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.
49. The Wedding Banquet
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.)
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
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?
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...)
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).
6. A Single Man
5. Latter Days
4. Beautiful Thing
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?!
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!