Ready for Their Close-up

[22 August 2007]

By Michael Abernethy

Alan: I have a question.
Arnold: The answer is yes.
Alan: You don’t even know what I was going to ask.
Arnold: Whatever it is, the answer is yes. I’m too tired to argue.
Alan: ...Good. Because I love you, too.
  —Matthew Broderick and Harvey Fierstein, Torch Song Trilogy

The lights dim in the movie theater. I sit alone, certain that none of my friends would want to see a film such as this one, equally certain that it would raise questions I didn’t want to answer if they knew I wanted to see this film. The film starts. For the next hour and a half, I watch. The people on the screen are who I want to be: hip, witty, involved, and out. They have relationships and discuss who they are openly and freely. They fall in love with people of the same sex and don’t feel ashamed, odd, wrong. I didn’t know they made films like this. I didn’t know people lived like this. I left the theater with my mind afire: absolute joy that there was a world for people like me, detached hope that I would one day screw up the courage to join that world, utter despair because I knew that courage was a long time coming and I would continue to live in the place of denial.

So profoundly was I affected by Stephen Frear’s My Beautiful Laundrette that I began to seek out other gay-themed films, in theaters and on video: Merchant and Ivory’s Maurice, Donna Deitch’s Desert Hearts, Bill Sherwood’s Parting Glances, Norman Rene’s Longtime Companion, and Marek Kanievska’s Another Country, to name a few. These films appealed to me for their honesty; there were no campy portrayals by straight actors winking at the camera, “I’m just playing gay”. For instance, in My Beautiful Laundrette, straight actors Gordon Warnecke and Daniel Day-Lewis engage fully in their characters and create one of the most sensual love scenes captured on film.

During the ‘80s, when most of the above films were released, gay films truly came into their own. Watch the honesty of emotion in Longtime Companion and then watch the dreadful 1969 Stanley Donan film Staircase. Despite its star power (Richard Burton and Rex Harrison) and serious subject matter (caring for a sick parent destroys the longtime relationship of two aging gay men), the film is an insult to the lives of gay men. In his original review of the film, Roger Ebert puts much of the blame on the stars: “Harrison minces about in a parody of homosexual mannerisms - not that many (or perhaps any) homosexuals ever acted as he portrays them… Neither he nor Burton is believable for more than seconds.” (4 November 1969, SunTimes.com)

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From High Kukus

There is a stark difference between the way that gays and lesbians appear on film before and after the ‘80s. More often than not, gay men were portrayed as flighty, limp-wristed, squealing women with male genitals in film’s earlier days. In addition to Staircase, one can look at Richard Lester’s The Ritz (1976) or William Friedkin’s Boys in the Band (1970). In more serious fare, homosexuality or perceived homosexuality was disguised, as in the film adaptation of two Tennessee Williams plays (1958’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, 1959’s Suddenly, Last Summer), or was the source of problems and relational complications, as in William Wyler’s 1961 version of The Children’s Hour and Vincent Minnelli’s Tea and Sympathy. Granted, gay characters did appear in some films in the ‘70s without ridicule or condemnation (Sunday, Bloody Sunday, Cabaret), but it wasn’t until the ‘80s that believable gay men and lesbians became the focal point of films. 

Certainly, changing social mores played a large role in how gay men and women are portrayed on screen, and the solidarity which arose in the gay community during the AIDS crisis forced many straights to view gays and lesbians as serious, responsible individuals outside of the stereotypes through which they had been viewed, allowing films such as Longtime Companion to be accepted by a larger audience. Still, if it wasn’t for the work of director James Broughton, gay cinema may not have progressed as quickly as it has.

Odds are, you’ve never seen one of Broughton’s films. His filmography is rather brief, and there are no feature-length films listed. Now, however, 17 of his 20 short films have been collected into a three DVD set by Facet Videos, allowing fans of cinema to view the work of one of the ‘60s and ‘70s most noted experimental filmmakers. Most of Broughton’s work won’t appeal to those who like their films to follow a traditional narrative format, but these film shorts are revelatory in their subject matter.

From The Bed

From The Bed

Broughton’s career as a filmmaker can easily be divided into two periods (Broughton also worked consistently as a poet and writer). The first part of his film career, lasting from 1946 to 1953, includes only eight short films, most following a traditional story-telling format. Four of these films are included in the DVD set, including the two films starring “Looney Tom”, a woman-obsessed hobo whose antics resemble those of Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd. This period of filmmaking culminates with The Pleasure Garden, one of Broughton’s first examinations of the subject of puritanical attitudes. The short won an award for Best Fantastic - Poetic Film at the 1954 Cannes Film Festival.

After The Pleasure Garden, Broughton took a 15-year break from films, returning with 1968’s The Bed. The film is simple in its structure, showing a bed in a field and all the activities that occur in bed—sex, sleep, death, reading, playing, and so on. Young and old, male and female appear in the bed in various stages of undress. As Broughton’s film career continued, resulting in 13 more films over the next 20 years, his fascination with the human body, and in particular the male body, grew. The Golden Positions (1970), Erogeny (1976), and Song of the Goodbody (1977) all explore the nature of human flesh. 

However, it was 1979’s Hermes Bird that truly revealed Broughton’s love of the male body. This 11-minute film shows a grainy shot of a nude man’s crotch as his penis goes from a flaccid to erect state. To be blunt, the most intriguing part of the film is that it took the guy 11 minutes to get hard. As with all of his later films, Broughton’s poetry is featured prominently in voice-over, revealing his adoration of humankind and the pleasures of the human body.

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From The Pleasure Garden

Of all the films on the DVD collection, though, it was 1983’s Devotions that most reminded me of my experience watching My Beautiful Laundrette. Devotions is a beautiful film that delves into the subject of male love. The relationships here are sweet and honest, and come in all manners of expression. An elderly male couple bathes one another, washing one another’s hair. Two middle-aged men lay in bed reading, their pets gathered on the bed with them. A rough-looking leatherman sits whisking icing for a cake; his lover enters, pulls his own whisk out and joins him, with each feeding the other icing as they work. Two men sit sharing a moment of peace while their toddler son sits between them. Two men look longingly at one another while masturbating the other in the back seat of a car. And on and on. The vignettes are short, but each clearly portrays the loving nature of the relationship shown. 

Featured prominently throughout Devotions is Broughton himself, along with his lover and cameraman / co-director Joel Singer. Although Broughton was married and had two children with his wife, he was unashamed about displaying his love and passion for Singer. Their love affair is one of the first “real” gay relationships documented on film in unabashedly flattering terms.

The focus of short films such as Devotions helped pave the way for the sensual foreplay in Personal Best and the sweet coming of age story in Beautiful Thing. Today, gay cinema is an industry in its own right. High profile films such as Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain and Bill Condon’s Gods and Monsters find themselves in the running for major awards, while even juvenile comedies such as Wet Hot American Summer and the current I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry treat the subject of homosexuality with a sensitivity previously not seen in such films. 

This is not to imply that all gay or lesbian related cinema is worthy of praise. Gay men and women are still the subject of much ridicule in films (see the Queer, Isn’t It? article, “That Ain’t Right”).  What’s more, many gay films are not just poorly made, but “I can’t believe I wasted two hours of my life on that piece of crap” bad. Much of the reason for that is the films are made by aspiring filmmakers with little experience and no money.

James Broughton

James Broughton

Still, a large problem with many of these films is that gay filmmakers now are the ones guiltiest of perpetuating the stereotypes the gay and lesbian community has fought so hard to overcome. In Strategies: Journal of Theory, Culture, and Politics, David Pendleton argues that there are mainly four gay characters presented in lead roles in gay cinema: the newby, fresh out of the closet and learning the “gay ropes”; the heartbreaker, whose studly appearance aids in his sexual promiscuity; the lonely guy, yearning for love but hindered by his nerdish ways; and the flamer, who is part-time acid tongued queen and part fashion-maven.  (“Out of the Ghetto: Queerness, Homosexual Desire and the Time-Image”, May 2001) A perfect example of this is the 2005 film The Mostly Unfabulous Social Life of Ethan Green; the poster for the film clearly labels each character with tags along the lines of “The Confused Jock” and “The Serial Dater”. This lack of originality helps perpetuate the idea that most all gay cinema is worth avoiding.

Despite shortcomings in the current crop of gay and lesbian films, there is much to celebrate.  At least we are represented on screen in both positive and honest ways (even when such honesty is not positive). Gay men and women can see films that represent their lives, as well as see themselves represented in films intended for straight audiences (My Best Friend’s Wedding, The Mexican, Be Cool, As Good as it Gets, to name just a few). And for that pleasure of seeing ourselves, we owe a debt to men like James Broughton.

Michael has been writing for PopMatters since 2000. His primary focus, aside from queer culture, is television reviews and commentary, and his article Male Bashing on TV has been reprinted in two college textbooks. He currently lives in Louisville, KY, and is a Lecturer of Communication Studies at Indiana University Southeast in New Albany, IN. As a teacher, he has an interest in the study of contemporary political rhetoric and argumentation. He and his partner Jim have been living in un-wedded bliss since 1995.


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/ready-for-their-close-up/