powerful thirty-plus years after his death—in order to sell audiences on something that bears not the slightest resemblance, in body or in spirit, to anything having to do with its subject. It’s a big empty box tied up with a ribbon that’s been stamped with the image of Hitch’s profile.
The homosexual in the text: Susannah York as Alice McNaught in "The Killing of Sister George" (1968)
With Robert Aldrich’s lesbian melodrama The Killing of Sister George (1968) we return to the question of representation. The lesbian characters in the film would seem to fall into neat homophobic types: the possessive, aggressive butch; the chic, cold vampiress; the little-girl femme. It’s that last character that I want to think about here. Alice (Susannah York), known as “Childie” to her (female) live-in lover George, is a waiflike would-be poetess prone to wearing nighties and talking to her dolls. If her given name brings to mind Lewis Carroll—and late in the film, donning a long-haired wig with a headband, she even begins to resemble Alice in Wonderland—her nickname further infantilizes her; George calls her “Childie” not only out of affection, but also to enforce an imbalance of power between them. They live as a parody of the normative family, as wife and female husband and, at the same time, as incestuous parent and child.