Somewhere along the line, after the shift towards mainstream gay acceptance, queerness in cinema died. Queer in the truest sense, not just films with gay characters, but unabashedly gay characters who challenge the status quo.
What do I mean I say “queer?” I mean strange, odd, different. And, most especially, transgressive and possibly shocking. Something that feels at odds with the rest of both mainstream heterosexual and mainstream gay culture. I’m talking about films by directors such as Derek Jarman, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Kenneth Anger; or the earlier efforts by guys still working in the business today: Gregg Araki, Gus Van Sant and John Waters. But, if contemporary LGBTI film festivals are any indicator, these transgressive punks of cinema have been replaced by a new wave of gay filmmaking. Films aimed at gay audiences but with commercial sensibilities, filled with contrived plots and lazy characterizations – like Eating Out (2004) or Another Gay Movie (2006).
Palme d’Or-winning Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013) was a welcome addition to the gay film canon, but it wasn’t queer in the truest sense. It was encumbered by – a term I generally avoid – the “straight male gaze.” A film etched in class differences more so than concerns of queer expression, though it was undoubtedly a film with queer content: romantic and erotic female relationships, explicit lesbian sex scenes, and the questioning of one’s sexual orientation. At the end of the day, director Abdellatif Kechiche made a beautiful film, arguably great even, but it is a film in the vein of (but much better than) Brokeback Mountain (2005) – successful in intention and execution, but aimed at a non-queer audience. They are studies of characters with an ambivalence towards their sexuality rather than a celebration of it.
In Gus Van Sant’s debut feature film, Mala Noche (1986), we meet Walt, a gay store clerk. He falls in love – sudden, unrequited, obsessive love – with a boyish Mexican immigrant. At one point he even declares, “I have to show him that I’m gay for him.” Gay. Gay. Gay. This film is very gay. It’s not the sort of politically-charged work Van Sant’s later, but still successful, Milk (2008) is, with big stars and big locations. It’s free from the shackles and burdens of money, as well as its obvious benefits. It’s the work of a young gay director attempting to share something intimate. It is queerness personified, unfettered by any studio system or mainstream accolades.
That is not to say that contemporary cinema lacks radical queer filmmaking. Andrew Haigh’s Weekend (2011), Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Tropical Malady (2004) and Patrick Wang’s In the Family (2011) are all striking examples of queer films made within the last decade that feel unapologetic and radical in their own ways. Weekend for its unabashedly gay riff on David Lean’s Brief Encounter and authentic male-on-male sex; Tropical Malady for its unrelenting elliptical take on homosexual desire through surprising narrative structure; and In the Family for its endlessly empathetic depiction of the domestic drama from an outsider’s perspective.
Maybe it is the growing acceptance of the gay community in most of modern society that is the very cause for queer cinema’s lack of queerness. There is no desire to fight for something the community believes they have won. No longer do filmmakers want to offend the heterosexual sensibilities of others – or the heterosexual sensibilities they themselves have adopted. I’m personally not quite ready for queer cinema to assimilate and lose itself to cheesy rom-com sentiments or mainstream-arthouse sensibilities. There is always something to rebel against. Now we just need to find it.