Free Film School #112: Queer Cinema (Part 2)

Welcome back, gentle students, to the second half of my lengthy two-part lecture on the history of queer cinema as part of CraveOnline‘s wondrous Free Film School (our motto: Vigilate movies magis). In last week’s article (largely inspired by the book The Celluloid Closet, and the subsequent 1995 documentary based on it), I traced the origins of gay characters in movies from the 1920s up through the late 1960s, and how gay characters were perceived by filmmakers, ratings boards, and the general public at large. In short, the way society views gay people can be reflected in the movies it makes. Gay people may also learn how to view themselves through movies. For many decades, visibility was an issue, and then later, visibility increased, only to be replaced by tragic figures and fallen villains. It wasn’t until the film Victim that we had a gay character who was actually complex and heroic and wasn’t prone to suicide.

On June 28th, 1969, in Greenwich Village, NY, there was a riot. The Stonewall Inn was one of the few openly gay venues in New York, and gays and lesbians regularly gathered there. The local cops, out of homophobic zestiness, often raided the bar and arrested people for God-knows-what sort of infractions. On one fateful night, however, the tenants of the bar refused to give over to the cops, and there was a violent and extended standoff. This event brought homosexuals to a new level of visibility in this country heretofore unseen previously. People came on the news talking openly about homosexuality and gay rights for the first time. Thanks to this violent event, “gay” became part of the national discourse, and homosexuality was no longer a distant or intellectual thing. It was a people.

The movies instantly came to reflect that new visibility, and the 1970s saw more accurate and more enriched gay characters. The first film often considered to be the first to depict a thriving gay community was William Friedkin’s 1970 film The Boys in the Band. This was a film that didn’t show gays as lonely outcasts or sexual deviants, but a complete people with their own community, and a sense of camaraderie. A group of gay men, each with distinct personalities, all interact, talk about sex, their interests, their friendships, and what to do when a straight man comes to one of their all-gay parties. Gay was now out of the closet.

It wasn’t always a positive thing, though. Last week I talked about how gay characters were in the past (and still are) used as slapstick comedic buffoons, and in the 1970s, that cliché somehow parlayed into comic villains, and, in many movies, became a reason to hate someone or to slur someone. Visibility was up, but acceptance was still a shaky thing. If you look at a film like Vanishing Point, which opens with a pair of swishy queer muggers, or a film like Freebie and the Bean, which ends with a transvestite being violently gunned down in a public restroom, you get the sense that homosexuals are still “weird” people that the “manlier” men would rather not deal with, other than to hit them or murder them. Indeed, you may notice that many films from the late 1970s and early 1980s use the word “faggot” an awful lot. This may be skipping ahead chronologically a bit, but there’s a particularly telling line of dialogue from the 1985 horror comedy Teen Wolf. “I’m not a fag. I’m a werewolf.”

The 1970s mainstream films were not always kind to gays, but a huge gay underground began to take hold in the public consciousness. John Waters rose up during the 1970s, making pointedly tasteless movies about deviants and weirdos and, yes, gay men and women. Waters’ films displayed a prodding and playful sense of humor about deviant behavior that is difficult to find elsewhere, and are, perhaps, a boon to the gay community. Sure, Waters’ gay characters aren’t exactly heroes – Waters liked the pseudo-criminal and trashy elements of all outsider communities – but they displayed a sleazy joy you couldn’t find anywhere besides Kuchar films and Kenneth Anger films. 1975 also saw the release of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, still one of the world’s most notorious cult movies, and one with bisexuality all over it. In it, Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry) creates a studly male playtoy, fellates Barry Bostwick, and boinks Susan Sarandon. And it’s a musical. It’s little wonder that this out-there film is still a cult hit.

Indeed, musicals saw a boom in the 1970s thanks to the success of Bob Fosse’s Cabaret. In Cabaret, pre-war Berlin is seen as a hedonistic paradise, wherein gay men and women could – with relative openness – have illicit gay affairs, all in a warm and welcoming environment. One that, sadly, was doomed, thanks to the ever-encroaching Nazi regime. Michael York plays a gay man who is sleeping with a man who is, in turn, sleeping with Liza Minnelli. The film is wonderful, won many awards, and only helped the gay visibility trend.

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