Speaking of Gay Pride:
Queer Folks in the Cinema

This feature is dedicated to Derek, my partner of almost four years – who brings even more
comedy, drama, adventure, and romance to my life than the movies ever could!

If you're a gay, lesbian, or bisexual person living in America, or if you care about anybody who is, then this has been a pretty great week, finishing off just about the best Pride Month ever. Same-sex marriages happening in Canada. Male partners of 25 years kissing ebulliently on live TV. And, best and most broadly of all, a major Supreme Court mea culpa after 17 years of institutional inanity, and a decisive judicial advance in the ongoing campaign for gay rights. Don't mistake me: there is still much to be done in the struggle for rights and freedoms, and we need to make sure that all gay/lesbian and queer-identified people—men and women, of all colors and classes and backgrounds—will benefit equally from each stride of progress. We also shouldn't celebrate domestic victories at such a high volume that the ongoing travesties in the global theater go unremarked.

Still, there are reasons to be cheerful, optimistic, and proud. And to commemorate the occasion, as a landmark Gay Pride Month winds down, I've put together a list of 20 personal landmarks in gay, lesbian, and queer cinema. I know some of the selections will seem odd. This feature neither makes any claim nor bears any ambition to be definitive. But I must say, as a queer-identified film lover and film scholar, The Boys in the Band and Philadelphia and The Birdcage are not the movies that told me who I was, or who I might dream of being, as I grew up. They seemed like familiar stories told in familiar ways, with the same plot ideas and character types, even stereotypes, as most other movies. Because I felt "different," probably from an early age, I wanted stories and images that were genuinely different. Because my experience of sexuality was challenging, I wanted sexuality in art to be challenging: not pre-given as gay, straight, or anything, but an open window to new ideas.

The films on this list satisfied these needs, even sometimes in unexpected ways. They represent unique representations of sexuality, or new ways of thinking about gender, that added to my own evolving notions of identity, identification, and eroticism, and they deserve a second look as American society takes new stock of our sexual communities and diversities. We even find that movies that didn't seem to be "about" homosexuality, or about sexuality at all, suddenly look much different in hindsight, or when viewed from the empathetic vantage that there is often more than meets the popular eye. The insights of gay/lesbian artists and audiences are as vital and unique as those of any other group, and they deserve continued appreciation. If you have your own thoughts to share, please send them to nick@nicksflickpicks.com.

Mädchen in Uniform Shanghai Express The Gay Divorcée Strangers on a Train All that Heaven Allows
Suddenly, Last Summer Persona Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid Dog Day Afternoon E.T.
L'Homme blessé Desert Hearts The Last of England Naked Lunch Daughters of the Dust
Go Fish Female Perversions L.A. Confidential Velvet Goldmine Fight Club

1931 Mädchen in Uniform, dir. Leontine Sagan
German films between the World Wars were so visually rich, and graced with such exciting characters and plots, that even video-renters who tend to eschew old movies are bound to have a good time. Lang's M and Metropolis, Murnau's The Last Laugh, and Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari are four of the best-known titles from this era of filmmaking, but Leontine Sagan's Mädchen in Uniform, a rare Weimar film by a female director, deserves inclusion in the same honored list. A frisky but tense melodrama about student-teacher crushes at a girl's school, Mädchen is surprisingly bold in confronting the thematics of same-sex desire—its tone is frank and enervated, but it thankfully lacks the maudlin hysterics of a much later American film like The Children's Hour.

As with many German movies of its period, Mädchen is also tacitly attentive to the terrifying rise of autocratic, misanthropic power figures in the Nazi party. However, where Lang and G.W. Pabst (among others) protest the slavish hypnosis of the laboring classes and the general decay of moral order, Sagan's film warns us that desire, too, is often the unfair victim of oppressive political orders. It is not lesbianism itself which the film views as pathological, but the insistence of an intolerant, homophobic society that lesbianism must be eliminated. Mädchen doesn't feel like a tract, but its message is powerful, and it remains extremely and urgently contemporary.

1932 Shanghai Express, dir. Josef von Sternberg
Shanghai Express is not my favorite of the Sternberg–Dietrich collaborations; I'd nominate The Scarlet Empress, Blonde Venus, or even Morocco in its stead. Still, it's a thrilling piece—certainly a visual stunner, even if its wafty, exotic Orientalism is a throwback to embarrassing stereotypes. The plot is a convoluted hash of impersonations, mistaken identites, and false accusations, and you're not likely to remember the particulars once it's over (if, indeed, you can follow them while the film's happening). Much more indelible are the images of Dietrich's Shanghai Lily riding lazily in a heavily bedecked coach with a female companion and fellow prostitute, played by Anna May Wong. It is impossible not to wonder, in a film obsessed open secrets and dubious assumptions, exactly what relationship Dietrich's and Wong's characters might have to each other. It may be crude to conjecture that they "are lesbians," though centuries of historical evidence suggests that courtesans, prostitutes, and other commodified women often found their only safe, intimate pleasures within their own group. What Dietrich, Wong, and Sternberg help us see in Shanghai Express is that women's (and men's) relations with each other have often been more ambiguous, slippery, and complicated than the rigid modern vocabularies of "gay" vs. "straight" can quite account for. Shanghai Express is sumptuous and enigmatic, and so too is the female friendship at its heart.

1934 The Gay Divorcée, dir. Mark Sandrich
Like Shanghai Express, The Gay Divorcée is a fun but imperfect showcase for its famous collaborative duo. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were more memorably matched in Top Hat and Swing Time, and the overstretched dancefloor extravaganza "The Continental" is, on first pass, the only standout sequence. But, as so often in Old Hollywood, the really interesting stuff is on the margins. Edward Everett Horton, cast as he frequently was as Astaire's sissyish traveling buddy, is the ceaseless target of "aunty" jokes and suspicious stares throughout the picture. This was often Horton's lot in the movies, and he is remembered today as one of the most (in)visible gay actors of the studio era: always a bachelor, always a plumpish sadsack, a sympathetic laughingstock. Watching his body of work (which also includes Arsenic and Old Lace and Dietrich's The Devil Is a Woman) is an apt way to discover Hollywood's dominant codes and stereotypes for telegraphing gayness in the 1930s and 40s. The Gay Divorcée—whose title does not, by the way, imply what you think it might—is a little more fun than Horton-watching usually is, because the movie allllmost gives him a boyfriend. Eric Blore, playing a waiter in Monte Carlo, walks right up to Horton's table and barely tries to hide that he is picking him up for the evening. A strange and invigorating hiccup in Hollywood's typically heterosexual machinery.

1951 Strangers on a Train, dir. Alfred Hitchcock
Rope is more famous as Hitchcock's "gay-themed" film, but Strangers on a Train is not only a better movie, it's much more interesting in its regard for sexuality. The two leads in Rope, modeled closely on real-life murderers Leopold and Loeb, pretty much embody the same "Gay people are psychos" stereotype that has lasted right up through The Silence of the Lambs and The Talented Mr. Ripley. Plus, these thinnish characters really only exist in the service of Hitchcock's technical gamble of telling a whole film in one shot. Strangers on a Train also revolves around murder and gay psychosis (surprise!), but the two men involved are conspirators of a different sort. Suave, chatty Robert Walker approaches Farley Granger's nervous professional tennis player on a train and devises a plan to "swap" murders: he'll wipe out Granger's nagging wife if he'll nail Walker's contemptuous father in turn. Reading sex and violence as interchangeable ideas is never a bad idea in Hitchcock, but it's a particularly telling analogy in this case: Granger, as closeted in real life as his character is here, is charmed by Walker on first glance but spends a whole movie trying to shake the implications of his own fascination. Meanwhile, Walker, after bouncing Granger out of suffocating wedlock, is lethally irked at Granger's attempts to avoid him. The film was remade in 1987 as a comedy called Throw Momma from the Train, but its spirit is much more closely approximated in another 1987 picture, Fatal Attraction. That the whole film revolves around a desire that remains unspoken only adds pungency to the themes of blackmail, guilt, and secretive, casual acquaintance.

1955 All that Heaven Allows, dir. Douglas Sirk
Director Douglas Sirk, and this film in particular, have gotten so much press in the last year care of Todd Haynes' Far from Heaven that the picture hardly needs more advertising. But what's often pointed out as a flaw in All that Heaven Allows—most recently in James Harvey's skeptical write-up in Film Comment magazine—is in fact a crucial point of meaning. The entire plot concerns how housewife Jane Wyman's budding romance with gardener Rock Hudson is furiously rejected by Wyman's entire community, including her children, until an abrupt accident near the end has her rushing back to Rock's bedside. The perennial charge of naysayers is that neither of the stated reasons for the couple's ostracization—the 10-year age difference and a sharp disparity in socioeconomic caste—feels especially convincing. But the homophobia that Far from Heaven lifts to the surface is also present in All that Heaven Allows. You didn't need to wait until the 1980's to notice the rampant double-entendres in the film's dialogue, as when Jane asks Rock, "So what you're saying is that you want me to be a man?" All that Heaven Allows is about the destructive power of unspoken prejudices; it is naive of James Harvey or anyone else to assume that only two prejudices (those that eventually are voiced) are at issue.

It seems that everyone would be more comfortable pretending that the 1950s were an innocent and unknowing decade in American culture, and that "we simply didn't know" things that later came to the fore. But the decade that generated Invisible Man, Lolita, Flannery O'Connor, Tennessee Williams, Rear Window, and Written on the Wind was hardly lacking an acute cultural radar, or artists attuned to its blips. Richard Meyer's well-researched and highly readable essay "Rock Hudson's Body" (look for it in an anthology titled Inside/Out, edited by Diana Fuss) makes clear that people always registered something "different" about Rock, and he was quite conscious of picking films that implicitly called up those questions and anxieties. Jane Wyman's neighbors can't quite put into words why they don't like Rock...there's just something about him. By the film's end, he is better-liked as an injured martyr than he was as a robust romantic partner. Coincidence or prophecy? You be the judge!

1959 Suddenly, Last Summer, dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz
I was a Tennessee Williams nut from the moment I saw A Streetcar Named Desire on film in the eighth grade, and then on stage a year later (thanks, Dad, for taking me!). Streetcar and Sweet Bird of Youth remain my favorites among his plays, but the outlandish film version of Suddenly, Last Summer, elaborately expanded from Williams' one-act playscript, is a doozy in its own right. The plot is anchored in the standoff between two women played respectively by Katharine Hepburn (whose death as I was preparing this article saddens me incredibly) and Elizabeth Taylor. Hepburn is furious that her beloved son Sebastian died last summer while vacationing in Spain, and she wishes to lobotomize her niece, who stood by helplessly as he was murdered. Taylor, as the jeopardized niece, can only save herself by dredging up the shocking facts of Sebastian's life and death, including his penchant for propositioning local boys throughout his global travels. Gay icon Montgomery Clift, of all people, is the mental-health doctor trying to sort out this disturbing case.

Suddenly, Last Summer is not to be confused with high art, despite impressive production design and Hepburn's impeccably imperious performance as nasty Aunt Violet. Still, it remains quite a stick of dynamite lobbed into an extremely bourgeois artform. The swelling danger that homosexuality's name will be spoken was as shocking to 1959 audiences as it was to Aunt Violet herself, and the film was publicly protested and blackballed by celebs like John Wayne. The whole reason the piece works, of course, is that audiences while wished to align themselves with pretty, truth-spouting Liz, they often had to admit they were much closer in spirit to stern, homophobic Hepburn. People love when gayness is a salacious, dirty secret; they are much more upset to discover it might just be a way of being in love—which probably explains why the filmmakers push so hard on the improbable Monty-Liz romance.

Missing entirely from the film, even in flashback, is the face of dandyish Sebastian. His survivors are venal and desperate and anguished and deeply repressed. Ironically, Sebastian is the only member of this group who seems to have had a pretty good time being alive. The subversive kick to the picture is not that a gay man died so sordidly—it's that he might have lived rather happily. (Take that, Mr. Wayne!)

1966 Persona, dir. Ingmar Bergman
Ask anyone what happens in Ingmar Bergman's Persona, and they're liable to say that a neurotic actress played by Liv Ullmann and a doting nurse played by Bibi Andersson somehow wind up switching personalities, or even becoming the same person. The famous, unsettling shot of one half of Ullmann's face sutured to the opposite half of Andersson's is the perennial evidence of this contention. Persona is such a brilliantly jagged modernist work that almost any interpretation can be ventured, including Susan Sontag's famous argument that Persona is genuinely uninterpretable. But why do so few people hazard that Persona, in its dark way, is a love story? I would not call this functional love, or happy love, or lasting love. It is harder to imagine a more polar cinematic opposite to Ernst Lubitsch, to say nothing of Nora Ephron. But the merging of identities? The fusing of personalities? There are certainly worse metaphors for how it feels or what it means to fall in love. If Bergman's leads were a man and a woman, I guarantee you'd hear a lot more thinking in this vein.

Whatever your take, Persona belongs in that handful of movies that everyone, absolutely everyone, should see at least once. It takes so many risks, contains so many surprises, and defies so many expectations that it can easily change one's entire view of film and filmgoing. David Lynch's Mulholland Dr. recently earned similar levels of praise, for largely compatible reasons, but certainly that film—no, that director—couldn't exist without Persona. I wouldn't say that either film is about lesbians, exactly, but I wouldn't say they aren't about lesbians. I would say that both films make me extremely, excitedly careful in searching for the right words to describe what I've seen. Questioning easy assumptions so profoundly is exactly what the best cinema does. It's also what sexuality should do, in all of its dazzling varieties.

1969 Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, dir. George Roy Hill
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is one of those priceless cultural paradoxes: a film so un-gay that it is completely gay. (Or is it the other way around?) Katharine Ross has gotten a terrible reputation for being vacuous in this film, which is not only a bum rap, but a completely predictable way of avoiding a truer statement. Ross' role, as the woman that Butch and Sundance both ostensibly love, ranks among the most thankless in cinema, because the love story of the film has nothing to do with her. Butch and Sundance themselves, meanwhile, belong on the list of American film's most devoted, most exclusive couples.

This, of course, is exactly the kind of argument that makes social conservatives furious...not to mention all those straight guys who have vicariously enjoyed the rebel misadventures of Butch and Sundance for more than thirty years. The point is not that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were secret lovers, enjoying a private physical rapport that only crazed propounders of the infamous "gay agenda" are hell-bent on exposing. Not to put too fine a point on it, I don't give a shit if Butch and Sundance ever committed the "sodomy" so tirelessly described by our archaic legal language (though I hardly see such a relation as impossible). The point is that our culture insists on limiting sexuality to genital behaviors, and pretending there are only two varieties of behaviors and therefore of sexuality—all despite massive evidence to the contrary. If our vocabularies were a little richer, and our own insecurities a little less vulnerable, it would be the easiest thing in the world to say that Butch and Sundance, at least as portrayed in this film, are hopelessly in love. They won't leave each other's side. They gladly complement each other's strengths and weaknesses. They give up hearth and home to preserve each other's company, in sickness and in health, for richer or for poorer. For each man, the companionshp and fond regard of the other is the only constant force in a desultory, lightweight plot where everything else is shadowplay. In fact, acknowledging the immense romantic bond that the film can't quite fess up to is the only way of redeeming this little caper from its absolute hollowness on every other score.

1975 Dog Day Afternoon, dir. Sidney Lumet
Sonny Wortzik, the daft but weirdly charismatic bankrobber at the epicenter of Dog Day Afternoon was one of the great characters of mid-1970s American film. Certainly Al Pacino's portrayal of Sonny was one of the acting landmarks for the whole decade, blending flawless line readings, expert physical choices, and inspired improvisation into a character that felt hyper-energized, unpredictable, and yet totally recognizable in his desperate humanity. Sonny's sense of his own sexuality appears just as anarchic as the rest of his thoughts and gestures. History validates the film's claims that Sonny's robbery was designed to earn cash for his male lover's sex-change operation. If we want to assign the label "gay" to Pacino's Sonny, he is certainly one of the most vital gay characters a Hollywood movie has ever presented. But one of the movie's most powerful insights, crystallized in the famous "Attica! Attica!" speech, is that Sonny is less a victim of sexual oppression than a volcanic intersection-point of multiple injustices that only he, in his raging and inarticulate way, is able to connect. His gay friends, some of them cross-dressers, the dehumanized and annihilated inmates of the Attica prison, the blue-collar residents of Flatbush, and even the company-controlled female tellers of the bank all have two things in common: none of them call the shots, and none of them ever will. Dog Day Afternoon is a thriller about the single day when all these groups of people start to recognize this bond, at least until some real shots are called and fired.

Unsurprisingly, the notoriety of one scene has torqued cultural memories of Dog Day Afternoon, and many people now remember the film as a docudrama about a crazy man who robbed a bank to protest the handling of the Attica riots. Many people, it seems, will remember whatever they want, however they want to. Ah well. People might misremember, but they can never alter, the truths of this wonderful movie.

1982 E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, dir. Steven Spielberg
Certainly the unlikeliest entry on this list is E.T., which seems to have every possible theme on its mind except sexuality: we've got the obvious science-fiction elements, the childhood fable, the Christ symbolism, the latchkey syndrome, the distrust of government and institutions, and the carefully mounted special effects. Oh, and the product placements. But a funny thing happened when I returned to this movie with my partner Derek. Surprised by his own sadness while watching, Derek realized that here, in a film made and set in 1982, we have a young kid whose special friendship is a carefully-kept secret with someone he constantly has to hide. At the moment the government finally takes notice of E.T., he gets suddenly and drastically ill, hooked up to life support while a team of flummoxed scientists prove powerless to help him, and his best companion has to stand by helplessly. Elliot cries out to be allowed next to E.T.'s bedside, but to no avail; everyone is much more concerned with wondering if Elliot has the same disease E.T. has.

Again, the argument is not that little Elliot is gay. The argument, however conjectural, is that an AIDS-era fable about hidden affection, terrifying illness, and a mythic-miraculous recovery simply registers differently to a gay viewer than it probably does to a non-gay viewer. It is not a question of the reading being "right" or "wrong"—Derek's reaction is, to me, a wonderful and emblematic instance of how we all see movies and stories differently depending on our own backgrounds and experiences, so the best discussions of films are those where different readings and observations can be compared, united, and critiqued. These ideas don't replace my other responses to E.T., but they do add a fascinating new dimension. I know I'll never the see the movie the same way again, and that, to me, is a wonderful gift.

1983 L'Homme blessé, dir. Patrice Chéreau
L'Homme blessé was the first explicitly gay-themed movie that I ever saw. I rented it in high school, and had to do so rather carefully, because I had no idea how I would explain to anybody why I wanted to see this morose-looking French movie with the back profile of a naked man on the video box and a Blockbuster "17+ Only" sticker affixed to the front. I couldn't even explain to myself why I wanted to see it, and there's a whole tale to be told there about how our culture amply instills feelings of sexual shame before it has even instilled a good idea of what sexuality is.

It continues to amaze me that I survived into a happy gay adulthood after gleaning my introduction to homosexuality from this particular movie. Which is not to say that L'Homme blessé is poor filmmaking, or that it is to be avoided. The performances of Jean-Hugues Anglade as a sexually bewildered Parisian teenager, of Vittorio Mezzogiorno as his dissolute, narcissistic deflowerer, and of Lisa Kreuzer as the scoundrel's suffering girlfriend are all extremely powerful, and the film does a good job of preserving its grotty, indigo mood of melancholic unease. But why is melancholic unease the perpetual tone of all "realistic" films about homosexuality? The French title of this film translates to The Wounded Man, which says everything about the implied perspective of Patrice Chéreau, the film's gay director (who later showed in his Berlin prizewinner Intimacy that he pretty much thinks all sexuality is grotty and melancholy). L'Homme blessé at least manages to get some images of gay male sex on the screen, which I appreciate not out of prurience but because it remains truly amazing how fully absent such images remain from our current, soi-disant liberal society. Remember, straight readers, how terrified, baffled, and uncertain you were about sex, before you finally saw it or had it? Gay kids (and many gay adults) often endure that unease quite far into their lives, wanting to know about or try things that the media suggests is non-existent, unthinkable, undoable. I am very glad that the High Court finally sanctions the rights of gay people to have sex with each other; I will be more thrilled when our artists and corporate media suggest that it is really okay to do so.

1985 Desert Hearts, dir. Donna Deitch
Desert Hearts was groundbreaking stuff in 1985, though a lot of patronizing and pejorative things are said about it now. Formally, the film looks rather staid, despite being shot by Robert Elswit, later the cinematographer of Paul Thomas Anderson's films. Beyond that, the narrative of an aloof 1950s college professor, an imminent divorcée, finding herself besotted by a coltish, passionate woman much younger than herself verges frequently on the edge of Harlequin overheatedness, its novelty couched entirely in bestowing an identical gender on its blonde and brunette lovers. True, Desert Hearts is unlikely to ignite the passion of modern filmmakers or cinéastes, but I was pleased to find it holding up better on recent video viewing than I'd expected it to. Helen Shaver, her gravelly voice and strong jaw well-suited to her role, does a wonderful job with the wild oscillations of her character's coolness, curiosity, shame, and arousal. Audra Lindley also does some nice work as a ranch-house doyenne who styles herself a feminist—the film is set in an era where women still traveled to Reno, Nevada, to obtain divorces on their own behalf—but is much more trapped in conservative assumptions than she realizes. Best, though, writer-director Donna Deitch leavens the fairy-tale aspects of her love story with palpable misgivings and lusty recklessness, so the film convinces as a study of particular characters feeling their way through novel sensations, rather than a simple allegory of erotic Truths uncovered.

1987 The Last of England, dir. Derek Jarman
The name of Derek Jarman is well-known to gay filmgoers, particularly in academic circles, but by now the reputation and unique, potent body of this filmmaker should have spread more widely among commercial audiences. The invaluable Criterion DVD Collection helped to close the knowledge gap last month by releasing Jarman's 1978 dystopian fantasy Jubilee, and his justly celebrated interpretation of Shakespeare's The Tempest—set entirely in an empty, water-drippy manor house, and climaxing with a roomful of British sailors waltzing to "Stormy Weather"—is already available on DVD. Still, few of Jarman's other movies are similarly available, including his intimate, influential projects of the late 1980s, when Jarman melded the aesthetics of home video and personal performance art with the spirit and fire of public protest.

The Last of England is my favorite of these films, a brilliant and tear-provoking collage of various stylized vignettes of mid-1980s British life. Lesbians and gay men in America remember Ronald Reagan's administration as a particularly low point in our public standing and prospects of future happiness, and conditions were equally bleak for British homosexuals living under Margaret Thatcher. American viewers will therefore recognize the evident fury and political disgust of The Last of England, as gay men are found crouching (hiding?) in derelict buildings, and they are hounded and pestered even there. The lethal and sobering necessity of safe sex is captured in the sad spectacle of a lonely man attempting to make love to a painting; another man, drunk, attempts to seduce a camouflaged and gas-masked soldier, jointly reflective of Thatcherite militarism and the biochemical toxicity that AIDS discourse had suddenly ascribed to gay passion. And then there is the blistering sequence in which a gowned Tilda Swinton, standing in for the recently-married Princess Di, hits an animal pitch of trembling fury as a cadre of photographers chase her across a desert and refuse to let her out of their crosshairs. All of this righteous indignation is distilled in such vibrant, creative images—and intercut with scenes of Derek Jarman himself trying to figure out how properly to express what he's feeling—that The Last of England works gloriously as a harsh polemic and bitter personal memoir without renouncing its worth as a piece of art. The video is out of print, I think, but it's buried in the catalogue shelves at the bigger rental chains. Dig it out.

1991 Naked Lunch, dir. David Cronenberg
David Cronenberg has erased as many gay characters as he's preserved. The real-life twins on whom the Jeremy Irons characters in Dead Ringers were based maintained a sexual relationship with each other through most of their lives, though Cronenberg doesn't suggest as much. The gay content of Ballard's Crash is also severely curtailed in Cronenberg's version, as is the rowdy homosexuality of Burroughs' novel Naked Lunch in the weird, amphibious treatment given to it on screen by Canada's premier auteur. And yet, it is hard to imagine anyone accusing David Cronenberg of turning his characters into boring old straight people. The sexuality of Peter Weller's protagonist in Naked Lunch may seem euphemistic at best, but it doesn't seem quite right to call him heterosexual, either. If anything, Cronenberg has distinguished himself over his career by focusing on characters whose erotic lives are totally unrestricted by the kinds of recognizable assumptions and guidelines that most viewers, gay or straight, take to be self-evident. Cronenberg's is a cinema of distinctive pleasures; not only do his films turn many people off, they do so because they tend to be about men and women who are turned on by whatever turns everyone else off.

Coupled, if I may use that word, with this absolutely renegade view of eroticism is the profound longing and sadness that has permeated nearly every Cronenberg film since Videodrome and The Dead Zone in 1983. His films are typically about men who sleepwalk through strange worlds and subcultures, amassing bizarre experiences as part of an attempt to locate whatever lost, farflung piece will complete their own psychic puzzles. The disavowed sexuality of these characters, especially of the taciturn Burroughs-lookalike Weller plays in Naked Lunch, is a key ingredient in the sad, unconsolable atmosphere that is Cronenberg's stock in trade. I'd still be curious to see a "faithful" adaptation of Naked Lunch, one of the gayest (and most startling) books in American prose. In the meantime, though, a film about the impossibility of staying faithful—to a book, to a wife, to a desire—is a worthy substitution, and in Cronenberg's hands, an endlessly intriguing riddle.

1992 Daughters of the Dust, dir. Julie Dash
The next three films on my list are female-driven ensemble pieces directed by first-time woman directors, all completed within five years of each other in the early-to-mid 1990s. Lesbianism is an important component in the stories and thematics of all three pictures, though to a different degree and from a very different vantage in each project. Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust, much more often remembered as a landmark of African-American and black women's cinema than of gay/lesbian moviemaking, is a challenging and historically eye-opening drama set among the Geechee people on South Carolina's Gullah coast at the turn of the 20th century. Almost all of Daughters' main characters belong to an extended family of free blacks who remained on the Sea Islands through the eras of slavery and Reconstruction, preserving their own language and cultural customs, but who now face the choice whether or not to assimilate into mainland American society. Appropriately to this scenario, Dash orchestrates much of her movie—in plot terms, but also with regard to sound, structure, and images—as a series of tense juxtapositions: dead relatives commune with the living, as do unborn children. Mainland Victorian dresses are framed together with the indigo-dyed shifts of island residents. Baptist, hoodoo, and Muslim religions are all practiced on the island, and the Geechee language is contrasted with the cultivated, deracinated dialect of sisters and cousins who have been to the city. So many disparities exist among these biologically-related characters that no single one of them emerges as the standard of "normalcy" which others must adopt or be measured against—a key, structuring insight of Dash's work.

Where does lesbianism enter the picture? Rather near the margins, frankly, as a disgraced daughter named Yellow Mary returns to the island from Cuba, where she has worked as a prostitute. She arrives with a light-skinned, almost silent woman named Trula in tow, a traveling companion (think again of Shanghai Express) with whom she plans to migrate northward to Canada. The implied lesbian relationship between Yellow Mary and Trula is something Dash concedes in interviews but treats rather gingerly in the film; many people who have seen Daughters don't realize the character dynamic at all. Then again, this is not necessarily a failing in a film whose ultimate message is that people, families, cultures, and histories need to be probed and reprobed for all the wisdom and insight they can impart to those who are willing to study and learn.

1994 Go Fish, dir. Rose Troche
The scrappy, snappy, grainy Go Fish couldn't look or feel more different from the sensuously filmed Daughters of the Dust. In fact, the paper-thin budget for the movie and evident inexperience of its cast are simultaneously the film's badges of honor and its most serious detriments. The plot essentially amounts to an 80-minute lesbian episode of Friends, though the filmmakers would probably recoil at that notion, as a callow and tomboyish twentysomething lesbian whiningly endures a blind-date courtship with a gangly, socially awkward veterinarian's assistant. The makers of this match are an African-American women's studies professor, her lover (a Latina divorcée), and a mutual acquaintance who seems determined to sleep with every woman on the block. As barbs and banter and disputes and hormones slide up and down among these five friends, they show a charming-annoying fondness for talking out their problems with all their heads pushed together on the living room floor. The overhead angles of four joined heads spouting homilies, gossip, and gentle admonitions all but pass for F/X shots in Go Fish. That each actress dutifully waits for the others to complete their lines before she herself either moves or speaks is a sign of cloying amateurism, but also of a sincere belief in patient conversation, and also of a sound department that probably consisted of a single on-set microphone and no budget for re-loops.

Lesbian film is even more underfinanced, underpromoted, and underseen than gay male cinema. Troche, Lisa Cholodenko, and Kimberly Peirce are the closest things to known lesbian auteurs that American film has yielded, and they have about six feature films among them, grossing about $15 million combined. By that token, Go Fish emerges—no matter how much one could gripe with its Kevin Smith-ish cinematography and sometimes clutzy rhetoric—as an admirable sign of industrial disadvantage being turned into creative inspriation. Troche has made a disheveled but spirited movie about tapped-out, insecure people who eventually know just what they want, and manage to laugh while they reach for it.

1997 Female Perversions, dir. Susan Streitfeld
Female Perversions is one of the weirdest movies on this list, a fictionalized adaptation of a psychoanalytic scholarly text whose case studies appear here as interconnected characters. Tilda Swinton, for my money the most important actor in the contemporary queer cinema, stars here as Eve, a successful, bisexual trial lawyer in California whose candidacy for a prestigious judgeship is imperiled by her own preying insecurities and by her disgruntled, reclusive sister (Amy Madigan), whose arrest for shoplifting could be a professional embarrassment for Eve. The sisters' acquiantances grow to include an expanding catalogue of female "types": a lesbian doctor, a teary dressmaker, a flamboyant middle-ager strutter, and a quivering adolescent who buries her menses in the desert and scarifies her flesh when she disappoints herself. Streitfeld superimposes some academic quotations over a couple of her scenes, and frequently cuts away to images of Jungian earth mothers and phallocrats who force Swinton's character to walk tightropes in her dreams. Kinda trippy, kinda heavy-handed, a whole lot interesting.

The whole project gets caught up trying to explore symbols of living femininity without resorting to caricature, a battle which the film doesn't always win. There is also an odd, unexpected tension in the way Female Perversions casts attention to so many complex, subliminal forces that block women from achieving their desires, and yet the film eventually settles for a monolithic "primal scene" that condenses all of the foregoing nuances into a uniform image of sex-oppression. If these are faults, though, they are the flaws of a movie that is attempting a nearly unprecedented synthesis of narrative cinema with psychoanalytic theorizations. The cast, led by Swinton and Madigan, are uniformly compelling in their roles, and the film casts a long shadow over much that passes for "daring" indie cinema.

1997 L.A. Confidential, dir. Curtis Hanson
A wondrous troika of actors lends L.A. Confidential its slippery but distinctive erotic poignancy. Russell Crowe's brawny volatility, ascribed to his childhood outrage at witnessing spousal abuse, and Guy Pearce's punctilious primness, which he ultimately forfeits in order to prove his virility, basically amplify character profiles from 1940s noirs and police thrillers. Yet each actor imbues these basic traits with a highly contemporary life force, a self-conscious, even enervated masculinity that seems constantly on guard against deception, disempowerment, compromise. Somehow, they are the ingenues of a system they both thought they had mastered. The discovery that they share this status, despite their superficial contrasts in temperament and comportment, seems to startle each man more than he wants to admit.

Hovering around these two characters is Kevin Spacey's Jack Vincennes, who is just as intense in his self-regard but seems much more willing to admit it. From his boutique side-job as a TV image consultant to his fluorescent-colored blazers, Spacey projects a devil-may-care narcissism that seems much less precarious than Crowe's bulldogishness or Pearce's porcelain fineness. And yet, the spectacle of a slain bisexual hustler, a blond B-list hunk killed for his willingness to swing both ways, seems to touch something deeply sad in Jack, and it shakes Spacey's performance. Without any of the crowd-baiting sarcasm that insulates Lester Burnham from us in American Beauty, Jack Vincennes emits unmet erotic longings in his final scenes which inspire genuine pity. For once, Spacey seems absolutely unironic in his playing. I took it completely for granted on first viewing L.A. Confidential that Jack is a gay character who has never been able to admit as much, even to himself, possibly out of institutional pressures (much of this story is about awful sacrifices to institutional pressures). Perhaps the novel tells a different story. In any case, Curtis Hanson's movie starts out as a war among different styles of policemanship, but reveals itself by the end as a comparative, competitive study of maleness. Spacey doesn't survive the fray, but he shows us a glimpse of repressed emotion that his other recent performances have worked overtime to disavow. It is this same repression—a masculinity that holds naked emotion as an intolerable liability, a masculinity that cuts women's faces until they look familiar, a masculinity that thrives in male company but is terrified of male companionship—that seems to propel almost everything that happens in this agitated, highly Oedipal narrative.

1998 Velvet Goldmine, dir. Todd Haynes
Velvet Goldmine is sort of like L.A. Confidential crossed with The Last of England. On the one hand, Todd Haynes' disco fantasia is a maze-like memory piece in which all kinds of enigmas and conundrums go unanswered. Who, finally, was the glam-rock star Brian Slade? Did he really get assassinated onstage, and if not, why would he pretend he did? What was at stake in a musical culture that emphasized looks over sounds, and that allowed men to festoon and bedeck themselves in such glittery opposition to predominant gender conventions? Where did that culture go? Who and what did it leave behind?

Almost everything in Velvet Goldmine seems to collide with everything else—different colors, different tones, different sounds, different timeframes, different accents, different film stocks. The sound and production design, at moments, are as exuberant as they come, but at other times, or frequently enough at the same time, the film feels desperately sad. Nowhere is the melancholy more strongly felt than in the framing story, where Christian Bale's downcast reporter is trying to dig up the "true" account of Slade's appearance and disappearance. Is Bale so glum because he is on a wild goose chase? Or because this story touches on intimate memories of his own sexual and personal development? Or because, in Thatcherite England, the scintillant reveries and boundless experiments of the 1970s already feel like a distant memory? The pageant and the eulogy are, in many ways, the definitive genres of recent gay art and gay culture, and Haynes fuses them here into a difficult but probing synthesis. Velvet Goldmine is ultimately a sad movie, but it does not pretend (as, say, L'Homme blessé does) that sadness is inveterate to gay life. All the characters in Goldmine, from Bale's reporter to Ewan McGregor's burnout survivor to Toni Collette's cast-off wife, are still asking questions, telling tales, looking for buried truths. Haynes' films are always inquiries into barely phraseable problems, and it is the tireless curiosity of this writer-director which, like that of his characters, makes him inspiring and fascinating even when his optimism is thwarted and his spirits are down. Art, for Haynes, appears to be a salvation from a world of problems and frustrations; art as well-made as Velvet Goldmine can be salvific for its audience, too.

1999 Fight Club, dir. David Fincher
Short of Butch Cassidy, Fight Club is probably my least favorite of the films in this catalogue, but even in its multitude of flaws and contradictions, the film feels more revelatory of modern erotics than many contemporary films more specifically targeted to the question of sexuality. Fight Club is nothing if not ambitious, aiming not only to vocalize the spirit of an entire generation—disaffected post-Boomers and twentysomethings, alienated from their jobs, starved for intimacy, dwindling away inside their apartments and their bodies—but to comment relentlessly on its own commentary. Virtuoso stunt-sequences, like the captioned tour through Edward Norton's bachelor pad (which springs Athena-like and fully formed from the brain of Ikea), are dazzling until Brad Pitt's character repeatedly literalizes and verbalizes their implications in monologue after monologue. The film is entirely premised on the swaggering charisma of Pitt's Tyler Durden, but he also turns out to be the picture's black hole. Action and character development halt repeatedly so Tyler can speechify. Even when he's revealed as a figment, Fincher can't get him off the screen or out of the soundtrack. Tyler's messianic complex, which the screenplay understands to be pathological, quickly becomes the film's own defining trait, and though the movie's fans would bristle to hear me say it, the last hour or so of Fight Club is worth writing off almost entirely.

But a funny thing has happened to Fight Club on its way to commercial oblivion. After bombing rather pronouncedly in theaters, the film has revived itself on DVD as the cinematic touchstone for the current college set, at least if my students are any indication. Fully in line with the movie's own structure, Fight Club caught on as a capillary phenomenon, with private but fascinated viewers picking up the movie's signal in small, isolated groups, until a genuine grassroots cult following took shape. None of this makes me like Fight Club more, but it makes me more interested to grasp its appeal and its message. For the movie's partisans, the elation of hearing Tyler Durden espousing righteous anger completely outweighs the dismay of watching his nihilism rip down a city. The aching wish of disenfranchised men to re-connect with each other through bruising violence seems to pass without question; the Club's pungency as a symbol somehow drowns out the mania and hopelessness of its implications. And the evident homoeroticism of the film—Norton's character and Fincher's camera want to watch Brad, touch Brad, live with Brad, be Brad—is briskly disavowed by a plot "twist" of schizophrenia that makes no sense except to extinguish a too-threatening alternative.

The themes of Fight Club are also the incoherences of Fight Club, but to be fair, these are incoherent times. The stew of capitalist estrangement, nervous sexuality, terroristic impulses, and technological wizardry is perhaps better served by a film that aggressively jumbles them together than by a film (what would this be like?) that sorted them out in a clean, readable web. If queerness has recently become more than a sexuality, but a ubiquitous state of post-Y2K life, Fight Club might be the single film that most strongly makes that case.

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