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Beyond the Kiss

Photo by Debra DiPaolo
WHAT IS "QUEER" FILM? IS IT DIFFERENT FROM LESBIAN AND GAY FILM? AND ARE those differences based on aesthetics or politics, mainstream aspirations or some sort of indie, experimental integrity? As American pop culture owns up to gay -- though not necessarily "queer" -- influences filling its television shows, Hollywood movies and music charts with gay and lesbian characters, actors and musicians, the cost vs. the payoff of visibility is a question of increasing importance. Exactly who is defining and gatekeeping the myriad queer sensibilities and identities? Is "crossover" the only barometer that really matters? Why do the majority of female characters in the recent crop of gay-male films float across the screen like so many one-dimensional, comic freaks?

To mark the 17th year of Outfest, the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, which opens this weekend, we assembled a panel of voices from different areas of the entertainment world to answer these and other questions on queer/lesbian/gay cinema. Participants included Don Roos (writer-director of the film The Opposite of Sex, as well as screenwriter for films such as Love Field, Single White Female and Diabolique); Andrea Sperling (producer of The Living End, Desert Blue and the forthcoming But I'm Not a Cheerleader); Susan Glatzer (senior vice president of acquisitions and production for USA Films, and the woman responsible for ushering the October Films release High Art from Sundance into theaters); David Moreton (director of the current gay coming-of-age hit Edge of Seventeen); Adam Shulman (co-founder of the Shulman Rose Agency, which represents directors such as Bill Condon and Miguel Arteta); and John Cooper (associate director of programming of the Sundance Film Festival, who has worked as a programmer at Outfest). Also sitting in on the discussion were Weekly film editor Manohla Dargis, film critic Ella Taylor, editor Sue Horton, arts editor Tom Christie and editorial assistant Ron Athey.

--Ernest Hardy

L.A. Weekly: John, you were at Sundance when the term "new queer cinema" was coined. Do you feel that movement has been blown out of proportion, that the mythology has overwhelmed the reality?

John Cooper: Well, the mythology of independent cinema has been blown a bit out of control as well. Have we lived up to everything? I don't know. We thought there were unlimited possibilities at that point, and we've taken a little turn the other way. Everybody thought it was going to be easy, that the world was going to open its doors to gay cinema and we were going to be accepted. At least on the screen.

I remember being very nervous thinking -- it's sort of silly -- but thinking, can we show a gay film at Sundance? I remember thinking that we were doing something terribly naughty. And we were, really. Except that now it doesn't seem like anything.

Do you think an artificial standard was then created of what queer cinema was going to be? Because, really, when people think of that moment, there are only about three or four filmmakers and films that are cited -- Poison, Swoon, Mala Noche, Parting Glances. This whole movement, or moment, was resting on a few shoulders, a handful of films.

Cooper: And the shoulders of those people you look at -- like, Gregg Araki is no longer gay. [Laughter] So there's one gone right there, we lost him. And Tom Kalin decided he didn't want to direct films anymore. Todd Haynes stayed with what he was doing. I kind of wonder if the people that were there at that point even really considered themselves gay filmmakers. They opened this door, but they aren't the ones who kept pushing.

Where do you think the state of the art is right now? It's still unclear what we're calling this: gay and lesbian cinema or queer cinema. What's the distinction?

Andrea Sperling: Queer cinema is probably more innovative, political, pushing the medium. Gay is, maybe, more commercial films that are narratively conventional.

Cooper: Queer's a youthful word, too. It's a word that's used by youth a lot easier than it's used by people over 35.

Is it also a marketing strategy, in some ways?

David Moreton: I might be wrong -- I have no facts on this -- but when there's actual gay sex shown onscreen, it seems to divide the marketplace of who will distribute the movie, who the audience will be.

Those new queer-cinema films seemed -- both formally and in terms of themes -- audacious. Now we're swamped with a lot of coming-out tales that are less imaginative than an episode of Dawson's Creek. Does it seem like we're moving backward?

 

Sperling: I think that at the beginning of the queer new wave, because it was a new thing, the films were more political. You know, because no one had ever done it, so it was coming from a different place. Those films opened doors.

Adam Shulman: When you look at gay cinema, you have to separate independent film from studio films. In the studio arena, we're definitely moving forward and backward at the same time. I mean, it seems sort of chic now to have gay characters in studio movies. It makes studio executives feel like they're being open-minded and cool. But so many of the representations of gay people in studio movies are just so false or clichéd. It's important that independent cinema try to preserve true visions of gay people.

Well, that raises the threshold question, which is: What is gay cinema?

Susan Glatzer: Well, that question also exists within the independent world. There are films that are definitely gay cinema, no question. Like Go Fish, or some of the ones that have been mentioned. And then there are others where that's not the main theme. There are a lot like that, and you're going to find more coming from the independent realm as well as the studio realm.

Sperling: Do you mean gay themes as a subplot?

Glatzer: A subplot or a character running through it. The lines will blur more.

Sperling: It's great that that's happening, and I think that's due to these gay films in the independent world, but I've read a couple of studio scripts that are supposedly gay or lesbian. One in particular I was really offended by because the lesbian sex scenes only occur in the eyes of this woman's son. It's his fantasy of his mother having a lesbian affair.

Cooper: No, it could work. [Laughter] I always hear such disdain from almost everyone: "It's another coming-out story!" Have we really had that many? I mean, nobody says, "This is another heterosexual story, two white people trying to decide if they're good enough to be together as a couple."

Glatzer: I understand when people say, "Okay, can we move away from that a bit? Can we have a film where two fully realized characters are comfortable with their sexuality and they're finding each other?"

Cooper: The great thing about David's film is that they actually have sex. See, some of these coming-out films are acceptable to the "normal" audience because you're not talking about sex, you're talking about being different and getting over that. What's really wonderful about Edge of Seventeen is, "Oh, thank God, they're going to have sex." I can't watch another coming-out story where they don't go past that point.

Don't you think that in some sort of rhetorical fashion, a lot of coming-out films serve to educate the straight audience? Like, "Gay people are just like you."

Moreton: Well, I don't think coming-out stories function as education for straight people, because I don't think straight people go to those movies. Movies like Edge of Seventeen get placed in a category, rightly or wrongly, that is very much focused on gay audiences. That's who goes to see them, that's who the marketing is for, that's who the movies are made for, and that's where they stay, probably. I also think that -- and I don't know if this is a product of those movies that we were talking about earlier, the new queer cinema -- but I think some of us went back and said, you know, when I was 17, I loved those John Hughes movies. I want to see that, but with gay characters. We're going back and re-creating those stories that we loved, but now we're making them with gay characters.

Part of the problem is that you end up with films that are clearly some older man's fantasy of rewriting his own history, and you end up with films that have a sort of stunted emotional quality. It just becomes really frustrating.

Shulman: It's interesting to hear you have that criticism. I mean, certain coming-of-age films, like David's -- and I hope you don't take offense at my calling it a coming-of-age film . . .

Moreton: I call it that.

Shulman: . . . for me, when I see those films, even though the storyline isn't that complex, it still is so reaffirming. It makes me feel better as a gay person to see what I went through as a teenager, onscreen. We were starved for those images when we were growing up.

 

Moreton: I can't think, truly, of very many movies that are about a kid in Middle America coming out in a positive way. I mean, you know, perhaps there are some TV movies that deal with the issue, but there aren't that many movies. Literature is filled with that, but movies, I'm not so sure we've had all that many.

Don, was The Opposite of Sex seen as a gay film in the mainstream media?

Don Roos: Well, I had a few straight people running through it for color. [Laughter] The press would go, "It's so humane -- it's about humanity and everything." But they sort of said it like, you know, "Thank God it's not just about creepy boys kissing." I think it was seen as palatable because I sneered at gay people and straight people equally. But it was very hard to sell the movie, because it was about a gay man's love life. People really got sick about that. It's okay if it's a coming-out story. It's okay if it's an AIDS movie, because it's a victim story. It's okay if it's a guy in a dress. But to actually talk about a gay man's love life, and the problems he has with desire and grief, gave people the shivers -- and actors the shivers. They didn't want to play that role, because it would look very much like them feeling lonely and lost onscreen. It would be better to hide under a hat or a boa. But after it was made, it went down very easily, because they didn't feel like it was political. And then Christina [Ricci] kept saying horrible things about gay people, which is so reassuring.

In a lot of recent gay-male films the women have been awfully written, one-dimensional characters. One of the things that was satisfying about Edge of Seventeen was the complexity of the relationships between this boy and the women in his life, and that they had their own lives and own issues.

Moreton: The inspiration for the ã women came from real life. The story is autobiographical for the writer, Todd Stephens, and it's also drawn from my life and the relationships that we both had with women. This relationship is one many gay men have with women when they're younger. It's this quasi-sexual relationship that is very unclear to the man, and where the woman wants it to be more. I think that's very common.

I was interested in the woman's perspective, because women who are in that situation get hurt by the gay man. That's something that is not often seen in coming-out movies. Usually the woman is this sort of jolly, supportive best friend.

Roos: I'm older, and I think the longer you were closeted, the more you like women. When I was in high school, the people who could stomach me were women. Now, when gay men come out, there's an instant peer group of other gay men, and women become irrelevant. But women interpreted the world for me. I used them as my pass. They would explain me, talk to me, excuse me, so I have a very dependent relationship on women. And most of the queer or gay cinema or whatever that I watch today is basically Lifetime Television for Women and Gay Men, which is the gayest cinema, because it's the most blended. It has the most female quotient. But that may be outdated. I come from a gay world where "gay" meant "sissy," not this overmasculine -- to me it seems overmasculine -- ideal. It's a generational thing.

Who else suffers from straight men the way gay men do? It's women. So there's a connection, it's "Who beat you up?" Find another person who's been beaten by that person who beat you up, and there'll be a whole bunch of correspondences.

Would that include Love Field?

Roos: Well, Love Field was about forbidden love. It was about a very proper, middle-class woman. What, in the context of those times, is the most outrageous love she can fight against, then pursue? That would be the love of a black man. It's characters that suffer at the hands of this patriarchal society. All gay cinema is the cinema of feminism, or it should be. Because men hate a sissy. They feel that the male is weakening the sex by co-opting the female attributes. And if a man can be passive, and a man can be penetrated, that's the end of that.

I've never really seen a mainstream or independent film that examines the idea that many urban gay men live their lives trying to be like the people who tortured them in high school. You really have to watch porn to see that play out.

 

Roos: Yes. Bullies. Policemen and security guards . . . I've said too much.

Cooper: Pizza delivery boys are not bullies, come on.

Shulman: Studios would be so afraid to make movies like that, and independent cinema hasn't done more. Oftentimes most of the studio people who make movies with gay themes are straight, actually. And they don't understand those complexities. In independent cinema, gay filmmakers don't necessarily want to put those images on the screen, because they might be afraid of the negative image.

You would never see a Taxi Zum Klo from this country. We like our minority populations to be well-behaved, and to that end gay-male characters seem to be functioning more and more like Eve Arden these days. They're snappy and funny -- and asexual. Always there with a quick line, ready to help you with the decorating. That issue of acceptable representations raises the question of how Susan pitched High Art. You saw the film at Sundance, then went back to your company excited about the story of a junkie lesbian artist who's washed up and trying to make a comeback. How did you sell that?

Glatzer: It was easy to sell that film for a couple of reasons. First, it was at Sundance in competition, and that gives it a profile right there. And it was just a really well-crafted film. That was evident to anyone who watched it. You could certainly pitch it as a lesbian film or on the junkie thing, but that film so successfully transcended any one of the elements, the sum of the parts was so much more. That made it easier.

Moreton: Do you think, if it had been two men instead of two women, that the appeal of the movie to the company would have made a difference? Is there any truth to the idea that it's easier to sell lesbians than gay men?

How about rephrasing that to say, "Is it easier to sell cute lesbians?"

Glatzer: Yeah, well, two women, whether they're pretty or not, really does make a difference. I wish I could answer negatively on that.

Sperling: Did you read the script for High Art before it went into production?

Glatzer: Yes.

Sperling: And why didn't you guys [October Films] finance it?

Glatzer: It's a good question. It's hard for me to truthfully give you a real answer, because I read it so long ago. It's hard for me to go back to my thoughts at the time. We financed or produced such a small number of films that the odds of us financing something, even something that we liked, were so small.

Cooper: I read the script as well. You didn't know by reading that script it was going to be such a good movie. I don't think anybody knew what was in Lisa Cholodenko [the director].

Sperling: Yeah, in my experience, it's the same. Distributors might like the script, but they won't finance it. Yet they'll distribute it when you get it made.

Glatzer: I don't think that's just for gay film. That's just true in general, because you're taking a much, much bigger risk when you finance a film. It's still an unknown on the page, whereas on the screen, you can take a look at it, it either works or it doesn't.

From a marketing standpoint, when you talk about gay film, aren't you really dealing with the terror of the heterosexual male?

Roos: It's the horror of sodomy.

Forget sex. They're horrified of a man just trying to pick them up.

Roos: No, it's all about sodomy. [Laughter] ã

Do you think that the studios are going to be willing to deal with racier gay themes, where you could deal with, for example, sodomy in a fairly honest way?

Roos: What happens is, if a movie costs $33 million, it has to earn $100 million back to be profitable. You cannot get $100 million out of men contemplating sodomy. It won't happen. If you make a $5 million movie, you'll get those who've contemplated it and accepted it. Once you go into these taboos, you will not be able to make your money. So it's a real problem. It's about how, economically, we can make our films so that we can tolerate alienating a good portion of the population. You cannot really afford to alienate anyone if you spend $50 million on a movie. You have to take care of every single objection to the movie. You need everybody's $7.50. Whereas, for The Opposite of Sex, it was, like, who cares? Whatever's in the movie is fine. It made $6 million domestically. That's nothing, but it made an impact.

 

In the documentary Lavender Limelight, which focuses on lesbian filmmakers, Rose Troche [Go Fish] said that when she's working in the mainstream, the producer calls the shots. She feels like she's simply a director. But when she's working indie, she feels more like a filmmaker/artist. Andrea, how accurate is that distinction?

Sperling: I think that's true whether you're making a gay or straight film. You have a lot of control as an independent filmmaker. Especially if the financing is private equity.

Roos: The way I think of it is, independent movies are movies you make for your friends, a studio movie is a movie you make for your family back home.

Is it easier for lesbian filmmakers than for straight women? Women just seem to have it bad all over.

Cooper: It is getting better. Ten years ago at Sundance, I remember going down the list when we were making selections, and trying to find a woman filmmaker. I mean, literally, trying to find a movie and going to the shelves and pulling maybe four or five films by women out of, you know, a couple of hundred. Now, it's really surprising how many more there are.

Sperling: But the ratio at Sundance is still, by far, more male.

Cooper: There are a lot of women producers.

Roos: That's easier, because it can be a very maternal role. People think, "Okay, well, that's appropriate." It's like film editing, where it's seen as someone just sitting in a pantry rearranging cans of fruit. That's okay. But directing, I've felt as a gay man, "You know, these Teamsters are just looking for a chance to beat me up." I thought for years I couldn't be a gay director, because the crew would turn on me and snap their towels at me in our group showers. But that's an internal wall. Women have their own walls.

How did the Teamsters treat you?

Roos: They were fine, because you know what? I was the boss. It's all hierarchy. Even if you're gay, even if you're a woman, you are the director, and you can order them off the set. So they were fine. A lot of my fears of homophobia are just that. But generally when women think someone is anti-female, it's true. Men hate women, you know. It's just horrible, and it's what I think gay filmmakers should be talking about. Because that's what we suffer from, anti-female fears.

There don't seem to be a lot of lesbian representations out there -- certainly there's no female Rupert Everett. It's interesting how Rupert Everett functions now as America's favorite homosexual.

Glatzer: What about Anne Heche?

She's not doing any Madonna movies, Rupert Everett is. And every time Heche is in the media spotlight, it's as a problem, because she's with Ellen DeGeneres. It just seems that the way Heche and DeGeneres have been treated is very different from the way that Everett has been.

Roos: Oh, he's British, though.

We're laughing, but his Britishness exoticizes him and makes him safe. And Americans think all British men are gay, anyway.

Roos: I think Hugh Grant is gay, I don't care who he was in the car with.

He was on the wrong part of Sunset.

Roos: Selma, honey, Selma.

Cooper: You're dating yourself so much. People now don't even know what that means. They'll think you're talking about Salma Hayek.

Roos: Anne Heche did more in her own way than Ellen did, because for years the argument was, you can be perceived as gay if you're a character actor. You know, Paul Lynde can be perceived as gay, that type. But never ever a lead, because the audiences will not suspend their disbelief. They will be just thinking of creepy sex acts when you're kissing your leading man or woman. And Anne did it. She was known as a lesbian, she played a leading love-interest role. I mean, it was huge. And if she has to pay for it for a few years, it's still just an enormous achievement. I can't get on the anti-Anne-and-Ellen bandwagon. It is giant, what they did.

 

The backlash against them wasn't just in the mainstream media, but also in the gay media, which was really puzzling, because what they did took such courage.

Roos: It was the case with Paul Robeson. It's because that person becomes such a lightning rod of criticism, the minority that he or she represents suddenly needs to distinguish itself from that individual. As soon as that lesbian comes out, all of the other lesbians try to move away, saying, "I'm sort of like that, but not really. I'm not as militant."

Moreton: Well, the harshest reviews we've received have been from the gay press, and I think it's for that same reason. The gay press is harsh -- much harsher.

Anne Heche may or may not be the lesbian actress who crosses over and dispels a lot of Hollywood's and the mainstream media's homophobia. Do you think so-called "crossover films" such as In & Out work in a similar fashion?

Roos: It's easy for us to criticize those films, because they're so unsatisfying to ã us personally, but it takes far more courage to try to talk to a group that loathes you than to talk amongst ourselves. I mean, I display much more courage at the Thanksgiving banquet table in my family's home than I do here, even though here my language is franker. There, it requires much more effort to communicate. So it's easy to dismiss In & Out. But, you know, straight teenage kids were in a movie where a character was gay and nobody threw up. It's hard for us to love those movies, but they'll do more than any of our angry, specific, community-pointed movies will. Twenty years from now, it'll be a kid who saw In & Out who says, "Well, these are the people like me." Not somebody who saw Taxi Zum Klo.

Moreton: I think there's also a danger in aiming for the crossover movie. I mean, if I hear another gay director say, "Well, I want audiences to forget that my characters are gay, I want them to be people just like everybody else" . . . It seems as if they're shooting to be forgotten as gay, to lose our identity in that way. We're just shooting to be straight people as much as we possibly can. And that's a danger we face when we homogenize our characters.

Is popular culture creating a false sense of security or progress when it comes to issues of sexuality? On MTV, it's almost a requirement that a member of The Real World cast be gay, and there are gay characters regularly on network TV, in films. People who live in New York or L.A., especially media people, think that their own level of tolerance reflects progress in the larger world. That's one of the reasons the media were so shocked at what happened to Matthew Shepard. They have no idea.

Cooper: They think, Oh, we're past that. Working at Outfest with the volunteers, who are usually around the age of 20, 21, we'll be talking about issues like this, and I think they have a false sense that the struggle is all ancient history. Ten years ago is ancient history to them -- all the battles are over, and we need to calm down and stop fighting. In some ways they're right, and in some ways you just want to say to them, "Don't you know? You have to keep fighting." That's a hard thing to teach. I mean, we're trying to make the world safer for you, and we're putting you in better schools, but you still have to be careful out there.

Sperling: It is false. I mean, for a short film I produced called Sleeping Beauties, we had the tape transfer done, and the lab did it wrong. We went back to the lab and they refused to do it over. Here. In Hollywood. Because they were homophobic. They didn't even have a reason. Nothing. It was just, like, lesbian content.

They just absolutely refused to do it?

Sperling: They refused. When we asked why, they wouldn't tell us. We kept arguing, and finally they had to say, "Well, it's because of the content."

So much for the coastal theory! Going back to issues of representations, is it progress that now there's a sitcom like Will and Grace in which the male lead is a somewhat sexually neutered gay man?

Cooper: I count it as progress.

 

Glatzer: I think it's progress, too. Maybe they are playing Eve Ardens, but then there are shows like Dawson's Creek and Party of Five. My girlfriend has two kids, and they're watching these shows. It's going to have some impact. Probably not on the forefront of their brains, but somewhere. I mean, in the middle of the country, kids are not exposed to that in their daily lives. So I think it's great that they're exposed to that when they sit down in the living room and turn on the TV.

Moreton: We filmed Edge of Seventeen in Ohio -- Matthew Shepard country. You know, small town. We filmed in a local high school, and it got out that it was a gay film. The parents had a field day and were just irate, and the students all rose up and said, "We don't care. We want to be extras in this movie." It was definitely generational. So I think it is changing as the younger people are exposed to all of it.

Shulman: I think it is sad that we haven't gone further. At the same time, it is so exciting that little kids and teenagers across the country can see these images on MTV and almost every major network. I mean -- again -- when we were growing up, you never ever saw gay people who were comfortable with themselves. It's also sad that the gay political movement is so watered down. There's been so much written about that, but it's not like it was in the '60s, '70s or '80s. I'm not exactly sure why that is, but I do think that gay filmmakers and gay television writers and producers are making some headway by continuing to have these images, and I think we'll get better. We will make progress.

There definitely is a connection, though, between the decreased political nature of the queer beast and the increased visibility of the queer beast.

Shulman: I think that's true.

What about the other identities -- the gay boy who doesn't want to go mainstream, who wants to be a total fairy, who doesn't want to fit in, who doesn't want to have a Jeep and live in West Hollywood. Where are those kinds of identities going to fit in?

Cooper: When you start protecting the fringe, you lose it. ã

Shulman: And, in culture, it's the radical fringe that always ends up making change as it pushes along.

Sperling: That happens in every medium. It always brews from the underground, then the mainstream sort of takes it upon themselves.

But there was a certain kind of energy in the early '90s that came out of the new queer cinema. Whether that was an aesthetic challenge or a gay aesthetic challenge is an open question, but there was a moment when queer cinema seemed incredibly interesting.

Sperling: That had to do with the context of the times.

Cooper: There are gay people who are more palatable to the mainstream. A lot of people were really freaked out by Poison, those characters were not palatable at all. Who are you making your movie about? Who are you making your movie for?

Shulman: Isn't that the problem of independent film, how independent is it? It goes back to John Waters, who's said that true underground cinema almost doesn't exist anymore. The competition is so tough that it's scary for filmmakers to make a really edgy film that isn't going to have mainstream appeal, even in the independent world.

Cooper: That was what it was at Sundance 10 years ago: out of the underground and the first steps into the light.

Shulman: You know, Poison, a wonderful film, didn't have the same kind of thing that Edge of Seventeen has, a tender gay moment. And maybe we'll see that in the mainstream in a few years.

There's a danger in letting the mainstream dictate the terms of identity.

Moreton: Yes. It seems as if in America we generally feel that minorities are not a problem anymore. And by that, I mean we're supposed to believe that no one is pushed down, we're now enlightened. You know, AIDS was a political cause 10 years ago, but now everything's fine. Women have equal access in the workplace. Blacks do, too. Everyone's fine now.

So, basically, shut up and get on with it. There are a lot of people in all those constituencies you mentioned who are happy to do that, because they want what white, middle-class America has always had -- its privilege. There's nothing necessarily wrong with that. Or is there? Is that really our nirvana?

 

Cooper: I feel as if you're mourning a type of cinema that just doesn't exist anymore, and gays used to run that type of cinema. It came out of repression. And I mourn that, too. It's hard to explain to the rest of America, because they didn't even get that experience. They weren't in a small basement in New York, watching someone's wild film and getting all the excitement of being there. And it's something to mourn. But you hope that it's going to come again. And hopefully, they'll invite us.


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