Terrible Gay Films: Keep the Lights On

It makes sense, when one is in a minority, to seek out images and affirmation of the group one belongs to. So, gay film was certainly a part of my coming out process, and a way to explore and affirm my new world of being gay. I celebrated when films with gay themes received mainstream attention. I traded stories with friends about films that had influenced our lives.

But part of this journey was watching terrible gay films. The seminal experience was watching a 1990 film called “Men in Love” as part of the gay film festival in Vancouver. In one scene, at a funeral, the bereaved are about to release balloons into the air and the minister stops the proceedings to lecture them on how the balloons will deflate and fall into the ocean and could choke dolphins. Seriously. The other major standout scene was a tantric lovemaking scene, designed to encourage gay men to have sex without penetration. Filmed in slow motion in a sunlit room with white sheets and furnishings (sort of like a gay tampon commercial), the impossibly muscular and handsome lead actors frolicked with each other, laughing with… a kitten wandering around on the bed, dangerously close to getting squashed by their activities. I remember none of the story but that the acting was terrible and the film make-up was visible on the actor’s faces in some scenes. I fled the theatre before the Q&A session started with the director and writer.

Since then, there have been countless more at gay film festivals, low budget and b-grade, and a predominance with descriptions like “Incredibly muscular former hustler gets into trouble with his ridiculously handsome gym trainer boyfriend when he falls for a gay porn star fighting a crystal addiction. Features sassy, straight best girlfriend, a cameo from [insert name of American sit-com actor].”

However, the latest terrible gay films confound me. The one I saw last night, as part of a film festival on Cockatoo Island, has apparently made the circuit of gay film festivals BUT has been widely reviewed and praised in the mainstream press. Esteemed film reviewer, A.O. Scott, in the New York Times (!) called it ‘thrillingly authentic’ and ‘so real, so specific’ while one of my favourite reviewers, Andrew O’Hehir from Salon called it ‘easily the finest dramatic film’ that he saw at Sundance this year, and ‘a terrific work of art’.

Granted, it had promise to begin with. With beautiful cinematography, a naturalistic style of film-making and storytelling, some engaging acting and a typical indy-music soundtrack, I was interested in Erik, the Danish documentary-maker (it helps that I love the Danish) and his relationship with Paul, a literary agent for Random House, addicted to crack (though I kept translating it in my head to today’s meth addictions).

After the first segment in 1989, I realised quite quickly that this was an autobiographical movie, and that the lead character was a stand-in for the writer (in fact, I wondered if perhaps the lead actor was also its director and maker).

This was the first big problem. The various scenes used to tell the story of a relationship over 9 years or so do feel authentic, but that doesn’t mean they add up into a good story. It felt like recounting memories, with snippets of conversation, and pivotal moments of drama, but it didn’t add up to all that much.

The worst of all is the characters themselves. Initially interesting enough, they don’t evolve in the whole time they’re together. Perhaps trying to age them physically might be difficult, but to have them with the same hairstyles and clothes OVER NINE YEARS felt lazy. A fellow filmgoer said ‘I wanted to rip Paul’s canvas tote bag off of him’; the same one he seems to carry year after year.

But more importantly, there’s very little emotional growth. Erik is dramatic and emotional, and sometimes childish. Paul is unable to express himself, and is basically a crack addict with little other colour. He somehow manages to hold onto his job while he disappears for days at a time, or longer.

Their main personality characteristics are that they have hot sex with each other, and can’t seem to stay away from each other. Even near the end of the film, when the filmmaker demands a ‘talk’ while the publisher is on the phone, it’s the same emotional note as the beginning: he’s dramatic, emotional and a bit childish. The response from Paul is also exactly the same as in the beginning: I can’t talk about this, I have to go to work, this is all… very… hard to talk about.

But is this the gay equivalent of those terrible straight rom-coms, where two people are simply meant to be together? In my experience, people change. Attraction rises, dwindles, takes different forms. The idea that Erik has the same sort of response year after year to Paul’s drug addictions speaks little of any depth of emotion or relationship. Meanwhile, Paul gets worse, gets better, and comes out of rehab without seeming to change in any particular way.

In fact, the people and the relationship portrayed in the film did feel authentic and true, and yes, people get stuck in relationships and patterns. The problem is that neither character in the end was very interesting or sympathetic. It was hard to care about them, and the general consensus of the seven friends I saw the film with was: none of us did.

A couple of straight people left the movie as the film dragged on. I’m kind of guessing that the rest of us, the gay men who made up the majority of the viewing, were wishing we had done the same.

What’s going on with film reviewers these days? Are they swayed by colour and movement over better-written characters and a better way to tell their story? Or do cool straight people fear being homophobic if they were to actually point out that these two gay main characters, in spite of the sex they’re having and drugs they’re taking, are not very interesting?

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