Old Queer Cinema

Yesterday the BFI published its list of the 30 Best LGBT Films. You can see the top 30 here and read invidivual top 10s by contributors to the poll here: the latter is inevitably more interesting as consensus polls like this always end up pushing out more eclectic choices.

At first when I saw the poll I was excited, and wanted to discuss the results with friends, and then over the course of the day I found myself growing sort of peeved with it, and then returning to my feeling that it was a great idea, and then getting churlishly pissed off all over again. My criticisms are as follows.

Polls like these amputate critical discourse and, in my view, increasingly fail to be the starting point for discussion and debate that they should be. What does it mean to us that Todd Haynes' CAROL is now deemed by a panel of film professionals to be the greatest LGBT film of all time? Can you compare PRIDE (which just missed out on one of the top 30 spots) and TROPICAL MALADY? What is the definition of an LGBT film (I'll come to this)? Lists like these can encourage an anything-goes spirit that I think doesn't pay sufficient critical attention to films. You can scarcely argue that PRIDE isn't LGBT, but is it queer? Is it even good? No, and no. PRIDE is a populist, cheerfully ugly entertainment that addresses gay issues in its literal text, but I believe I'm right in remembering that PRIDE never explicitly mentions AIDS (the character who contracts it in the film refers to it in hilariously Cowardian terms as "a long journey") and flunks its scene where another character is hospitalised by homophobes, by showing only the before and the after of his presumably very violent gay-bashing. This is a gutless, bowdlerised version of queer history: in my book, it's a sort of queer minstrel show released safely after the advent of equal marriage and greater access to antiretroviral medication, to reassure its weeping, chuckling audience that everything is OK now. Films like these need to be criticised. I could make criticisms of other films on the list - BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN not least - but the point is, merely, that the occlusion of critical discourse in the light of these lists is sometimes harmful to their subject.

Another problem that I have been thinking about, over and over, since the publication of the poll yesterday, is the votes of straight-identifying people that have contributed to this final hierarchy. It feels churlish to argue that heterosexual-identifying critics ought not to be allowed to assess what the greatest LGBT films of all time are - and I'm not certain that that is my view - but I do have a lingering discomfort that establishing a queer pantheon must come with the approbation of the straight establishment. This ties in with the point about what it means for a film to be "LGBT": by merely needing to be LGBT-themed, these films do a disservice to the idea of queer films themselves, to a uniquely 'other' sensibility. Of course straight critics are up to the task of electing the best LGBT films, since the definition is merely thematic. But is 'LGBT' merely a theme like any other, now? The 20 best sword films. The 50 best alien films. The 30 best LGBT films.

One critic has picked MAGIC MIKE XXL in their top ten. MAGIC MIKE XXL is a fun film, and it features near-naked men. I liked it. But it isn't LGBT, and it certainly isn't queer. What MAGIC MIKE XXL is, is a distillation of the ethos behind the BFI's new poll: the protagonists of MAGIC MIKE XXL are all, to a man, straight - but they're OK with gay people, and kind to women. This new masculinity - non-violent, kind, politically aware and responsible - is reflected in the film in an early scene in which the male strippers take part in a voguing contest with drag queens. The scene is charming, and it shows how far mainstream acceptance of alternative sexualities has come, but its unquestioning, bro-y flavour left a sour taste for me. For drag queens - such as the ones you see in Jennie Livingston's PARIS IS BURNING, which also made the list - this is their life; something held dearly, terribly important, and to do with their actual identity. Livingston says about some of the drag queens she filmed:

They want to become women because black men are devalued in this society. It’s very difficult for a poor urban black man to get an education. In a society that values money, the poor urban black man doesn’t really have a saleable commodity in himself; a woman, however, always has her body.

What this underlines is that drag culture is a deep-rooted thing in gay communities, which was born out of oppression. When Channing Tatum et al dip a toe in, they have the choice to drag up for a night and then escape; this act of fraternity costs them nothing.

What does drag mean to a gay man who's been doing it all his adult life, and to a straight man who's comfortable with gay issues? The same different things that queer film means to a gay cinephile and a straight one. While I don't want to deny any of the voters in the BFI poll any validity in voting for these films, I do think it's important to stress that these films have a different tenor according to your own personal politics. Gayness isn't just a theme - if it's part of who you are, what you grew up as, and you hardly ever saw yourself or your desires represented on screen, your critical outlook is bound to be different to that of someone appraising a film on purely technical merit. Look at this list by a critic whom I believe is heterosexual:

Calamity Jane (1953)
Beau Travail (1999)
In a Year of 13 Moons (1978)
Flaming Creatures (1963)
Carol (2015)
Je, tu, il, elle (1974)
Tropical Malady (2004)
Michael (1924)
I Don’t Want to be a Man (1918)
Funeral Parade of Roses (1969)

You can hardly fault this list - it's perfect. It ticks every box, ranging from early experimental film (I DON'T WANT TO BE A MAN) to gorgeous, cult classics such as BEAU TRAVAIL and TROPICAL MALADY. There's camp, pure art, entertainment, and it pays great homage to the history of homosexual experience on screen. But I would venture to say that sheer hunger is missing from this list, and folly too, a little grain of madness that might stem from personal investment.

When I was a not-out seventeen-year-old I went to see Patrice Chereau's CEUX QUI M'AIMENT PRENDRONT LE TRAIN - a beautiful, now somewhat neglected film infused with melancholy and rage. Death hangs over the whole enterprise, as family and friends of a man who has recently died all travel by train to his funeral. The ghost of AIDS looms over the film; the man's friends are bohemian, predominantly gay. In a scene early on in the film, two characters, one in a couple and the other single, are so consumed with desire that they head off to the train's toilets to fuck. The scene came as a shock to me, in part because it was so in-your-face, but also because it was a turn-on, of a kind that I had basically never had the opportunity to experience at the cinema. The film itself is magnificent by any critical criteria - extremely intelligent, unflinching, with astonishingly raw and honest performances; but what I'm trying to say is that "LGBT", as a category, doesn't really start to explain a compulsion, a personal understanding, that perhaps is not itself critical but sometimes necessary. (Side note: when Patrice Chereau died a few years back, very few obituaries mentioned his sexuality at all.)

Indeed, a certain fuck-you quality is missing from the poll. John Waters gets short shrift, whereas Todd Haynes' tasteful CAROL hits the top spot. While I love CAROL (almost) as much as the next person, I've been fairly startled to see the adulation reserved for this most classical and contained of Haynes' films. CAROL is certainly a beautiful film, and possibly represents the peak of Haynes' achievement in the form, but I'm surprised and possibly dismayed that the fury that animated his early work, the formal invention and playfulness that he displayed in previous films, seem to have fallen by the critical wayside. As I suggested with PRIDE, above, we seem to have moved on to an era in which anger has less resonance, is less interesting to us. The anger that characterised the work of the New Queer Cinema, of which Haynes was a proponent along with filmmakers like Tom Kalin and Gregg Araki, seems to have dispelled. Nevertheless we should still pay tribute when acknowledging the work of queer pioneers.

A final reservation is about the premise of the list itself. The very basis of the list, that we can elect an LGBT canon, seems to me to misrepresent history and give us a skewed vision of past achievement on film. To put it another way: if you had to pick a top 200 LGBT films of all time, you wouldn't be able to leave very many films out. You'd find FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL scrabbling around at #197, simply because there aren't many queer films at all. This is because - as everyone knows, but bears repeating - the reason queer people weren't making films isn't because they didn't want to, but because of deeply oppressive cultures. To look at this list, hilariously, you might be forgiven for thinking that, really, queers just weren't trying hard enough throughout the 20th century. We need historical context for all these films.

One excellent aspect of the latest Coen brothers film, HAIL, CAESAR!, is that it shows us in pointed, satirical terms how old Hollywood marginalised minorities: Jews, communists, and gay people. A big reveal towards the end of the film is a deft acknowledgment of the fact that many LGBT people in film were leading a double life, could not work as they wanted. In many cultures this is still the case: we still don't get a great deal of queer cinema from the middle east. The BFI poll, for all of its commendable intention to establish a canon, is sometimes at risk of undermining other contributions to the world of cinema that aren't so overtly LGBT in their text. For instance: what do A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (1951), I CONFESS (1953), REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955) and PSYCHO (1960) have in common? All of them have a totally inhabited central performance by a young queer lead actor: Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, James Dean, Anthony Perkins. Brando's fury as Stanley Kowalski, his sense of imprisonment in his home and his social class, seem to me deeply queer characteristics that are immediately relatable to many LGBT people: likewise the other three actors named here. Their contribution to cinema was going to change the landscape of cinema, as their angst, their method, gave way to the New Hollywood of the 1960s - but I believe it's deeply rooted in their sexuality. There is no way to represent this type of contribution in list form. And it isn't just them, of course, but designers of costumes, choreographers, writers; it's also in all of the straight material that gay people have joyously reframed as their own, by classifying it as camp or shlock.

The BFI's top 30 LGBT films does not claim to represent all of queer film history, and it's wrong to castigate it on this basis. The personal selections of many of the critics are illuminating and exciting. But I believe it also pays to discuss the nature of our sexualities, the nature of filmmaking itself, and that queer art is at its best when questioning, subverting or lampooning accepted critical hierarchies.


Mike said…
This is an excellent essay which captures a lot of my complex thoughts on this issue in a clearer way than I've even been able to think of them. Thanks a lot for it.
Tom said…
I don't agree with your take on Pride at all. Not to mention you're wrong when you say they don't mention AIDS at all in the film. They do. Several times. Explicitly. It would have taken you ten seconds to look up the script. It's also given a lot of space in the text cards at the end. I also don't think that you can hold it against a crowdpleaser aimed at family audiences that they aren't overly explicit about 'a presumably very violent gay-bashing.' Plenty of young gay people that I know loved the film and for some of them it even helped them come to terms with who they are. I think it unwise to belittle these types of LGBT films with wider appeal (and release), especially when your reasons to do so are either inaccurate or misguided.
Rick Powell said…
Thanks for this post. It's nice to see some pushback against what's mostly a conservative and very anglo establishment-cinephile list. As you wrote, the individual lists are more fun, although Dyer's is pretty disappointing.

The two daring exceptions on BFI's list are Un chant d’amour, which still seems radical, and Portrait of Jason. I dunno, this list didn't lead me to any discoveries, which is what I thought great lists were for.


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