19 November 2007

Eat Me Out; or How Did New Queer Cinema Die?

[Written as part of the Queer Film Blog-a-thon hosted by Queering the Apparatus]

When did the worldview of the cinematic homosexual get its blue skies? There will always be films that mark the beginning of an era. Birth of a Nation, Breathless, Star Wars, The Maltese Falcon, sex lies and videotape - these films will forever be known as the stepping stones of their respective genre or movement in film. Most would attribute Todd Haynes’ Poison, which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 1991, as being the birth of the New Queer Cinema era. Though the movement likely died at the end of the 90s, it took a while for the signs to appear. Yeah, there was desexualized Will & Grace and hyper-sexualized Queer as Folk on television by 2000, but the first signs of NQC’s death came to me in the form of a little movie called Eating Out.

What exactly happened between Gregg Araki’s Nowhere and Q. Allan Brocka’s Eating Out? For starters, Araki “switched teams” near the end of the 90s, dating actress Kathleen Robertson (Lucifer from Nowhere), casting her as the lead in his nominally heterosexual Splendor, and giving his fans the first real happy ending of his career (some might argue the case for Three Bewildered People in the Night, but show me five people who’ve actually seen that film). Gus Van Sant directed the Oscar-winning Good Will Hunting and followed it with a shot-for-shot remake of Hitchcock’s Psycho. Todd Haynes also got the attention of the Academy with his ode to Douglas Sirk, Far from Heaven. And Swoon director Tom Kalin didn’t make another feature until this year with Savage Grace, fifteen years later. The forefathers of NQC changed their stripes, packed their bags, and headed elsewhere. Enter Eating Out. Where was the gay youth of American to turn to without James Duval sulking and contemplating the meaning of love and existence? He wasn’t there anymore. Times had changed, schools started gay-straight alliances, and gayness, in whatever form, was a major part of the average American’s television sets. Perhaps it wasn’t the director’s intention, but Eating Out rose to the occasion, filling the long-empty shoes of River Phoenix or Duval or, even, Bruce LaBruce, and with Eating Out, what we got was the beginning of the sunny era of queer cinema populated by exercises in bad taste disguised as romances where chiseled bodies took the place of shaggy hair, tattoos, and your favorite Siouxsie and the Banshees T-shirt.

Eating Out’s only relationship to anything worthy in queer cinema history comes through filtration. Eating Out is more closely the spawn of American Pie than My Own Private Idaho, and through American Pie, the connection to John Waters is made. Even with Waters, the linkage is distant. With Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble, Waters provided skewed, ironic visions of a happy ending, whether it be Divine being honored as the filthiest person alive or her crowning achievement in the electric chair. What becomes of Eating Out is a sex farce of gross-out proportions, teamed with naked hunks and a pink ribbon of a happy ending. Instead of the boy of our hero’s dreams turning into a giant bug , the flaming homo gets that dreamboat, ripped from the pages of an Abercrombie & Fitch summer catalog.

Though I’m pretty sure it didn’t gross over $200,000 at the US box office, Eating Out triumphed in the DVD sales, particularly from TLA Video, spawning a sequel (with the fitting and poetic subtitle Sloppy Seconds), and signaling the death of an era of film. In the film’s defense, it probably never set out to change anything, other than a bunch of aging West Hollywood fags’ underwear, and it hardly stands as the worst of the lot that followed. For the bottom of the barrel, why don’t you try Todd Stephens’ Another Gay Movie, which takes the thematic relationship between Eating Out and American Pie to the highest level? [I would recommend you check out my friend Bradford Nordeen’s condemnation of the film to get a better idea] And yet, Eating Out proved that there was a market for its brand of shallowness in gays who could tell you the first, last, and middle name of all the hosts of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy but couldn’t name a single film directed by Derek Jarman.

As Bradford said everything I could have wanted to about Another Gay Movie, I’ll spit my venom toward Everett Lewis instead. Lewis threw himself onto the NQC scene in 1996 with Skin & Bone, a seedy depiction of how the mean streets of LA claimed the hearts of three street hustlers. The film was dark and distressing, though notably overshadowed by Bruce LaBruce’s finer, and more controversial, Hustler White. Six years later, Lewis made his next film, Luster, and oh, how the world had changed. Luster was a film that could have been made by your pretentious class artfag, who’d watched The Doom Generation way too many times without ever absorbing anything beyond the surface, and without the finances to supply a Cocteau Twins or Nine Inch Nails soundtrack. In fact, the characters in Luster exist as some of the more reprehensible Araki figures as depicted by someone who merely stole the preliminary character sketches. In quick summation, Araki treated his characters with both boundless admiration and a harshly critical eye, condemning them for the same reasons he loved them. His depiction of the shallowness of youthful desires and loneliness was so accurate that most of his detractors ignorantly place the word “vapid” to describe the films themselves. In Luster, a slutty blue-haired record store clerk just can’t find the right man in Los Angeles, climaxing in a final scene where he strips himself naked in order to “give himself” fully to the elusive, desired object of affection. Earnestness met its new best friend in that scene, with Lewis clumsily turning his happy ending into more jerk-off material than emotional substance.

His clumsiness and ineptness as filmmaker came full circle, however, with 2005’s FAQs. In FAQs, a clean-cut, good-looking twentysomething escapes an attempted rape on a porno set and falls into the arms of a black drag queen, who’s there to save the day. As he did with Araki in Luster, Lewis takes his surface-level understanding of queer cinema history and butchers it, placing the implied notions of other, better films into the uncomfortable foreground of nauseous preachiness. In films like Michael Stock’s woefully underseen Prince in Hell, New Queer Cinema introduced the reinvention of the family structure, grouping together the abandoned lost souls in a radical “fuck you” to the Republican ideal of family life. With FAQs, this becomes the focus of the film, with lessons of superficial tolerance on the side. I can hardly bring myself to criticize the sub-Pia Zadora style of acting in FAQs as there’s so much else wrong within, but the piss-poor acting from just about everyone in the cast truly illuminates the cardboard nature of FAQs. I’ve been more profoundly moved by bumper stickers. Did I forget to mention that one of the lessons the sage drag queen passes on to her “children” is to love their bodies and spend at least half an hour naked per day? Lewis never shyed away from an excuse for male frontal nudity, particularly from “actors” with less than 5% body fat. Is he trying to tell us that loving our bodies is a lot easier to do when we look like models? Unintentionally, that’s what he got across.

Alternatives still exist. With The Raspberry Reich, a hilarious political porno, Bruce LaBruce never threw away his integrity, even as his fetishist eye became more and more prominent in later films like Skin Gang. Araki met my forgiveness for Splendor with Mysterious Skin, and with the financial gain and freedom he received from Good Will Hunting, Van Sant blossomed as an artist. With such hatred directed at the films of Q. Allan Brocka (his Eating Out follow-up Boy Culture was just as horrendously ill-approached and saturated with a manufactured happiness) and Everett Lewis, you might suspect me an insufferable cynic, yet it’s not just filmmakers of highly questionable talent that have painted their characters’ skies the deepest of blue. Mysterious Skin, The Raspberry Reich, and Van Sant’s “Le Marais” segment of Paris je t’aime all place their subjects outside of the darkness. And still, the placement of these characters out of the darkness the filmmakers had so beautifully depicted in their earlier films still so vastly contrasts the reprehensible films of which I’ve already spoken. Unlike the tidiness and finite nature of Eating Out and others, the ends of Mysterious Skin, The Raspberry Reich, and “Le Marais” glimmer with hope in opposition to dubious glee. Each elevate themselves from the story-centered nature and show their hope with its murkiness still lingering and its closure open-ended. Perhaps the sun is indeed coming out for the once-angst-ridden gay youth of cinema… let’s just hope it’s captured by someone who knows how to make a film.


James Henry said...

What a moving and thought-provoking piece. I'm not as familiar with the New Queer Cinema movement as I should be, but it's scary to think that something that started so angry and defiant could turn into something glossy and neat.

Joe said...

It's not so much that NQC "turned into" anything as much as it just vanished as the ring-leaders of the movement started working on other projects. Eating Out wasn't simply what became of NQC as much as it was what replaced it, which is a pretty scary thing to consider.

Thom said...

Hey Joe,

Just had to drop a line to tell you that this piece is really terrific. I think it's my favorite post so far. Keep it sleazy,