What Even Is Queer Cinema?


Here’s a piece I wrote* recently on what constitutes queer cinema for a promo mag for local Melbourne arthouse haven, Cinema Nova. I feel like I have more to say on the matter however so I will rant here for a bit. Don’t go to see queer films, go to see films. Period. Don’t go see Eastern Boys or Love Is Strange expecting films about gays; go watch them expecting stories about people. Just people. Don’t avoid Mommy because queer cinema is too far out of your comfort zone because there is nothing even remotely gay about it. You know what Mommy has in common with gay cinema? That there are people on a human level thinking and feeling and going about their lives. There is far less gayness in Mommy than there is in any of the Fast & Furious films but people will still flock to those even if Vin Diesel was fucking the corpse of Paul Walker on the bonnet of a speeding 18 wheeler.

It infuriates me to no end that queer cinema is side-pocketed the way it is. The only reason Brokeback Mountain did so well with mainstream audiences was the high profile straight men that were playing pink. I get it, adult dramas are a hard sell these days. You have to have a high profile director, stars and a hefty marketing campaign; all the money to be made is in gimmick films. You might see the pamphlets of Queer Film Festivals around, but it’s unlikely you would pay as much attention to it as say the quirky French Film Festival, or the upcoming seasonal blockbusters.

There was a time when queer cinema was all doom and gloom and coming out story after coming out story. I watched a lot of them as a late teen so I know it was pretty bleak, but there were good films among the weeds that were completely overlooked. I’ll admit, I roll my eyes every time I read about an upcoming film about a grown married man who’s sexuality unravels as he can no longer deal with the lies and secrets – those films will still get made, but it’s good films like Love is Strange that will be passed over in the same bracket even though it’s a film on it’s own stand – labeling it as a queer film is so unfair.

There are interesting queer filmmakers out there with good voices and vision that struggle to get their films made because funding does not favour the brave. Don’t go out and watch a ‘queer film’ because you feel like doing something different or it’s a gimmick; go and watch a film about people the same way you would watch any film about people. To be segregated from the crowd and placed into a niche market instead of thought of as one of the regular films sounds a little too familiar for my taste. See Mommy, it’s fucking fantastic.

*So what constitutes queen cinema? The conversation on the matter continues with the release of three films coming soon to Cinema Nova. Eastern Boys is a story of a group of lost boys living in Paris; gay youths on the run from their more oppressive past and unsure how to sustain their future. Love is Strange is the story of two newlyweds, Alfred Molina and John Lithgow, in New York who temporarily have to live separately due to unfortunate circumstance. Finally, with Xavier Dolan’s latest film Mommy, we get to see again a rocky relationship between a single mother and her temperamental son.

Eastern Boys is at its heart about the confusion and fear of struggling gay youth. It is about the issues young gays possess growing up in countries that don’t want them and how they survive with such limited skills and knowledge once escaped to a world that is a little more open. Featuring a stunning first ten minutes – as if a bird is following the movements of these boys in Paris’ Gare Du Nord train station – the film invites us into a world of seedy confusion that one growing up in a more privileged society would not normally know of. This blue-scale microcosm shows us the path of one of these curious lost boys, and the older gentleman that takes an interest in him. I feel like the lives these boys lead are a little outdated – the film seems a little old-fashioned in its ideas of how these boys survive – but the circumstances certainly existed at some point and probably for a long time, and it invites thought and discussion on the other young lost boys out there who are still searching for salvation on their path.

Love is Strange is a sweet and touching film about people. That the married couple at its centre are two men is totally irrelevant, the human drama at its core is very universal. These two men who have just gotten married, who have just had to move out of their Manhattan apartment, seek refuge in family and friends who will have them. They are separated as a result of space issues, but this is where the humour and drama comes from. It’s nice to see a film like this. A well written, nicely directed film about adult life, filled with great performers, including Marissa Tomei, who are natural and skilled at portraying an adult story. The sexual orientation of the married couple is immaterial, because it’s just about a married couple and the people they know, living in a city full of other married couples and people they know.

Xavier Dolan is a truly interesting filmmaker. Much like the way a young Pedro Almodovar came along and lit up the screens with a brazen fire that queer cinema hadn’t seen before, this young Quebecian has made five films in as many years and Mommy, his latest, is his most revered yet. In my eyes he is a filmmaker I eagerly anticipate more work from, and I think with this fantastic addition to his repertoire, more people will be too. A volcanic fifteen year old boy is returned home to his widowed mother, who has her fair share of spark in her, and their dynamic is rippled when a quiet neighbour joins their group. It’s impossible to talk about this film without talking about its appearance. Filmed in 1:1 ratio – a kind of “Instagram vision” which suits the young bright nature of the film – it cuts out the distractions of the scope of vision and focuses his story solely on the characters, a perfect vanity for such ferocious people. These three souls have problems and feel a strong sense of a need to belong, and watching them all interact is a joy. A sometimes tumultuous joy, but a joy nonetheless.

These three films couldn’t be more different but are all lumped into the queer cinema corner. The fact that Mommy has absolutely nothing to do with queer culture – featuring neither gay characters nor storylines – seems inconsequential due to the director’s status as a queer filmmaker. It’s an oddity really, when compared with say, The Imitation Game, which had a gay main character, yet will never be placed into the same cultural side pocket as Mommy, which has absolutely nothing to do with queer life. The same could be said for any films Almodovar releases, regardless of story and lack or abundance of queer content, it will be labelled as a queer film (and adored as such), simply based on the merits of the director.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It goes beyond the simple concept of straight directors making movies about queer people or queer directors telling the stories of straight people; it is part of the evolution of people making films about people. Period. Xavier Dolan has said repeatedly that he doesn’t want to be labelled as a queer director, and not to label his films as such. The divide between queer/straight is defined enough as it is in society in general without pigeonholing cinema too. Who knows, one day queer cinema might just be referred to as cinema. What a notion.

About H D Thompson

Rather be dead than boring actuallyharry.com @actuallyharry
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