Wednesday, 15 July 2015

A Queer Little Dream

Hello all,
I’ve got something to admit: as a general rule, I really don’t like queer films. Of the 100 or so films I’ve seen that feature gay, lesbian, bisexual and/or transgender, I’ve liked (and I mean really liked) only about a quarter. While this doesn’t sound like a terrible percentage, many of the 75 films left would have a strong presence in any list I make of the worst films I’ve ever seen. There is, however, a reason, a contention I have to explain this huge disparity.
   This is something I’ve thought a lot about. I’ve done multiple university essays examining the power and difficulty inherent in queer representations on screen, but it was only recently when I sat down to watch the Circuit that this became something I needed to discuss. Made in 2001 and directed by Dirk Shafer, this is quite possibly one of the worst films I’ve ever seen (something of an achievement, considering that it was the 940th film I’d watched). It concerns a young ex-policeman’s introduction to the gay club culture, addiction to drugs and subsequent spiral out of control. There is some mileage to be found in this idea, particularly when it’s discussed in comparison to body image, one of gay culture’s most problematic and pressing issues, and I’m sure it would make a very powerful film in the right hands.
   Circuit is not a powerful film. It’s a bad film. There are so few redeeming features that it’s hard to know where to start. It tackles many key issues in regards to contemporary discussions and debates prominent to the queer community (HIV/AIDS, tendencies to be sexist/racist, body image, objectification, drug and alcohol abuse, prostitution, plastic surgery, internalised homophobia, top/bottom stigma, love vs. casual sex and physical abuse to name a few) without tackling any of them in a way that feels sophisticated. It’s like the film’s writer read an article about all of the things gay men fear and decided to put them all in two hours without exploring them. It’s stupid and annoying.
   This is particularly true in regards to the film’s ‘exploration’ of objectification. This is one of those things that fascinates me whenever I go to a gay club and I think there’s a fascinating intersection between this and body image problems. Circuit tries to discuss this by explicitly making its characters say that male objectification is a bad thing and then have terrible body image, which is terrible because it does the thinking for us. However, even worse, is the fact that this comes shortly after there had been an unbelievably long montage of a hot guy showering, which included close ups of his nipples, ass and abs. It was like the camera was this close to giving him a bj. This felt like objectification in that it served absolutely no purpose other than for the audience to salivate over the guy. It was incredibly uncomfortable and voyeuristic; particularly seeing it was a private moment with no other characters present.
   Don’t get me wrong, here is a very good film in the idea and examination of the way that drugs, alcohol abuse, endless partying and plastic surgery are connected to objectification and self-loathing within the queer community but it isn't this movie. Add to this mix terrible acting, shitty dialogue, ill-defined characters who are simply cogs in the wheel of message creation, bad filmmaking, too many subplots and a runtime that feels like it’s never-ending (130 minutes has never seemed so arduous), and it becomes a steaming piece of cinematic shit. This was an endurance test of epic proportions.
   However, there is one very interesting thing about Circuit. It’s a post coming-out film. None of the characters emotionally tell anyone that they are gay. They just are, which is a part of the film’s message (if you can call it that). Many (if not most) queer films deal with the almighty coming out, the moment one accepts that they are gay and goes about telling those close to them. There’s a whole genre of films which are all basically the same, a version of the classic coming-of-age story but with a gay twist, culminating in a proud coming out. My favourite gay films (Latter Days, Brokeback Mountain, Shelter) are concern coming out stories, or first love. There is, however, a huge gap in the market for a story about gay people in the period after coming out, about what it means to be gay after you’ve accepted it.
   A lot of the gay community and writing about gay people is heavily involved with the coming out process which is all well and good (and very important) but it doesn’t give you an idea about what it means to live as gay. What does it mean that I like the same sex as me? Is there anything different in me, as a man, living and loving a man then there is a straight couple? What does it mean to be a good gay or a bad gay? I can name only a very small handful of post coming-out films and none of them are particularly positive.
   I’m not saying that we live our lives by looking at films because that isn’t necessarily the case, but it is interesting to note that there is a huge gap in the market. The problem with this is that films like Circuit are left to fill this gap, and are therefore subject to harsher judgement. But I think there’s something even more complicated going on here.
   To be completely honest with you, even the label ‘gay movie’ is stupid and redundant to me. Since being in a long-term relationship (year and three-months on the 21st, hell yeah!), I’ve discovered that being gay is not so different than being straight. Okay, so physically it is, yes, but the problems that Finn and I have had are not so different from those of straight couples. Honesty, insecurity and trust are all things that are not unique to the gay or straight communities but are universal to the human experience. Filmmakers don’t seem to see this.
   Therefore, there is a big difference between films which are about gay characters and films about characters who are gay. There is a very, very big difference between these two approaches, something I will now demonstrate with two short story synopsis I just made up.

1. Joseph, a builder, has a wife, and two kids, but he is beginning to fall for the contractor, Matthew, who is openly gay. They have passionate romances but Joseph is torn up by the guilt inside him, and so turns to overeating.

2. Joey, the CEO of an office, tries to deal with the hospitalisation of his brother after an attempted suicide as well as his own depression from unresolved childhood trauma regarding his father’s bipolar. While trying to cope with this, he learns that his boyfriend, Matt, wants children.

There is a world of difference between these two scenarios. In the first synopsis, Joseph’s sexuality is the most important thing about him. He struggles to accept his sexuality as well as his responsibility to his family and his wife. There is also some indication of body image, so this story would be about the difficulties of living an authentic life when social pressure requires normality. Every action he takes is because he is gay.
   In contrast, the second synopsis focuses more on the idea of Joey’s family and the generational trauma of mental illness. He seems a more real, flawed human being who is dealing with problems like work and family but who comes home to a man. Undoubtedly, his sexuality plays a part in the story (he is in a relationship with Matt) but even that is a closer examination of the theme of family. He has a life outside of the way he identifies. It is simply another part of him, exactly like it is for 90% of straight characters we see on screen (women are a possible exception to this argument, in that they are frequently presented as secondary to and whose relationship with male characters is the most important thing about them, but that’s a whole other kettle of fish).
   This is the reason I loved films like Latter Days, Shelter and (to a lesser extent) Brokeback Mountain. While they are coming out stories, they feature other aspects of the characters’ lives and how their sexuality interacts with that. For all its surface about religion’s treatment of gay men, Latter Days is more a film about how we live as spiritual and hopeful beings, while Shelter is more a film about family, parenting and responsibility than it is about what happens when you start sleeping with your best friend’s sexy brother. Brokeback Mountain works because it makes homophobia explicit and queers a very straight genre in the Western, creating something beautiful and profoundly moving. These are films that sees their characters as something more than gay, but they are the exception.
   This may seem like a trivial thing (after all, any representation is good representation), but it means the world to me. A couple of months back, I gave a speech where I basically argued that being gay was not the most interesting thing about me. That is something I really believe. Don’t get me wrong, I love my boyfriend Finn with the passion of a thousand suns, but I don’t think he’s the most interesting thing about me (but yes, this blog has been biased towards him. He’s very important to me), nor is the fact that I want a Finn not a Kira.
   But I love films. I’ve seen just under 950. That’s more interesting. You get so much more of me if I were to I say that (such as the fact that I’m an epic nerd because I have seen that many films and that I know that I have seen that many) than you would if I were to say I am gay and I have a boyfriend named Finn. That’s a big step for me. Realising that is, to me, a huge step in accepting one’s sexuality, realising that it’s not what you’re all about, that you can be more than gay.
   For films and entertainment to deny this part of us, they are denying all of us. They are seeing us as only gay. In a way, it’s homophobic to point out someone is gay and to define them by that. We do it too, and I think that should change too, but one step at a time. I suppose it’s always been a little queer dream of mine; to, one day, see a post coming-out film about a guy that just happens to be gay and content with it. It’s like how I always prayed for just one film about Asperger’s that ended with the main character in a relationship. It feels like an emptiness, which would be so easy to fill. It’s about breaking out of the mould and being brave enough to do so.
   There is hope, though. Josh Thomas’ TV show Please Like Me is a truly exceptional example of exactly what I’m talking about and the new film Holding The Man could break this trend. From the trailers it doesn’t seem likely though (still, it looks amazing). But for the larger part, the queer film market is filled with stories of people coming-out or realising that the party, drug-addicted lifestyle is the way to do. If that’s our future, heaven help us. So, Hollywood, Bollywood, Dollyworld, I don’t care who, please just fulfil this little queer dream of mine? Maybe then, I can shift that percentage to something like half of the gay films I watch I enjoy. Always keep positive, I say.
   Anyway, sorry about that. A little bit of a rant is always fun, but after a several month break, it might scare a few of you off. I hope not. So much has happened in the past few months, mostly in regards to throwing my future around, debating what I want to do with my life and trying to deal with money shortages. The usual for a University student, basically. Quick Finn update, we are still very much together and going strong. I know this is cliché, but I swear I love him more every day. And yes, I have been more honest, respectful and trusting. Promise.
   Lastly, a quick hint. You know how I said I’d seen under 950 films? Well, I may have something special planned to celebrate my 1000th film. I had hoped for that to be around the same time as my quarter-life-anniversary (or, as it’s more commonly referred to, my 21st birthday), but it may be closer to Christmas now. Either way, it’s something I’m working really hard on and I can’t wait to see what you think of it. But that’s enough hints for now.
   Hope your last few months have been spectacular, sending you all my love.


David Gumball-Watson