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A Discreet History

Ahead of his performances at the International Dublin Gay Theatre Festival David Turpin writes for on a few issues with what mainstream audiences have come to recognise as gay cinema. Find out more about David’s festival shows here (he plays this Friday 16th and Saturday 17th at The Cobalt Cafe) and read his other work for here.

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I like Brokeback Mountain, but I have a problem with it.  I found Ang Lee’s movie a very finely crafted, mostly well acted piece of American filmmaking, and when it came out in 2004 I went to see it twice.  And yet… I enjoyed Brokeback Mountain, but I couldn’t shake the feeling I was also expected to be grateful for it.  My problem is with the fanfare that surrounded it, a storm of self-important braggadocio that makes the film itself seem like the calm eye in a hurricane of bullshit.

No sooner had Brokeback Mountain emerged (right in the middle of Oscar season), than it was hailed as a bolt from the blue – a sudden and comprehensive vindication (despite having been in development in one form or another for about six years) of, well, gayness.  Acres of coverage were devoted to the bravery and dedication of the film’s emphatically heterosexual stars, to the self-sacrifice of the (again, mostly straight) production team in “fighting” to bring this highly commercially viable property to the screen, and perhaps most ludicrously, to the film’s status as the great romantic tragedy for our enlightened time – after all, the producers pointed out several times, its poster art was modelled on that of Titanic.  (This final suggestion is indicative of the film’s subtle but significant reworking of Annie Proulx’s 1997 short story, which constructs the relationship between its protagonists not as a grand love affair but as a kind of hysteria that sweeps over them when they come under the influence of the eponymous landform.)

If Brokeback Mountain was the “first” anything, it was the first time $14 million dollars worth of Hollywood money had latched onto the $100 million-plus market for a prestige picture on a gay theme.  I can see why the investors would be popping their champagne corks over that, but while being recognised as a market can feel good at first, it can also be a poisoned chalice.  Beneath the celebratory chatter – beneath those posters plastered all over London tube stations inviting consumers to “own [Brokeback Mountain] with pride on DVD” – there seemed to be a quiet but emphatic voice that spoke directly to gay cinephiles:  “You can put away your Joan Crawfords and Jane Fondas now,” it said.  “We’ve produced new icons for you – and, what’s more, they’re Real Men”.  Frankly, I’m not sure that counts as an advance – especially since, once the “floodgates” opened, all that actually came through them was Milk (2008).  Good as both films are, the message in mainstream cinema discourse is clear:  You begin to exist when you begin to look like everything else.

What troubles me most about the construction of Brokeback Mountain as the “big bang” of gay cinema is the way it relegates a rich cinematic history to the status of a beleaguered “before”, as independent gay filmmakers and audiences attempted to amuse themselves while waiting for an enlightened “after” in which major studios would relieve them of the burden.  Immediately, the films I’d sought out – often in secret – and grown up with became the mad first wives, stowed away in the attic once something more respectable came along.  Rummage around up there, though, and you’ll find some wonderful things.

Dream A40

Dream A40

Dream A40, a 1965 short by Jamaican filmmaker Lloyd Reckord, recently reissued by the BFI as part of its DVD release Encounters: Four Ground-breaking Classics of Gay Cinema, is a fascinating piece, moving almost imperceptibly from a realistic depiction of a young male couple on a road trip to a shadowy dystopian fantasy, that owes a visual debt to Jean Cocteau’s Orpheé (1950) and Orson Welles’ The Trial (1962).  James Bidgood’s Pink Narcissus (1971), also available from the BFI, is the very antithesis of respectable mainstream gay cinema, an expansive fantasia all constructed within Bidgood’s tiny New York apartment using window dressing materials and the occasional flourish of stop-motion animation.  The hyper-saturated colour palette and single-minded eroticism of Bidgood’s film anticipate the ultra-finessed photography of French artists Pierre et Gilles, as well as the aesthetic of the quintessential Mad Gay Movie: Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Querelle (1982).

A jaw-droppingly unhinged fetish object constructed out of the debris of Jean Genet’s Querelle de Brest, Fassbinder’s final film has long been dismissed as a bizarre digression lent an unfortunate heightened significance by the director’s death two months before its release.  Certainly, the marketing of the film as some kind of definitive final statement was misleading, as Querelle’s lurid excess is far removed from the “quintessential Fassbinder” of Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974) and The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979), but suspend your expectations and Querelle has treasures to spare.  Old-school capsule review kingpin Leslie Halliwell describes it as an “overheated fantasy which may have something to say to gays, but not much to other audiences” and, while I can’t be sure, I think that’s supposed to be a disparagement.  It’s also a fairly neat summation of what’s great about Querelle, because while it’s very difficult to determine what, if anything, the film “has to say” – something about the attraction of pure evil, maybe – it’s that very hermetic quality that makes it so mesmerising.  Essentially, Querelle is 108 minutes of Jeanne Moreau, Franco Nero and Brad Davis panting at each other from amidst the soft furnishings of a booze-and-coke-addled Fassbinder’s onanistic dreamscape, and in that sense it really is a film with something for everyone.  The beautiful new restoration recently made available by Artificial Eye on Blu-Ray also reveals the sheer eerie beauty of Querelle, which has been hidden behind muddy VHS transfers for the past 30 years.

1982's "QUERELLE" with Brad Davis and, Jeanne Moreau

1982’s “QUERELLE” with Brad Davis and Jeanne Moreau

Querelle’s deep dive into eroticism, criminality and evil is sure to raise hackles even today, but it’s part of a lineage of films that situate sexual difference within a spectacle of often violent transgression.  In the U.S. mainstream, William Friedkin’s Cruising (1980) and Paul Verhoven’s Basic Instinct (1992) drew virulent protests from both the moral majority and the minorities they supposedly demonised, yet their poisonous glamour reverberates decades after the outrage has subsided.  The sexual outsiders of these films don’t seek approval or acceptance – they offer nightmare visions of difference that, unlike the martyred heroes of Brokeback Mountain and Milk, are difficult to process and pack away.  We don’t pat ourselves on the back for watching Basic Instinct, but we continue to watch it all the same.

It might be easy – and accurate – to dismiss Cruising and Basic Instinct as exploitative trash made by heterosexual filmmakers finding new ways to goose a mainstream audience, but how do we “explain away” those gay filmmakers who are continually drawn to images of criminality and violence?  Take, for instance, Tom Kalin, whose entire feature career to date consists of two brilliant, highly stylised true crime films:  1992’s Swoon, which spins the Leopold and Loeb “thrill killing” case of the early 1920s into a stylised monochrome fantasia, and 2007’s Savage Grace, which turns the Barbara Daly Baekeland murder of 1972 into a “Lifestyles of the Rich and Demented” saga starring a never-better Julianne Moore and told with a glassy restraint worthy of David Cronenberg.  Swoon, which updates the luminous monochrome of Genet’s only film piece, Un Chant D’amour (1950), and Savage Grace, which owes something to both the Douglas Sirk melodramas of the 1950s and the discomfiting luxury of late-period Visconti, are reminders not only of an alternative history of gay cinema, but of the dark side of 20th-century gay history itself.  The lovers of Tom Kalin’s films become murderers when their desire is denied a place in society, just as their stories are denied a place in history.  When Leopold and Loeb use an anachronistically placed touch-tone phone in Swoon, it’s a reminder that they can’t be packed away into the past, that society’s habit of creating monsters from its exiles continues to the present day.  Ang Lee’s film sets itself the relatively easy task of eliciting retrospective sympathy for a pair of fictionalised victims, Kalin’s films, on the other hand, ask us to confront our feelings about real-life figures who lashed out violently, even psychotically, against the strictures in which they found themselves.

One of the most unfortunate side-effects of the mainstreaming of gay themes, from Brokeback Mountain onward, is the gradual shrinking of both audiences and cinema distribution outlets for more exotic fare.  In the 1980s and 1990s when gay audiences were forced to seek out representation rather than having it served to them from a jelly-mould, filmmakers like Fassbinder and Derek Jarman found audiences for work that was not only authentically “queer”, but also innovative and transgressive at the level of cinematic form.  Precious little of that finds its way to our cinemas now.  Still, a welcome note of the sinister seems to be creeping back into “post-Brokeback” gay cinema.  Two recent French-language films – Xavier Dolan’s Tom at the Farm (2014), which slips elements of Hitchcock pastiche into Dolan’s usual glamorous disaffection, and Alain Guiradie’s Stranger By the Lake (2013), which splits the difference between Roman Polanski and David Hockney – suggest that, while respectability has its merits, there’s something to be said for maintaining one’s claim on the transgressive.

What, finally, of the great love story that Brokeback Mountain promised us and that the gay filmmakers of the 20th century were, justifiably, too angry to deliver?  We finally got it in 2012, in the form of Ira Sach’s minor-key masterpiece Keep the Lights On.  You might not have noticed, because it did not receive a cinema release in this country.

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David Turpin is a recording artist (as The Late David Turpin) and an occasional academic.  You can read about him at