From The Drouth Issue 53: Territory
Back in August, a trailer for director Roland Emmerich’s new movie Stonewall was posted online with the tagline “inspired by the incredible true story of the unsung heroes whose courage broke down walls.” The promo featured a buff and traditionally attractive white, cisgender man rocking up in New York and seemingly helming the 1969 riots which are credited with kicking off the gay liberation movement in the US. As pointed out by hordes of incensed viewers on social media, the historic uprising was, in actuality, fore-fronted by people of colour, trans people, and lesbian women. Emmerich’s effort in presenting queer history was blatantly engaging in whitewashing, cis-washing, and male-washing with its Hollywood character mould of a white male underdog overcoming all the odds to triumph against adversity.
Emmerich defended his choice of main character for Stonewall as a deliberate appeal to heterosexual audiences. “I kind of found out, in the testing process, that actually, for straight people, [Danny] is a very easy in. Danny’s very straight-acting. He gets mistreated because of that. [Straight audiences] can feel for him.”This summarises well the co-option and assimilation of queer stories by Hollywood/mainstream cinema. Films about LGBT people can only get major funding if they appeal to straight, cisgender audiences, which necessitates watering down their queerness in the process.
People identifying themselves and their work publicly as LGBTQ – as is the case with Emmerich, a gay man – have only relatively recently been able to achieve funding and distribution for feature films. The New Queer Cinema movement of the 1990s introduced such movies as aesthetically credible to mainstream critics and potentially marketable to wider audiences. However, the subsequent trickle of films tackling queer subject matter from an ostensibly queer perspective is heavily refereed by cis, hetero society. Stonewall is one of the more blatant and, according to most people who have seen it, meritless examples of commercialising and diluting queer culture to cash in at the box office. Alongside other films with more nuance and queer potential, though, there are various patterns discernable. Limited leeway given to LGB (rarely L and definitely not T) filmmakers has resulted in, for instance, New Queer Cinema survivor Gus Van Sant’s stunning Milk (2008) – based on the life of politician Harvey Milk, the first openly gay person to be elected to office in California. Innovative in its soft-lit, romantic depiction of gay male relationships within a film marketed to the mainstream, Milk was nevertheless made palatable through straight men (Sean Penn, James Franco, Diego Luna) play- ing the lead gay roles. Dallas Buyer’s Club (2013), directed by another out gay man, Jean-Marc Vallée, relies on the conventionally heterosexual presence of Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto, playing a straight man who has stumbled into the queer world through contracting AIDS and a trans woman respectively. Another set of safely straight celebrity actors, John Lithgow and Alfred Molina, play ageing lovers in queer director Ira Sach’s biggest budget film to date, Love is Strange (2014). In Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right (2010), hetero women Julianne Moore and Annette Bening provide the cover for a story based around a lesbian couple. Moore popped up also in Tom Ford’s 2009 drama A Single Man, an adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s novel of the same name about a gay middle-aged college professor, played in the movie by hetero heartthrob Colin Firth.
Through their choice of actors alongside their dominance by cisgender, white (usually male) characters, these films directed by gay individuals have started to merge fairly seamlessly into sizeable budget outings with queer storylines directed by cis, straight people. Examples include Brokeback Mountain (2005), Transamerica (2005), I Love You Phillip Morris (2009), Albert Nobbs (2011), The Imitation Game (2014), Pride (2014), I Am Michael (2015), and
The Danish Girl (2015). All the big budget films exhibit other means of upholding a non-threaten- ing, liberal approach and diminishing any antagonism towards hetero society. Historical subject matter is frequent and implies a contem- porary realm of progressiveness whilst avoiding looking directly at the picture of continuing oppression of more marginalised LGBTQ communities. This is the case with Stonewall, Milk, A Single Man, and Dallas Buyer’s Club, as well as Brokeback Mountain, depicting forbidden love between two men in the 60s and 70s US, Albert Nobbs, about a proto-trans man in 19th century Ireland, The Imitation Game, a drama about WW2 codebreaker and persecuted gay man, Alan Turing, Pride, about lesbian and gay activists who supported the miner’s strike in 80s Britain, and The Danish Girl, a biopic about Lili Elbe, thought to be the first recipient of gender reassignment surgery in the 1930s. These movies tend to end on an idealogical high note, suggesting the notion of societal advance they depend on. Dallas Buyer’s Club rests on the idea that its character’s life has paved the way for better treatment of AIDS victims, The Imitation Game ends with the Allied Victory and the saving of millions of lives, and Pride highlights that the union of gay people and miners led to the UK Labour Party enshrining gay rights in its policies.
From around the mid-2000s onwards, western cinema has been increasingly tapping into the dominant liberalism and progressivism respectable LGBT politics has become steeped in to generate box office returns. These films simultaneously either ignore or perpetuate intersectional concerns. Most of them sideline and/or denigrate women and femininity. Brokeback Mountain associates its vast, natural Wyoming mountains and rivers with freedom in contrast to its male lovers’ domestic lives with their wives, which symbolise repression and backwardness. Milk, Dallas Buyer’s Club, and The Imitation Game are versions of the male genius biopic. The former two films actually kill off their most feminine queer characters, Harvey Milk’s exaggeratedly camp lover, Jack, and Leto’s trans woman, Rayon, after she has inspired McConaughey’s cis straight Ron to see the error of his ways. Pride focuses on the gays in telling the story of activist group Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, makes the movie’s villain an older, homophobic woman in small town Wales, and uses feminist separatists forming their own organisation (Lesbians Against Pit Closures) as a comedic aside. Transamerica, an adaptation of the father-son bonding road movie featuring a trans woman connecting with her long-lost son would have been unlikely to get funding/status if the latter character was replaced with a daughter. Even The Kids Are All Right, which must rank as the highest budget film ($4 million) to be directed by a lesbian woman and be about lesbian women, injected a cis, straight man into the storyline as the father (by anonymous sperm donation) of two lesbian women’s children and love interest for Moore’s character, who cheats on her wife with him. Director Cholodenko previously made lower budget queer movie High Art, which managed to maintain central characters who were all women. The presence of Mark Ruffalo as the kids’ dad no doubt increased the box office potential and thus impressed funders and mainstream exhibitors, demonstrating it’s seemingly not possible for a queer woman to depict her own life and commu- nity and achieve a high level of industry support and funding without including a strong hetero, cis male presence. Even then, The Kids Are All Right, made back in 2009, has not been replicated with no other films of that status directed by a woman since.
Criticisms of liberal approaches towards LGBT rights highlight that a handful of queer people are doing ok whilst many more are not due to their marginalised position. Cisgender, white, rich gay men are generally in a privileged place compared with everyone else. The liberal narrative erases this disparity and presents an image of LGBT people as happily married, happily integrated into consumerist society. It’s a picture which is dictated by and suits cis, straight society because it’s non-threatening and requires no self-examination. Few of the above films attempt to represent in any nuanced way LGBTQ people outside of white, cis men and those that do – the handful that feature trans and female characters in substantial roles – fail to do so without caveats or being fairly offensive.
A greater amount of independent or arthouse filmmaking with LGBTQ content offers more nuances whilst also exhibiting traits similar to its more mainstream counterpart. Well-received western films since the mid-2000s include My Summer of Love (2004), Breakfast on Pluto (2005), Shortbus (2006), XXY (2007), Cloudburst (2011), Weekend (2011), Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013), and the films of successful queer auteurs Gregg Araki (Mysterious Skin (2004), Kaboom(2010)), Todd Haynes (I’m Not There (2007), Carol (2015)), Pedro Almodóvar (Bad Education (2004), I’m So Excited (2013)), Francois Ozon (Time to Leave (2005), The Refuge (2009)), Celine Sciamma (Water Lillies (2008), Tomboy (2011)), Xavier Dolan (Laurence Anyways (2012), Tom at the Farm (2014), Mommy (2014)), Ester Martin Bergsmark (She Male Snails (2012), Something Must Break (2014)) (and Alain Guiraudie (Stranger by the Lake (2013)).
A decidedly queer, political camp fights on from its origins in closeted early queer Hollywood and US experimentalism (e.g. Kenneth Anger, Andy Warhol) in the work of John Cameron Mitchell (Shortbus), Araki, Haynes, Almodóvar, Ozon, and Dolan. Other films like My Summer of Love, XXY, Blue is the Warmest Colour, and Something Must Break fit into the part-realist, part- allegorical western arthouse style which prevails in independent cinema and regular (straight) film festival programming. Non-Western queer directors given prestige on the international arthouse circuit such as Lucrecia Martel (The Holy Girl (2004), The Headless Woman (2008)) and Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Tropical Malady (2004)), are credited most often for their national aesthetic, in these cases as representatives of Argentinean and Thai politics and concerns respectively, rather than their LGBTQ content or style.
The arthouse line-up is clearly again mono- polised by white, cisgender men. Though, in the last few years directors like Sciamma, a lesbian woman, and Bergsmark, a genderqueer, trans woman, have made breakthroughs. Bergsmark seems to be the first trans filmmaker elevated to auteur status on the Euro-arthouse circuit signified by acceptance of their films into straight film festivals and general (limited) release. Causing ongoing problems for queer directors trying to get funding and have some say over their own narratives are movies like Blue is the Warmest Colour. An adaptation of a graphic novel by a lesbian woman, Blue was directed by a cis, straight man and starred two cis, straight women as lesbian and bisexual characters. The three filmmakers were jointly awarded the Palme d’Or at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival for their efforts, a win which was praised as a mark of progress for LGBT inclusion in French society. However, the film’s unrealistic depiction of lesbian experience along with its exploitative, graphic sex scenes have been rightly criticised by many. Frustratingly, Blue’s win at Cannes and related financial success (the film took $20 million at the box office) seem to have spurred a run of further productions focusing on lesbian women but made by cis men, such as The Duke of Burgundy (2014), Freehold (2015), and Carol (2015).
Films with arguably the most queer authenticity which challenge the dominant cis, hetero culture have of necessity their own, alternative exhibition circuits, namely queer film festivals and the internet. There are many works of cinema made by and for LGBTI and queer communities, often made with no or little funding and in an overtly activist context. Queer film festivals have grown and proliferated since they first began in the 1970s. New ones continue to spring up in answer to the appropriation of queer stories by and marginalisation of queer communities within film culture. These festivals provide an alternative exhibition circuit for a wealth of films which are ignored by the mainstream and provide opportunities for LGBTQ audiences to connect and reinforce their mutual politics and aspirations. Here in Scotland, this year saw the launch of two new queer film festivals in active response to the lack of LGBTQ representation and privileging of white, heterosexual, male films and filmmakers in the country’s production and exhibition scenes. Scottish Queer International Film Festival (SQIFF) screened work by and about queer directors which would not be otherwise get a big screen outing in Scotland such as camp, activist lesbian comedy Dyke Hard (2014), experimental trans documentary Peace of Mind (2015), and Sri Lankan bisexual drama Frangipani (2014). Glitch, a Queer Trans Intersex People of Colour (QTIPOC) film festival, took place in Glasgow in March and contained only work either made by or featuring people of colour, a group experiencing even less recognition and access to funding within the handful of queer films which achieve some level of mainstream success. Glitch showcased historical films and renowned QTIPOC artists such as Vivek Shraya, Popo Fan, and Vaginal Davis alongside a variety of work by emerging filmmakers.
The emergence of the internet as an exhibition space offers a further degree of opportunity for queer filmmakers shut out from film culture. Sins Invalid, a performance collective centring artists of colour and queer and gender-variant artists embarked in October this year on a month-long “Pay-Per-View Online Performance” facilitated via Facebook which allowed audiences to rent filmed performances of the group and pay what they could afford. Digital Desperados, an organisation running filmmaking courses for women of colour who also produced Glitch festival, have many of their films available to watch on Vimeo. Such exhibition formats exist along with attempts at LGBTQ-focused online streaming with Wolfe Video in the US – adapting from being the world’s oldest regular distribution of LGBT titles to digital distribution – the largest so far attempted. Such outlets allow determined queer viewers to experience a wider array of films than the narrow representations appearing in their local cinemas. The sheer volume of general online content makes it difficult, though, for queer films to achieve the potentially huge audience numbers the new tech dawn hints at or to get back enough financial input to allow under-represented artists to gain the funding or recognition which allows new work to be produced.
The division between mainstream and ‘real’ queer film clearly lacks nuance. As Barbara Mennel puts it, “Mainstream and subversion are not mutually exclusive but co-depending, shifting and changing circumscriptions.” There is al- ways cross-over between the categories of queer films identified above. Approximately one lesbian woman loves Blue is the Warmest Colour for every ten who hate it. Teasing out some of the motives and divisions along the continuum of movie- making classified as queer is helpful, though, in explaining the current situation from the point of view of queer film workers and fans.
Stonewall, meanwhile, was reportedly pulled early from cinemas in the US after bombing at the box office. Mainstream critics slated it almost unanimously, pointing to the film’s white- washing amongst other political crimes in their reviews. Their response appears to have been at least partly determined by the online campaign against the movie led by queer activists, particularly queer people of colour, who set up a petition to boycott the film and used Facebook and Twitter to publicise their discontent. This is a development which speaks to the potential of online democracy as a way for queers to fight back against cinema promoting assimilation and indulging in cultural theft. Evolution of queer cinema apace with that of the online world may yet bring about changes to the making, dissemination, and aesthetics of popular films with LGBTQ content.
 Benjamin Lee, ’Roland Emmerich: gay rights drama Stonewall needed ‘straight-acting’ hero,’ http://www.theguardian.com/ film/2015/sep/24/roland-emmerich-gay-rights-drama- stonewall-needed-straight-acting-hero on theguardian
 Barbara Mennel, Queer Cinema: Schoolgirls, Vampires and Gay Cowboys (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), pp.103-104.
 Within an academic context, Rosalind Galt has pointed to a “queer sensibility” within world cinema in the work of directors like Martel and Weeerasethakul. See Galt, ‘Default cinema: queering economic crisis in Argnetina and beyond,’ in Screen (Spring 2013) 54 (1), pp. 62-81.
 Barbara Mennel, Queer Cinema: Schoolgirls, Vampires and Gay Cowboys (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), pp.96-97.
From: Drouth Issue 30, PUBLIC