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Tag: Queer Cinema

Editorials

‘And Then We Danced’, Robyn, and Music in Queer Cinema

March 21, 2020

No, you’re not going to get what you need. Baby, I have what you want. Merab stands, cigarette in hand, topless, a crucifix on a chain around his neck. Come get your honey. Orange light floods the conservatory. Irakli’s dark eyes watch him as he puts on a white hat, adorned with feathers. I got your honey, baby. Then the beat kicks in. Every colour and every taste. Every breath that whispers your name. It’s like emeralds on the pavement. Merab dances, his body in perfect sync to the bass of the track. Irakli laughs, taken in by the jovial smirk on Merab’s face. The dance is part seduction, part game. It’s sexy and fun all at once. Then the music cuts. 

And Then We Danced, a film by Levan Akin, is a tender story of first love between two men in the world of Georgian folk dancing. Upon its release in Georgia, it was protested and considered a ‘moral threat’ by conservatives in the country. With this in mind, Robyn’s 2018 dance hit ‘Honey’ accompanying this tantalising seduction feels even more potent. The link between queerness and music has long been noted, from the adoration of icons like Cher, Madonna, Barbra Streisand, and Diana Ross, to the likes of Beyoncé, Carley Rae Jepsen, and, of course, Robyn, whose music regularly reverberates of the walls in queer night clubs today. Music, in fact, is one of the first-time’s queer people felt they had some semblance of power, of having a say in something. In the 1970s, to get a disco track to be a hit, the song had to be playing in gay bars. This connection, to the upbeat sound and lyrics about oppression and loss, scared white heterosexual executives so much they that formulated a consigned effort to invalidate its success, and thus entered the ‘disco sucks’ crowd.

Music and cinema have also always been intrinsically linked. From silent movies accompanied by live pianists to the use of the ‘Unchained Melody’ in Ghost to Mr Blonde’s mischievous dance to ‘Stuck in the Middle With You’, many of the most famous scenes in film have been set to now equally renowned music. In queer cinema, however, the relationship between the music and the characters feels more tangible, something that works on multiple levels. In 1970, Kenneth Nelson performed a truncated version of gay icon Judy Garland’s ‘Get Happy’ in The Boys in the Band. Garland’s popularity amongst the gay community is practically unparalleled, the phrase ‘a friend of Dorothy’ was historically used to discreetly describe gay men in reference to Garland’s most famous starring role. In 1989, Longtime Companion, the first studio movie to discuss AIDS, has a character lip-sync to the Dreamgirls cast album while unpacking boxes. The Broadway musical, a roman-à-clef based on the story of The Supremes, was a bit hit in 1981 and was recently described as having a ‘piercing message of self-empowerment and self-love’ that appeals to queer folk, both then and now. 1994’s The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert features a whole host of disco and camp classics on its soundtrack as three drag queens travel across the Australian outback in a supped-up bus. In essence, the music acts as the sound of liberation, freedom, and unabashed queerness. 

The Miseducation of Cameron Post
The Miseducation of Cameron Post / PHOTO: Vertigo Releasing

Often, music in queer cinema works not only as a soundtrack for the experience of the LGBTQ+ characters on-screen, but acts as a signpost to the queerness that exists beyond the edge of the frame. Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood features a pivotal moment set to ‘Diamonds’ by Rihanna, a current icon for the gay community, idolised for her no-bullshit attitude and pop music prevalence. Or Xavier Dolan’s use of Lana Del Rey, famous for her musings on deadbeat men and ethereal ‘sad girl’ energy, in his Palme d’Or, winning Mommy. Luca Guadagnino not only featured new songs by queer-friendly Sufjan Stevens in his coming-of-age story Call Me By Your Name but also included ‘Love My Way’ by The Psychedelic Furs, a song that was written for those who were struggling with their sexuality in the eighties. While Desiree Akhavan’s tale of youths in conversion therapy, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, sees a moment of jubilance and freedom to the 4 Non Blondes song ‘What’s Up?’, whose lead singer, Linda Perry, famously performed with the word ‘Dyke’ scribbled on her guitar at the 1994 Billboard Music Awards. 

That brings us back to Robyn, the Swedish queen of Europop and recent RuPaul guest judge, who has risen to be a substantial icon for the queer community. She was recently described, by Tom Rasmussen for Another Man, as a woman who ‘gets it’, ‘it’ being the queer experience. Her lyrics cater to the ‘outcast’ and capitalise on ‘the exact tension between the agony, and the ecstasy inside the agony.’ Her music understands the unrequited, the existential, the messy, the dramatic, the murky areas between the lines, and as such appeals to a lot of what makes queer desire so specific. 

Levan Gelbakhiani & Bachi Valishvili, stars of And Then We Danced / PHOTO: CAROLINA BYRMO

‘Honey’, which has been described by Robyn herself as being about a sweet and gloopy ‘state of mind instead of the actual substance’, features lyrics of delicate and sensual longing, a desire to provide and open up for a lover. In Merab’s case, he’s been taken in by the dark and brooding Irakli, his passion is seeping from his skin, his longing visible in each pained stare. In this moment, as the only two people awake late at night, they share an intimate moment so palpable, so crammed with sexual tension, that heart rates will pound along to the electronic beat. 

And Then We Danced is the latest in a long line of queer films that utilise that relationship between LGBTQ+ people and music, specifically their connection to the content and power that music historically brings. So often cinema, like music, is an act of translation. Queer people find a way to relate to the stories on screen that rarely represent them, but in those that do, it feels exciting and even liberating. For a soundtrack to acknowledge that musical connection is like acknowledging the whole notion of queer struggle and how music has been central to queer lives for years. 

And Then We Dances (Official Trailer)

And Then We Danced is available to rent / download now

Also Read: “Birds of Prey” and the Curse of Being Casually Queer

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Editorials

‘Birds of Prey’ & the Curse of Being Casually Queer

February 22, 2020

I’ve been burned before. The promise of queer representation dangled, cruelly, in front of me before it’s swiftly pulled away and edited out for China. Routinely, we’ve seen big studios get a lot of press by announcing the first ‘gay character’ in their particular franchise. It happened with Star Trek Beyond, Independence Day: ResurgenceBeauty and The BeastAlien: CovenantFantastic Beasts: The Crimes of GrindlewaldAvengers: Endgame, and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker to name a few. First, a fuss is made in the gay media and mainstream news, people on Twitter cry that ‘WOKE PC CULTURE IS RUINING CINEMA’, and then the film comes out and… well, it was all for nothing. There’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it kisses, hand brushing, suggestive looks, or single lines (or worse, jokes) that simply hint at a character’s sexuality. It all passes you by so discreetly that most people don’t even notice.  

In some ways Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) does better. Sure, it approaches the bisexuality of Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn with an easy-to-miss millisecond in the film’s opening animation and the much-talked-about relationship between villains Black Mask and Victor Zsasz (played by Ewan McGregor and Chris Messina, respectively) is nothing to write home about (even if Zasaz’s bleach-blond dye-job screams ‘gay man in distress’.) All that being said, it does have Renee Montoya, played by Rosie Perez; a jaded queer cop with a penchant for speaking in 80s cop clichés. It’s revealed, in voice-over, that Montoya has an ex-girlfriend (played by Ali Wong) who works for the DA in Gotham. Montoya is far more rounded and substantially queer than anyone in those movies mentioned above but it still doesn’t quite feel like enough. I’ve seen countless muscled white dudes kissing different skinny white women in almost every superhero film ever. I’ve seen men and women, in all kinds of romantic scenarios, kissing while they run from volcanoes, spaceships, or supervillains. I was even recently subjected to Rey and Kylo Ren’s horrendously odd kiss in The Rise of Skywalker. It’s all there, right in your face, all the time. So why, when it comes to LGBTQ+ characters, does it all feel so, well, casual? 

Birds of Prey
Birds of Prey / Warner Bros. Pictures.

Whether it’s categorised as queerbaiting or seen as studios trying to ‘toe the line’ for the elusive and hard to define ‘Middle America’, it always comes down to money. If not for those in ‘the middle of the country’ then the problem is outsourced to other countries, like Malaysia or China, who won’t spend their hard-earned cash on LGBTQ+ content. It seems the big studios, and those in charge of franchises, want to have their Queer Cake and eat it too. A little deniable queerness please, they say, but not too much that it might genuinely mean anything. Mass appeal is the driving force but ultimately that means that queer people, who are so used to watching straight folks copulate on screen, get a whole lot of nothing.

LGBTQ+ relationships, romances, and experiences are frequently side-lined in this system. They’re never central to a film’s plot so it can be recut and still make sense. But what is the overall effect? A feeling of being second-class to heterosexuality? A lack of worth? When queer characters exist on the fringes, in fleeting moments, in the subtext, it sends a message: these stories, these people, are not worth the airtime compared to their straight counterparts. I mean, the most prominent TV show of the last decade, Game of Thrones, featured a substantial amount of straight sibling-on-sibling action. How does incest play in ‘the middle of the country’ I wonder? A whole lot better than a two-second gay kiss, I guess.

Is there hope for the future? Who can say? Patty Jenkins has been spotted filming scenes featuring the ‘Silence = Death’ protest signs for her upcoming Wonder Woman 1984 and Kevin Feige has promised an LGBTQ+ character in The Eternals, a story about God-like entities from space. While recent Oscar-winner Taki Waititi has teased that Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie will finally take flight as a fully-fledged, and explicitly acknowledged, bisexual woman in Thor: Love & Thunder.

Everybody's Talking About Jamie
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie / (20th Century Fox/Twitter)

But hope, well hope is a dangerous thing for a queer like me to have. These promises, the big studios waving their rainbow flags on the horizon, don’t inspire much trust. I know we have Ryan Murphy on Netflix with his adaption of Boys in the Bandfeaturing an all-gay cast of actors. We also have Murphy’s grander adaption of the Broadway musical The Prom, with a (mostly straight) all-star cast including Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep, Keegan-Michael Key, and Kerry Washington to name a few. Actual real-life queer woman Kirsten Stewart is also set to star in a Thanksgiving-themed lesbian Rom-Com from Clea Duvall, and Britain promises to unveil its film adaption of the drag based musical Everybody’s Talking About Jamie this Autumn but who can say how big any of these films will hit. It doesn’t feel obtuse to suggest that it won’t be on the level of any major franchise.

At the 2020 Independent Spirit Awards, a clip of the Gay Men’s Choir of Los Angeles singing about ‘The Gayest Moments in Other Films You May Not Have Realised Were Gay’ went viral. Its appreciation of the queer lens, of Jennifer Lopez in Hustlers and Laura Dern’s entire career was funny, accurate, and unmistakably the product of Gay Twitter. Even so, it was a little sad to think that so many queer people are, out of necessity, watching and claiming things that weren’t made with them in mind. Of course, there is power in reclamations, in queering the narrative, in forcing yourself into a place that didn’t consider you and making it your own, but it shouldn’t have to be that way every time LGBTQ+ people watch a blockbuster. Will that ever change? I’m not holding my breath.

Also Read: Where Are All The Young Moviegoers?

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Editorials

Dear Straight Actors Who Want to ‘Play Gay’: Don’t.

November 17, 2019

There is a utopia on the horizon, distant and hazy like tarmac in the heat. It’s one where people sit around in dark rooms watching films and say, without any level of irony or ignorance, that ‘acting is acting’. Where LGBTQ+ actors are playing straight and the straights are playing gay, trans folk are playing cis-roles and everyone is blissfully equal in what they’re offered. But looking around at the dingy and grim corners of modern cinema anyone can see that we’re not there yet. We’re only squinting at blurry figures just about coming into view. 

Earlier this month the author of Call Me By Your Name, noted straight man and self-confessed paedophile, André Aciman called those that question straight actors playing gay roles ‘small-minded‘ while promoting his second book to profit off LGBTQ+ experience. In the past, Cate Blanchett said she would “fight to the death” to play gay roles, while Rachel Weisz and Matt Smith compared playing gay to playing alcoholics and heroin addicts, respectively. Alternatively, Darren Criss recently announced that his role in American Crime Story would be the last gay role he would play. “I want to make sure I won’t be another straight boy taking a gay man’s role,” he said in an interview with Bustle. Similarly, Armistead Maupin, the gay author of Tales of the City, told the BBC he thought “a gay actor can bring something special to the role from their own experience” and that an LGBTQ+ actor would likely stay closeted to avoid getting typecast or overlooked.

Darren Criss is The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story / Credit: FX

As 2020 draws closer, the spectre of Jungle Cruise and Supernova are beginning to materialise. The former featuring Jack Whitehall’s controversial ‘openly gay’ character for Disney (who is conspicuously quiet in the films recently released trailer) and the latter, a recently wrapped dementia based film starring straight men Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci as partners directed by up-and-coming straight director Harry McQueen. The announcement of both projects, once again, sparked debate. ‘IT’S CALLED ACTING,’ people cry on Twitter or in Facebook comments and yes, in that utopia, it is.  But maybe I should say it again, one more time, for the people in the back: We are not there yet. 

Earlier this year Ryan Gilbey wrote “Would there be enough out LGBT actors – brilliant, out LGBT actors, that is – to fill all these vacant parts?” in an article for The Guardian that failed to understand the crux of the issue; opportunity. LGBTQ+ actors are not often considered for straight roles under the guise that audiences won’t ‘believe them’. Out actors have routinely faced difficulty in finding work post-coming out, which has ultimately damaged their career while others are out but try to avoid the moniker of ‘gay’ altogether while straight actors don’t see gay roles in the same light. They are told that ‘playing gay’ will increase their range and potentially bring acclaim (and awards). Why? Rami Malek, Olivia Coleman, Hilary Swank, Jake Gyllenhaal, Cate Blanchett, Timothée Chalamet, Cher, Whoopi Goldberg, Judi Dench, Nicole Kidman, Jared Leto, Tom Hanks, and countless other straight (or assumed straight) actors to be have been nominated (or, in some cases won) a slew of awards for playing LGBTQ+ roles.  

Rami Malek / Credit: ABC Studios

The continued trend of straight folk being awarded for LGBTQ+ roles is a clear indicator of why they don’t want to give them up and what we are facing. For these actors, it is an experience akin to playing an addict and they don’t care that these comparisons trivialise sexuality and frame it as an experience, a passable affliction instead of something intrinsic to someone’s identity. They frame it as a phrase, something that can be thrust upon us and then overcome with a stay in rehab or the kindness of a stranger. And, simply put, it shows that they just don’t understand. 

What do we do then? Do we stop paying to see mainstream films that censor gay sex and reduce all queer intimacy down to quick pecks? The films that are made mostly to appeal to a straight audience and feature so little LGBTQ+ content that it can be edited out entirely and only lose three minutes of its two hours and thirteen-minute runtime. The short answer is: Yes.

L to R: Félix Maritaud, Adéle Haenel, Tracy Lysette, and Tessa Thompson

Maybe it’s time to say enough is enough? To put our money and effort into the rising European stars of Félix Maritaud and Adéle Haenel, who are proof that LGBTQ+ actors can create a name for themselves in queer cinema. Or into actors like Tracy Lysette, who had a role written specifically for her in the critical and box office hit Hustlers, or Tessa Thompson who came out as bisexual in an interview with Net-A-Porter. After all, the French author Édouard Louis suggests that LGBTQ+ people could be the best actors we have to offer as they spend their lives performing to ‘to protect [themselves] from homophobia and masculine violence.’

The aforementioned utopia only shimmers into existence if we are the ones to manifest it. We can explain over and over again to straight cisgender actors that taking the only roles Hollywood will consider queer people for is a problem or we can stop paying to see these movies. We can make movie stars of LGBTQ+ actors, ask LGBTQ+ directors to hire LGBTQ+ actors, shout from the rooftops about the films that get the experience right, and chastise those that get it wrong (or those that try and water it down). We can build that utopia, brick by queer brick. 

Note: The term ‘actor’ has been used throughout this article as a gender-neutral term (as opposed to the gendered ‘actress’) and as such its use is not intended to misgender but rather to level the playing field and avoid unnecessary gender divisions. 

Also Read: Sorry We Missed You: Film & The North

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Editorials

Is Queer Autobiographical Cinema Subtly Political?

August 30, 2019

‘It’s about my inability to love… but I’m fine now,’ says Benjamin, the titular filmmaker at the heart of queer comedian Simon Amstell’s latest film. It’s a film about intimacy and it’s challenges, about pressure and it’s ramifications, and it finds itself in an interesting position. It’s at the intersection between two genres; autobiographical cinema (a genre that is ever-expanding and gaining popularity) and queer cinema (a genre that has experienced a major boom since the nineties).

Autobiographical cinema is easy to explain, it’s a film based on the writer-directors own personal experience, but ‘queer cinema’ can be harder to define. In their book ‘Queer Images’, film critics Benshoff and Griffin suggest there are at least five ways to categorise queer film. Their first two categorisations, about subject matter and authorship, are the most commonly adhered to. If a film concerns itself with queer characters and focuses on a queer narrative, generally it is considered a queer film. However, if it was written, directed, or produced by queer people (regardless of subject matter), then it could also be considered queer. Often, these two things overlap with queer filmmakers commonly making films about the queer experience. 

It is this authorship though that defines Autobiographical Queer Cinema, as the filmmaker infuses a narrative with their own personal experience which will be, inherently, queer. For example, the Belgian filmmaker Chantal Ackerman’s art film News From Home (1977) features images of New York City played over Ackerman reading letters from her protective mother. The narrative itself isn’t queer but Ackerman’s identity as a queer woman could classify it as such. The same could be said of the work of Terence Davies, whose films like Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) or The Long Day Closes (1992) create a tableau of his childhood and family life in Liverpool during the 40’s and 50’s. They’re not explicitly queer, but his viewpoint is. 

Simon Amstell, writer and director of Benjamin (2018) (Photo: HARRY CARR)

Benjamin (2018) is an insight into Amstell’s own fears. As Benjamin, an avatar for Amstell himself reconciles his anxieties about the release of his second film, a romantic comedy based on a Buddhist philosophy of the self, he finds himself drawn to a French musician called Noah (Phénix Brossard). In their relationship, Benjamin is needy, insecure, and unable to fully commit but not really able to let go either (some of which has been addressed in Amstell’s stand up and subsequent memoir, Help). 

Amstell finds himself in territory that has been explored by filmmakers before; the anxiety that comes with revealing your art to the world. The same issue plagued Federico Fellini with  (1963), which in turn inspired Bob Fosse and Woody Allen’s All That Jazz (1979) and Stardust Memories (1980), respectively. Amstell himself, in a Q&A at the London Film Festival in 2018, cited Allen as an influence on Benjamin.‘It’s a bunch of people looking for love in a major city and it’s funny,’ he said. He also referenced Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale (2005), from which he found the blend of comedy and drama a point of interest. 

Desiree Akhavan, creator and writer of The Bisexual (Channel 4) and, the feature film, Appropriate Behaviour (Peccadillo Pictures) (Photo: TEREZA CERVENOVA)

It stands to reason that a lot of queer filmmakers have found inspiration in the work of cis-straight-white-male filmmakers because it is what they have been exposed to. Desiree Akhavan’s 2012 feature Appropriate Behaviour, for example, shares a lot in common with the Woody Allen comedies from the seventies and eighties, as does her TV show The Bisexualbut what makes it different is her identity as a queer Iranian woman and the experience she brings to the table. 

What does it mean then, when queer people who have contextually absorbed the mechanics of this type of film make their own? Is their response, their queering of the conventions, political? Is it postmodern or more explicitly post-heterosexual? The idea of postmodern art is that it reacted to the ideas and values of modernism, which had maintained dominance in the middle of the 20th Century. Could this style of queer filmmaking be a reaction to the kinds of films made by straight men that have enjoyed dominance since the dawn of cinema? 

There is a political connotation to any queer film. In a time in which rights can be stripped away and hate crimes are on the rise, the idea of exploring queer life in a nuanced and tender way becomes a counter-argument that people wish didn’t need to be made; that queer people are people too with intricate lives and not just statistics on the evening news. 

Benjamin, and films like it, subtly challenge the way we absorb queer identities. They are influenced by a cis-straight-white-male style of filmmaking, they even share similarities in subject matter and character types, however, they stem from a queer experience and that is key. The autobiographical nature of these films adds a level of visibility as if to say ‘This is how queer people live and it cannot be denied because this is my experience’. They use their own experience, and the building blocks of hetero-normative film, to create something that can be quietly political, distinctly queer, and specifically true.

Also Read: The Rise of Nigerian-British Filmmakers