Watching most contemporary queer movies, particularly the American ones, is to see art reflect the downside of the progress achieved in the culture wars, in gays and lesbians securing that much-coveted “seat at the table.” It’s the same banality of vision that so often follows even the slightest triumphs of assimilation: Homogenizing formula sets in and starts to rule as the formerly marginalized start to negotiate power and position with the status quo. The popular or collective imagination — made up of artists and audiences — becomes enslaved to that which is both safe and familiar, even (or especially) when it comes disguised as edgy or subversive fare. It grooves to that which doesn’t threaten whatever ground has been gained, but it also reduces struggle and victory to template. As a result, the same tales get told over and over again, relayed in the same predictable and uninspired ways.
It’s infantilized art. Think of how small children want the same story read to them over and over; it makes them feel secure, comforted. They get the thrill of the tale, but the uncertainty of outcome has been removed. They know when and how the villain will appear, how the battle will play out, how the villain will be vanquished or the dilemma resolved, and what the ending will be.
So, in queer cinema, we have countless retellings of the high school queer boy (usually artistic or refined, or just hypersensitive and hella cute) doing battle with macho bullies, while a fierce female sidekick (often of color) keeps him company. Sometimes this tale is tragic; sometimes it’s comic. Rarely anymore is it remotely fresh or illuminating. Then there are the lesbian romantic comedies where a small circle of friends (the jaded or bitchy butch; the unwavering, unlucky romantic; the hot femme fatale whom everyone wants or has already fucked, and been fucked over by; et al.) are put through the familiar paces of musical beds, heartache and final-act reconciliation. Actually, that dyke drama is also the recipe for .?.?. dyke dramas. Black and Latino gay males are more often than not hemmed into stories of the downlow, or they’re sex objects or sassy-eunuch sidekicks for white boys in the lead. Hustler tales are churned out assembly-line style. And let’s not forget about the maudlin trail of tears carved by that subset of documentaries that could easily be dubbed The Trouble With Trannies.
It’s not just cookie-cutter characters and plotlines (in both fiction and nonfiction queer films) that are the problem. It’s that the ephemeral, intangible joys and boundless possibilities of film itself are now too rarely aspired to, while films that aim for those joys and their challenges are marginalized into ghettos within cultural ghettos. James Bolton’s raw, soulful The Graffiti Artist (2004), which grapples with the definitions and functions of art through the complex, erotically charged relationship between a pair of taggers, and François Ozon’s Time to Leave (2005), a smart, moving meditation on death and dying, are prime examples. The former never received a theatrical release, though it seems to be building a small cult following on DVD, while the latter garnered critical acclaim but barely registered at the box office. Neither film is inaccessible, but in the case of Graffiti, its experimental approach (there’s not a word of dialogue for the first 20 minutes, and the pacing is measured throughout) doomed its commercial prospects, while Time’s rigorously unsentimental approach to its subject matter (the lead character is brusque and far from cuddly, even as his illness lays waste to him) seemed to keep American audiences away.
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Too often, the notion of new worlds opened up and explored, or of seeing the known world cast in a new light, is filtered through sensibilities shaped more by market savvy and hipster posturing than by a true artistic consciousness, resulting in a lot of self-consciously envelope-pushing work that’s actually small and flat and lacking real dynamics. The late Bill Sherwood’s 1986 Parting Glances and Donna Deitch’s 1985 Desert Hearts — two of the “25 Films That Changed Our Lives” as christened by this year’s Outfest programmers — still resonate so deeply because those films were made by real artists engaged with the complexities of the real world, who were able to achieve layered, vibrant work. The same is true of recent queer films like High Art, Come Undone, Before Night Falls, Mysterious Skin, Watermelon Woman, Burnt Money, Urbania, Bound, The Mudge Boy and Eytan Fox’s exquisite, heart-crushing TheBubble, which is a highlight of this year’s Outfest lineup. The subject matter for the films on this list (and it’s far from complete) ranges from child molestation to a look at the role of American film in shaping perspectives on race. What they all have in common is palpable passion linked to singularity of vision. They’re smart, genuinely quirky or unpredictable, not easily pegged as being just like anything else. They create and sustain queer worlds that ring true without succumbing to cliché.
But those titles are exceptions to the deluge. In truth, most current queer cinema reflects larger mainstream queer culture and is analogous to current black popular culture. In the latter, absorbed and refurbished stereotypes are bought and sold as authentic blackness by both black folk and multiracial crossover audiences primed to see the reductive as the real. More broadly, this is a microcosm of most American mainstream culture and filmmaking, period.
The unfortunate fallout of the democratization of filmmaking through cheaper and more accessible technology means that accomplished craftsmanship — actual skill in writing, acting and directing — has become seemingly optional. Just pick up a camera and shoot. In terms of “minority films” — the kind of stuff you find flooding queer, African-American and Latino film festivals — imagination has been hijacked and put in the service of creating easily marketable product that panders to the lowest-common-denominator expectations of niche audiences. Identity templates of race, gender and sexuality are molded into slight characters, ?who are then slotted into clichéd narratives that can be easily pitched to producers and distributors.
Take an example from this year’s Outfest lineup, The Curiosity of Chance, about — wait for it — a quirky, cute, queer high school boy with an ethnic, sassy female sidekick and a dumb-jock nemesis. This product is then marketed to audiences who by and large don’t want to be challenged or pushed out of their comfort zones. Many of them — after doing daily battle with some form of bigotry (racism, homophobia, misogyny or all of the above) and other soul-wearying realities (shitty jobs, declining quality of life) — just want to see something that reflects their lives or fantasies, but in which the problems are simplified, the villains easily identified and the endings reassuringly predictable in a way they rarely are in real life. The best filmmakers are those who understand that, and who push themselves — and their audiences — beyond it.