Saturday, March 24, 2018

Thoughts on Queer Cinema

Is "queer cinema" more than those films
we generally think of as "gay"?

Okay, so here's an interesting question: Have you ever read a review of a film that made it sound way better than you thought it was?

I can give a resounding yes to this question in relation to Armond White's 2014 review of Terence Davies' 1992 film, The Long Day Closes.

At the time he wrote his review, White considered The Long Day Closes "the greatest gay film ever made." He offers some good reasons for this, none of which I find ultimately convincing.

White's contention, however, does raise some interesting and important questions for me: What is the greatest gay film ever made?

Can we speak of a single film in such a way?

What do we even mean when we refer to a film as "gay"?

Is it different from a "queer" film?

I have no clear cut answers to these questions, except perhaps the last two. For me, a "gay film" is a film that focuses on the experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and/or intersex individuals, families and/or communities.

Some of my favorite films fit this description (4 Moons, God's Own Country, Wild Side, Undertow, and Hamam: The Turkish Bath), but many do not. And yet, though I wouldn't label these other movies I revere as "gay," I do consider them queer because of the themes, issues, and characters they explore and/or the sensibility they exhibit. (Offhand, I offer as examples, Picnic at Hanging Rock, A Passage to India, The Golden Compass, Children of Men, Pan's Labyrinth, and any number of superhero films – from Superman to the X-Men.)

Questioning and subverting “regimes of the normal”

So, what exactly do I mean by making a distinction between gay and queer? Well, I'm come to understand that to be "queer" is to attempt to expand or go beyond (in thought, word or deed) the parameters of gender, race, heterosexuality, patriarchy, and other socially-constructed (or manipulated) concepts. Laurence Coleman, in discussing vocalist Dusty Springfield as a queer icon, says that embracing this understanding of queer “denotes a spectrum not only of identity and practice but also inquiry.” Accordingly, to be queer is to be a questioner and subverter of what Michael Warner has called “regimes of the normal.” And, as I've already noted, not just in matters to do with sexuality and sexual expression, but also in matters of gender, class, and race.

Now, don't get me wrong, my sexuality is a very important aspect of my life, but I'm more than my sexuality. To my mind, "gay" refers to sexuality, whereas "queer" encompasses sexuality and all the other aspects of one's life and experience, aspects that may well have been shaped in profound ways by one's sexuality. For example, my perspectives on religion, spirituality, politics, economics, and issues of racial and social justice have all been greatly influenced and shaped by my experiences as a gay man. For me, the term "queer" acknowledges this reality, this journey; one that has taken me beyond a solely sexuality-based (i.e., "gay") understanding of myself and my place in the world.

Also, my understanding of myself and my journey as a seeker and embodier of the Divine Presence is always evolving, which is another reason why I'm drawn to "queer." For as Annamarie Jagose suggests, “queer is always [a multi-faceted] identity under construction, a site of permanent becoming.”

Actor and singer Alan Cumming shares a similar view when, in a 2009 piece in Rolling Stone, he advocates replacing the word "gay" with "queer" when talking in broad terms about our evolving collective experience.

Cumming expresses concern that the creation of "gay culture," a culture based on identities defined solely by sex and sexuality, has "led gay people to self-ghettoize" and to lose the status quo-challenging creativity and individuality that were once associated with being "different."

"Queer isn't just about same-sex wedding tackle," Cumming writes. "Queer is about sensibility. You don't need to be gay to be queer. Indeed, some of the queerest people I know are straight. . . . I think if more people embraced their queerness, we'd all be the better for it."

"Queer Movie Night"

My interest in both film and the exploration of an expansive meaning of "queer" has led me to recently form with a group of friends a regular gathering that I'm calling "Queer Movie Night." We'll be getting together once or twice a month to watch a gay- and/or queer-themed movie and discuss it in relation to our experiences as individuals who, in numerous ways, don't fit into any number of "regimes of the normal." As we do so, we'll explore and perhaps expand our understanding of what makes a movie "queer."

Our first Queer Movie Night takes place this Sunday, when we'll be gathering to watch local filmmaker Eric Mueller's 1994 film, World and Time Enough. As the series progresses, different group members will choose a film to view and discuss. I'm thinking the series is going to be both fun and insightful.

Now, whether of not The Long Day Closes will be one of the film's we watch, I can't say. It's certainly not one I feel compelled to share, despite its merits which are well highlighted by Armond White in his review. Indeed, with the exception of his "best gay film ever" claim, White's review is a very eloquent and insightful one. So much so that I share it in its entirety below with added images and links. Enjoy!


The Long Day Closes Is the
Greatest Gay Film Ever Made

By Armond White
The Advocate
July 23, 2014

“Where’s our Bud?”

“At the movies, of course.”

If asked to name the greatest gay film ever made, I’d say, with no hesitation, The Long Day Closes (1992) written and directed by British auteur Terence Davies. It’s the first film explicitly featuring a gay child – and so it is about the innocent essence of all of us. It is also Davies’ self-portrait of his youth in 1950s Liverpool.

The candor and emotionalism of Davies’ recall makes the movie resonate the most poignant parts of everyone’s gradual growing-up process, but especially that aspect of sexual awareness that comes early in life – though it’s usually confessed only in horny hetero teen movies.

The young Davies character, who his mother and three older siblings call “Bud” (played by 16-year-old Leigh McCormick), is openly infatuated with the movies. (It’s part of that outreach toward show tunes, poetry, dance and fashion familiar to every youth seeking escape from an inverted reality.) Sounds from old films echo throughout The Long Day Closes as influences on Bud’s private emotional life (comedies like The Happiest Days of Your Life convey his hope; musicals like Love Me or Leave Me convey his desire; melodramas like Great Expectations and The Magnificent Ambersons express his tragic sense of doom).

But these resonances are also cultural premonitions – the sound clips, as up to date as the sampling in hip-hop records, express an adult knowing of the larger world. They predict Bud’s future and fit both Davies’ personal recall and the outsider status that classically defines gay identity.

Bud’s sense of difference is memorably conveyed in an early scene when he looks outside his bedroom window and sees a shirtless, dark-curly-haired bricklayer who returns his glance with an inviting wink. The flirtation is devastating. Bud’s shrinking reaction to it is a powerful illustration of that self-conscious moment when a gay person’s first rush of affection makes them realize their uniqueness. The crushing beauty of The Long Day Closes is that it confirms what feels unique is, in fact, universal.

In the years since the American release The Long Day Closes in 1993, no other movie dealing with gayness has come close to that moment of self-recognition. (Only André Téchiné’s 1995 Wild Reeds can match it.) Yet watching The Long Day Closes in this new millennium in Criterion’s new Blu-Ray DVD restoration does not throw one back to dark days of closeted self-loathing. The film is existentially liberating, rich with Davies’ emotional embrace of his family, community, and the experiences that comprise his growing up. The embrace is overwhelming precisely because it does not exclude sorrow, loneliness, homophobia, or racism but includes it all as a realization of an intelligent gay consciousness.

The Long Day Closes is a world away from the P.C. acceptance of troubled gay youth half way out the closet as flaunted in TV’s Glee series, and that gives the movie its special relevance. Davies’s tribute to pop culture and use of pop songs is hard won because it’s personal – the language of private feeling. His “Tammy” sequence, where Bud feels betrayed by his best friend then consoles himself by thinking of Debbie Reynolds’ 1958 Top Ten hit, uses the song as the soundtrack for a montage of his mundane rituals (school, church, the movies). It is one of the magnificent moments in all of cinema.

More than a pop song recital, the “Tammy” sequence portrays that special need and succor that lonely kids take from popular music. It is profoundly moving due to that extraordinary – gay – spiritual confession. Although it is also the farthest thing from camp insouciance, where pop pleasure is used to deny sincerity, it works without condemning the defensiveness of camp, that powerful transformation of the banal into the odd, weird, secret and subversive. Davies’s life story personalizes the deep love of pop culture as a life buoy that makes one laugh, cry and saves one’s life.

It is Bud’s wondering connection to the free, adult world that empowers the film’s childhood perspective. He appreciates his family for its sense of togetherness and sensitive acceptance of his individuality. The moments of Bud’s closeness to his mother, a loving widow with regrets (she sings “If I had my life to live over”), the sister for whom he buys “Evening in Paris” perfume and then sings a song (“A Couple of Swells”), and the brothers whose dating rituals he watches enviously or scrubs their muscular backs, take gay consciousness close to the edge of pathology yet dissolves all complication in unconditional love.

Seen today, The Long Day Closes is a paradigm of how gay artists and audiences can see and understand themselves – and of their connection to the larger world. It is an “art” film, meaning that Davies uses such storytelling conventions as slow-motion duration and an elliptical narrative structure that contradicts familiar, simplistic television and exploitation movies. Several times in the film Bud looks into the camera, connecting with a viewer’s remembered moments of oppression, shame and satisfaction. It is a serious viewing experience, but it is the best viewing experience of gay life. It is beautiful and profound enough to set a high-water level for subsequent films about gay life. All other gay movies can be judged by The Long Day Closes.

– Armond White
"The Long Day Closes Is The Greatest Gay Film Ever Made"
The Advocate
July 23, 2014

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Recovering the Queer Artistic Heritage
Chris Mason Johnson's Test: A Film that "Illuminates Why Queer Cinema Still Matters"
John Schlesinger's Sunday Bloody Sunday: "A Genuinely Radical Film"
Stephen A. Russell on Moonlight, "the Most Beautiful Gift to Cinema in Countless Years"
On Brokeback Mountain: Remembering Queer Lives and Loves Never Fully Realized
Dusty Springfield: Queer Icon
Making the Connections
Reclaiming and Re-Queering Pride
A Lose/Lose Situation

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