From Pills Profits Protest: Voices of Global AIDS Activists
June is Gay Pride Month, a good time to reflect on what's been an explosive year for lesbian and gay stories. The gay marriage debate nationally front and center, a slew of new television shows hoping to capitalize on the emerging market for "gay shows," led by Queer Eye For the Straight Guy and Queer as Folk, and the appearance of major stars in lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender(LGBT)-related films have all blazed a trail for increasing interest in LGBT media. Suddenly gay stories are slipping into the mainstream, and a more diverse audience than ever before is snapping it up.
On February 12, San Francisco made history when longtime partners Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon were married at City Hall. The ensuing Valentine's Day weekend saw thousands of men and women flocking to City Hall to obtain marriage licenses, and with them were scores of filmmakers to record the history-making events. According to Frameline28 (San Francisco International Gay and Lesbian Film) Festival Director Jennifer Morris, "This eagerness to capture our remarkable stories on film is what has fueled this Festival since its inception 28 years ago, and the events of the past year have created a tremendous opportunity for filmmakers and audiences alike to be engaged in LGBT issues."
Over the years, gay media (specifically, television and film) has been steadily making progress, but this year it's been propelled to the forefront, upgraded from curio to cultural reference, akin to replacing Anna May Wong with, say, Lucy Liu. With that in mind, here's a look at the top trends of Lesbian and Gay film for 2004: what's changing, what may stay the same, and what films and people to keep your eyes on.
BIG SCREEN VS. SMALL SCREEN
The major difference between broadcast network television and film is that viewership for TV is much larger than for film. Additionally, viewer demographics as well as the viewing environment are vastly different for each medium. Those who go out and see a movie make a conscious choice, whereas home viewers may be exposed to programs they didn't actively select. People watch television at certain times, or simply channel surf. These factors, as well as the independent nature of films (as opposed to television shows which are monitored by the networks) enable films to be more adventurous and cutting edge, while television must stay within certain content boundaries. According to Scott Seomin, entertainment media director for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (in a story in the Dallas Morning News), "The broadcast networks still worry about advertisers and are extremely conservative in their programming. When we do see gay characters, we often see them gay in name only. We don't see them in relationships equal to their straight counterparts."
Another tendency of gay television is that of furthering the stereotype that all gays are merely male, affluent, and white. Thus far, HBO's Six Feet Under is about the only show with a gay black male character (plus Carter on ABC's Spin City).
(And we won't even bother with Boy Meets Boy, the sneaky reality/dating series in which not all the potential suitors are gay.)
But documentaries remain a great forum for depicting the reality of gay culture and sociology. With lesbian and gay rights a hot topic of discussion among policy groups, human rights groups and current affairs organizations, people are interested in getting at the truth. This opens the door for documentaries about gay marriage (Tying The Knot, In My Father's Church), gay parenting (Making Grace, Paternal Instinct), AIDS (Kevin's Room, Kevin's Room 2, Pills Profits Protest: Voices Of Global Aids Activists), spirituality (Saints And Sinners), and retrospectives on key figures in gay history (De-Lovely, Bola De Nieve, A Swiss Rebel: Annemarie Schwartzenbach 1908-1942, and the just-released on DVD classic The Life And Times Of Harvey Milk). The latter documentary (a 1985 Oscar-winner) chronicles the life and career of charismatic, openly gay San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk, whose life was cut short by an assassin's bullet.
With equal rights for gays continuing to be an issue, programs about violence and hate crimes, coming out, the experiences of gay youth and AIDS remain important subjects. For instance, Pills, Profits, Protest: Voices Of Global Aids Activists looks at life-and-death questions of health care and how community action and inaction can each create a ripple effect of change. Jim In Bold is a documentary exploring the aftermath of the suicide of a 19 year-old gay teen living in a small town in Pennsylvania. Laramie Inside Out addresses the response of a town to one of the most sensationalized and publicized hate crimes of the 1990s (see also The Laramie Project for more on this tragedy). Documentaries are a vehicle for awareness and social change, and remain an important genre for gay filmmakers.
STARS JUMPING IN
One leading indicator that gay films are becoming more mainstream is a greater involvement by major straight stars and directors in films with gay content. Two examples include films screening at Frameline28: Touch Of Pink stars Kyle MacLachlan (Twin Peaks, Blue Velvet), while acclaimed director Franco Zeffirelli's Callas Forever stars Jeremy Irons as a gay opera director. And Tom Hanks's Oscar-winning performance in Philadelphia (1993) arguably had some influence, encouraging other mainstream actors to be more open to playing gay characters. But we still see more films like The Birdcage (a comedy about how cute and endearing gay men can be!) and less that could be considered "brave."
Macaulay Culkin (right) with Seth Green in Party Monster
2003 marked the 10th Anniversary of Ang Lee's film The Wedding Banquet (finally just out on DVD). At an anniversary screening for the film in San Francisco, actor Winston Chao mentioned his initial hesitation and apprehension about being straight but playing a gay character. That stigma and hesitation is definitely changing, as evidenced by the involvement of numerous other mainstream stars in gay-themed films - like Macaulay Culkin in Party Monster, Mandy Moore in Saved! and Ed Harris and Nicole Kidman in The Hours. 2005 will give us Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain, a major release starring current Hollywood heartthrobs Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal as a ranch hand and a rodeo cowboy who meet in early 60s Wyoming... and fall in love.
IT'S NOT ALL ABOUT BEING GAY
Instead of focusing on gays as a centerpiece for every film, while gays are still often seen as token characters, more and more gay characters are depicted matter-of-factly, as incidental and more three-dimensional - it's no longer all about their gayness. For instance, Todd Graff's Camp (a modern version of director Alan Parker's 1980 classic Fame) features a gay teenager but centers on young people learning to perform and find themselves. And the cable TV series Nip/Tuck has been pointed to in several recent articles, including one on AfterEllen.com) for having multiple gay women characters who aren't actually dating each other (heavens!)
INDEPENDENT FILMS: UNEXPLORED TERRITORY
A handful of gay/lesbian-themed independents - The Crying Game, Boys Don't Cry - are edgy films that push the envelope, disturb, surprise, even shock. But for the most part, gay films have been just as likely to be along the lines of relatively light romantic farces, like Kissing Jessica Stein (a smart romantic comedy about a woman exploring her possible bisexuality), Kiss Me Guido, Mambo Italiano, and even Chasing Amy (likely Kevin Smith's most well-received film, about a straight man trying to "convert" a lesbian woman).
2004 boasts a host of adventurous gay indie films, including Ballroom, an atmospheric film that moves from reality to fantasy, and from fantasy to nightmare. The chilling and thought-provoking documentary Hidden Fuhrer: Debating The Enigma Of Hitler's Sexuality, as you might guess from its title, is bound to challenge and incite debate, while On The Downlow focuses on two young Latino men (of rival gangs) who have developed a covert romantic relationship. Films about ethnic gays have been disappointingly rare commodities, but this, too, is beginning to come to the forefront.
RETROSPECTIVES AND FESTS
Enough LGBT filmmakers have been around for a period of time that we're also starting to see more retrospectives and tributes to these "early" directors. Rose Troche, who debuted with her film Go Fish, is one such filmmaker. She's now making waves with TV series - directing The L Word, while writing for Six Feet Under. Troche is to be honored at Frameline28, which will be screening her recent film The Safety Of Objects. With LBGT film festivals now running, and running strong, in Los Angeles (OutFest), Austin, New York, Miami, Philadelphia, Toronto, not to mention Copenhagen, London, South Africa and New Zealand, it's important to also acknowledge how many more opportunities there now are for the screening of gay-themed films.
While the United States, and San Francisco in particular, has certainly been a hotbed of gay rights and media, international filmmakers are producing a wealth of films about the experience through a different lens. 2003 brought a lot of great LGBT films, including Swimming Pool, Francois Ozon's film which explores the sexual tension between a mystery writer and her publisher's virile, sensual daughter, and the powerful Madame Sata, about a Brazilian gay transvestite in the 1930s. Looking to the future: Beautiful Boxer is a must-see work about a transsexual Thai boxer, while other gay-themed Thai films include The Adventures Of Iron Pussy (which the San Francisco Bay Guardian's Johnny Ray Huston called "silly but also sublime, a triple-layer musical-romance-adventure cake covered with soap-opera icing that contains more IQ points than calories"), Iron Ladies and Iron Ladies 2.
Italy's Adored: Diary Of A Porn Star is another fresh debut feature to watch. From South Africa comes Proteus, which recounts the love story of two men on an infamous South African island prison in the 18th Century. Arisan!, the first gay film from Indonesia, offers a rambunctious romp through gender assumptions and love pangs - all set at an arisan, a unique Indonesian social gathering full of gossip and bragging. And Lily Festival (Yurisai), by director Sachi Hamano, who specializes in "pink eiga" softcore Japanese erotic films, is about Japanese women in their sixties who discover that the best sex after sixty is with each other.
This year, newcomer Jonathan Caouette made a splash at Sundance and Cannes with Tarnation, his scrappy (made on a budget of $218.32) and innovative debut feature executive produced by Gus Van Sant. The film revolves around Caouette's mother, who was beaten by her husband, raped in front of her son when he was a baby, and went through electric-shock therapy which left her personality altered. Look for a small theatrical release this fall. "The true cutting edge is being found on the realm of queer experimental filmmaking," says Bay Area filmmaker Jenni Olson. Olson's first feature, The Joy Of Life, is an experimental narrative documentary which combines a personal reflection on butch identity with a history of suicide and the Golden Gate Bridge. Olson is also the author of The Queer Movie Poster Book, available in August 2004 through Chronicle Books.
With independent filmmaking now relatively more democratic and accessible, more LGBT stories are being told. Television is helping to pioneer increased awareness of gays in the mainstream, thus creating demand and acceptance of gay films. Look for more well-rounded, interesting representations of gays and lesbians in the coming months. And perhaps, one day, sexual orientation will be less of an oddity, with the notion of difference will be as fleeting and outdated as the Atkins diet.
Joyce Guan is a Bay Area writer and a coordinator at Frameline.
FRAMELINE28: San Francisco International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival (June 17-27, 2004)
Frameline28 boasts a great diversity of films this year, from retrospectives on pivotal gay filmmakers and artists such as Marlon Riggs, Jackie Curtis, and Rose Troche, to documentaries about current issues. Then there are the requisite films about 20-somethings trying to find themselves in life, love, and career. In addition, a historical perspective is taken to explore the lives of musicians, artists, and writers, including Bola De Nieve (about Cuban singer and pianist Ignacio Villa), Brother To Brother (the struggles of a young gay African American in New York City), and De-Lovely (starring Kevin Kline, a musical portrait of American composer Cole Porter, who very much enjoyed the company of men). Lesbian Centennial Project (a stream-of-consciousness history lesson from 100 lesbians of all sizes, classes, colors and ages), and A Swiss Rebel: Annemarie Scharzenbach 1908-1942 also give a fascinating historical perspective.