On the Rebound

This year's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Film Festival finds new queer cinema yearning to forget its affair with Hollywood

Hard to believe it was only eight years ago that writer B. Ruby Rich emerged from the Sundance Film Festival proclaiming the birth of a New Queer Cinema. Back then, there seemed cause for celebration: On the evidence of emerging talent such as Todd Haynes (Poison) and Gregg Araki (The Living End), Rich prophesied a transfusion of outsider energy that, being analogous to the French New Wave, would reinvigorate the staid indie world.

But a funny thing happened on the way from the closet to the cineplex. After the coolly dispassionate psychodrama of Safe, Haynes turned to camp epic in Velvet Goldmine. Rose Troche, a late addition to the boys' club, made one of the most compelling queer flicks of the decade with 1994's Go Fish, then disappeared into the indie wilderness, only to emerge four years later with the barely seen Bedrooms and Hallways. Araki sputtered into Tarantinoesque irrelevancy, where he ran into Gus Van Sant (My Own Private Idaho), another promising figure who, through misfortune or bad judgment, was left genuflecting to the ghost of Alfred Hitchcock. If the movement Rich had heralded wasn't exactly stillborn, neither did it seem to be growing up.

But that's only half the story. In the ensuing decade, Hollywood has come out like an overripe debutante. It all started with Philadelphia (1993), which, though certainly not the first queer-themed mainstream film, broke ground by grossing more than $100 million. Suddenly gay cinema was chic--and, even better, profitable. What followed was a veritable deluge of niche-marketed product: Lie Down With Dogs, Love! Valour! Compassion!, In & Out, The Next Best Thing, et al. Not all examples of this new breeder-financed breed were bad, and some were not bad at all. But almost all of the post-Philadelphia offerings had something in common: Sexuality was no longer treated as a fact of life, something to be dealt with and explored in its infinite variety--rather, it was the punch line. For the first time, there were plenty of homosexual characters onscreen; the problem was that most were no longer recognizable as homo sapiens. And Hollywood, which has always had a curious "don't ask, don't tell" relationship with its large gay constituency, swung the opposite way: Queer subtexts began sprouting up everywhere, from the unacknowledged male homoeroticism and lesbian chic of action fare to the cotton-candy stereotypes of romantic comedies. The New Queer Cinema hadn't died; it had been swallowed.

The Broken Hearts Club
The Broken Hearts Club

Consider The Broken Hearts Club--a romantic comedy, which screens Saturday at 7:15 p.m. as part of U Film Society's 11th annual Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Film Festival. Constructed with the kind of steady, workmanlike mediocrity that characterizes so many new American independents, this debut feature by writer-director Greg Berlanti serves up a slice of queer and affluent L.A. life via a coterie of friends, who, when not trading catty bons mots, engage in a romantic daisy chain. Given Berlanti's curriculum vitae--he's an executive producer of Dawson's Creek--it's perhaps not surprising that The Broken Hearts Club most resembles a sanitized version of the immensely popular British TV drama Queer As Folk (which, coincidentally, screens at the fest in its entirety from Monday through Wednesday--and is being remade as an American series on Showtime).

What's mildly depressing about Berlanti's film, however, and what it shares with a lot of new queer films, is its treatment of sexuality as a shibboleth. With the exception of one meatheaded character played by the rabidly heterosexual Dean Cain, Berlanti's company of men is defined by imposed sexual mores--in one telling scene, they play a limp-wristed game of softball. Unlike anyone in the real world, these characters are nothing but gay. And they're miserable because of it. There's something both embarrassed and masochistic about Berlanti's film, like a prude whipping himself for having impure thoughts. And it's all so drably professional that it makes sex and self-loathing seem like excuses for gauche Eighties set decoration.

But there's no reason to take up arms against The Broken Hearts Club: Like Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss, which wore the distinction as a badge in its ad campaign, the film is a trifle--and, like most trifles, not without its charms. It might be worth considering what it represents, however. Berlanti's work is the first American movie with an all-gay cast of characters to get major distribution since 1970's The Boys in the Band. Attentive viewers will note that Berlanti uses--to apply a generous word--elements of that earlier film, including a birthday-party scene that seems an almost verbatim reworking. There are deeper similarities, as well: The Boys in the Band, once considered a sensitive account of life in the closet, had become, in the wake of the Stonewall riots, a passé relic and an object of mild contempt. Berlanti's film shares the conviction that if homosexuality is not necessarily a pathology, it is a condition of almost irredeemable suffering. And while Berlanti may be looking back fondly at Parting Glances, what he returns with is essentially soap opera.

 

If The Broken Hearts Club were the only queer-themed film you'd seen in the last few years, you might extrapolate that what has happened is analogous to the "blaxploitation" swell of the Seventies, when the industry whorishly absorbed and regurgitated the burst of energy that came out of the Black Arts Movement, often without the dangerous political edge that had excited audiences in the first place. In the case of the New Queer Cinema, this, once again, seems only half the story. First off, what has happened to queer films in the past decade is really no different from what has happened throughout American independent filmmaking. As the major studios hemorrhaged currency (and invested in indie companies), independent and Hollywood films naturally began to blur into one another; the distinction was soon academic, and the searching, stumbling vitality of the early indie movement was soon dulled. The New Queer Cinema--which, as Rich defined it, was probably more a product of the indie movement than of the gay-rights advances of the Seventies--naturally followed suit.

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