Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Cruisin' for a Bruisin'

I watched William Friedkin's controversial 1980 gay S&M thriller Cruising the other night and felt compelled to write about it. I can't begin to imagine what it was like to be gay (openly or not) in 1980, and there are moments in this film that are, without a doubt, hopeless in their representation of gay culture. I do, however, think there's something to be said about several things like the way the Paul Sorvino character (and several other peripheral police characters) are actually quite empathetic towards the gay men and how Al Pacino's undercover cop seems so nonchalant about the whole thing was surprising. Even as Friedkin's camera roams the gay bars that are its primary setting for the early half of the movie, it doesn't do so with fear-mongering angles and overdone hysterics. I'd like to see a piece of gay cinema made in 2010 that is this frank and open in its displays of homosexual sexual acts. You just don't find many movies starring the likes of Al Pacino that feature fistings and rimjobs, ya know? Or, for that matter, a modern day movie in which a star of Al Pacino's fame and stature is shown hog-tied to a bed by a gay lover. You just wouldn't. Tasteless Cruising is, but its brashness ultimately becomes one of the film's most eye-popping and fascinating aspects. Just how far will they go and so forth?

If Cruising were made today then it wouldn't be the gay men protesting it like they were in 1980 - read on and you'll discover that, these days, gay men will champion anything that is remotely "omg homos on screen!!!" - but it would be the conservative "tea party" thing calling it disgraceful, immoral and yelling to anyone who'll listen (aka Fox News) that the filmmakers are "pushing the homosexual agenda" onto audiences (audiences that have paid their money for a ticket so you must assume they want this so-called "agenda" pushed onto them). Technically, the film is well-lensed by James Contner that obviously recalls similar milieu found in Taxi Driver, and Jack Nitzsche's music is menacing yet fun. Of course, the central idea that a perfectly heterosexual man cannot enter the gay "scene" without reconsidering his sexual preference, and, furthermore, become a violent serial killer because of it, is an inherently homophobic one, but Cruising is far from the most damaging that gay cinema has to offer. I tend to think movies like Another Gay Movie are far worse, but maybe that's just me.

In fact, my main criticisms towards the film have very little to do with the homosexual stuff and more to do with the fact that just a very messy film with plot strands that start and get unceremoniously dumped, with a lead character that doesn't seem to know what he's doing and a good chunk of the actors are woeful. Some of the early sequence in the gay club, to my eyes, felt like wildly exaggerated portrayals of gay life, but what would I know about the New York gay scene of the 1970s? As for Al Pacino? He spends far too much time towards the beginning doing his mumble routine, but he actually ends up getting out without tarnishing his reputation, and hey he was certainly nice to look at "back in the day". I get what it was trying to do and it's a better movie than I remember Friedkin's The Boys in the Band being, but I saw that other 1970s bookend title too long ago to really remember. Cruising? It's probably better to look at it as a mood piece, as a moment in time that we'll never see again and if you can't like it for its politics then you have to at least admire it somewhat for having the balls to even attempt what it was doing. B-

As I was link hopping around I came across this list of "The Top 50 Favorite Gay Films!" at AfterElton. Obviously, such a list - voted for by readers - on such a website as AfterElton is a dubious one to begin with, but reading over the list is quite... and I don't want to sound hyperbolic here, but... depressing. Cruising is not to be found on the list, understandably, but just look at the list and tell me honestly that half of these titles don't make you want to vomit all over your monitor.

50. Priest
49. The Wedding Banquet
48. Redwoods
47. The Celluloid Closet
46. Velvet Goldmine

At this stage I thought it was an incredibly strong list of contenders. Sure, I have never heard of Redwoods, but those other four are blistering, powerful works of cinema. Alas, never underestimate the dog shit taste of online gay film watchers.

45. Scott Pilgrim vs The World

Also, never underestimate gay people's ability to clutch onto anything that has even the slightest ounce of gayness about it. Really, AfterElton readers? Scott Pilgrim? The movie isn't even interested in the bisexual nature of Ramona since the female ex is given such incredibly short shrift by the filmmakers. And Keiran Culkin's Wallace does not a gay movie make (no matter how good he actually is.)

44. Jeffrey
43. Edge of Seventeen
42. The Rocky Horror Picture Show
41. The Bubble

Another nice mini-segment of movies. I'm not going to question how The Bubble made it and other foreign-language gay cinema like Pedro Almodovar's Bad Education or Miguel Albaladejo's Bearcub, but at least they chose something that wasn't about plucked circuit boys!

40. Mambo Italiano
39. Eating Out

Now, Eating Out makes my blood boil. It's one of those films that only gay people could like and the only reason they would is because it's about gay people. Of course, it's "about" gay people in the most superficial ways. Never mind the fact that its terribly written ("my life is so not Sex and the City right now" is a quite I seem to remember), acted, shot and is amateur hour compared to even the most unsophisticated of arthouse cinema. But, hey, it features hot boys with big muscles so it must be good! Throw in some obvious pathos about "finding yourself" to appeal to those who don't want to appear completely shallow and ta da! I guess we should be thankful that Eating Out 2: Sloppy Seconds didn't make the top 50, too! Or how about Another Gay Movie? I'm surprised that wasn't top 10 let alone not on the entire countdown!

Mambo Italiano? I'd rather not go there.

38. The Trip
37. Making Love
36. Yossi & Jagger
35. Boy Culture
34. The Birdcage
33. The Boys in the Band
32. Love Songs
31. All Over the Guy

Apart from two or three of this combo, these all seem like films that I would think interchangeable with so many others. What places Don Roos' All Over the Guy above Don Roos' The Opposite of Sex, I wonder. Is the latter too lesbiany (to steal a phrase from Henrie Stride.)

30. My Own Private Idaho
29. Parting Glances
28. C.R.A.Z.Y.
27. Shortbus

An admirable selection here, but these are the sort of titles I would expect to see ranked much higher on the list if this were an actual, legitimate list of the best gay cinema. I haven't seen Parting Glances though, should I?

26. Philadelphia

See, now here is where I call umbrage on this list. As a gay person I am supposed to hate Cruising, but like Philadelphia? As misguided as parts of Cruising are at least it has the guts to be out there. "We're Here / We're Queer" and what have you. Philadelphia, on the other hand, is more like "We're Here / But Well, We'll Stand Over There and Maybe You Won't Notice That We're Queer... But We ARE Here! Sort of! Maybe!"

25. Summer Storm
24. I Love You Phillip Morris
23. Hedwig and the Angry Inch
22. Angels in America
21. The Broken Hearts Club
20. My Beautiful Laundrette

Let it be known that My Beautiful Laundrette, one of the three finest gay films of all time - not to mention Hedwig and Angels in America - are ranked below...

19. Noah's Arc: Jumping the Broom

Okay then. Glad we got that settled. Granted, I've never seen this Jumping the Broom movie (the title alone gives me hives), but surely Brother to Brother (starring Anthony Mackie of The Hurt Locker) is a better examination of homosexuality within the African American community? I'd be interested to know how I Love You Phillip Morris managed enough votes, but Kevin Kline in the hilarious In & Out did not. Is that movie too old/not old enough. Is it not gay enough because Kevin Kline doesn't have anal sex with someone (but merely quotes Barbra Streisand)? Hmmm. That's not a knock to Phillip Morris, mind you, it is a hilarious film, I'm just curious is all.

18. Just a Question of Love
17. Prayers for Bobby

Don't ever underestimate gay people's willingness to enjoy TV movies about parents' guilt over not accepting their child's homosexuality. NEVER UNDERESTIMATE!

16. Patrik, Age 1.5

I have never seen this Swedish film, but I'm curious if the voters just haven't seen Bearcub? It seems much higher profile than this and it's a really lovely movie. I guess I should be thankful they didn't choose Breakfast with Scot though, right?

15. The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
14. Torch Song Trilogy
13. Longtime Companion
12. Mysterious Skin

Priscilla is one of the funniest movies ever made (I'd probably rank it only behind Flying High! actually) and I adore Torch Song Trilogy for being everything that something like Mambo Italiano is not. Mysterious Skin... well, I don't want to jump to assumptions, but if the lead character of Joseph Gordon-Levitt was played by someone who wasn't as attractive I can't imagine it would rank as high. That's how cynical I am about these sort of lists from websites such as AfterElton. Amazing film that it is, do we really think the sort of AfterElton readers that can rank some of these upcoming top ten titles as high as they are would watch a movie as tough and unrelenting as Mysterious Skin if the eye candy wasn't so sky high? I mean, Gods & Monsters isn't even on this list! And I suspect it's because of, as Dame James so eloquently put it on Twitter earlier today:

Gods & Monsters was about an old guy. EWWWWW. Who wants to watch that?


(He was being sarcastic in case you were wondering...)

11. Trick

In the subgenre of "Attractive Man with Big Muscles Falls for Attractive Man with Bigger Muscles", Jim Fall's Trick is actually pretty decent. There's more there than just "here are some gay people acting gay, which means the gays will like it." I'd much rather watch this one again (fast forwarding through the Tori Spelling garbage, obviously) than, say, Latter Days. I do query though how Edge of Seventeen didn't rank as high as this one since it's actually quite good with some good performances, excellent 1980s sense of place and soundtrack and plenty of pathos (same should be said for Gypsy 83, which didn't make the list at all).

10. Get Real
9. Big Eden
8. Were the World Mine

Get Real I haven't seen since I was actually in high school so the whole plot of Outsider with a Crush on the Jock Who OMG Turns Out to be Gay plot didn't feel as cliched. Of course, I remember it being a bit better than the usual fare, so perhaps it wouldn't be terrible on a revisit. As for Were the World Mine? I happen to think it's one of the worst movies I have ever seen. Absolutely dreadful in every conceivable way that it makes even Another Gay Movie look like Shakespeare (a language that this film murders with fairy dust).

7. Maurice
6. A Single Man
5. Latter Days
4. Beautiful Thing
3. Shelter

As for A Single Man, I'm on record as saying that it is not a particularly good movie, nor do I think Latter Days does enough outside of it sexually-repressed-religious-boy fantasy to warrant a placement so darn high, but Beautiful Thing was lovely, wasn't it? I remember watching it in my room late and night with the volume right down so my parents couldn't hear it. It's one of the few young gay romance movies where the characters aren't supermodels. Whod've thunk it?!

2. Milk

Okay, I wouldn't go that far, but it is a good a movie. I would've liked to have seen The Times of Harvey Milk rank this highly actually since I think that Oscar-winning documentary from 1984 is even better than Gus Van Sant's dramatic take on the subject matter. But, hey, at least this movie is on the list!

1. Brokeback Mountain

Naturally. I'm not going to complain about this being no. 1 since it's very nearly a masterpiece, although I tend to not even think it's the best gay film of 2005 (that would be Mysterious Skin), but it's a powerful piece of cinema and Heath Ledger forever immortalised himself with this performance. Ang Lee very almost bookended the countdown, actually, what with his The Wedding Banquet making no. 49 on the list.

I know it's a lot to ask that general readers should actually have taste, but as much as I have issued with AfterElton, surely even they can tell the difference between a film such as Eating Out or Latter Days and one such as Paris is Burning (a documentary masterpiece) or Neil Jordan's groundbreaking The Crying Game, two titles that I find absolutely disgraceful and flat out embarrassing at the exclusion of. And whither Y Tu Mama Tambien, Urbania and Humpday. And if they were going to choose movies with such tenuous connections to homosexuality such as Scott Pilgrim Vs The World then I can't figure how something like Far From Heaven or Billy Elliot couldn't make it.

I should just thank my lucky stars I didn't have to read that The Fluffer or O Fantasma had made the list. I already shave my noggin, but I think if I'd seen them listed I would have torn a few more chunks of what little hair I do have up there. What horrible films they are.

I'd like to see a list such as this for the female side of gay cinema, which I find curious was made ineligible (or, so I imagine - could anyone seriously not rank Bound or Heavenly Creatures if they were allowed?) I'm interested to hear what you guys think so speak up in the comments!


JackAttack said...

in defense of eating out 2: sloppy seconds, they took an entirely flaccid first film and came out with a fast-paced, fagtastic pantomime. it still holds up on re-watch.

as for your other observations, i pretty much agree. although i can't imagine a list of straight films by straight people would rate very high either.

R-Co said...

I think what's hard with lists like these, spanning the whole history of cinema, is remembering a lot of the titles. For example, I agree that The Crying Game probably should have been on there, but I didn't think of it until you mentioned it. And then there's what people automatically think of when they think of 'queer cinema.' I don't go to Far From Heaven when I go to queer cinema, though of course it should factor in (albeit possibly on the periphery), simply because it wasn't the dominant theme in the film.

Without someone going through the history of cinema and providing maybe a couple of hundred seminal titles that the audience can then hone down to a top fifty, lists like these will always skew towards the gayest, the most profile, and/or the most recent. Which is unfortunate.

I'd be interested to check out your personal top fifty queer films. Some of the titles you talked about I'm now going to have to try and check out.

RJ said...

I read After Elton sometimes, but lists like this make me ask why I do.

Walter L. Hollmann said...

I love, love, love Cruising. Such a misunderstood gem. One of the first Razzie nominees, alongside Xanadu, Can't Stop the Music and Dressed to Kill, which caused one of my profs to suggest that if faced with anything remotely "gay" (musicals! cross-dressing! hips or lips!), the Razzies are quick to label it worst anything. In 1980, at least.

CoMo'mo said...

That's an interesting list made more so by your comments. I think you'll find PARTING GLANCES much more engaging than LONGTIME COMPANION. The characters are not so intimidatingly rich and pretty and wrapped up in being rich and pretty. I remember MAKING LOVE creating a stir among the straight audience when I saw it. But I thought it was too much of a fairy tale, given the social/economic class of the characters. I won't blather on about the rest of the list because I pretty much agree with you.

Anonymous said...

Personally, I think THE BIRDCGAE is an abomination. That's mostly because I think Nathan Lane is icky, but also because I don't understand why American audiences insist on remaking movies that are perfectly fine in the original form. In this case, it isn't even necessary to read the subtitles on LA CAGE AU FOLLES to find it funny and sweet.

dagnabbit said...

As a gay man, I did find it refreshing that Cruising wasn't afraid to go to the deepest darkest parts of gay subculture. By far my biggest gripe was the fact that they tacked on an ending in which the only normal and likeable gay character in the entire movie is brutally murdered, leaving the final impression to the viewer: if you are gay, either you are a sociopath or a victim.

For the flipside of this movie check out The Detective with Frank Sinatra, where ol' blue eyes delves into the gay subculture to solve a murder--only with compassion and fairness as his character's hallmarks, as well as a geniuine curiousity of the plight of normal gay men trying to live their lives without scorn or harassment...quite a contrast from Pacino's general contempt and grotesque fixation on fetish.

turninto said...

You're obviously right to doubt that list's credibility; I don't think anyone could seriously challenge that. But it's for those same reasons that I have to wonder why you bother to criticize it to begin with: It's a list determined by users who frequent a site aimed at much looser interests than those of your average cinephile. These people enjoy many of these movies, as you've already concluded for yourself, largely for the eye candy or idyllic situations and characters that they might live through vicariously, or simply ogle. Moreover, it's impossible to deny that many of these movies placed entirely due to exposure. It's silly to condescend to a people who obviously don't take the subject seriously in the first place.

Glenn Dunks said...

JackAttack, really? I'm only seen the art school bit which made me assume it was a "good looking men with big muscles get naked for the gay boys" type film.

RCO, agreed. But it's like a similar list for straight men listing Grown Ups over Stand By Me just because its more modern or whatever. It doesn't take a brain surgeon to figure out which is an actually better film. :s

As for my own list? I couldn't do one because there's so many seminal films (on this list and not) that I have not seen. A top five would probably be made of (in no order) Priscilla, Laundrette, Paris is Burning, The Times of Harvey Milk and... Cabaret? I dunno if they consider that last one gay enough. Of course, I'd want to include "lesbian cinema" since there's some amazing titles over that side of the fence.

Walter, very interesting!

Anon, I have a soft spot for The Birdcage because it was one of the very first films I ever saw where I was keenly aware that the characters were not like the others. Along with that and Priscilla, they were my intros to gay characters in a way (at least in a way that I was able to recognise them).

Dagnabbit, sounds interesting but I couldn't find it on my DVD service. Will have to hunt it down pronto!

Turninto, quite simply it's because lists like these don't come along very often and when they do I like to dissect them. Until some legit publication or organisation comes out with an all-encompassing list then this will have to suffice. And, besides, I like arguing this belief that gay people should like movies purely because they've got hot men in them, which is an insulting and baffling idea.

I'd love the AFI to do a list of the top 100 gay films. Even if they have to outsource some lists to prominent gay figures in the arts world to do so.

Kate said...

You should ABSOLUTELY see Parting Glances. It stars Steve Buscemi as a former rock star facing the limitations of his life with AIDS while his best friend deals with his boyfriend leaving and his friend's impending illness. That makes it sound a lot more dour than it is, though--it's a film with a lot of humor, warmth, and anger, and was the only film made by its director before he succumbed to AIDS. Definitely worth seeing as both a time capsule of a particular moment as well as on its own merits.

Sarah said...

Parting Glances is interesting, albeit dated, and definitely better than some of the schlock thats on that list. I watched Cruising over the summer and I can understand seeing the film from both a positive and a negative viewpoint, but if you want a frank and unafraid to be seedy portrayal of open homosexual acts check out Taxi Zum Klo. Something rings much more honest and refreshing in the main character's downward spiral than the wooden repetition of gay equals serial killer. I pretty much agree with you on the list, I'll start to mull over the lesbian side of things. I was surprised by what a decent film If These Walls Could Talk 2 was considering it has a title so cringeworthy I avoided watching it for several years.

Anonymous said...

Were the World Mine is truly awful. I remember it having 8.something rating at imdb at one point.

Patrik 1,5 isn't an abomination or anything, but wouldn't rank in the top 50 if this was more of a proper list (and with proper I mean without movies like Eating out and Were The World Mine).

As for me, I'd probably include Plata Quemada and Presque Rien.

simon said...

The abscence of lesbian cinema from the list is because After Elton is very clearly defined as a gay men's site only. It's a companion site to a lesbian-only site, After Ellen (which was created first).

Glenn Dunks said...

Oh I know that's why lesbian cinema is absent, and I know about AfterEllen, but I'm sure more gay men get something of worth out of, say, Boys Don't Cry than they would Eating Out, you know?

JackAttack said...

um, yeah... well, now that i think about it, i've been fairly inebriated every time i've watched 'eating out 2'... but it's still fun.

also just wanted to add that i think araki's 'the living end' deserves a mention too.

Dixie said...

You referenced Breakfast with Scott. I have not seen that movie, but I refuse to watch it based simply on the annoying look on the child's face on the DVD cover and the horrible, cloying tagline "And he's staying for dinner, too!"

As far as lesbian films, Lost and Delirious is a good one. It's superior to another lesbian movie of Piper Perabo's, Imagine Me and You.