Queer movies get real
Ira Sach’s new film, Keep the Lights On, follows the decade-long relationship between two men who meet on a New York phone-sex line in 1998.It includes explicit sex and copious drug use; it also includes domestic squabbles, quotidian work hassles and meals with friends, straight and gay.
No one comes out or dies and everything is shown with the same fluid, elegant transparency. “I feel very few films convey the communal nature of urban life these days, the lack of boundaries,” Sachs says. “‘Those are the gays over there’ — that’s not how we live any more.”
Keep the Lights On is at once very good and conspicuously ordinary. Like several other recent features about gay characters by gay directors it deploys naturalism — often shooting with hand-held cameras in found locations and using performances that smack of improvisation — to tell a story rooted in psychological specificity but with universal resonance.
Andrew Haigh’s Weekend, released last year to widespread acclaim, used a similar approach with its story of two guys hanging out after meeting in a club in Nottingham in England’s east Midlands. And Travis Mathews’s forthcoming I Want Your Love explores a twentysomething San Francisco artist’s social circle in a comparable style. It is a peculiarly powerful mode that represents a welcome shift in queer cinema — an embrace of the real.
Substantial representations of unambiguously gay characters were rare on film before the 1980s. Just as shoots were showing through — 1982’s Making Love was a watershed — the Aids crisis derailed gay life and its representation.
The on-screen reaction of the late 1980s and 1990s came to be known as New Queer Cinema: filmmakers such as Gus Van Sant, Todd Haynes and Gregg Araki responded to the threats of terminal illness, political disenfranchisement and social exclusion with expressionistic films in which poetry met porn, genre pastiche rubbed up against surrealism and apocalypse came in a pop-culture package. Their radical instability reflected their context.
In the 1990s, reality stabilised thanks to breakthroughs in Aids treatment and progress in legal recognition. Political and aesthetic sensibilities began to take a back seat to story and character. Challenges such as being openly gay or dealing with HIV, though still present, were more readily absorbed in conventional filmmaking.
For Hollywood, the weepy problem movie was the form of choice (hello, Philadelphia) but low-budget, gay-produced indies settled on the romantic comedy. The success of Jeffrey (United States, 1995) and Beautiful Thing (United Kingdom, 1996) set a template for upbeat, accessible features for which home-video audiences and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender film festivals constituted a viable market. Arguably, too viable: more titles were turned out, formula set in, then mediocrity; 2006 saw the production of a parody of such films, Another Gay Movie, which in turn spawned Another Gay Sequel. Assimilationist works for assimilationist times.
There are exceptions to these generalisations and huge differences between New Queer Cinema’s activist expressionism and the generic populism that succeeded it. But both could be seen in terms of a reality deficit.
“You can look at queer filmmaking in the past 20 years and say we often reverted to using metaphor as a way of telling our stories and avoided the stories themselves,” says Sachs. He has done the opposite: Keep the Lights On is autobiographical, revisiting in often excruciating detail the relationship between Sachs and his former partner, a crack-addicted book editor. Compulsion and co-dependency, deception and desperation lace the narrative, but there are no heroes or villains and no melodrama. “I wanted to invert the secretive nature of the story by making a film that was very open,” Sachs says, faithful to the small, telling details of these experiences.
There is an element of wish fulfilment to romantic comedies, suggests Haigh, “of wanting to see happy, well-adjusted lives on screen”. Mathews agrees: “Like any minority group, when you start making your own media it might be really exciting just to see representations of yourself,” he says.
“I don’t want to sound like an asshole, but a lot of movies got green-lit because of representation regardless of the quality of the work. People are hungry now for stories that respect their level of intelligence and their actual experience.”
Weekend and I Want Your Love developed independently but simultaneously. “I suppose there was a frustration that came from the kind of queer films we were seeing at festivals and wanting to do something that we felt represented the real lives of gay people,” Haigh says. “They were showing a world I knew nothing about — a superficial, frothy rom-com look at gay life. You want to be able to describe the gay experience in all its complexity without worrying that your film has to represent a community.”
These filmmakers seek to describe the experience of being queer today through stories that resonate beyond that context. There can be a perception among straight people that the troubles of homosexuals are over, at least in the West. Sachs, however, stresses the lifelong consequences of growing up queer. “Individually, we’re still affected on a day-to-day level by having discovered our sexuality with fear and shame and self-hatred. My film documents that. On the other hand, my identity is not questioned on a daily basis in the way that it was 20 years ago. I’m not so troubled by identity, so nor are my films.”
Haigh, too, says: “It was important to show [in Weekend] that there are still lots of subtle things we have to overcome. No gay person would say everything’s fine now. But we can move away from the big issues and go a few layers deeper, which makes the films more accessible to a lot of people because they’re about more universal issues. These characters’ struggles aren’t just about being gay — they’re trying to connect with someone, to sort out what to do with their lives.”
These films share a frank approach to sex. The intimate scenes in Weekend and Keep the Lights On highlight how perverse it is that most films about couples neglect this aspect of relationships. “I wanted to depict sexual behaviour as it is,” says Sachs. “It’s a part of everyday behaviour, even if people often compartmentalise it. There’s a continuity of experience in the film.”
“If you’re trying to do an honest depiction of a relationship, sex is part of that,” says Haigh. “There have been a lot of queer films with sex in them and a lot of it has been for titillation, or out of happiness that we can show gay sex on screen at all. For me, it’s part of the story you’re trying to tell rather than a case of trying to shoehorn sex scenes in for their own sake.”
Mathews’s feature has more — and more graphic — sex scenes than Haigh’s or Sachs’s. The sex in I Want Your Love is plentiful, explicit and unsimulated, but also illuminating in terms of numerous characters’ relationships with one another. “There’s so much communication, so much information exchanged between two people when they’re having or attempting to have sex,” he says. “It surprises me it’s not played with more as a story or character device.”
Mathews had already explored sex as a subject matter in a series of documentary shorts called In Their Room, which helped him to secure funding for I Want Your Love from porn studio NakedSword.
Given the near-impossibility of finding mainstream backing for a film with such hard-core content, he had few qualms about getting into bed with the company. “I knew the people involved and how much creative freedom I was going to have,” he says, “and it was an extension of what I was already doing [with In Their Room]. I knew I was going to deliver something that was going to provoke arguments over whether it was art or porn and I hoped it would encourage other projects within the porn world that pushed those boundaries.” It remains to be seen whether that will happen.
Not that gay directors have a monopoly on explicit sex, as Steve McQueen and Lars von Trier’s recent projects show; James Franco has approached Mathews about collaborating. Indeed, Sachs stresses the importance of non-gay influences on his work — as well as Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Derek Jarman, he was inspired by John Cassavetes, the Dogme movement and Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine. Haigh also cites the influence of recent straight “low-budget American cinema trying to do something more realistic”.
In a queer context, Mathews suggests these movies are “picking up where things like Making Love left off. Aids put things on hold — turned things urgent and political and experimental. We’re going back to measuring everyday life.”
Strikingly provocative slice-of-life antecedents include Ron Peck and Paul Hallam’s Nighthawks (UK, 1978) and Frank Ripploh’s Taxi Zum Klo (West Germany, 1980).
There is nothing new under the sun. But in uncertain times for both cinema as an art form and queerness in mainstream culture, it is heartening to see talented, ambitious filmmakers embracing the real — mess and all. As Haigh puts it: “We’re not afraid now to tell stories about flawed gay individuals who are fully rounded characters and just as fucked up about life as everyone else.” — © Guardian News & Media 2012