Saturday, May 14, 2022

Gay Romance Movies: Too Niche Or Too Much Of A Threat?


"I inserted a gay romantic subtext" - Gore Vidal on 'Ben-Hur' (1959)


   Gay men experience a twice-removed relationship with movies. As both artform and persuasive social modeling, movies have traditionally defamed and excluded us, with what we pick up at the movies substantiating the Dhammapada's reference to herons by a lake with no fish...for a lifetime. What's been an endless banquet of approving acceptance for non-gay men is just sustained yearning and proscribed loneliness for the homo psyche. Hollywood certainly isn't stepping up to the plate as it excises token homo characters and scenarios in order to sell to flagrantly homo-hating global markets. Little good is likely to come from lucrative export product which may or may not pander locally to The American Dream, as filtered through the prisms of what commerce determines to be our just desserts.


   Forty years have come and gone since Vito Russo first published The Celluloid Closet. Groundbreaking in its focus and scope, it still clarifies how filmic culture best defames homosexuals – be they men who identify as gay, or men who simply like to have sex with other men. A co-founder of GLAAD, Russo’s work lives on as that U.S. organization’s benchmark criteria. The Vito Russo Test lucidly articulates how film-makers can best avoid their petticoats showing biased intent, and worse. The Test is necessarily applied consistently to all genres like drama, romance, comedy, and documentary.

· The film contains a character that is identifiably lesbian, gay, bisexual, and/or transgender (LGBT).

· That character must not be solely or predominantly defined by their sexual orientation or gender identity (i.e. the character is made up of the same sort of unique character traits commonly used to differentiate straight characters from one another).

· The LGBT character must be tied into the plot in such a way that their removal would have a significant effect. Meaning they are not there to simply provide colorful commentary, paint urban authenticity, or (perhaps most commonly) set up a punchline; the character should matter.


Cinema For Losers - The Parables Of Disingenuity

   Now, we’re almost twenty years into the Vito Russo Test guidelines, and as far as male characters go there’s little or no evidence that the guidelines are being implemented with any seriousness by film-makers. Or, more to the point, by American film-makers and their European counterparts. Seemingly, death and the misery of failed love are the normalized narratives for popular gay-themed mass entertainments – be they Philadelphia (1993), Brokeback Mountain (2005), or Call Me By Your Name (2017). The emptiness of Britain’s Weekend (2011) is no more sincere than Australia’s Holding The Man (2015), which sincerely believes its own lived-experience shallowness.

Like a sickly medication, the tropes of gay drama are relentlessly regurgitated as menace and struggle, with gained 'resilience' ostensibly the best payoff imaginable. Awards and rewards flow, with few asking whether or not the underlying takeaway of 'Toughen up, princess' is nearly enough when few practical ideas like a punching bag ('Cuatro Lunas', Mexico (2014)) or a rifle ('Marilyn', Argentina (2018)) are offered up as ways princesses might toughen up, rather than sucking it up. It's hard to dispute that Moonlight (2016) isn't just more of the Stateside same as it applies to the filmed male homosexual experience. While female gaze upon the male body is notionally welcome, sitting through writer / director Eliza Hittman's sordid 'Beach Rats' (2017) just might be cause to hope she never does it again, and that critics and film festivals alike stop celebrating dated soulless junk about men who have sex with other men.

In a shorthand media age it's hard to avoid lists, and the prolific '50 Best LGBT / Queer Films' lists are far more suspect than their daffy nods to community and inclusion imply: as a recently-created genre of the socially constructed kind it first needs to be evaluated for soft-sold multi-group segregation intent. By the time one's eliminated what has nothing to do with men loving men or men who've actually 'come of age', the leftovers are for the most part formulaic and anti-progressive. We're reminded that neither Gregg Araki nor Gus van Zant has been able to deliver the contemporary gay male masterpiece expected of New Queer Cinema, let alone it having found form as a seductive romance...where somebody actually gets the guy with no suffering involved. You just know segregation's alive and well when two men who attractively hit it off rarely appear in 'mainstream' movies of any genre - even as secondary or support characters.
The Wheel of Misfortune - step right up fellas!  
It’s not naïve or unrealistic to expect happy endings, and when cinema consistently delivers the opposite we’re wise to suspect all that hides behind quasi-documentary struggles lest we're giving a pass to perpetuating victimhood. It's worth noting that both Brokeback and Call Me... feature photogenic locales which serve to numb what's most unattractive and pleasureless about their storylines. It's also worth noting that with some goodwill and ingenuity the device can be purposed to support uplifting stories about diverse men who elevate the romance genre to its rightfully gratifying and most powerful place.

We're probably all hard-wired to crave at least two of the three components of romance: attraction, lust and attachment. The genre of romance in media embellishes it all with chivalry and what's seductive about faraway places and men with strange-sounding names. Our healthiest selves always anticipate a future which may have little to do with what we have now, and there's nothing quite like a romance movie to get the dopamine cells firing...why, it's almost like being in love.


Some Speak Of 'Journeys'...

   It's not that North America can't make excellent and deeply satisfying gay romance movies - it seems the continent just won't. A notable exception is Yen Tan's Pit Stop (2013). This slice of pure Americana about two purely American sweethearts of men who've been hurt by love very quickly accesses our better selves as we wait in suspense for what must surely be their destined assignation. Ernesto and Gabe have problems 'moving on': they're not gay extroverts given to such dubious journeys. The dark hand of LGBTQ media politics is entirely absent from Pit Stop, as evidenced by no cliches of tragedy and identity. Director Tan drip-feeds us these fellas with everything but cheap gay chemistry. And as with the best of romance, we're seduced by thoughts that deserved love really comes to those who deserve it. 


Reviewers and commentators alike are thrown by The Man With The Answers (2021), with quite a few not knowing what to make of a male romance which fails to spell out 'sexual identity' (or even career identity, for that matter) on its calling card. With no obvious dramatic precipitations to justify itself, writer / director Stelios Kammitsis' road movie is most European, as its men are most matter-of-fact. Its allure lies in that sweet spot where the mundane plays against sumptuous scenery, magnificently photographed. Too short at around 80 minutes, the road of trust and seduction Victoras and Matthias take is clunkier than the old Audi they're in but both are eminently serviceable ways to get from A to B.


Do we know who's driving or where we're going to?

One would expect the movie to stumble somewhere (or everywhere) on its cliches but it's so well directed and acted that you want the trip to not end so soon. Kammitsis certainly has his ducks lined up, and knows exactly where a gay relationship stands in the grand scheme of things.



Washing their sins away...or something

The Man With The Answers can be experienced as counterpoint to - or refreshment - from He Loves Me (2018). Writer / director Konstantinos Menelaou's voice-over'd rumination about two very gay men taking their very urban crumbling relationship to a deserted beach to re-find love in the dunes (and in the raw) is as confronting as it is self-indulgent.

As a bitter indictment of many gay relationships, He Loves Me very much presents the relationship Marianne Williamson ascribes to two emotional cripples joined at the hip. The film hasn't found many gay fans beyond the soft-core porn crowd and that's remarkable because it's not unrelated to the celebrated Weekend (2011), which conclusively proved that gay men can talk shit with the best of 'em when it comes to relationships. A peculiar and uncomfortable film, He Loves Me goes directly to where we angels fear to tread: damaged men and interpersonal dysfunction, as pressure-cooked by an urban gay lifestyle. It's probably a fine romance, of the been-around-the-block kind.

 It's A Big Wide World 


    There's a lot to bemoan when we're enslaved to our own cultural presumptions. Thankfully there's much to experience and enjoy when we're not. My own comfort zone suits me best when it's inhabited by men just like me as well as men not like me at all. Along those lines, if travel broadens one's horizons then cinema can do the next best thing - especially if it's directly sex-positive as our culture becomes less so.

It hadn't occurred to me that I'd never seen a homo onscreen who was just like me until very recently. And I was completely overwhelmed when it happened: Alec Secăreanu's take on Gheorghe in God's Own Country (2017) seemed ripped from my soul and the sense of validation I experienced was life-affirming in a way that many ideas I had about identity and being a gay outsider melted away. Such is the power of cinema, and the British movie uplifted me in ways that a dozen of the finest academic writings (or self-help books) about homosexuality never could.


Gheorghe and his Johnny..quite simply, for better and for worse

An exceptionally well-made first feature by Francis Lee, it's magic is propelled by its earthy connection to nature in an alternately beautiful and hard landscape requiring some knockout acting to match: these guys actually do something besides living in their heads and immersing themselves in the inorganic. They farm. They adapt. They live, they love. The heart of God's Own Country just might be as simple as chances taken and given are their own rewards.


The passion and the pride of Antonio & Lucas
The day movie theaters closed in 2019 at the onset of this century's pandemic was the proposed opening day for Chilean writer / director Omar Zúñiga Hidalgo's Los Fuertes but that misfortune is balanced by the fact that it's been generally widely available. Probably too short and positively crying out for a sequel, it takes its own sweet and sexy time to get to the point: at what age does a man need to crunch the numbers and think twice about leaving the apparently perfect man in the far regions to pursue urban gay ambitions? And of course there's the question of how the fisherman who's being left behind is supposed to feel when neither man is a callow college boy.

In substituting an almost end-of-the-world landscape for societal menace, Hidalgo elevates his story of men who love into a film of rare observational intelligence which isn't chasing such an honor.

    Argentina is a home-base of sorts for gay male films these day - due in no small part to the prolific output and sensually arresting films of Marco Berger. Lessons have been learned from Spain's Almodovar - that gay genius film-maker has never subjected a character to 'coming out' over four decades, or even thought that audiences needed to share such a ritual. Perhaps just dash a of hot-blodded male arrogance with its heart on its sleeve is all it takes for some men to refuse to build or refurbish their own closets.

From the pen of Andi Nachon, director / producer Papu Curotto deftly crosses a few borders (and some might say boundaries) with Beyond Borders: Esteros (2016). The nominal wetland estuaries refer to both the regional setting in Argentina's far North East and what happens when fresh water meets salty sea. Or male romance within an ecological allegory if you like. Matías and Jerónimo were childhood friends who developed a mutual, pubescent sexual attraction prior to the former's family relocating across the border to Brazil. Predictably, a decade later they re-meet by chance - with Jerónimo as a single but secure gay man while Matías is ensconced in a relationship with a woman.

Not waiting for Grindr to sound

What presents as a predictable bittersweet pill for gays to swallow isn't what Curotto has in mind at all: Jerónimo is well and truly out, not inclined to subservience to heterosexual imperatives, resents having been apparently 'cancelled' by Matías and is quick to remind him that he was indeed Matías' 'first' when it comes to sex. The delightful payoff is exactly what it should be for any man willing to take charge of his life and loves.

But that's not all. It would be remiss to not re-mention two remarkable Brazilian features which transcend the dubious trappings of youth-themed coming out epics: The Way He Looks (2014) and Hard Paint (2018). While they may not enchant us by appealing to our stereotypical instincts to form an attachment of desire to one or both of the male leads, we're hard-pressed to not think about falling in love with somebody far removed from our normalized urban Prince Charming fantasies.


It's Only A Movie

   Or is it? Vito Russo concluded The Celluloid Closet all those years ago with a special mention for all the queers who work in Hollywood, in the full knowledge that powerful Hollywood product was, and still is, insulting to great degrees. Those who consistently choose to remain silent, regardless of how much power they wield, have newer faces but but are of the same old politics. We may have been lulled into thinking that things have changed, but what exactly has changed when high-minded awards and critical praise are handed out for the mawkishness of 'coming through adversity'...with just enough menace to subliminally keep victims as victims?

However, as we've seen - and going with relatively narrow but informative criteria - film-makers are making films which dignify gay men doing what gay men can do, while standing as excellent and original films in their own right for all audiences. Remarkably diverse (although not significantly diverse when it comes to class or race), they're the results of our broader worldwide communities committing to that muse that is the cinema. New auteurs are exploiting newer ways to bring their visions to the world, be it by streaming services, crowdfunding and even giving their art away for free. Usually years in gestation, they're often preceded by shoestring-budgeted short films to drum up interest. We're wise to know that something based on a true story doesn't legitimize it: assumed gravitas shouldn't be mistaken for truth or art or satisfying entertainment.

And then again, if art just reflects life it's not too much to ask that the cinema now and then reflects a life well-lived i.e. a life which knows that there's only love and fear, and that they can't co-exist.