Frequently Asked Question: What the hell is a “gay movie” anyway?

Last updated on July 10th, 2019 at 12:34 pm

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After reading BFI’s LGBT listresponding to it, and running up against some of the contradictions and assumptions in the conceptualizations of both, I think it’s about time I answered one question, at least for the purpose of this blog, and at least for myself: what is a gay movie?

If you’ve read my own list of significant gay movies, you might be able to tell that the implicit organizing principle was to limit the list to films that address, depict, analyze, or dramatize primarily the experiences of men who have sex with men, or want to have sex with men, and who experience romantic love with men — not lesbians, bisexual women, or all transgendered persons.

Just, mostly, the G and B in the LGBT.

Although those with a bisexual identity might object to being included as a criteria for my list, and although I don’t consider bisexual identity as a subset of gay identity, still for the purposes of the list, I am considering male-bisexual activity, like that shown in Wild Side, for example, as a valid criteria for inclusion, as would be the experiences of trans men with same-gender experiences or aspirations.

Why only the experiences of gay and bisexual men?

I made this distinction because I didn’t want to deal with the noise introduced from including the L and the T. The differences in experience, from culture to culture, between men loving and fucking other men, seem sufficiently varied that evaluating films across the entire alphabet-soup spectrum across all these different cultures dilutes all of them and buries important work.

Lesbians deserve their own lists.

Trans folks deserve their own lists.

In the interests of facile inclusion and political expediency, we’ve denied our experiences the depth and richness that’s already there in world cinema, if we’re willing to let go of some biases, outdated habits, and it must be said, political correctness.

Uniting under one political umbrella makes strategic and moral sense but I don’t see how evaluative criteria for art do the same. This mashup benefits no one. As an unexamined programmatic bias, I would think we would reevaluate it as a matter of course. But who does? Surely we’ve reached the point in which separating the lists could only add to our understanding, not limit it, as the status quo does now, and as lists like the BFI’s clearly do.

Well, why experiences and not sensibility?

Too vague, too esoteric, not materialist, are the short answers. 

What I’m interested in are the representations of love and sex between men loving and fucking men. It’s simple, it’s manageable, it’s not coy, and has the economical benefit of not trying to address the filmed representations of multitudinous experiences for at least 4 different identity-groups, without distinguishing between their possible unique modes of formal and stylistic expression.

Including “gay sensibility” as an evaluative principle just doesn’t seem like very good criticism to me. Focusing on sensibility, rather than on lived life, may be subversive in an 80s sort of way — one BFI voter nominated Whiplash as “An intense gay remake of The Seventh Veil” — and it might have allowed us once to uncover “gay subtexts” (and that’s always a lot of fun), but it also allows cinephiles to ignore other important works from creators outside typical establishment-cinephile circles. (It’s past time to start thinking about that, and the ways that particular festival marketing/distribution modelz, with the help of the academy and The New York Times, privileges certain national and regional cinemas over others.) In 2016, in the West, pretending there is a universally recognized gay sensibility is to indulge in nostalgia and wishful not critical thinking.

Now for some counterexamples. While it used to be fashionable to characterize all John Waters movies as so gay, it’s more accurate, employing the undyingly popular auteurism, to describe them as uniquely John Waters. That becomes clear after watching just a handful of films trying to imitate his style and sensibility. If anyone’s even come close, I’ve haven’t seen it, and I’ve been in a couple myself.

For further clarification, while Claire Denis’ estimable Beau Travail showed up a few times on the BFI voters’ lists, for me homoeroticism doesn’t qualify as gay. (And do Claire Denis films need more exposure than they already get?) If so, then Top Gun is gay and so’s White Squall. Boy, is it. Murnau’s Tabú strikes me as obviously conceived and shot by a gay man, but I wouldn’t list it, except as a masterpiece.

Why focus on just sex?

Have you noted the name of the blog? No, but seriously, while I always have a sociological and voyeuristic interest in what people actually do, like my hero Alfred Kinsey, and feel like we can never exhaust that process of discovery, and while I also think film is a fecund medium for the sexual, erotic and romantic imaginations, it’s not sex solely I’m focusing on, it’s the body, and the effects of the male body on other male bodies; and so it’s affection, pleasure, desire and romance, too. For me, that focus is still central, still essential, and still radical, something that El Tercero reminds me of whenever I watch it.

To repeat and sum up, when I talk about gay movies, I mean: films that address, depict, analyze or dramatize primarily the experiences of men who have, or want to have, sex with men. Films with secondary gay characters or tangential gay experiences (like Y Tú Mamá También) or films in which the sexuality of the characters seems more or less incidental (like Burnt Money) aren’t part of my definition, although they may be interesting, valuable, and worth writing about.

My next post will be a direct response to BFI’s 30 Best, in the form of an alternative list.

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Jorge g
Jorge g
December 29, 2021 7:00 PM

Love the set up and way movie was shot, touched me

April 9, 2016 5:20 AM

Great piece; I’m ecstatic you’re still writing and publishing. Would love to hear from you.
Tim Smith

Rick Powell
Reply to  wildwildwest
April 9, 2016 8:34 AM

Thanks, Tim! I’m still hangin in there. Hope you’re well. Abrazos.

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