/ 23 January 2015

When cinema casts gay desire as deviant behaviour

Samthing Soweto album cover Eb'suku.
Samthing Soweto album cover Eb'suku.

In mainstream cinema, the repetitive trope “gay men who kill” is one that can be so ambiguously drawn, so subtly threaded through the narrative that it can pass undetected. 

Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948), Sam Mendes’s American Beauty (1999) and now the five-time Oscar-nominated Foxcatcher (2014) by Bennett Miller continue to reinforce that narrative.

Since its release, Foxcatcher has spawned a revealing response from Mark Schultz – an Olympic gold medalist wrestler (played by Channing Tatum in the film) – after critics pointed to an underlying tension implicating Schultz in a sexual relationship with American billionaire and wrestling enthusiast John E du Pont (played by Steve Carell). 

The biopic maps Du Pont’s struggle between his patriotic ­identity and his homosexual urges, culminating in the cold-blooded killing of Schultz’s brother, fellow wrestler Dave (played by Mark Ruffalo).

Gay label fear
Late last year, Schultz launched a Twitter tirade against Miller, stating: “I HATE BENNETT MILLER. I HATE EVERYTHING THAT SCUM TOUCHES. EVERYTHING!!!”

In a more pointed rant, he also accuses Miller of “jeopardising my legacy” and calls him a “pussy” for propagating “a sickening and insulting lie”, adding, among other disclaimers, that he has “never touched” Du Pont.

Understandably, anyone would be upset by the suggestion of a sexual relationship that never existed – but why the rage from Schultz? Considering the nature of his language, his aggression might be an indication of the fear and revulsion of being labelled and remembered in history as a homosexual.

In an unexplained volte-face, Schultz deleted and retracted his “harsh” words. Last week, he praised Miller for producing a “miracle” movie that “is going to help wrestling”. He vows to “love my interpretation and will ignore the haters”.

We’re left to speculate about what prompted this shift in attitude, but perhaps the six degrees of separation from the Academy the nominations have brought Schultz has softened the blow considerably.

What Schultz’s Twitter tirade has unwittingly done, however, is force a spotlight on the “homicidal homosexual” trope that may otherwise have gone unnoticed. Now it seems difficult not to watch Foxcatcher without picking up the homoerotic tension as the main thread.

Patriotism and desire
Foxcatcher tells the story of an impotent, lonely individual who uses his money to bring world-class wrestlers to live and train on his estate, Foxcatcher Farm. But as a reluctant Dave Schultz puts to an eager young Mark Schultz: “What’s in it for him?”

Through a lurid gaze down an enormous prosthetic nose, Du Pont dresses up his investment as passionate patriotism – “to see this country soar again”.

For a self-styled “model American”, the central conflict between homosexual desire and national identity is subtly planted.

So what are the “clues” to Du Pont’s stake in supporting world-class wrestlers? Before he steps into the frame, the film sets an untainted, sensuous gaze on physically entangled hyper-masculine bodies thrashing it out in singlets.

As soon as the beady-eyed, gentle-toned patron looms from the corner of the ring, the look conflates into a menacing, repressed desire punctuated by moments when the multimillionaire appears to be grooming Mark Schultz, calling him into his office to tell him: “You look good … strong, fit.”

Catching out the closet queer
It is a film that directs a “policing eye” towards gestures of sexual ­difference, prompting a mode of spectatorship that involves “catching out” the closet queer for his camp, limp-wrist run and slight physique – and one can ask, as some critics have done: “Is Foxcatcher homophobic?”

The viewing experience is too subjective to land definitely on an answer, but perhaps this is not such a useful question in the first place.

In American Beauty we are also confronted with a character who kills another man out of a tortured inability to reconcile national identity with homosexual desire.

While inviting viewers to hunt for signs of gayness as a way to suss out mental instability and shame, both films expose the potentially psychotic effects of sexual repression.

And yet it is dangerous to downplay the problematic nature of Du Pont’s portrayal as a (probably) gay killer. 

Like the pointless killing in Rope, committed by a homosexual couple who go on to use the coffin as a dining table, Du Pont’s matter-of-fact murder of Dave Schultz is suggestive of a deeply disturbing mental deficiency.

Homoerotic discomfort
The resounding image of Dave – a devoted husband and father – bleeding to death in the snow with the word “kids” scribbled across his hand, positions the fallen family man in opposition to the unfeeling “homo killer” who points his nose up in disdain while stealthily retreating from the scene of the crime.

Du Pont’s display of sheer indifference in the face of meaningless destruction of life plays into the widespread conservative rendering of homosexuality as nonproductive, meaningless behaviour that threatens the nature of life itself.

Watching Foxcatcher, our eyes become attuned to homoerotic signifiers conflated with signs of “deviancy” in a protagonist whose strangeness is intriguing and repugnantly drawn.

The most glaring among the scenes of homoerotic suggestion is when Mark Schultz lies submissively beneath the puny but psychologically powerful weight of Du Pont, who squirms awkwardly on top of him during a midnight wrestle. 

As in Rope, the uncomfortable homoeroticism is all but directly depicted. 

Both films merely imply a causal relationship between gay desire and abusive behaviour, seemingly allowing the spectator to do all the legwork without feeling exposed to ideological dogma.

Mark Schultz’s initial revolt against Foxcatcher mirrors a widespread, deep-seated discomfort with blurring the lines of macho masculinity with homosexuality. 

Ironically, his anger and repulsion towards the movie are feelings that the narrative itself elicits within any viewer. The need to disassociate from the “destructive” character and to identify with the “healthy” alternative seems a natural reaction.

To observe Schultz’s aggressive response and subsequent shame at displaying such hate-filled language is an opportunity to address what incites social resistance to sexual difference and redirect our critical focus to “out” the trope rather than the character.