Wednesday, December 2, 2009

“LGBT movies:” On nomenclatures and other nonsense

Warning: Marginal Spoilers

As a movie lover, I watch all kinds of movies. In more recent years, particularly after Brokeback Mountain, I have seen and enjoyed a number of movies which have gay themes running through them. I honestly find it increasingly difficult to accept that the recognition of gay/bi/transgender themed movies as a distinct category of “LGBT films” is really warranted. I mean, a romantic comedy is still just that whether it involves straight or gay people as protagonists. Sure, movies are a powerful tool through which gay themes can be mainstreamed and be given greater acceptance in society. But I think by distinguishing the movies now as a distinct genre is to remove such themes from the mainstream and increase typecasting.

A good example of this I thought was “Latter Days.” Apart from the fact that the protagonists were gay, the movie was a standard romantic comedy. Man makes bet with friends he will sleep with any person they pick, meets that person, falls in love and after some clichéd trials and tribulations, they live happily ever after. I could name dozens of romantic comedies with a similar plot line. The only thing added to the mix is the whole sub plot of one of the protagonists being Mormon allowing the movie to go on a tangent and make political statements about how being homosexual is not immoral in anyway and belts out the whole liberal society song.

That brings me to another issue with most of these movies. They try to make political statements without taking away from the “masala” elements of the movie. There is the romance, drama and comic moments and at the same time, there is a political message sought to be put across no matter what. The result is a number of muddled movies that sit uncomfortably on the fence. They try to be entertaining and enlightening but end up being neither. This is, however, not to say that there haven’t been great gay themed movies which have made some strong and powerful political statements. “Milk” is the most recent and perhaps the best example of this. The story of Harvey Milk is one that empowers not only homosexuals but almost every marginalised community in society and Gus Van Sant prioritised the politics and had a very clear vision of the movie he wanted to present to the audiences. Another lesser known, but nevertheless powerful movie I saw and loved was the HBO film “The Laramie Project” which was based on the play by the same name. Based on hundreds of interviews, the film was a docudrama on the aftermath of the Matthew Shephard murder in 1998 and had some powerful performances by the cast including Christine Ricci and Laura Linney.

Coming back to the fiction, an obsession with gay themed movies is the idea of coming out of the closet. The concept has been done to death and continues to be explored in a lot of movies. “Latter Days,” “Shelter” and many others fall in this category. The problem is that it is rarely done in an interesting or unique manner. A rare exception to this is the movie “Beautiful Thing” which is an excellent coming of age film which deals with teen sexual realisation in the most beautiful manner. Armed with some stunning performances by a cast of mostly teens, it approached the issue with great sensitivity and care. Some of the crucial scenes in the movie have been beautifully written and executed. Moreover, it avoids unnecessary political speech and refrains from type casting teen protagonists and addresses issues like peer pressure just like any other good teen movie. And I mean that in the best way possible.

However, there is often another problem with such movies and even “Beautiful Thing” falls prey to that. It presumes that coming out of the closet is the only thing that matters and everything is fine after that. No doubt coming out of the closet is often the most difficult part. However, there is more to life than that and by failing to realise that, even the most realistic movies like “Beautiful Thing” are reduced to mere fables: good fables but fables nevertheless. It reduces the protagonists to one-dimensional characters who will eventually grow up, become more mature and complicated and look back at their former selves with immense amusement. Very rarely do movies deal with what happens after or the ordinary lives of homosexuals. That way, often television offers interesting counter examples in shows like “Skins” and more recently, “Glee” in which the lives of teen homosexuals have been dealt with greater sensitivity and care. A good movie I thought was “Transamerica” that explored the idea of family for a man who is in the middle of the process of becoming a woman. It featured some fabulous performances by Felicity Huffman and Kevin Zegers and dealt with alternate sexualities beyond merely coming out of the closet. Another good example I thought was “The Object of My Affection” that was a romantic comedy that explored some interesting ideas of love, family and friendship. Although the movie itself could’ve been scripted better, there was no denying the fact that the plot was refreshingly different and refrained from stereotyping homosexuals. In fact, I think its ending was one of the most well thought out endings I have seen. If only the movie had been scripted better especially when dealing with its supporting characters!

Speaking of romances, although the movie is regarded as a landmark by some in gay themed movies, I personally thought “Brokeback Mountain” was a beautifully crafted bore. I loved the short story by Annie Proulx. However, the movie, while beautiful to look at, well acted and with a beautiful background score courtesy Gustavo Santaolalla, was dull, tedious and overlong. Moreover, I didn’t care much about the characters till the very end unlike the short story which had me involved from start to end. The last half hour of the movie was stunning but it was too little, too late I thought. As regards sexualities, I thought "Cabaret" as a film dealt with alternate sexualities, their complexities, the prevalence of sexual decadence and the place of love in a time of moral anarchy spectacularly well.

A refreshing movie with strong gay themes was yet another work of Gus Van Sant, “My Own Private Idaho.” An audacious movie, this loose reworking of Shakespeare’s “Henry IV” featured, in my opinion, one of the most interesting characters ever in the form of River Phoenix’s Mike Waters. The character is quiet, gay and narcoleptic. He is an astonishing representation of the human need for love and care. His love for Scott (Keanu Reaves) is unrequited, undoubtable and ultimately, unfulfilled. Sexual orientation is central to his character and yet, underplayed to perfection. Scott, on the other hand, is interesting for different reasons. He is daring in his rebellion, loves Mike but is straight, selfish and ultimately belongs to another world. The interplay between these characters and between the real and the abstract is what makes “My Own Private Idaho” an excellent film. It defies categorisation.

Coming back to my main point, the classification of certain movies as “LGBT movies” is unwarranted and sometimes, unfair. It reinforces, I think the notion that gays/bisexuals/transgender people are somehow different and a fringe group in society. It also limits often the way in which such themes are explored in films. They get caught up in stereotypes and muddled political talk. The tag also often drives mainstream audiences away which is unfair for good movies like “Beautiful Thing” and others which deserve to be watched. The good films that I have discussed above are good because they are well made. They take a daring subject matter and do complete justice to it. That is what finally matters and should matter.


  1. the classification isn't restricted to just LGBT movies - if you follow the trade news (and i know you probably do), you'd know that Will Smith etc. have spoken out over the reluctance of studio bosses to pair him with a white (or was it black? one of the two.. either white-black or black-black) romantic lead (Hancock notwithstanding), because of fear of alienating audiences.

    now obviously that is a less general categorisation than homo/hetero, and while there are some (perhaps even a lot) who have no issue (with varying degrees of smugness) in watching a 'romantic comedy' irrespective of what race/gender the leads are, i know a few people, on both sides of the fence, who'd prefer watching protagonists of their own sexual orientation.

    also, i think the coming out of the closet card played in LGBT movies can have a parallel drawn to similar fulcrums (is that a word?) in hetero rom-coms, such as losing one's virginity, or even the happily ever after (something shared between both, but inevitably a lot of the former category also requires, much like a nasty ex in hetero movies, the obligatory coming out).

  2. At your second point, my problem is not that people may prefer to see a movie involving romantic leads of their own secual orientation. My problem is that the tag "LGBT" movies is inherently alienating. I mean you don't have "Hetero" or "Straight" as a category. Why have "LGBT"? The rest I agree with completely.

  3. This is a very thought provoking post...