Is there such a thing as queer cinema?
For many years, the cultural and artistic elements that define our community have struggled with the debate on how to capture, portray and inspire queer realities. As queer identity is based on sexuality, so the confirmation of queer identity is often confirmed by expressing sexuality. But that alone does not capture what it means to be queer – so what form should queer cinema take?
Both internally and externally, we often lament that queer literature is nothing more than erotica, queer events are nothing but twink raves, or queer cinema is nothing but softcore porn. What might be new is that mainstream cultural agents are appropriating and portraying our stories. Might this be allowing our cultural representation to be less about sex and more about interpersonal relationships?
And does it matter if queer cinema is defined by either semi-porn films like Eating out and Boy Culture, or social justice films like Philadelphia and Milk? It should. Canadian filmmaker Heather Tobin said, “Personally it was through characters like Kali on Grey’s Anatomy that made my own mother start to have a better understanding of the LGBTQ community.” The majority of society will access more mainstream media than strictly queer media.
It’s true of us as well; we all remember seeing a movie that had a moment that made you go, “Oh, ok, I might be gay.” These moments are happening through mainstream culture. It can be Y Tu Mamá También, Black Swan, My Private Idah, or any number of movies that stir something inside of us.
But if you asked what films define queer cinema, these are not the movies that would come up; most people would describe one of the first two above-listed categories. Yet this is a false dichotomy. According to CBC personality Clare Lawlor, “Queer cinema is defined by the stories about gay people. I think it’s that simple.” This definition would allow us to claim powerhouse movies like Boys Don’t Cry, The Beginners Priscilla Queen of the Desert and Birdcage. We don’t need to narrow the genre to anything.
There are companies that specialize in queer cinema including Wolfe, TLA Releasing, One More Lesbian and Busk films. We should be celebrating their presence, as they ensure gay cinema exists independent of the fluxes of interest from mainstream audiences. They are also delivering some of the most poignant and beautiful movie moments involving queer characters: living room dancing in Children of God and the musical number in Were the World Mine. And now these moments are free to be downloaded on smartphones, anywhere and everywhere. These are important cultural producers as they are producing queer cinema where queer characters are front and centre, instead of occupying minor roles.
“The film industry still doesn’t have equal representation of strong female leading ladies, so I think that it will be a while before more film revolve around lead queer characters,” points out Tobin. “And while I think that eventually we won’t have to distinguish between a queer film and drama or comedy, etc., this will be around the same time that we don’t call it gay marriage, it will be called marriage.”
While we dream of full societal acceptance, we have realistically been more successful in making great strides towards societal tolerance. Yet the presence of queer characters in current cinema is a sign that the debate is shifting. It’s not just Tobin’s mom that has a better understanding of her daughter because of Grey’s Anatomy. If Jack Nicholson can be challenged to the point of having a gay friend in As Good as It Gets, there is hope that society as a whole can evolve.
Cinematic agents of all stripes are part of this conversation, because queer characters are appearing in stories of all kinds, to strengthen the plot and explored themes. There are many examples taken from Canadian cinema. At the forefront of these films is C.R.A.Z.Y., a film that allowed an insight into how homosexuality is at the border of mainstream French Canadian culture. We could also add contemporary movie sweetheart Xavier Dolan’s trio of films: J’ai tué ma mère, Les amoureux and Laurence Anyways Before him, CBC favourite Sook-Yin Lee made a splash with Shortbus.
The latter once again poses the question, is queer cinema’s greatest value inherently tied to sex and how we portray it? “No, in the same way that a gay person who isn’t currently having sex doesn’t give up their gay identity,” said Lawlor. “I was gay before I ever kissed a girl and if I never kiss a girl again I’ll still be gay.”
This explains the success of movies like Cloudburst, which has one of Canada’s best actresses, Olympia Dukakis, exploiting the love of two people to deliver a charming, albeit sad story. I think that’s the true value of gay characters in contemporary cinema. Our stories are human stories, but our realities mean that human emotions are lived in higher contrast.
Yes, queer cinema exists. With the many sources of it, it might be hard to pick up trends, but we should be paying attention. We should encourage diversity. It can’t all be heavy social justice and it can’t be all softcore porn (although both have their place). As cinema explores the nooks and crannies of what it means to be human and what it means to exist, our stories – queer stories – are not only potential useful tools for storytelling, but they are also social realities that should be reflected, captured and portrayed, in all of art’s capacity to do so.
– Eric Plamondon is a Winnipeg-based freelance writer.