| CLAYTON WALTER
Not all queer films are created equal – not only in terms of quality, but in terms of queerness. There are certain movies that are made specifically for a queer audience. These movies aren’t afraid of flamboyance; they’re draped in camp, littered with in-jokes that would likely land with a thud outside of the community and are not afraid to “go there.” When asked to describe certain queer films to straight friends, I start with “It’s really gay.” I don’t say that as a condemnation, nor as praise. It’s more a friendly warning to those viewers who might not be ready to watch something so fabulous.
Sometimes, these movies are really fun to watch. Pedro Almodóvar is perhaps the greatest queer filmmaker in the world, and his movies are often dripping in colorful, salacious melodrama. His airplane-set comedy I’m So Excited! is perhaps the gayest movie I’ve ever seen. Every character aboard the film’s cursed flight is at least bi-curious, leading to plenty of comic situations and the best dance number ever staged in a non-musical. It’s a slight entry in the auteur’s repertoire, but it is a treat to see something that has so much fun with its characters’ sexuality.
I never thought that it was possible for a movie to be “too gay” until I was recently sent a copy of a movie titled simply The Gays, written and directed by T.S. Slaughter. I figured even the queerest movies were harmless, as they catered to an underserved audience. Straight viewers who might stumble upon them would likely be a little lost, but might gain some insight into a foreign community. No harm, no foul. The Gays, on the other hand, is harmful in how foul it is.
Slaughter has a noble goal. The Gays is barely a film; it plays more like a flashback-heavy episode of a family-friendly 1980s sitcom like Full House, and as it parodies the sitcom form, it also parodies the way those shows shelled out conservative family values. Here those values, dispensed by monotone patriarch Rod Gay (Frank Holliday) and campy matriarch Bob Gay-Paris (Chris Tanner), are shocking taboos, as they instill their children with the sort of extreme gay propaganda that our community is accused of employing in our quest to achieve the “gay agenda.” It’s a fine match of form and function, but Slaughter fails to edit himself, and the result is vile.
For a gay viewer, The Gays won’t prove shocking; sure, there’s more full-frontal nudity and gross-out dialogue than in a usual movie, but it’s about equivalent to spending an hour on Grindr. The danger comes in how this movie might be received by anyone else who happens upon it (chances are, not many). This is a movie that is specifically designed to cater to a queer audience. It is vulgar without focus. Slaughter throws every nasty thing he can think of into the film without a filter, and thus, what he’s trying to achieve becomes lost in the shuffle of gags and ball gags. The Gays spews venomous platitudes, daring viewers to be offended and suggesting that anyone who feels offended should also feel ashamed to be offended. It’s an ugly, hateful film, one that wields its queerness as a barbed club, bludgeoning viewers into numbness and sacrificing its social commentary and humorous moments at the altar of poor taste. The Gays is only interested in shocking its viewers, which is the last thing a queer filmmaker should be trying to achieve.
I’m gay, and I want to write movies. Does that mean I’m obligated in some way to tell queer stories? There aren’t enough queer movies out there, though the amount of quality queer filmmaking is certainly on the rise. Many of the queer-themed films that are made, and especially those that burst (somewhat) into the mainstream, usually aren’t made by queer filmmakers. I wrestle with what it means to be a minority in an industry dominated by old, white straight men on a daily basis, and I haven’t even come close to breaking into the monolithic, intimidating film industry yet.
On one hand, queer filmmakers have the opportunity to tell stories of sexual minorities with an insight that straight, cisgender filmmakers cannot possess. That’s not to say that those filmmakers can’t make insightful queer films. The opposite is repeatedly proven true. For instance, Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain is a pinnacle in gay film, however tortured the characters’ sexuality might be. It’s often an artist’s prerogative to explore new territory, to try new things, to tackle unfamiliar ideas. I’m grateful that straight filmmakers take on queer material and often do so with grace and poignancy.
Queer filmmakers who produce content about straight characters don’t always receive the same praise. I’ve been asked by friends why the script that I’m most proud of writing – and most determined to see produced – doesn’t have a queer character in it. And sometimes, I feel guilty about it. But I shouldn’t.
There’s something in the human brain that makes us eager to categorize. The world is easier to understand if we can divide it up into smaller, more easily digestible boxes. We look for similarities and differences so that we can make sense of what’s around us and so that we can activate the cynicism and criticism that often result from such pastimes. In the writing of this article, I started thinking about queer films by queer filmmakers, straight films by queer filmmakers, and so on, trying to find patterns in order to make broad, sweeping statements about what creative artists should be doing.
Great art is universal. It transcends the dividing lines, blurring the differences between us by making us realize deeper truths. Art has the unique power to connect us, and none more so than film, the most commercial of all art forms (though queer films don’t always pack much box office punch). A film like Hong Khaou’s Lilting – about a man helping his late boyfriend’s mother find love at an assisted living center--paints a picture of love being love, regardless of differences in culture, language, orientation and race. A great movie is a powerful thing.
I dream of a Hollywood where what a filmmaker is pales in comparison to who he or she is. A great film is a great film, regardless of who makes it, or why, or for what intended audience. Queer stories should be told by anyone who wants to tell them, just as straight stories should, and we should celebrate the diversity of visions, the breadth of ideas, the riches of the arthouse theater.
Yes, queer filmmakers making queer movies are worthy of celebration – Andrew Haigh and Stewart Thorndike and PJ Raval have made masterful work, perhaps because of their personal connection to their material – but so are straight filmmakers making straight films, or straight filmmakers making queer films. Any good story told well has the power to affect change, to inspire, to make us cry. That’s one of the reasons I love movies, and want to make them.
| Clayton Walter