Consider two films. Both deal with lovers, outcasts from society, fugitives from the law who are propelled toward a tragic fate by a hostile world, a chaotic universe and obsessive love . . .
("Bonnie and Clyde"? "Gun Crazy"? "Harold and Maude"?)
. . . Their creators stretch the boundaries of traditional narrative, roll the stylistic dice and generally challenge your expectations . . .
(Fellini? Altman? Penny Marshall?)
. . . The films are new, independent, and their characters are gay.
(Oh. Why don't we just call it the new gay cinema?)
Well, perhaps we should consider things a bit further . . .
"The Living End," Gregg Araki's very dark and punkishly comic road saga about two HIV-positive lovers (which opened Friday), and "Swoon," Tom Kalin's elegant and intoxicating treatment of the infamous Leopold-Loeb case (which opens Sept. 25), certainly deal with gay characters. And gay issues. And they're part of what has seemed like an explosion in gay-produced and gay-oriented independent films over the last couple of years--including "Poison," "My Own Private Idaho," "Paris Is Burning," "Edward II" and "The Hours and Times."
But both films also wrestle with crime, hypocrisy, mortality, redemption, truth--matters that heterosexual cinema has always tried to deal with. The films--all these films--also differ wildly in both style and attitude. So to relegate these two films, or any of the current crop of gay-made films, into the same category requires a certain bias. As well as a certain leap of faith.
"I think there have simply been good gay filmmakers always," said Jennie Livingston, whose highly successful debut documentary "Paris Is Burning" concerned black and Latino drag queens. "And gay content in film always, usually in the independent sector. But before and after the (Hays) Code, gay subject matter was not permissible in Hollywood, or only permissible as an index of freakishness, which of course you still see in films to this day. Someone is rarely a gay person because they're a gay person. They're usually a gay person as (an) index of some psychosis. And I don't even have to name the movies."
We do: Last year, four major films--"JFK," "Basic Instinct," "The Prince of Tides" and "The Silence of the Lambs"--came under intense heat for what were seen as one-sided and distorted portrayals of gay characters and issues, and polarized the studios and the gay audience. And to deny that the new gay films are a reaction to Hollywood is not only to deny the way their directors are playing off Hollywood constructions, but to deny history.
Gays are hardly new to the movies, but Hollywood's record on homosexuality has been dubious. Gay subject matter, especially after the establishment of the code in 1930, was taboo (even if, as in something like "The Maltese Falcon," for example, opaque references occasionally slipped in).
That George Cukor, for instance, director of such films as "The Philadelphia Story," "Adam's Rib" and "My Fair Lady," was homosexual was no secret in the industry, but as Patrick McGilligan shows in his recent biography "George Cukor: A Double Life," every effort was made to keep it from the public.
Well-intentioned but flaccid efforts to be sensitive about gay men and women--remember "Personal Best" and "Making Love"?--have done little but reinforce the idea that gay filmmakers have to create their own cinema. England's Derek Jarman, for instance, has been doing it on a low-budget basis for years. And with AIDS generating as much anger as sadness, and veiled--and not so veiled--references to "family values" indicating new political offensives against homosexuality, gay filmmakers, like gays everywhere, have been energized.
"It would be difficult to be like George Cukor in the '90s," said Araki, a 32-year-old Los Angeles filmmaker, "if only because there's a sense that the issues have become so charged that you have to take a stand one way or another. And in that way there's this sort of generation of queers not just in film but all over who feel that being gay is a very big part of their identity and are much more vocal and much more expressive about it. And when they happen to be filmmakers as well, it results in these new queer films."
"There's been so much discussion about this new queer cinema, whatever that means," said New Yorker Kalin, 30. "I don't think 'The Living End' or 'Swoon' or 'The Hours and Times' (Christopher Munch's speculative film about Brian Epstein, John Lennon and their weekend in Barcelona in 1963) are 'spokesperson' films, but the whole issue raises questions about being a spokesperson, about a community, the debate over presenting 'positive images' . . . what's the inside and outside of queer? And how is this explosion kind of a market thing?"