Gays On Film Or How to see yourself on screen
By Scott King
Scream queens. Shower scenes. Fade to black. Taste the rainbow.
I grew up in the 90s. Ellen DeGeneres wasn’t gay yet, but I sure was. My best friend was also LGBT. We rented a lot of videos. It was analog, and we were real proud.
Our favorites were the films of Gregg Araki, John Waters, Guinevere Turner, and Todd Haynes. It was called the new queer cinema. It still is. For a taste of the old queer cinema, there was a little documentary called The Celluloid Closet.
Based on Vito Russo’s groundbreaking book, this documentary, while high-quality and star-studded, is, today, dated and depressing AF. It charts the depiction of LGBT characters on film (celluloid – the visual equivalent of vinyl), from the beginning of motion pictures to the mid-1990s. I don’t know if any of you are history buffs, but there wasn’t much good news back then.
For some reason, my best friend and I watched this film over and over and over again, rather than the exciting and edgy new queer classics. I think it’s because there is something comforting about looking at the recent past, rather than the very present present. With the contemporary, there is always the tension of outcome. If we look at the past, that tension vanishes. We know that the Nazis lost. We know that the dude at the end of The Maltese Falcon is queer and that everyone knows it and that it’s okay in the room. But still, it’s kinda creepy and sad. Awww.
So, why was this? Why were there so few depictions of queers on film back then, even if only to be relegated to the categories of bloodsucker, killer, or freak show? If you guessed that it had something to do with hegemony and straight white men, you win again. Winner winner chicken dinner! Straight white men were running every literal and metaphorical ship in showbiz until the very end of the 20th century.
There were gays in hair and makeup. There were gays in the mafia. But there were no gays in charge.
That all changed with David Geffen. Geffen was a flaming blade of a media mogul and came out of the closet publicly in 1992. Elegantly, casually, but forcefully, David Geffen ushered in the zeitgeist of the gay nineties.
Interview with the Vampire? Super gay, but not explicit. My Own Private Idaho? Super gay and explicit, but not mainstream, despite its starring two resplendent James Dean wannabes in Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix. Geffen’s record label, DGC records, signed overtly feminist and pro-LGBT bands like Hole, Nirvana, and Sonic Youth. They sold some records.
Then Ellen DeGeneres came out. Then Matthew Shepard was beaten to death. Then the Millenium happened. Then George W. Bush stole the White House. In the early 00’s, the gay community still did not know quite where it was headed. Wherever it was, it was nowhere near the wedding aisle, that’s for sure. The best we could hope for was another Emmy for Will & Grace.
Then, on June 29, 2007, two years after a little snuff film called Brokeback Mountain didn’t win the Oscar, the first Apple iPhone was released. The rest, as they say, is gay history.
Facebook, Twitter and then Instagram flourished on this new pocket-sized platform. Yes, Uncle Scott and some of his friends can remember a time when you had to walk all the way to the computer lab to check your Facebook. Oh my god, gurl, he poked me back!
Flash forward a few years, and every single person on planet Earth with a couple hundred bucks in their pocket has the opportunity to create their own universe. Their own media, their own movies, their own music, and their own reality.
We all know the downsides of this solipsism. The election of Donald Trump. The absolute loss of the expectation of privacy. The Kardashians.
Sometimes I think we forget, overlook, and underappreciate the upsides. There is a whole generation (and a half) of kids and young adults who have come up at a time in which they had full access to LGBT culture 24/7.
I am okay with them taking it for granted. I’m okay with them feeling entitled to it. It has made a better world for queer people. Not a perfect world. Not a utopia. Maybe not even a world as exciting as those black and white films of the early 90s. But, overall, a better world.
Because of technology and progress, everyone knows lots and lots and lots of gay people. And most straight dudes – who, for better or worse, still run the world – have seen a decent amount of gay porn.
As we progress through The Birther Decade, more and more dreamy Hollywood actors are out and proud. Many of them begin their careers out and wonder why it’s a big deal. YouTube and Instagram, inventions of the 21st century, have made many an LGBT personality worldwide famous. These net celebrities’ sexual orientation is part of their brand and charm, but it’s not all there is to any of them. Why would they not speak their truth? That’s what branding is.
I call it gays on film. Your life, your reality, your artistry, it is now archived digitally and completely within your hands. Literally. And in the hands of others.
They see you. They cannot deny that you exist. They cannot tell you to stop talking about it. Because who on this planet doesn’t talk about themselves and who they “are” all the fucking time? We can argue over who in this Facebook thread is the actual snowflake, but no one can tell us, with any authority, to shut the fuck up.
Which brings me to the upcoming Atlanta LGBT Film Festival, Out On Film. As a romantic, I’m most looking forward to the Robert Mapplethorpe documentary, entitled, in a nod to the eponymous old world, “Mapplethorpe.” I hope there’s a Patti Smith cameo.
Other than that, I’m most looking forward to feeling shocked. And disgruntled. And uncomfortable. And cynical. It’s my point of view. It’s my perspective. I’m a Gen Y Xennial whose cultural heroes are Courtney Love, Tupac Shakur, and Gus Van Sant. All three of those queens are totally old school. But still hip, as far as I can tell.
I embrace the ‘I can see Russia from my house’ generation gap of the watchword and the zeitgeist. I do not expect Millennials or transgendered people or anyone else to teach me about their culture or their viewpoint. No. I am entitled to nothing. But I will be buying a ticket and soaking it all in. And, in a relative sense, holding my tongue.
I’m also looking forward to the next generation. There are teenagers out there right now who are filled with hormones and who are confused about the world and their place in it. They may be sitting there silently trying to figure out what it means to be a beautiful young queer person in Trump’s America.
I hope they bring their cameras.