On the Rebound
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.
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.
Second, the New Queer Cinema never really existed--at least not as a coherent movement with an attached ideology. In fact, it was a group of innovative young auteurs who happened to come along at the same time. Compare gay filmmakers such as Gregg Araki, Rose Troche, and Todd Haynes. They have almost nothing in common except sexual orientation and a bold desire to make it known. And, in these cases at least, that doesn't define their art so much as inform and enrich it. As Haynes said in a 1998 interview, "What I loved about the New Queer Cinema wasn't that it was gay filmmakers making films about gay people. What I loved was the fact that it was a group of films which all had their different stylistic or formal approaches to the stories they were telling."
In this respect, comparisons to the French New Wave are spot on. That movement was, after all, less a revolution in form than an evolution in style, with its leading practitioners mostly experimenting within codified generic forms (The 400 Blows is a portrait of the artist as a young man, Jules and Jim is a bohemian romance, and Breathless, when you get right down to it, is High Sierra in Paris, but with jump cuts). The queer cinema has its genres, too: the coming-(out-)of-age tale, the AIDS elegy, etc. Yet, as with Truffaut and Godard, the auteurs of the New Queer Cinema took broad stylistic liberties. And, as with the French New Wave, the subversive energy they released was dispersed; as the 1960s European avant-garde informed the pop cinema of Asia and the American independent movement, the New Queer Cinema is now filtering back to our shores from abroad.
Maybe it's not surprising, then, that the most provocative offerings in this year's LGBTFF are imports. From Down Under comes The Well (Saturday at 9:30 p.m.), directed by first-time filmmaker Samantha Lang. Like the Elizabeth Jolley novel upon which Lang's film is based, The Well is set in the arid Australian outback, and the emptiness of its setting seems to seep into every frame. In brief: A lonely, crippled woman (Pamela Rabe channeling Emily Dickinson) takes in a young drifter, played by Miranda Otto. Beginning with a tentative display of tenderness--Otto's party girl leading Rabe's club-footed spinster in a waltz--the two begin an affair. Their romantic idyll is shattered by an anonymous male intruder, whom the pair kills and disposes of in an abandoned well. The metaphor is fairly obvious: The man in the well violates the secret territory shared by the women. (The screenwriter, Laura Jones, also wrote the screenplay for Jane Campion's The Portrait of a Lady.) Yet The Well is more than a psychosexual drama; its eerily stylized imagery hints at some deeper, almost preverbal horror. Bleached to a nearly monochromatic scale, the film achieves a druggy realism that recalls Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock (which also took its cue from Edgar Allan Poe). Like all great Gothic filmmaking, it's chilling and poetic at the same time. And, whether or not you love Campion's films, it shares with them a staggering fluency in visual language.
It's heartening that, after the mid-Nineties drought in lesbian film, women are so much in evidence in this year's festival. Among the Sapphic riches: Julia Query's good-natured first-person documentary about the unionizing efforts of San Francisco strippers, Live Nude Girls Unite! (Thursday at 7:15 p.m.); the sometimes-polemical HBO drama If These Walls Could Talk 2 (Sunday at 3:15 p.m.); a collection of lesbian shorts (Saturday, October 28 at 5:15 p.m.) curated by the fest's founder and current Popcorn Q wunderkind Jenni Olson; and "Saph-O-Rama," a retrospective of mainstream lesbiana including the 1950 schlock classic Caged and the Catherine Deneuve/Susan Sarandon vampire flick The Hunger. (These and other "Saph-O-Rama" titles are screening as a LGBTFF sidebar at Oak Street Cinema.)
For an incredibly true adventure of two girls in love, however, you can't beat the festival's opening-night attraction, Aimée and Jaguar (Friday at 7:00 p.m.). Set in Berlin during the waning months of World War II and infused with the nostalgic melancholy of a period piece, Max Färberböck's debut film fondly recalls a community of friends and lovers who, though waltzing on a volcano, choose to dance nonetheless. At the film's center are Lilly (Juliane Köhler), an anti-Semitic hausfrau married to a Nazi soldier, and Felice (Maria Schrader), an Amazonian resistance fighter who's lesbian and Jewish to boot. Felice, who flits between lovers with absolute self-confidence, pursues Lilly first as part of a dangerous game--stealing into the lion's den, as it were.
Yet even in the valley of death love springs eternal: Soon the two women are exchanging furtive glances and trembling embraces (the consummation of their liaison may well rank among the most tender love scenes ever committed to celluloid). And, to his credit, Färberböck finds as much lyrical beauty in the burning debris and swollen skies of Berlin as in the embrace of the film's heroines. What's striking and original about Aimée and Jaguar, then, is not that it's a lesbian romance. It's simply a romance, large-hearted in its appeal and epic in its sweep. It might even represent the first blockbuster of the queer cinema: a Titanic without all the men (James Cameron included) to sink the ship.
Sharing the opening-night bill--and just as worthy--is 23-year-old British director Will Gould's debut The Wolves of Kromer (Friday at 9:30 p.m.). Though Gould sets his film (adapted from a play by Charles Lambert) in the dreary British hedgerow country familiar from countless BBC melodramas, its location is somewhat harder to pin down, as the film seems to drift between fable and satire. On the surface, at least, The Wolves of Kromer is a fairy tale (pun intended): The titular lycanthropes, identified by fur coats with waggling tails pinned to the back, live on the periphery of a rural village, where viscous old spinsters (played with laughable malevolence by Rita Davies and Margaret Towner) go to church and plot to poison their mistress. When they succeed, they pin the blame on the outsiders, who, though visibly human, are ostracized by the villagers for their sexual predilections (as well as their taste for livestock). "They only bring disease and spread trouble wherever they go," the village priest tells his lupinophobic parishioners. "They're unpleasant creatures."
Wolves, of course, have always symbolized sexual transgression in myth: That toothy beast who jumped into dear old Granny's bed and threatened to swallow Little Red Riding Hood wasn't just looking for a snack. Yet Gould is engaged in something more complex than the mere postmodern reframing of fable: His wolves also threaten the domesticity of the village. They are not, however, symbols of transgression. Played by shockingly beautiful models (Lee Williams and James Layton) and given the only recognizable human characteristics in the film, the wolves are agents of modernity who come to make the staid, hypocritical milieu of the village seem archaic. It's a fairy tale, all right, but one turned on its head and spun for good measure. And The Wolves of Kromer has everything that has been absent from most American queer films this past decade: a rambling intelligence, a sense of possibility beyond the rote problems of everyday life, and a goofy good nature. Here is proof positive that a challenging film can also be generous in spirit.
So why aren't American filmmakers, queer or otherwise, making works like these? Part of the problem is that humanism isn't much in fashion at the moment. (Whatever you might think about Haynes, Araki, and company, none of that first generation of queer independents was much interested in sweetness and light.) The other part of the problem is that the mainstream representation of queer life in America now seems in limbo somewhere between Will and Grace and If These Walls Could Talk--in other words, between sitcom and soap opera. The natural result of this confusion is crossover fluff. Still, there's nothing to preclude a revival of queer sensibility in American filmmaking. If it may still be too early to declare a rebirth of the New Queer Cinema, let's just say for now that the postmortem is premature.
U Film Society's 11th annual Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Film Festival runs Friday, October 20 through Saturday, October 28 at Bell Auditorium; (612) 627-4430. "Saph-O-Rama" runs October 23 through October 31 at Oak Street Cinema; (612) 331-3134.
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