What to think about attitudes toward and images of gays in U.S. media these days? It’s a complicated question. On one hand, clearly there have been enormous advances. Not so long ago, who could have imagined shows like The L Word or Will & Grace being long-running mainstream hits? Ellen and Rosie and such are beloved by housewives across America. Brokeback Mountain won Oscars—though not the big one, in what many speculated was a failure of nerve on the part of older Academy voters who simply didn’t want to watch it.
Yet Brokeback did not open the floodgates for gay-themed Hollywood projects as predicted, the studios regarding its success as a fluke. (We’ll see if Ang Lee’s upcoming gay-perspective Woodstock movie or Gus Van Sant’s Harvey Milk bio changes their minds.)
While yesteryear’s blatant stereotypes are no longer so present or acceptable—which is not to say they’re gone—a new brand of permissible homophobia is all over today’s comedy. That’s heterosexual-panic humor, in which the hilarity of straight men awkwardly caught in "gay-looking" circumstances with other guys causes no end of hilarity. Sometimes (as in Judd Apatow’s scatological yet essentially good-hearted comedies) this tack feels like it’s making fun of homophobia. Other times (e.g. I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, Wild Hogs, etc.) it’s just homophobia veiled in yuks and a phony "tolerance lesson" line or two.
Gay-themed movies by gay filmmakers have mostly stayed ghettoized, too, the vast majority simply playing gay fests before shuttling off to Netflix. Whose subscribers, looking for gay titles otherwise not available in the hinterlands, often complain that most of these films are low-budget, low-quality and low in imagination. Not all, of course—but a lot. By risking little, they can make a little profit. Adventurousness seldom enters the equation.
About 15 years ago, however, it looked like queer film—back when the slur was being reclaimed by angry ACT UP types and other radical thinkers—might provide a cutting edge for the art form’s future. Granted a name by San Francisco-based critic B. Ruby Rich in an early 1992 Village Voice essay, "New Queer Cinema" appeared a movement that just might virally revivify American moviemaking. At least the indie kind.
It didn’t turn out that way. But NQC did leave a packet of memorably daring, stylish, imperfect movies behind. Among them: Rose Troche’s Go Fish, Tom Kalin’s Leopold-Loeb spin Swoon, Gus Van Sant’s Mala Noche and My Own Private Idaho, Jennie Livingston’s vogueing documentary Paris is Burning, Todd Haynes’ Poison, Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames, Alex Sichel’s All Over Me. There were also equivalent stirrings in England (from Isaac Julien, Derek Jarman, Christopher Munch and others), Canada (Bruce la Bruce, John Greyson), Germany and beyond.
A flagship feature in that period was 1992’s The Living End, which comes out on DVD this week in sonically remixed/visually remastered form from Strand Releasing, itself a player in the original NQC epoch.
Billed as "An Irresponsible Movie by Gregg Araki," this was maybe the first U.S. narrative feature that responded to the AIDS crisis with ACT UP-style radical rage rather than lamentation or case-pleading. It’s also (still) intensely sexy, funny, and romantic.
Having just discovered he’s HIV-positive, L.A. alternative-weekly film critic and Smiths fan Jon (Craig Gilmore) goes into a depressive tailspin. He’s jerked out of that insular funk by an abrupt path-crossing with hunky, impulsive, borderline-psycho drifter Luke (Mike Dytri)—whose initial appearance in a Jesus & Mary Chain T-shirt signals their musical/temperamental differences.
When pistol-wielding Luke’s tendency to magnetize trouble—particularly homophobic jerks he must then erase from the Earth’s slate—risks police manhunt, he persuades Jon to scram with him in a fatalistic Bonnie & Clyde road trip. En route, they encounter characters ranging from performance-art star Johanna Went and Warhol Factory/B-movie icon Mary Woronov (as a murderous lesbian couple) to late Frameline/SF LGBT Film Fest director Mark Finch as a sympathetic doctor.
Classic outlaw lovers on the run, mismatched "art fag" Jon and smokin’-hot nutjob Luke are an utterly endearing doomed duo. It’s an amour fou relationship worth rooting for, as politically rad yet infinitely more moving than the heterosexual one in Antonioni’s not-dissimilar 1970 Zabriskie Point. A complex, tender fadeout upsets all expectations.
While still demonstrably a low-budget (at about $20,000 total) product of its era, and to an extent (as Araki admits) an L.A. art-scene time capsule, the movie remains visually, sonically and emotionally dynamic.
The director’s DVD audio commentary is a real treat for both old and new fans, as he recalls just how on-the-fly and blessed by "happy accidents" the production was. Among his revelations are that film’s working title was Fuck the World—and that a conceptual inspiration was the Cary Grant-Katharine Hepburn screwball classic Bringing Up Baby. (Though presumably not for the scene where the protagonists screw in the shower, though, or the one where the dog licks his slain master’s blood.)
The Living End represented a considerable leap forward for Araki, whose prior features had been mannered B&W exercises in flagrant Jim Jarmusch imitation. His penchant for outrageousness sometimes felt more like a hipster fashion statement than anything else in subsequent efforts like Totally Fucked Up, The Doom Generation and Nowhere. Conversely, some fans felt he’d "sold out" by making 1999’s sweet, slight menage-a-trois romance Splendor. (They were also shocked that he became romantically involved with its female lead—but then, it seems perfectly in character he’d blow a raspberry at queerer-than-thou P.C.-dom by going publicly bi.)
But after an early-‘oughts break (perhaps triggered by MTV’s frustrating failure to pick up projected series This is How the World Ends), he returned with all independence and unpredictability intact.
Many considered 2005’s controversial (mostly amongst prudes who hadn’t actually seen it) Mysterious Skin—a morally ambiguous look at the consequences of childhood sexual abuse—his best, most mature work to date. Next came his outright silliest: Smiley Face, a stoner comedy floated by hilarious Anna Faris as its deeply THC-damaged L.A. pothead heroine.
New Queer Cinema got old fast, with later titles like 1995’s Dennis Cooper’s-based Frisk (which was truly hated by its closing-night SF Int’l LGBT Fest audience) and the prior year’s David Wojnarowicz-drawn Post Cards from America (which they merely disliked) considered too "dark" and alienating by many. (Both are worth reevaluating, though.)
But nearly all of its key filmmakers went on to significant careers. Who could argue against Gus Van Sant and Todd Haynes being among the most important, adventurous talents we’ve got in an increasingly gutless American movie landscape? The well-funded risks they routinely take now still owe a great deal to the zero-budget ones undertaken some years ago not only by their younger selves, but by people like Gregg Araki, Todd Verow and Bruce la Bruce—who to varying degrees are still carving out a queer cinematic semi-underground.
One fairly recent film by la Bruce had Marxist-anarchist characters whose motto was "The Revolution Is My Boyfriend." That wonderful slogan never got a more inspired embodiment than The Living End.
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