From My Own Private Idaho to Four Days in France — a look at the factors that define LGBTQI cinema

Baradwaj Rangan

Jun 25, 2018 15:37:12 IST

On June 29, 1969, the New York Daily News, like many other newspapers, wrote about a “predawn police raid on a reputed Greenwich Village homosexual hangout, the second raid within a week, [which] touched off a two-hour melee yesterday as customers and villagers swarmed over the plainclothes cops.” This came to be known as the Stonewall riots, after the name of the “homosexual hangout,” and the event was, as Time called it, “the spark that ignited the modern gay rights movement in the United States.”

Subsequently, June has come to be celebrated as Pride Month, and two films, both named Stonewall, are based on this event. The first, released in 1995, was directed by the British filmmaker, Nigel Finch. The second, released in 2015, was by Roland Emmerich.

There are, of course, many filmmakers who are homosexual, but it’s interesting to explore whether this “gayness” manifests itself in the films they make, and what really makes for a “gay film.” Is there a particular sensibility that’s manifest, even if the material is hetero-normative? Is it that the film has a gay protagonist, or is about LGBTQI issues? Finch and Emmerich, themselves, are two very different kinds of filmmakers. The latter is known for “macho” blockbusters like Independence Day and Godzilla, while Finch’s most recognised film may be The Lost Language of Cranes, a TV-movie version of David Leavitt’s sensitive novel about a gay man and his family dynamics. (Sample line: “The longing to touch and be touched by another man [was] beginning again its plaintive wail inside of him...”)

The most fascinating stretch in the New York Times review of Leavitt’s book, published in 1986, said, “Mr. Leavitt’s young homosexuals seem to want nothing more than domestic snugness and a white picket fence... It seems understandable, given the recent homophobic backlash, for young homosexual writers to want to portray their set as ordinary preppy Everymen. But Mr. Leavitt’s characters are so well behaved and nice that they risk unindividuated blandness. One longs for a little Dostoyevskian spite, a little eccentricity, a little rebellious ‘deviancy’.” Is this a valid expectation? And is this what one seeks in cinema from and about the LGBTQI community? Characters that are not “Everymen” but possessing some “rebellious deviancy”? (See the clip below, where LGBT characters discuss the trailer of Emmerich’s “whitewashed” Stonewall.)

Forget homosexuality, for a moment, and consider gender. Apart from the Bechdel test, I apply this basic criterion to see whether a film (or a scene) is truly feminine in its gaze: If the same character(s) can be written as male, then there’s no real difference. Take La Vie en Rose, the Édith Piaf biopic that won Marion Cotillard the Academy Award for Best Actress. The protagonist is female, but the rags-to-riches story (give or take a few beats) would work just as well if it was about, say, an... Eddie Piaf. In other words, it's not specifically a "woman's story" so much as a "human story." But a Thelma & Louise is unimaginable as Theodore & Louis. I think this is what the Times critic was getting at, even though I wish he hadn’t used the word “deviancy”. If the story would play just the same had the characters been straight, then maybe it’s not really a "gay gaze", or a "gay movie".

In an article titled 'Finding a definition for queer cinema', published in the webzine Little White Lies, João Ferreira, the Artistic Director of Queer Lisboa Film Festival, points to 1991 as the year queer cinema really came into its own, with the appearance of Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho and Todd Haynes’s Poison. Of this New Queer Cinema (NQC), Ferreira said, “[it] placed the sexual charge and desire of its characters and their bodies on screen, also harking back to the aesthetics of experimental cinema and gay pornography of the ’60s and ’70s... These characters and these bodies, who desire and are the objects of desire, are not necessarily nice guys, they don’t just do good, they do not seek recognition and integration in mainstream society, and are not particularly interested in repeating heteronormative models... Queer Cinema is an expression of freedom.”

The trouble is that it’s hard to come by films that come under this definition of queer cinema outside of film festivals. At the Berlinale, I saw Paris 05:59: Théo & Hugo, a French drama directed by Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau. You could look at the Before Sunrise-like mid-section, where Théo and Hugo walk and talk and get to know each other better, and claim that the story wouldn’t be very different if it featured a man and a woman instead – but look at the meet-cute between Théo and Hugo. It’s almost like the moment where the leads of West Side Story set eyes on each other, in the midst of hordes of men and women dancing in the local gym – except that the gym is now a sex club, and the hordes are comprised only of men, and it’s no more a dance but uninhibited sex, with one, with many.

This is what Ferreira was referring to when he said NQC isn’t interested in replicating “heteronormative models” – of people, and of filmmaking. When was the last time you saw heterosexual couples going at it with abandon, in groups? (Eyes Wide Shut doesn’t count!) Take Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake – no women are seen, even casually. The film is set in a lakeside cruising spot, and it turns into a Hitchcockian psycho-thriller, only with erect penises. Michał Oleszczyk wrote in, “I cannot think of any other movie that’s so open to naked male bodies and treats them so casually (the whole of the clothing in Stranger by the Lake would scarcely fill up one drawer). Guiraudie avoided the trap of William Friedkin’s abysmal Cruising, which presented its milieu as a freak show. This film appears to have been made by a resident, not a tourist.”

All the examples I keep recalling are turning out to be in French, including this last one I’m leaving you with, Jerome Reybaud’s Four Days in France: it’s about a man who takes off on a Grindr-led tour, while his boyfriend uses the app to track him down. What about someone like Xavier Dolan, you ask? Had this been a longer essay, tracking the history of queer cinema, many more names would be in here: say, Gregg Araki or Kenneth Anger or even Rainer Werner Fassbinder. But the point I wanted to bring up is that LGBTQI cinema is more than just homosexual characters. The major beats of Todd Haynes’s Carol might just as easily work as a heterosexual story between, say, an interracial couple in the same period, the 1950s. It is, in many ways, an important “gay movie,” but the motor of the story is forbidden love, which isn’t exclusively a gay concept. But then, what about Brokeback Mountain? I’ll leave that for you to chew on.

Baradwaj Rangan is Editor, Film Companion (South).

Updated Date: Jun 25, 2018 16:38:54 IST