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Monday, July 18, 2005

FREE TO BE --- YOU & ME!!!! ...well, maybe

I think I mentioned that me and my pals, Milford and Vic, took in a screening of the brilliant gay film from Thailand, TROPICAL MALADY. A beautiful and multi-layered film about desire, consuming passion and love. Presented in a very unusual mix of realism and fable -- the film is divided into 2 parts: Reality and Fable. In fact, the film's director considers it to be two different films about the same two people.

It is rare to see a film come to the states from Thailand --- especially one that was not made with a Western audience in mind. Even more extraordinary to see one that depicts a gay storyline. The director's vision is poetic, romantic, sad and somewhat horrific. It is a challenging and thought-provoking film. There have been a number of films from Thailand which portray stories involving transgendered individuals (such as BEAUTIFUL BOXER) but it is rare to see a Thai film which depicts a gay relationship.

In my opinion, a major part of the beauty and mystery of TROPICAL MALADY develops from the idea of forbidden love. The two male characters never kiss. Instead, the director creates an interestingly erotic moment where the two men lick and taste each other's hands --- which prepares us for the second half or "second" film in which we can see that this erotic moment between the two men was a foreshadowing to shape-shifting to lions. ...the licking of "paws"

After the movie I made the following statement: "I love this movie so much, but I find it sad that in 2005 a Thai film is unable to be made that depicts a gay relationship in sexual terms -- that it has to be presented in allegory"

This lead the three of us into a complex discussion of the state of gay rights, stereotypes and homophobia in Thailand and the US -- as well as how being gay is depicted in mainstream films. It was an interesting conversation and Milford challenged me to name a film produced my a major US studio that depicted a gay relatioinship in graphic detail. If I understood his point --- it was to state that things are really not that much better in US cinema -- that I am fooling myself if I think that US film directors are offering realistic and open depictions of gay life in their films.

Milford -- If you're reading this, please correct me if I've got this wrong or if I misunderstood.

Anyway, this turn in the conversation caused me to pause for a while. The only film I could think of which had been produced and released by a major Hollywood studio which depicted any level of gay life in fully realized form was hardly a glowing example. Tho, not the evil film that it is known to be, CRUISING is probably the only "mainstream" film to offer graphic depictions of gay sex. Granted -- the gay sex depicted is fringe, hardcore S&M -- and the main thrust of the film is that self-hating gay men can turn into murdering maniacs. Great.

Controversial and full of self-loathing gay characters -- the film is quite worrying. However, I have been unable to think of any film financed by a major studio that ever showed two gay men or women actually having any form of sex other than this movie. ...and this was back in pre-AIDS 1980 and was absolutely the last kind of representation that the gay community NEEDED. However, murder plot and twisted surprise ending disgregarded, the sex scenes in this movie were filmed in the "hot" gay S&M clubs of the Meat Packing District circa the late 70's. And, most of the men having sex in the film are actually having it and were gay patrons of the clubs.

It could never be made now --- and, changing morals would now earn this film an NC-17 --- but in the early 1980's it somehow avoided the X-rating thanks to the fact that it stared Al Pacino and was being released by a major studio. But, I think CRUISING is it. Period. ...sad.

Maybe one could consider TORCH SONG TRILOGY and BROKEN HEARTS CLUB (I think both of those came to us via Sony subsidaries) but sex between gay characters was limited to the more "implied" level than we would see in a hetrosexual love story or film. And, as much as I liked TST -- has Matthew Broderick ever looked so "uncomfortable" in a role!?!?! LOL!

At this point, I think it unlikely that FOX is going to make a gay version of 9 1/2 WEEKS.

I think Milford is quite correct. In its own quiet and dignified way, TROPICAL MALADY is every bit as explicit and "real" as any studio-financed US film out there.

Case in point --- HAPPY ENDINGS.

While this film is being marketed as an arthouse film, it is well funded and it is being released by Lions Gate which I believe IS a subsidiary of a major studio. Please correct me if I am wrong. However, if I am wrong and Lions Gate is a true independent film distributor such as STRAND RELEASING -- this makes it all the worse.

HAPPY ENDINGS is by-and-large a gay film written and directed by a gay director. Yes, there are many subplots involving both gay and straight characters, but I think it is safe to say that this film will go down as and be remembered as being a gay film. It has opened several gay film festivals and is being marketed largely to the gay community.

HAPPY ENDINGS is quite sexual. The title says it all. And, we do see people in, about to be or having just engaged in sex without clothing. ...EXCEPT for the gay characters.

Yes, the gay characters act gay and they even get to kiss -- but the clothing stays on. Bottom line, it is OK to show one of the gay characters have sex with a woman, but it is ONLY OK to show him kiss the man with whom the film tells us he will spend the next 7 years of his life.

It is OK to show 2 gay men in the same bed, but it is NOT OK to show physical contact. Trust me --- even a straight audience would have pref. to see the gay male couple touch with strategically placed sheets than Tom Arnold cavorting in the nude with Maggie G.

It is OK to have Laura Dern play a lesbian mom because she is "fem" enough with long hair and a hint of make-up --- as is her on screen life partner. However it is NOT OK to show them in any sexual context.

It is OK to show Lisa Kudrow's characters straight parents kissing and to hint at hot sex. Not OK for the two lesbians.

Bottom line --- our culture might as well film gay relationships as allegory in the jungles of Florida. ...licking scales.

However, props must be given to the true independent distributors out there who opt to film and release movies which show gay relationships as being sexual. I also think we can't forget SHOWTIME which has and continues to produce television shows that depict explicit gay relationships -- tho, somewhat over the top and silly, at least these characters are granted sex lives.

However, as Milford and Vic noted -- those of us in cities like San Francisco, NYC or Boston do live in a sort of bubble. The chances of HUSTLER WHITE, EDGE OF 17, BEAUTIFUL THING or RELAX...IT'S JUST SEX playing at the mall cinema in Boise is not likely to happen. If you're a gay man or woman in Boise you will have to wait for these films to be released to DVD and order them via Net Flix or Amazon. However, I am sure Boise was able to screen IN & OUT.

We have a long way to go before we reach the nirvana hinted at in Marlo Thomas' 1972 TV series. We are only sort of free to be --- you and me.

Still, as I stated to M&M -- I would much rather be a gay man in the US than a gay man in Thailand.

However, I must agree that we have a very long way to go! ...and, I am not so certain that "Will & Grace" or "Queer Eye" is helping as much as just perpetuating stereotype. Or, maybe not.

What do you think?


Blogger Underling said...

Queer Eye is a minstrel show, plain and simple. It's like "Hey come look at what those silly fags are up to this week."

Will and Grace is hardly any better.

I wish we would see more films like "Beautiful Thing" or even "Get Real" for that matter.

But like always, most studios want to use the "gay" characters to interject some comic relief.

6:54 AM  
Blogger g8s said...

'Queer Eye' and 'Will & Grace' bother me just as much as 'The Living End' and 'The Broken Hearts Club', which is not to say that I have not enjoyed them all, but rather that said enjoyment is short-lived & quickly followed up by the sense that none of the characters (even in the 'reality' of 'Queer Eye') are living in the day-to-day world. In a 'coming-of-age' film, where the focus is on a crisis of sexual identification, I would expect the story to focus on sexuality, but I expect more from other films.

For example, 'Pirates of the Caribbean'. Millions of teenage girls are still pining away over Orlando Bloom, and putting themselves in Keira Knightley's corset. In the conventional action or romance film, you're supposed to not only WANT the characters, you're supposed to WANT TO BE them. Straight male and female role models are provided by major studios all the time, but you don't notice it, because the characters are not straight; instead they're 'the prince', or 'the daughter of the baker', or 'the hardened cop', or whomever they are. When there are conventional films in which queer characters' sexualities are not their defining attributes, I will feel that we have ushered in a new era. Until then, I will feel a little estranged from queer culture in pop media.

I could go on, but I think perhaps I've taken up enough comment space already. Sorry, Matt.

7:32 AM  
Blogger matty said...

Underling -- Yeah, I sometimes just find myself reverting to the old school thought of "Exposure is half the battle" --- but I often feel we get "over-exposed" in so many ways that work against us.

I love Beautiful Thing and Broadway Damage --- great double DVD bill for a date, by the way!!! But, both films mix a great deal of realism with "ideal-ism" --- as much as I loved the ending to both of these films -- am not sure that they could or would happen in the "real world"

Even still, like the ending of Polanski's adaptation of TESS --- tho, it could never happen that way, isn't it lovely?

g8s -- I agree! And, please never hesitate to post as much as you like!

The closest to reality that I've seen is in a "gay" film would be "Edge of 17" --- but, this is a coming of age film. Aside from being the most over-used genre within the genre of gay film --- it is focused on sexual awakening. However, that film really touched home with me as the character comes out at about the same time I was dealing with all of that --- I guess the story pre-dates me by several years years or so, but still I found it to be realistic and true.

9:51 AM  
Blogger digitic said...

Matt --

I think you've expressed my thoughts/opinions right on the button. Thank you for that.

It seems to me that the American media/movie industry can only define homosexuality by where one uses his or her genitalia.

In combination with this country's hyper-repressed sexuality is it any wonder that gay characters in mainstream movies are portrayed as psychological anomalies?

To put it bluntly, American media, and the entertainment industry in particular, is still too chickenshit to portray gay and lesbian people as anything but freaks and criminals. And even if there are gay characters portrayed as "normal" it's an asexual fluke to be marginalized and discarded.

Tying this to Tropical Malady, the portrayal of the two main characters were, in my opinion, subtle and honest. Yes, the movie was a Thai allegory of "forbidden" love but I see this more as stylistic expression than censorship.

Based on our Anglophile perceptions, Thai culture may not be as sexually "open" as that in the US but no one watching Tropical Malady could deny that there was love between these two men.

The love was overt and honest and permeating.

On the contrary, would an American movie studio even attempt such a wonderful film such as this without having to dumb it down, make it straight, and then blow everyone up while the main characters are having male-dominated sex?

Most American films are spectacles of excess and the characterizations of real people are lost, marginalized, or excluded entirely. If this happens to straight characters, is there any hope for gay characters?

Why can't people just love each other? What is America afraid of?

10:26 AM  
Blogger matty said...

Milford -- Thanks for confirming! I think America is afraid of what is "unknown" --- which I guess, at the most basic level is what fear is all about. There have been so many times in my life when someone will let me know that knowing me and other gay individuals has changed their perceptions of gay people...

So, the depictions of 'gayness" in movies like Cruising, Frisk, Basic Instinct and Silence of the Lambs certainly doesn't present "middle America" with very realistic pictures of what gay people are like.

10:48 AM  
Blogger Miss Marisol said...

There was an article recently in New York magazine about LoGo, the new "Gay Television Channel." The head of programming was challenged to explain what would constitute gay programming and it was a difficult explanation.

Apparently, there are several new shows being produced as well as syndications of "Will and Grace," etc. As well as films.

In some ways, I suppose it is good (and inevitable) that there is a commercialization of gay culture because it makes the lifestyle more palatable to a predominantly hetero world. However, all of these depictions rely on stereotypes because it's easy. And, you're right that Hollywood is still light years from an honest depiction of male on male homosexual love/romance storylines.

Perhaps because they do not realize how normal and similar these relationships and acts are to hetero relationships.

And, I agree with you about not wanting to be a gay man in Thailand. From my experience there ( and in most of SE Asia), being gay is about being unmasculine. They are "girlie" boys in every sense and really pushed to the fringes. It's painful.

3:12 PM  

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